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When Skylab fell to earth

It was an international media event and I was honored to take part in the coverage. On July 11, 1979. Skylab returned to earth after  officials closed a huge swath of airspace and many genuinely feared  someone might get hurt. If you are worried about the satellite crashing back to earth tonight, please keep in mind that Skylab was more than 10 times as heavy and ultimately did no damage

A few months ago Andy Franklin, now the international producer for Nightly News with Brian Williams, unearthed some black and white photos taken while he and I were in NBC broadcast positions near NASA headquarters in Washington. Such photos are always stark reminder of the passage of time.

From the Archives: Skylab, the first U.S. space station, caught the world's attention as it plunged to earth and crashed in Australia. NBC's John Chancellor and Robert Bazell report.

Our Skylab reports were an around-the-clock effort and I was honored be the junior member of the three-person reporting team next to two giants of early television news, Doug Kiker and Bob Abernathy.

Skylab,  a converted piece of a Saturn V rocket from the Apollo era, had been launched in 1973 with every expectation that the space shuttle would be built in time to lift to a higher orbit. Three missions with three-member crews laid the groundwork for the current international space station. But delays in the shuttle program pushed its first launch to 1981 so Skylab was left to fall out of the earth's orbit.

Skylab’s demise created much news and many gimmicks. The San Francisco Examiner offered $10,000 to the first person to show up at its offices with a piece of Skylab. Its competitor the San Francisco Chronicle offered $200,000 to anyone who was hurt by a chunk of the satellite.

The Chronicle never had to pay but the Examiner did. Most of the satellite fell in pieces across the uninhabited Australian Outback and Australian teenager Stan Thornton flew with his souvenir to San Francisco to collect the reward.

NASA controllers had tried to get all the debris into the ocean but they miscalculated and later admitted they were worried they had even miscalculated more and feared Skylab would hit the Pacific Northwest of North America.