Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The sky is falling: How Skylab became an Australian icon

A couple of months back Ursula Frederick asked me if I'd be interested in contributing to a volume of the Journal of Australian Studies, guest edited by her and Kylie Message (both of ANU), on the theme of Media and Materiality.  To cut a long story short, the theme is about how studies of material culture intersect with cultural studies.  It's a teensy bit postmodern for me (sorry, Urs!), but Dr Space Junk is nothing if not versatile, or so I like to think.

Ursula thought I might like to write about Skylab, and she was right.  I have quietly been filing away bits and pieces about it with the intention of doing something with them, so here is the spur.  Despite this, coming up with a coherent abstract to fit the theme of the volume was harder than I thought.  Here it is as sent to Ursula; as usual the actual paper will probably evolve a bit as I get into the research and writing of it.

In 1979, the US orbital space station Skylab made a spectacular re-entry that was widely anticipated across the world.  As it disintegrated, debris from the spacecraft fell around the town of Esperance in Western Australia and were scattered over the arid inland.  Like the de-orbiting of Mir in 2001, Skylab’s re-entry caused a media frenzy.

Skylab is perhaps remembered more for this than for its actual mission, which was far less dramatic than the preceding Apollo program.  It was not even the first space station, as the USSR’s first Salyut had been launched two years before Skylab in 1971. Skylab’s main purpose was to investigate physiological, social and practical aspects of how humans could survive in space.  For the first time, thought was given to the comforts of astronauts and the spacecraft was designed to be a home.  

This faraway house could only be seen by those who made the effort to look up when it was passing; like all orbital material, it was largely invisible, its presence felt only through media reports.  In its reentry, however, the disembodied spacecraft became tangible, visible, and collectable, in the form of its scattered, and charred remains, in a way it had never been before.  These pieces were collected, curated, displayed and marvelled over in small and large museums and in private collections.  Anyone could own a piece of space if they were lucky; the debris was both space junk and precious artefact.  

When the Shire of Esperance, tongue-in-cheek, fined the US Government for littering, Australia had made a statement about the relationship between spacefaring and non-spacefaring states, and the nature of space industry:  being in space did not remove more terrestrial responsibilities. Through these local and personal interventions after its decay, the social significance of this house in the sky came to outweigh its historic significance.  In this paper I consider how the parts of Skylab became more than the sum of its whole.

Thoughts, leads, information, all welcome!


  1. Hi,

    This might be of interest to you. I did an interview with a local radio DJ for Discovery News after he did some research into Skylab and found that NASA had not paid the littering fine. He did some fund-raising and paid the fine on behalf of NASA. This resulted in quite a heartwarming story:

    I'd be interested to hear if this was of any help in your studies :)

    Cheers, Ian

  2. Colleen Boyle5:47 pm

    So pleased to hear about this. It made me all nostalgic. I was ten years old and attending a rural primary school in Victoria. Skylab's impending re-entry was such big news our class compiled a little book of short stories in which we each speculated on what would happen 'The Day Skylab Fell to Earth'. I was desperate for it to fall in my backyard!

  3. Thanks heaps, Ian - I knew about the radio host/fine story, but not about his visit and the genesis of his interest. This is exactly the sort of thing I am thinking about in terms of how social significance is constructed, so this is very useful! And I suppose many people told you that kangaroos at dusk are a hazard on the roads, nothing that exciting!

  4. Colleen, do you still have your story or the book? Would love to read them! How old were you then?