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Esperance, Australia

Skylab’s Remains

A tiny museum in Esperance, Australia, displays a bunch of space debris from NASA’s Skylab.  

The small Esperance Municipal Museum began life as a humble exhibit of primarily train-based artifacts, all housed in what was once a train supply shed. In 1979, parts of the Skylab space station started falling from the sky over Esperance, forever changing the nature of the museum.

On July 11, 1979, the United States’ first and only space station, Skylab, began its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. It wasn’t an ideal situation to begin with: NASA had planned to refurbish and reuse Skylab (which hadn’t been manned since 1974), but due to various delays, the station’s decaying orbit could not be stopped.

The situation became a little more precarious when Skylab missed its intended re-entry target, with the whole world watching. The debris was supposed to fall 810 miles south-southeast of Cape Town, South Africa, but a 4 percent calculation error caused the debris to land about 300 miles east of Perth in Western Australia. Most of the debris ended up strewn between the small coastal town of Esperance and the remote rail and mining outpost of Rawlinna some 275 miles to the northeast.

For the people of Esperance (current pop. 10,421), it was quite the event. Strange lights and sonic booms were just the start. NASA officials soon arrived, and locals were incentivized to hand over any debris they found. The local shire offices handed out plaques to debris discoverers, and the San Francisco Examiner caused a frenzy by offering $10,000 to the first person to arrive at their office with an authentic piece of Skylab. The office, naturally, was in the U.S., and potential winners had just 72 hours to get there with their Skylab exhibit. Stan Thorton, a 17-year-old from Esperance, managed to claim the prize.

The local museum, meanwhile, started to build its collection. Today, it contains all kinds of Skylab artifacts that fell to Earth, including large titanium nitrogen spheres and oxygen tanks, fragments of metal and insulation foam, ruined circuit boards, a portion of the space station’s main hatch, and the station’s storage freezer.

Just outside the museum entrance stands a model of Skylab on a pedestal. A nearby billboard states: “In 1979, a spaceship crashed over Esperance. We fined them $400 for littering. Paid in Full.” That, believe it or not, is a true story.

In a classic example of Aussie humor, the local government sent NASA a $400 littering fine after Skylab fell to Earth. NASA never paid the fine, but on the 30th anniversary of Skylab’s re-entry, a radio host for Highway Radio in the USA raised the funds to officially pay the littering fine. The oversized paycheck now hangs in the museum, above the numerous bits and pieces that remain of poor old Skylab.

Know Before You Go

Esperance Museum is open daily from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visits can be arranged outside these hours by appointment. There is a $4 admission fee.