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I
t was a cool and damp Monday
night in Melbourne when Skylab
finally fell from orbit on July 12,
1979. I had just arrived there as the
new branch public affairs officer, and
local media representatives had gath-
ered in the American Center to say
farewell to my predecessor and meet
me.
Though the evening began with a
routine reception, it ended with an op-
portunity to witness, and report, an his-
toric event.
NASA had launched Skylab in 1973
as an orbital space facility, similar to the
current International Space Station.
As late as 1978, NASA was still plan-
ning to send more astronauts there on
the space shuttle. But that was not to
be.
As an avid reader of the wireless
file, I studied yards of paper with
NASA’s projections of Skylab’s last
orbits. Suddenly, I realized that its
demise was likely to occur on Aus-
tralian territory! So at the end of the
reception, I invited the media to my
office to witness Skylab’s return to
Earth.
I am not sure whether it was the
offer of free drinks or the prospect of a
scoop, but several print and broadcast-
ing reporters accepted my invitation.
Channel Seven even established a live
link to its nearby television studios, tak-
ing advantage of my eighth-floor of-
fice’s view.
Adding to the drama, Australia was
in the midst of a massive telecommu-
nications strike. The country was al-
most cut off from the rest of the world
because technicians refused to main-
tain the failing digital switching facili-
ties. NASA had tracking stations in
central Australia, but they lost contact
with Houston. Embassy Canberra was
cut off, as well.
Fortunately, the consulate de-
pended on an ancient switching facility
whose analog devices had been estab-
lished to link Melbourne with Wash-
ington during World War II. And they
still worked fine.
As the evening went on, the wire-
less file continued to produce dramatic
descriptions of the satellite’s steadily
lowering orbit. It soon became evident
that I was right: Skylab was dipping low
over the Indian Ocean and heading
straight for Western Australia!
The consulate was fortunate to have
an Australian information officer, Ed
Hind, who moonlighted as a late-night
radio host. He had contacts all over
the country and called his counterpart
in Albany, an old whaling station that
was now a resort and fishing town in
southwest Western Australia. As re-
quested, the radio reporter stepped
outside and watched the sky for a fiery,
descending Skylab.
I got through to the USIA control
center in Washington and told them
that I had Ed on with Albany on a sec-
ond phone on the other side of my of-
fice. They patched me through to the
State Department, which, in turn, had
NASA on the line.
At the same time, I had the Voice of
America broadcasting live on my desk
radio. The whole world was watching
for Skylab when Ed shouted across the
room: “Skylab is descending over Al-
bany — the fiery entry is spectacular!”
We relayed this to VOA, which quickly
reported it to the world. They neg-
lected to credit us, but we still took
pride in our scoop.
When Skylab passed over Albany to
descend into the Western Australian
desert, Ed called the police station in
Kalgoolie, a remote outback town, and
persuaded a policeman to describe
Skylab’s final plunge onto Earth.
Again, we were pleased to hear VOA
pass on our report to the world.
As a bonus, local television stations
broadcast the entire drama live. It was
a truly exciting time for everyone gath-
ered in my Consulate Melbourne of-
fice, and a privilege for me to have
been part of this Space Age episode.
Peter Wolcott served as a FSO with
the U.S. Information Agency for 22
years. He also represented USIA
members on the AFSA Governing
Board in the early 1970s.
R
EFLECTIONS
Skylab Descends
B
Y
P
ETER
W
OLCOTT
Skylab was dipping
low over the Indian
Ocean and heading
straight for Western
Australia!
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