Skylab, the United States' first manned orbiting laboratory, amassed a wealth of information about the universe.
The formidable project cost around US$2.2 billion dollars – plus $400.
That was how much the Shire of Esperance fined NASA when parts of Skylab came crashing down on Western Australia’s coast, scattering debris across the eastern goldfields and parts of the Nullarbor.
The Skylab 1-Saturn V space vehicle lifts off from Launch Pad 39A on May 14, 1973 [Image: NASA]
Skylab was launched into Earth’s orbit by NASA in 1973 and was manned by astronauts who collected data until it was abandoned on 1974.
After 34,981 orbits of the Earth, Skylab began to disintegrate and re-enter the atmosphere, but NASA was unable to entirely control the debris or predict where they would land.
On 11 July 1979, the space agency’s engineers fired the station’s booster rockets, hoping the pieces of Skylab would fall into the Indian Ocean.
Debris from Skylab [Image: Powerhouse Museum]
Some of them did, but others landed in populated areas of WA. No one was injured.
We thought it was the end of the world," local resident Dorothy Andre told The Monthly. "It was a terrific flame, like a burning plane, with all these little pieces shearing off. It was great."
A plaque commemorating the Skylab crash in Esperance [Image: Esperance Museum]
NASA officials quickly flew to Esperance to examine the debris and collect the remains.
The crash put Esperance on the international radar, but the town still issued a $400 fine to the United States for littering.
The “gag” fine went unpaid for nearly 30 years until April 1999 when a Californian radio DJ raised funds from his listeners and paid NASA’s bill.