“We have the news that Skylab has splashed down safely in the South Atlantic.”  But it was only a slight miscalculation.

That was the radio report just before midnight on July 11, 1979, yet seconds later residents of Esperance in southeast WA were dumbfounded to see it shooting across the sky.

Almost immediately a sonic boom shook the town, jolting many awake. They wrongly assumed it was the noise of Skylab crashing. In fact the debris from the 75 tonne US Space Program’s first space station narrowly missed hitting the small town, pop. 3000.

It showered instead on farms and bushland beyond Esperance and to the east as far as outback Rawlinna. Local lad Stan Thornton picked up some pieces from his roof and caught the first flight out of Perth, chasing the San Francisco Examiner’s offer of a $10,000 reward for the first piece to be handed in. He was lucky his haul was portable enough. Some of the “space junk” would’ve made a mess of anyone in the way – the Esperance Municipal Museum has a comprehensive display with some fragments as large as a fridge.

Purely by coincidence, the annual Miss Universe pageant was held just days later on July 20, 1979, in Perth. Unsurprisingly, the large piece of Skylab displayed on the stage almost upstaged the competing lovelies.

Where // Esperance is 725km or about a 7.5hr drive southeast of Perth.

Did you know? // As a result of the event, the Shire of Esperance fined the US $400 for littering.


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