NASA's Unpaid $400 Littering Ticket For Skylab Debris in Australia
In 1973, NASA made its first attempt at an orbital space station with Skylab. The project, which had to eventually be abandoned before falling back to Earth, cost an estimated $2.2 billion, though one expense was left unpaid for over three decades: a $400 littering ticket issued by a park service official in Western Australia.
The events that would lead to this fine were set into motion with Skylab’s rockier-than-expected launch in 1973, when the (at the time unmanned) research lab suffered severe damage to its meteorite shield and solar panels.
The first crew to visit Skylab spent their 28-day mission conducting repairs, and the station eventually managed to host two more teams of astronauts over the following year. Once the final team returned to Earth in 1974, Skylab was left unoccupied as high solar activity reduced the station’s orbital altitude. Unable to give it a boost in time, NASA planned to let Skylab reenter the atmosphere and fall back to Earth in 1979.
The plan worked. Debris that hadn’t completely disintegrated during reentry scattered into the Indian Ocean and across a sparsely populated section of rural Australia. No one was hurt, but NASA wasn’t completely off the hook. When members of the Skylab investigation team visited the Shire of Esperance in Western Australia to inspect the damage and collect the station remnants, they were greeted with a $400 ticket for littering.
Marshall Space Flight Center public affairs representative J.M. Jones relayed the story of their trip to Australia and Skylab’s minor municipal offense in a 1979 NASA newsletter:
“Upon our arrival, the president of the shire had arranged a mock ceremony in which an officer of the parks service ticketed NASA for littering, the evidence having been found all about the country-side.”
The ticket was issued as a gag and in good fun, and NASA never paid off the $400 fine. In 2009, 30 years after Skylab’s reentry, California radio DJ Scott Barley asked listeners to donate money so they could finally clear NASA’s books. Though the mayor of Esperance told Barley the ticket had been “written off years ago,” he and his listeners cobbled together the $400 and sent it to the shire. For his efforts, Barley was invited to Esperance and received a key to the city.
NASA, to its credit, hasn't littered in the Shire of Esperance since the Skylab incident.