With all the media attention focussed on the Apollo 11 Moon landing 40th anniversary, another space anniversary of particular interest to Australia passed un-noticed in July. Thirty years ago, in the early hours of July 12, 1979, the United States’ first space station, Skylab, re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up scattering debris across the southern Indian Ocean and the south-eastern part of Western Australia. Launched in 1973, Skylab had been home to three crews of astronauts in 73-74.
Although the heaviest fragments of the station fell into the Indian Ocean, a large amount of Skylab debris fell in a swath from the coastal town of Esperance to the Nullarbor Plain, beyond the community of Balladonia. One of the pieces that landed on the Nullarbor was a large cylindrical oxygen tank that burst on striking the ground, breaking into two fragments which bounced in different directions. The largest fragment, the main body of the tank, ultimately found its way into the special Skylab collection of the Esperance Museum. The smaller piece, the end cap of the oxygen tank, remained undiscovered until the early 1990s when it was found by a stockman.
The circular lid had landed with its insulated exterior to the ground, so that its curved shape formed a shallow dish that caught rainwater, turning it into a very unusual drinking bowl for the cattle and native animals of the area. In fact, it was seeing animals drinking at a place where there should have been no water available that led to its discovery.
As you can see in the image, the end cap is torn and bent as a result of being ripped away from the rest of the tank and its exterior is covered by a composite insulation material with a woven fibreglass outer surface.
October 4th to 10th is World Space Week!