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04-Apr-2016 12:49

Mocking NASA’s inability to say precisely where Skylab would land, entrepreneurs across the country sold T-shirts emblazoned with large bullseyes.

Another enterprising individual took a different tack and sold cans of “Skylab repellent.” 3.

On July 11, 1979, the world watched as Skylab, America’s first manned space station, hurtled toward Earth.

With the massive orbiter nearing re-entry, reactions on the ground ranged from fear to celebration to commercial opportunism.

The unexpected fiery crash in January 1978 of a Soviet satellite in northern Canada had scattered enriched uranium across a wide swath of grassland, and people around the globe feared a similar outcome from the Skylab impact—even though the space station contained no radioactive components.

Few people felt reassured by NASA’s statement that the risk of human injury from the event was just “one in 152.” After NASA pinpointed the re-entry date as July 11, Scotland’s Glasgow Herald reported, “Worried holidaymakers in Devon [England] are taking no chances—they plan to sit out the morning in an old smuggler’s cave.” In Brussels, authorities planned to sound as many as 1,250 air raid-type sirens in the event that Skylab rained wreckage across the bucolic Belgian countryside. An Australian youth profited handsomely from the Skylab crash, thanks to an American newspaper.

The Associated Press reported several instances of “Skylab parties” occurring across the United States. Louis, Missouri, the “Skylab Watchers and Gourmet Diners Society” announced plans to view Skylab’s last orbit during a garden gathering at which “hard hats or similar protective headgear” were required.

While Americans used Skylab’s looming demise as an excuse to party in June 1979, people in other countries didn’t take things quite so lightly.In fact, NASA officials at Marshall Space Flight Center examined a number of specimens provided by the Australians who discovered them, mounted the items on plaques attesting to their authenticity and returned them to their finders.Newspaper accounts of the day noted that the United States could, under international treaties, claim the debris, but chose to adopt a finders-keepers approach instead.Because the project represented the next step toward wider space exploration, NASA threw itself into successfully putting Skylab in orbit.

Unfortunately, the agency spent far less time and energy planning how to gracefully bring the space station back to Earth at the end of its mission.

Beginning in June of 1979, as Skylab’s re-entry approached, many American newspapers jokingly proposed “Skylab insurance,” which would pay subscribers for death or injury caused by flying orbiter fragments.