February 8 – "Mutineers" Return to Earth

Posted on February 8, 2019

Before there was the International Space Station, there was Skylab.

Before Skylab, the first manned satellite - the Salyut, put into orbit by the Soviet Union - was launched in 1971. The Soviets actually put several space stations into orbit over the years, including Mir; the Mir continued to be used by Russia after the USSR dissolved. 

Above, Salyut
Below, Mir

In contrast to all that space station action, the United States did a lot of moon landings and later Space Shuttle missions (with the mobile Spacelab), but only launched one space station, Skylab.

This satellite was occupied for 24 weeks by three different 3-member crews, spread out over 9 months in 1973 and 1974.

On this date in 1974, the last crew returned home to Earth. Astronauts Gerald Carr, Edward Gibson, and William Pogue had spent 84 days in space. They'd unloaded and loaded a lot of gear, and they'd done scientific experiments in the areas of medicine, solar flares and other activity, observation of a comet, and observations and measurements to better understand Earth resources. They'd even done four spacewalks!

So the astronauts returned...but you said "mutineers"!!? What's that about?

There was no actual mutiny in space, but the schedule set for Carr, Gibson, and Pogue was exhausting. The three astronauts had every single hour of every single day for 84 straight days planned. (Of course, some of the plans included sleep, showers, or meals!)

I don't know how much complaining the astronauts did, or how much debate there was about that demanding schedule, but reportedly, late in December of 1973, the crew declared they were taking an unscheduled day off, and then they turned off their radios.

There was nothing that mission control, down on Earth could do.

I assume that the astronauts jumped for joy
at their freedom?

After hours or maybe even an entire day of silence, when the astronauts turned their radio back on, NASA personnel reached a compromise with the astronauts. The work schedule was altered to allow more freedom of choice in scheduling.

There was no punishment of the astronauts - not that I can find out, at least - but that was the both the first and the last time that they ever went to space. So...maybe that was a vote of no-confidence?

I imagine that NASA learned about treating astronauts with respectful awareness that, once they're in space, the astronauts have most of the power. Also, NASA learned not to have the longest-ever, most challenging mission undertaken by three space rookies. The previous Skylab crews had had some veterans, including an astronaut who had gone to the Moon and back. After this last Skylab crew, NASA required all crews to have at least one space veteran.

So, when the last crew returned to Earth...what happened to Skylab?

The three astronauts left Skylab in what is called "a parking orbit." It was hoped that the Space Shuttles would be able to reuse some components of the space station.

However, in 1979 it was obvious that the space station's orbit had decayed so badly that the whole 170,000-pound (77,000 kg) Skylab would be crashing down to Earth.

Scientists computed how much of the satellite would burn up and eventually break apart. Of course, the world's population perked up their collective ears and wondered where and when the massive hunk of space junk would be hitting the planet.

A lot of people joked about the Skylab is falling, the Skylab is
falling, and people bought T-shirts and hats with bullseyes, and one neighborhood painted a target so that the station would - they said - have something to aim for. Buteven though scientists calculated that the odds were 1 to 152 of any debris hitting any human, there was also a lot of fear and even some panic. 

This is not a photo! This is an artist's illustration
of an entirely different space station (see the end of the post)
 burning up in the Earth's atmosphere.
Of course, scientists did what they could to minimize the risk of Skylab harming anybody or anything. The scientists carefully tracked the unused space station so that they could forecast where and when it would fall (their forecast was July 10 to 14, and actual re-entry was July 11). 

The scientists also adjusted Skylab's orientation so that it would be even less likely to hit a populated area (they aimed for an uninhabited area in South Africa, or the Indian Ocean, but actually the debris hit a little-populated area in Western Australia).

Sure enough, nothing fell onto a human. Apparently no property was damaged, but people were able to find some recognizable pieces. The county of Australia where Skylab came down fined NASA $400 Australian (almost $300 U.S. dollars), for littering, but I gather that NASA never bothered to pay? At any rate, decades later a radio show host in the U.S. raised money from his listeners to pay the fine - a nice publicity stunt!

Obviously, here is another artist's illustration - 
NOT a photo!

The only nation aside from the Soviet Union / Russia
and the United States to have its own space station is
China, which launched Tiangong-1 in September
of 2011. The space station returned to Earth in an
uncontrolled re-entry and crash in the spring of 2018.

I read that Fox News aired the (fake) news that the 
Chinese space station would impact Michigan on 
April 3, 2018. Scary, huh?

However, scientists had made no such prediction, 
and the satellite ended up falling harmlessly into the 
Pacific Ocean on April 2, 2018.

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