The mission of Skylab, the United States’ first space station, ended July 11, 1979, with a show worthy of Independence Day fireworks, scattering debris over a wide swath of the Indian Ocean and the coast of Australia when it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
Launched May 14, 1973, from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., by a Saturn 5 rocket, Skylab challenged NASA just 63 seconds after liftoff when its solar and meteoroid shield ripped off. Consequently, the launch of its first crew was delayed by 10 days to give agency officials time to determine how to repair the station in order to make it habitable.
The space station came at the tail end of the Apollo program and before the start of the space shuttle program. NASA had hoped to reuse Skylab
when the new space shuttles were planned to begin
launching in 1978.
However, after accommodating just three crews for a cumulative total of 171 days, Skylab
never was inhabited again after 1974.
Skylab was meant to last for eight to 10 years but by the fall of 1977, NASA determined that the space station would not be able to maintain its orbit due to a spike in the sun’s 11-year cycle. The increased solar activity had caused the Earth’s atmosphere to expand, thereby increasing atmospheric drag on Skylab
To prevent, or at least control, Skylab’s descent into Earth’s atmosphere NASA devised a plan to send it a propulsion unit with the second or third scheduled shuttle flight in 1979. But schedule delays to the shuttle in the mid-1970s put off its first flight until 1981, which would prove to be too late to save Skylab.
In its death throes, July 11, 1979, ground controllers tried several attitude control maneuvers to divert the station from hitting ground. Their efforts prevented any injuries or damage to property as the only parts of Skylab that touched ground were in the sparsely populated grasslands of western Australia. But the U.S. State Department was fined $400 for littering by the authorities in Esperance, Australia.