Forty years ago, in July 1979, the Skylab space station fell in pieces upon re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. Debris was scattered over the Indian Ocean and western Australia, but even Richmonders were ready. Here is an excerpt from the RTD.
July 10, 1977 – On a front yard off Cherokee Road, a small patch of grass is roped off. In the middle is a handmade black and white bull’s-eye target, and next to the patch are two signs: “Skylab Target Site” and, below that, “Five Pounds and Under.”
With the 77.5-ton space station expected to plunge to Earth sometime between 3:21 a.m. and 9:21 p.m. tomorrow, some Richmonders are taking humorous and a few serious precautions, even though the probability that a Skylab chunk will fall on any one person is about 600 billion to 1.
For those who just don’t feel comfortable with the idea that Skylab’s 5,100-pound titanium protective shroud or 3,900-pound lead safe might land too close for comfort, some enterprising merchants are selling Skylab helmets.
And if a helmet doesn’t quash the pre-crash jitters, Richmond residents can at least rest assured that, if hit, their survivors will be taken care of by Lloyd’s of London, thanks to WLEE.
The radio station yesterday obtained a $500,000 life insurance policy that covers anyone who lives in the Richmond metropolitan area and is killed by a piece of Skylab, said Ken Curtis, program director.
“Just contact us, and we’ll put the gears in motion,” Curtis said. The policy covers 602,000 people, he said, and was purchased for $100.
WLEE is also sponsoring a Skylab sweepstakes. The first person in WLEE’s listening area who brings in a piece of Skylab within 48 hours of its descent will win a trip either to Houston or Cape Canaveral, Fla., to tour the space centers, “where they can ask why the damn thing fell in the first place,” Curtis said.
Skylab finders and keepers in Virginia also can turn in their prize to the University of Richmond for four lifetime season passes to the Spiders’ home football games, said John Averett, director of promotions.
On the serious side of Skylab precautions, the state Office of Emergency and Energy Services will begin a 24-hour Skylab watch today, said Norman McTague, director of operations. Communications equipment in the center is linked directly with state police networks and federal defense monitoring systems in Colorado.
But the office isn’t advocating that Virginia residents take any particular precautions. “The possibility of serious damage is so remote that nothing credible can be done,” McTague said.
Most of Skylab’s 500-odd pieces should be less than 10 pounds, according to NASA. The debris will be scattered over an area about 4,000 miles long and 100 miles wide. NASA says that no more than three pieces should fall in any 100-square-mile zone.
Though the odds are against it, David L. “Trip” Turosak, 23, still believes that part of Skylab will land next to his 1107 Grove Ave. residence. Turosak dreamed last month that a piece of Skylab “the size of a Volkswagen” would fall in the neighboring yard, and he was so sure of it he planned to charge $5 for admission.
Now WRXL plans to co-sponsor a block party on Grove Avenue on Friday night beginning at 6, according to Barbara Berlin, promotion director. If Skylab falls before then, “the party’s still going on,” she said.
In fact, Skylab crash parties seem to be the latest in extrastellar social events. A newlywed couple in South Side invited friends over Saturday night, strictly BYOH – Bring Your Own Helmet.
Guests were told it was a warmup for midweek crash parties, and were assured, “if you get wrecked while you’re waiting, you can just crash here.”
Proper dress for such a party may include a Skylab T-shirt. At least one Richmond firm, Dirt Shirt stores, has come out with its own version of the bull’s-eye theme.
Dirt Shirt began selling an initial run of about 100 T-shirts Saturday, and “they’ve been selling very well,” said the store manager, Jerome Golfman. The shirts say “Official Skylab Target July 1979” and have a picture of Earth in the center with a bull’s-eye around it.