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Mir's return brings back Skylab memories

'The Skylab is falling! The Skylab is falling!'


March 22, 2001
Web posted at: 3:08 p.m. EST (2008 GMT)

(CNN) -- If those in the Southern Hemisphere were feeling a little deja vu as the Russian space station Mir drew ever closer to its ultimate demise, there's good reason.

Mir isn't the first space station to take aim at the area.

Half of Mir's size, and with not nearly so many years or missions under its protective shielding, the U.S. space station Skylab, too, came hurtling to Earth. It rained debris onto an area to the west of Mir's expected target and even dropped a few parts on a barren, sparsely populated portion of western Australia.


No one was hurt, but for nearly two years before the 78-ton craft began its fiery descent in 1979, "Skylab panic" was in the air as people everywhere worried the long-abandoned space station would hit a densely populated area or even a major city.

NASA didn't have much choice -- the station's orbit was deteriorating much faster than anyone anticipated.

Skylab's early history was a rocky one as well. A minute into its May 14, 1973, launch, the station's meteoroid shield ripped loose. By the time Skylab was parked in orbit, it had lost one of its solar arrays and the second was stuck in a partially deployed position -- leaving the station with virtually no power.

For 10 days, NASA scientists and managers put their heads together to find ways to save the station, and on May 25, a three-man crew went up to begin repairs.

This ad was one of many that appeared around Johnson Space Center  

The crew spent 28 days at the station, and the repairs were successful. Two subsequent crews, of three men each, spent 59 and 84 days, respectively, aboard Skylab, both by the end of 1973.

At less than a year old -- with little operational money or Congressional support, and a shuttle supply line not quite ready to operate -- Skylab's life as a human habitat in space was over. NASA ran some experiments remotely for a while, then positioned the station in a stable orbit and shut it down for good, expecting it to stay in space for another decade.

But in the fall of 1977, with Skylab still a young satellite by Mir's standards, scientists noted that increased solar activity had an adverse effect on the station's orbit, and Skylab was coming down sooner rather than later.

"Skylab Crash Helmets" bearing an image of Chicken Little were a popular item that year.

On July 11, 1979, it finally happened. After a mere six years in space, Skylab slipped through the outer rim of the Earth's atmosphere and streaked toward oblivion, depositing debris in the southeastern Indian Ocean and western Australia.

So ... if you think it's happened before, it has. But at least scientists have a pretty good idea where Mir will land, unlike that winter's day (in the Southern Hemisphere) when a space station came down of its own accord.

Ships at risk in Mir crash zone
March 22, 2001
Mir positioned for fiery descent
March 22, 2001
A Mir risk
March 21, 2001

Project Skylab

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