Fred vs. Skylab
A welcome-home party for what was left of a space station.
- By Scott N. Gaines
- Air & Space magazine, March 2012
The news was everywhere that July: In 1979, after orbiting the planet for a few years and being subjected to intensified solar activity that increased drag, the Skylab space station was going to go out with a bang. There was lots of conjecture about what would happen, what could happen, and the risks to Earth’s population. It was a fine excuse for a party.
Stationed at Moody Air Force Base, outside Valdosta, Georgia, I was living in a trailer park inhabited largely by Air Force personnel. By inviting everyone in the park to parties I had thrown, I had avoided any complaints about noise. One stick-in-the-mud, whom I’ll call Fred, never came to the parties, but never complained either.
For the Skylab deorbit, I invited all my friends and gathered beverages, alcoholic and non-, including bottles of pure grain alcohol I mixed with red fruit punch to make “rocket fuel.” I also found ice pops shaped like rockets. Dipping the pops into the rocket fuel yielded a tasty and intoxicating icy treat, just the thing for a July night in south Georgia.
The last items on my list were two large sacks of flour, which is what would cause problems with Fred, along with his lack of understanding of orbital mechanics.
I used the flour to make a huge bull’s-eye target that covered the large grass area in the center of the trailer park. We set up most of the party supplies at the bull’s-eye.
Fred came home after the party had been in full swing for an hour or three. He took one look at the target, marched up to me, and asked what I thought I was doing.
I told him I had prepared a target for Skylab. I added that I had also made arrangements for lighting, pointing out some flashlights and survival strobes provided by an airman who worked in the base’s pilot equipment shop.
Apparently dismayed by my seeming ability to call down space stations, Fred called the police.
Upon arrival, and after being informed that it wasn’t a noise complaint but a possible property damage situation, the Valdosta police officer managed to get a reasonably coherent story from my friends and me as to what was going on. The officer told Fred the trailer park was outside city limits, and that he would notify the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office.
Soon a deputy from the sheriff’s department showed up. He got the same story from both Fred and me, allowed that this was not a sheriff’s department matter, and passed the buck to the Georgia State Patrol.
When the Georgia trooper arrived, he too got the full story, although my ability to explain the finer details was degrading in a direct ratio to the amount of rocket fuel I had consumed. Since this involved an object in orbit, and since we were, for the most part, Air Force people, the trooper chose to ask the base to send someone to figure out what rules, if any, we were breaking.
The last appearance was from two Moody base security police and a lieutenant from the base command post, apparently the low man on the totem pole that night. After an explanation, assisted by many friends who took great pleasure in displaying their knowledge of things orbital, the lieutenant told Fred, who had been doing a slow burn throughout, that while it was possible Skylab could indeed come down on our target, it was highly unlikely. The lieutenant told him that he would return, in civilian clothes to better blend in, to ensure we didn’t do anything to draw Skylab to the trailer park.
I remember the trooper, the lieutenant, and the two security cops returning, and also a bunch of other people showing up. The party went on almost until dawn.
Skylab was a no-show. It had come down in western Australia, missing my target by about 11,000 miles. But it was a great party.