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A Dream Strewn Across The Desert And An Unpaid Ticket For Littering

After US President Richard Nixon cancelled the Apollo program there was a problem – what to do with the leftover rockets?

Specifically, the mighty Saturn V: the largest and most powerful rocket ever wrought by the hands of humans. The Saturn V was designed to blaze a trail to the stars so bright that a blind man could find it with a cane.

It was decided that one of the remaining rockets should be used to send up a space laboratory – appropriately named Skylab.

The remaining rockets were to be discarded or put on display. But what of Skylab, you ask. Those of us over 50 or so know the answer of course: she came crashing to Earth with the media following every twist, turn and tumble of its decaying 88-minute orbit for weeks.

The space station crashed 40 years ago today, in the early hours of the July 12, 1979 on WA's south-east coast, scattering debris across the Nullarbor and the eastern goldfields amid a worldwide media frenzy.

After the crash NASA officials arrived in Esperance to check out the wreckage. Every local that brought a piece of Skylab to the shire offices to be verified was given a plaque.

A US newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, turned the hunt for souvenirs into a frenzy when the paper offered $10,000 dollars to the first person to arrive at their office with an authentic piece of Skylab - the winner had just 72 hours to get to America.

The prize was claimed by 17-year-old Stan Thornton from Esperance, who was lucky enough to have pieces of the 71-tonne behemoth fall in his backyard. Thornton was watching the celestial fireworks while sitting on his roof at the time.

"There was this bunch of brightly coloured lights, followed by big sonic booms," he says. "The sky lit up like a big retail shop."

Shortly after Skylab fell, Thornton's mother directed the youth to the backyard of their home, where she thought she heard something hit the roof of their storage shed. There, Thornton recovered a sizzling, charcoal briquette-sized bit of scorched metal.

These days, Skylab is a source of pride to the people of Esperance and the Nullarbor, who remember the lights, the sonic boom and the fuss that followed.

The skylab crash put Esperance on the map, but it didn't stop the shire council having a light hearted dig at NASA for scatter space junk over the town, sending them a $400 ticket for littering, which they never paid.

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