Most people’s fondest memories of summers gone by involve thinks like family vacations, summer camps, and time spent with friends.
Mine involves an 85-ton piece of space junk.
Built from the third stage of a Saturn V moon rocket and occupied for 171 days by three different crews between May, 1973 and February, 1974, Skylab provided for great headlines during the summer of 1979. The station’s orbit, thought to be safe, was decaying thanks to atmospheric drag caused by, of all things, sunspots. And delays in the launch of the space shuttle, which would have been used to boost it to a safer orbit, sealed its fate.
As news of Skylab’s impending fall dominated the news, it piqued my own already strong interest in the American space program. I read as many books as I could find at my branch of the Gaston County Public Library on the subject. I watched the nightly news and read the daily newspaper for updates. I even tried to find a model of Skylab at the various department and toy stores in the area, with no success.
A few weeks before it fell from orbit, its remnants scattering into the Indian Ocean and onto western Australia, Skylab flew high above the skies of metropolitan Charlotte. In the darkening skies, the station appeared as a bright point of light as it traveled directly over my house. Even though it was moving at orbital velocity – five miles per second, or 17,500 miles per hour – it seemed to creep across the sky. It was a surreal and serene sight.
Skylab’s fall marked the end of an era in space exploration. It was the last extant piece of hardware from the Apollo program that put man on the Moon. And for a nine-year-old boy from North Carolina, it remains a crystal-clear memory that Time has yet to dim.