You have probably heard that China’s Tiangong-1 space station will fall to Earth this weekend. It’s exciting stuff, but this is not the first time a space station has had an untimely crash back to Earth within the world’s living memory.
America's first manned space station, Skylab, had a particularly memorable re-entry to Earth, leading to a particularly funny story involving bitterly sarcastic Aussies, a presidential apology, and a $400 fine.
In July 1979, the world’s media watched as Skylab uncontrollably fell back to Earth. The space station weighed a whopping 77,000 kilograms (170,000 pounds) – for comparison, Tiangong-1 is a measly 8,500 kilograms (18,700 pounds).
The mission had been plagued with problems from the moment it launched in 1973, followed by a continual string of money troubles and technical failures. By 1974, most of NASA's investment and attention was being channeled towards the space shuttle programme, so Skylab had essentially been abandoned with no crew nor love. It eventually fell into orbital decay after being battered by some unseasonably strong solar activity.
Skylab smashed into Earth’s atmosphere on July 11, 1979, and rained chunks of debris across the Indian Ocean, South Atlantic, and Western Australia. Fortunately, no one was hurt and there was minimal damage to the environment.
It led to President Jimmy Carter sending an apology to Australia, as per The New York Times, that read:
“I was concerned to learn that fragments of Skylab may have landed in Australia. I am relieved to hear your Government's preliminary assessment that no injuries have resulted. Nevertheless, I have instructed the Department of State to be in touch with your Government immediately and to offer any assistance that you may need.”
However, the small town of Esperance was having none of it. This remote beachside town on the south coast of Australia jokingly issued a $400 fine to the US for littering. NASA and the US ignored the bill and it was canceled by the Aussies just three months later.
Over 30 years later, Californian radio DJ Scott Barley decided to finally put things right. After reading about the fine on Wikipedia, he collected donations from his listeners and sent the full $400 over to Esperance.
“I thought this fact of the unpaid bill was rather funny,” Barley told The Esperance Express in 2009. “I wanted listeners to start off 2009 with a generous offering of goodwill to our Australian friends south of the equator.”
All's well that ends well. Let's just hope that Tiangong-1 stays well clear of Esperance or else Beijing is going to receive a strongly-worded letter.