Thursday, June 09, 2011

Skylab: the conspiracy theories

I do love a good conspiracy theory.  And I'm working in two fields where they abound, archaeology and space exploration.  

Today, having completed the final revisions to my Skylab paper for the Journal of Australian Studies (and can I just add how nice it is that the Australian government have scrapped the stupid journal ranking system they recently introduced), I am thinking about everything I had to leave out, and everything I could explore in the next thing I write on this topic.  The following newspaper article, from the Lewiston Evening Journal (on July 12, 1979, p 19) is full of themes that would be great to explore further:  authenticity, US-Australian Cold War relations, feelings of neglect and abandonment, and the Aussie larrikin.

Skylab piece just a hoax
Melbourne, Australia (AP)
An Australian golf course groundskeeper told reporters he found what he thought was a pretzeled piece of Skylab, and he packed a bag for America. Then a metalworker came forward and said it was just a hoax.

The motive: practical joking, but also spite against American space officials. 

The groundskeeper, John Rowe of the southwestern Australian town of Albany, told his story to a local newspaper, a local radio station, and a Perth television station and was hoping to get to the United States in time to collect $10 000 from a San Francisco newspaper.

Then William Hall, 54, told reporters that he had planted the piece of twisted metal on the golf course earlier this morning. 

"I wasn't the only one involved, and we did it partly in retaliation against the American space scientists as we didn't appreciate them deliberately deciding to put Skylab down in Australia, " said Hall. "After talking about Skylab on Wednesday night and finding that no-one had been hurt we decided to plant the metal as a joke".

Many thought that the US decided to save their own citizens and sacrifice Australians; there was a sense of indignation at our supposed allies undervaluing Australia.  Feeling deceived, William Hall and his mates decided to deceive in their turn; but it wasn't a member of the NASA recovery team who found the piece, it was the groundskeeper who got all excited thinking about the reward offered.  So they came clean.

I wonder how they decided to make the twisted metal look authentic?  Did they look at other bits of Skylab? Did they just imagine what would happen to metal under that heat and acceleration?  Were they relying on the fact that no-one really knew what space junk looked like?

My esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis comes from Albany ....... perhaps I can send her out to do some oral history interviews for me .......

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