NASA’s litter bill paid 30 years on

A “fine” imposed on NASA for littering Australia with debris from a crashing space station has finally been paid – 30 years late. The agency had apparently ignored the penalty issued after Skylab broke up on re-entry in a spectacular fireball in July 1979.

Skylab in orbit.
Skylab in orbit. Credit: NASA

The 75-ton space station – America’s first – was home to a succession of astronauts in the early Seventies. But thankfully it had long been abandoned when it crashed to Earth.

The night-time re-entry scattered fragments over western Australia. Parts fell on Esperance, a small town 360 miles east of Perth.

Town officials decided to fine NASA for dropping litter – and sent them a bill for the equivalent of 400 US dollars to cover the cost of the clean-up.

NASA ignored it and local councillors decided to write it off. But with the 30th anniversary of the crash coming up, they erected billboards around Esperance reminding people of the outstanding debt. Now listeners to a US radio station have clubbed together to wipe the slate clean.

Radio host Scott Barley, of California’s Highway Radio, heard about the fine and issued an appeal on his morning show for funds. The whip-round collected the $400 needed. The cheque has been sent already and Scott will fly to Australia next weekend for an official handover.

The billboards have now been stamped with a bright red sign: Paid in full!

OK, it is a great publicity stunt for the station. But Scott said: “I thought this unpaid bill was rather funny. I reckoned it would be great if I challenged my listeners to contribute to pay off this long-outstanding debt.”

After the re-entry, the San Francisco Examiner offered a $10,000 prize for the first piece of Skylab to be delivered to their offices. A 17-year-old lad, Stan Thornton, picked up some chunks from the roof of his home in Esperance and caught the first flight to San Francisco, where he collected his prize.

Talking of litter, a leading professional astronomer believes there could be fragments of alien junk all over the Moon!

Many thanks to Lucy Rogers, author of the splendid It’s ONLY Rocket Science for the heads up on this great story.

Picture: Skylab in orbit. (Photo: NASA).

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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