When Skylab crossed North West Queensland

Skylab as photographed in orbit in 1973 by its final Skylab4.crew. Photo: NASA.
Skylab as photographed in orbit in 1973 by its final Skylab4.crew. Photo: NASA.

In the early 1970s after the race to the Moon, NASA's big space project was Skylab.

Skylab was the first United States space station, launched by NASA, and was occupied for about 24 weeks between May 1973 and February 1974.

Skylab was launched on May 15, 1973 (Australian time) by the modified Saturn V - the rocket that took astronauts to the Moon - only there was no astronauts aboard.

On that day - 47 years ago today - the Sydney Morning Herald excitedly announced Australia would get pictures from the "mind-boggling" United States Skylab program, the Minister for Science, Mr Morrison, said, which was due to be launched at 3.30 am Sydney time.

"Mr Morrison said tracking stations at Honeysuckle Creek, near Canberra, and Carnarvon, in Western Australia, would track the course of Skylab, with photographs of the regions of Mount Isa, Alice Springs, Kalgoorlie and Canberra available under the agreement," the Herald said.

The photo on the Astronautix website.

The photo on the Astronautix website.

The North West Star went hunting in its archive and also on Trove for that photo of the Mount Isa region but so far has been unsuccessful in locating them.

However we did find a photo of our region when subsequent Skylab missions (2,3 and 4) took astronauts aboard.

We have found the photo above on the website http://www.astronautix.com/

It was taken from Skylab4, a mission which started November 16, 1973 and lasted 84 days.

The photo was captioned "Skylab4: view of portion of Queensland from Skylab space station. Credit: NASA."

The flipped image of the Lower Gulf of Carpentaria taken on Skylab4. Photo: NASA

The flipped image of the Lower Gulf of Carpentaria taken on Skylab4. Photo: NASA

With the sea at the bottom, it didn't look immediately look like Queensland but by simply flipping the photo, it becomes obvious it is of the Lower Gulf region with the coastline of Burketown and Karumba and the Wellesley Islands also appearing.

Of course it wasn't Australia's last brush with Skylab. Skylab's demise in 1979 was an international media event.

No one knew where it would land and a NASA report calculated the odds were 1 in 152 of debris hitting any human, and odds of 1 in 7 of debris hitting a city of 100,000 people or more. There was panic in places like the Philippines with president Marcos forced to reassure the public.

NASA's final relief map projecting where it might land covered most of Outback Australia.

NASA's final relief map projecting where it might land covered most of Outback Australia.

A week before re-entry, NASA forecast that it would occur between July 10 and 14, with the 12th the most likely date.

In the hours before the event, ground controllers adjusted Skylab's orientation to minimize the risk of re-entry on a populated area, aiming at a spot in the Southern Ocean south of Cape Town.

But the station did not burn up as fast as NASA expected. NASA's final relief map projecting where it might land covered most of Outback Australia, including Mount Isa, though south-east Western Australia was the favourite.

Debris was found between Rawlinna and Esperance, Western Australia in a 130-150km radius around Balladonia.

No one was hurt but residents and an airline pilot saw dozens of colorful flares as large pieces broke up in the atmosphere. NASA rushed experts to the scene and were greeted by Shire of Esperance officials who jokingly fined them $400 for littering.

Amazingly a Californian disc jockey paid off the fine 30 years later, though that's another story.