From The New York Times Crossword, August 5, 2015
6 Down The orbital workshop was its largest component
These days I get more reminders that I am getting older. A recent clue from the crossword brought back memories from high school. The orbital workshop? That was a puzzler. After a few solvings of other clues, the answer was clear: Skylab. For anyone forty years old and older – the name Skylab will likely conjure up the mass hysteria that surrounded the beleaguered space station.
Back in 1979, it was announced that Skylab was exiting its orbit and was plummeting towards the earth. Speculation abounded as people wondered which country or area of the planet would be obliterated. In those days, you knew you had it made when Saturday Night Live parodied you in one of their weekly skits. True to form, John Belushi acting as a news broadcaster, predicted the crashing of Skylab – he was subsequently pictured sitting in his basement wearing a crash helmet.
When it finally fell to earth, its landing was rather unspectacular with bits falling over the Pacific Ocean and some parts actually landing on Australia. No one was injured, no country was demolished. It was rather, boring. Never mind that, T-shirts were printed and rushed to the stores with slogans such as, “I survived Skylab!” Australia mined the event for all that it was worth. The hysteria surrounding its demise ground to a whimper.
Just what was Skylab after all? As the name suggests, it was a space station – operated by NASA which orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979. It had a solar observatory and an orbital workshop. Experiments were conducted, some of which proved the coronal holes in our sun. Other accomplishments were thousands of photos of Earth taken from space as well as the extension of time spent in space by the crew.
The concept of a manned space station was first conceived by Werner von Braun as well as writer Arthur C. Clarke, among others. The idea was first proposed by von Braun in 1959, but it took almost two decades for the project to be launched, so to speak. Developments with NASA, the United States Air Force and manufacturing by McDonnell Douglas and computers from IBM all contributed to the space station.
It was planned that Skylab would remain in orbit until the 1980’s but in early 1978, greater than anticipated solar activity produced increased drag on its orbit, so scientists then predicted a much earlier return of the station. The crash of the Soviet Union’s Cosmos 954 which dropped radioactive waste on Canada was largely responsible for the growing hysteria surrounding Skylab’s re-entry.
Landing near Western Australia, some viewers reported large fireworks display as it descended. A part of it was actually on stage at the Miss Universe pageant held that year in Perth, Australia.