What Goes Up Must Come Down: Dealing With the International Aspects of the Demise of SKYLAB, Part II

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park. 

Part I described the SKYLAB program and international concerns about its reentry.

Beginning in April 1979, and with increasing frequency as the date approached, the Department of State informed overseas posts of the date of predicted window of reentry as computed by NORAD.  In the last few days, the prediction was made to the hour and minute using Greenwich Mean Time.  The following table shows how the prediction changed over time.

SKYLAB TABLE

The Department of State mandated that all posts designate an action officer to handle SKYLAB-related matters, such as conveying the reentry prediction information to host governments, but also to serve as the post’s resource person for answering SKYLAB questions.  That official at any post potentially affected was to be on special duty during the predicted period of reentry.  Posts were warned to use only the official briefing materials sent by the Department when answering questions.  Questions that went beyond that should be referred to the Department rather than be answered on a speculative basis.[1]

As the date of reentry drew even closer, the Department sent the following telegram with the text of the NASA press release on precautions people in areas where debris might fall could take.  The Department asked that it be brought to the attention of host governments.

Under a 1972 international convention, the U.S., as the launching state, had certain obligations in the case of any damage, injury, or death as a result of SKYLAB’s return.  The Department provided guidance in the following telegram.

As reentry drew near, NASA took those actions it could to control the lab in such a way as to minimize the risk to populated areas.[2]  It eventually chose to bring SKYLAB down on an orbit that would likely cause any debris to land in the South Atlantic or Indian Oceans.  The lab finally “landed” on July 11 at 1637 GMT.  To the surprise of NASA engineers, the laboratory held together longer than expected, so it came to earth farther along the orbital path than planned.  Some debris fell on southwestern Australia, mostly in sparsely inhabited areas where local residents reported fireworks-like displays and sonic booms.  There were no reports of damage or injury but some Australians expressed unhappiness at being the landing zone.[3]

In the aftermath, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser sent the following note to President Jimmy Carter through the Australian embassy in the U.S.[4]

P790124-1950
Source: Australian Ambassador to the United States to President Jimmy Carter, July 13, 1979, attached to National Security Council to the Department of State July 14, 1979, P790124-1950, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79/P-Reel Printouts, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives.

The copy sent to the Department of State is not the best, so here is the text of the Prime Minister’s note:

     Dear Jimmy,

          Thank you very much for your message. It appears we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

          While receiving Skylab is an honour we would have happily forgone, it is the end of a magnificent technological achievement by the United States, and the events of the past few days should not obscure this.

          If we find the pieces I shall happily trade them for additions to the beef quota.

          Warm personal regards.

Since it was reentry of a Soviet satellite that drew international attention to the demise of SKYLAB, perhaps it is fitting to close with the following report from the U.S. embassy in Moscow on the Soviet reaction to SKYLAB’s reentry.

Skylab.1


[i] See: Department of State to All Diplomatic and Consular Posts, Telegram 129158, May 21, 1979, 1979STATE129158, Department of State to All Diplomatic and Consular Posts, Telegram 134084, May 25, 1979, 1979STATE134084, and Department of State to All Diplomatic and Consular Posts, Telegram 164213, June 26, 1979, 1979STATE164213, all Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79/Electronic Telegrams, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[2] For a description of those actions, see Department of State to All Diplomatic and Consular Posts, Telegram 140530, June 1, 1979, 1979STATE140530, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79/Electronic Telegrams, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[3] See: U.S. Embassy Canberra to Department of State, Telegram 06223, July 11, 1979, 1979CANBER06223, U.S. Embassy Canberra to Department of State, Telegram 06231, July 12, 1979, 1979CANBER06231, U.S. Embassy Canberra to Department of State, Telegram 06249, July 12, 1979, 1979CANBER06249, U.S. Embassy Canberra to Department of State, Telegram 06251, July 12, 1979, 1979CANBER06251, Department of State to All East Asian and Pacific Diplomatic Posts, Telegram 180006, July 12, 1979, 1979STATE180006, U.S. Embassy Canberra to Department of State, Telegram 06322, July 13, 1979, 1979CANBER06322, all Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79/Electronic Telegrams, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[4] Text also transmitted in U.S. Embassy Canberra to Department of State, Telegram 06325, July 13, 1979, 1979CANBER06325, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79/Electronic Telegrams, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

 

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