Balladonia, Skylab crash site in Australia: How a fallen space station caused mayhem in the outback

What goes up, must come down. And when we're talking about a space station, precisely where it comes down becomes pretty important.

The Skylab space station was one of the biggest things ever fired into space, clocking in at a hefty 77,000kg. But by July 1979, it had gone rogue, entering an unstable orbit. It was going to crash to earth. No-one quite knew where, but they sure as hell didn't want to be underneath it.

Balladonia in Western Australia – population 14 – is an odd place for a museum about a NASA mission. 1,787km from Adelaide and 910km from Perth, next to the longest straight stretch of road in the world, it is essentially a remote roadhouse surrounded by enormous sheep stations. You're not going to go there unless you're crossing the Nullarbor. Or, perhaps, if you're chasing a crumbling space station.

Back in 1979, NASA had limited control over Skylab. Newspaper clippings inside the Balladonia Museum show the plan to send it tumbling down into the Indian Ocean was by no means a dead cert. It wouldn't take much to go wrong, and a cavalcade of space debris smashing into a major city didn't bear thinking about.

Eventually, the biggest single chunk of Skylab did land in the Indian Ocean as planned. But the rest of it broke up largely uninhabited south-western Australia. And Balladonia was about to become the centre of a global media scrum.

The small but lovingly-tended museum section of the roadhouse gamely tells the story. In the early hours of July 12, guests at what was then the Balladonia Motel reported seeing what looked like "the fireworks display from the Royal Show".

Numerous chunks of the space station landed nearby, and US president Jimmy Carter unexpectedly called the roadhouse owner to offer a sheepish apology.

Far from trying to escape the carnage, people were rushing to it. The San Francisco Examiner had offered a $10,000 prize for the first person to bring an authentic piece of Skylab to their office, and trophy hunters were descending on the Nullarbor scrub in their four wheel drives.

Searching for Skylab pieces at Balladonia Motel 572 miles East of Perth Miss Kimberley Stewart, Mr. ***** and Lyle Stephens *****. July 12, 1979.

People search for pieces of the Skylab near Balladonia in 1979. Photo: Fairfax Media

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What could have been tragedy quickly turned into farce. Australian and American reporters hurtled towards Balladonia, then spent much of their time fighting over use of the solitary phone line.

Oddly enough, the infrastructure wasn't designed for dozens of journalists wanting to quickly file a story to an editor on the other side of the world.

Miss America was flown over by her manager – the Miss Universe contest was being held in Perth at the time – and this seemed like an excellent publicity stunt. The museum's photos suggest she spent her brief sojourn on the Nullarbor looking thoroughly fed up, fending off flies.

Miss Universe entrant, Mary Friel of the US and grazier David Prendiville look over Balladonia where skylab passed over. July 16, 1979.

Miss Universe entrant, Mary Friel of the US, and grazier David Prendiville on the hunt for Skylab pieces in 1979. Photo: Fairfax Media

Eventually, it was a 17-year-old from Esperance who managed to get the treasured fragments from a sheep paddock, and get it over to the States to claim the prize. But he didn't lack for competition. Amid the chaos centred on Balladonia, the hunks of Skylab were snaffled away almost as quickly as they landed, although that didn't stop the local shire council issuing NASA with a $400 littering fine. The fine, apparently, remains unpaid.

Balladonia's moment in the spotlight came and went in a brief flicker. All that's left now are memories and newspaper clippings. The parts of the space station contained within the museum and, most notably, the large section jutting out of the roadhouse roof, are all replicas. Balladonia is back to being a mere overnight stop along Australia's most notoriously gruelling drive and NASA, for now, is quite content to leave it well alone.

DETAILS

The Balladonia Hotel Motel offers a range of accommodation, including a caravan park, backpacker dorms and ambitiously-titled 'deluxe suites'. Entry to the museum inside the roadhouse building is free. See balladoniahotelmotel.com.au

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Western Australia and the South Australian Tourism Commission.

See also: Australia's 10 greatest 'Great' places named

See also: Ten amazing ways to take the 'bore' out of driving the Nullarbor

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