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40 years since Skylab hoax

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• VILLAINS: Three Warracknabeal ‘villians’ (from left) Jack Brennan, John Bell and Gary Farrall with their ‘piece’ of the fallen Skylab in 1979.

AS the world celebrated the 50 year anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing, the Warracknabeal Herald has it’s own piece of space history that occurred 40 years ago.

While not as high profile as NASA’s Apollo 11 mission in 1969, the ‘Skylab space station’ under control by NASA caused headlines in Australia as it was predicted that re-entry of the debris would land in different parts of the nation.

‘Skylab’ was launched into space on May 14, 1973, and was NASA’s first space station under their control that was used for astronaut activities and experiments post the Apollo missions.

Skylab included a workshop, a solar observatory, and hundreds of life science and physical science experiments.

Skylab was launched un-manned into a low Earth orbit and was used in many missions, including nine manned missions.

Once it was announced that the Skylab space station would leave it’s rotation of the Earth and begin it’s re-entry, worldwide coverage of it’s debris landing spots was top news in the months leading up to the event, with prize money being offered by various companies and news outlets around the world.

The team of NASA controllers aimed to steer the re-entry of the space station just outside Cape Town in South Africa, however the combustion of the station took longer than anticipated, and the course estimation was re-analysed to show ‘Skylab’s’ final resting place in the Eastern areas of Australia.

NASA predicted the debris would re-enter the atmosphere between July 10 and July 14 in 1979.

As the news of the ‘Skylab’ re-entry was front page for months, a couple of Warracknabeal residents decided it would be the perfect opportunity to gain some attention and play a local joke on the Warrack Herald.

Described as ‘villians’ in the Warrack Herald edition of July 17, 1979, Jack Brennan, John Bell and Gary Farrall, residents of Warracknabeal, decided to plant tough alloy, looked to be twisted and fractured as if it had been in the extreme heat of orbital re-entry. 

Farrall called Herald photographer Geoff Ward at 8.40am on July 16, to inform Mr Ward of the debris he ‘found’ at the intersection of the Henty and Borung highways.

The joke caused much attention in the town, with crowds flocking to see the alleged debris, including state film crews and metropolitan media.

The joke however backfired, as embarrassment set in for the ringleaders as film crews and massive media companies were sent away after being informed of the illegitimacy of the debris.

While the debris turned out to be fake, the story caused much interest in the community.

In the end, according to the  Herald edition on July 17, 1979, the joke by Brennan, Bell and Farrall was “a beautifully arranged piece of engineering, a delightful hoax”.

With plenty in the community hoping it was the real thing, the Skylab space station eventually made it’s way to Western Australia, where the debris was found in three different locations, Esperance, Balladonia and Rawlinna. 

While the hoax may not have made front page news unlike other related space exploration stories such as the Apollo missions and the ‘Skylab’ re-entry, the hoax did make for hilarious news.