When Skylab Fell to Earth – Richard Wiggins (1956-2014)

This is a short essay written by Richard Wiggins, who passed away very recently. Rich was my close friend, colleague, and collaborator for nearly 40 years. A memorial celebration for Rich will be held Saturday March 1, 2014 from 12-2PM at the Palmer Bush & Jensen Funeral Home in Holt, MI.

This story from 13 years ago captures perfectly who he was, how he thought, and most importantly what a wonderful writer he was.

Many years ago, Rich was described as 'tall, thin, and full of syntax'.“When Skylab Fell to Earth”
by Richard Wiggins

East Lansing, Michigan — March 23, 2001

So Mir has finally fallen to Earth. We’ve been told for years to expect Mir’s death, but, like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the space station refused to die on schedule. When I learned of the imminent fiery demise of Mir, I thought back to 1979, when the pioneering U.S. space station, Skylab, met a similar fate.

When news broke that Skylab was doomed, I was a student at Michigan State University. I was out of my dorm room for a few minutes while a friend watched Walter Cronkite deliver the evening news. As my friend and I left for dinner, he commented, “Did you know that Skylab is falling down?”

At the time, my father, Herbert Wiggins, Sr., was an engineer with NASA. Working with other engineers and with astronauts such as Alan Bean, he had helped design parts of Skylab. Dad had given me a large NASA publicity photograph of Skylab, which I had proudly taped to my dorm room wall (nails were discouraged). Unfortunately, the slick walls didn’t hold the photo up very well, so I frequently had to re-attach it.

So I told my friend calmly “Oh, that happens all the time. Why didn’t you put it back up?” Needless to say, he looked at me most quizzically. It took us a few minutes to sort out the confusion. I realized that the space station my dad had cared so much about was dying an early death.

My friend’s reaction paled in comparison to my mother’s. Somehow she persuaded herself that some strange cosmic twist of fate would cause Skylab to blaze a trail straight to a human victim – me. I don’t know what bad karma she thought the family was carrying around. I’m not even sure if she thought in terms of karma; we were Presbyterians. But she was convinced the space station her husband helped design would kill her youngest son.

Dad tried to explain to my mother – he called her “Et,” short for “Ethel” – that the odds of Skylab hitting anyone in general, and her son in particular, were pretty small. But no amount of argument from Dad or me could shake this belief. Finally, Dad found a NASA scientist with a statistical background, who conjured up a sufficiently vivid explanation of the relative size of the planet’s surface versus the size of her son, the target. Nonetheless, when Skylab finally did fall to Earth on July 11, 1979, I’m sure she was praying for me. Thankfully, the pieces that hit land in western Australia brought no harm to anyone.

Dad was as proud of his work on Skylab as anything he ever did, including having landed in Normandy on the early hours of D-Day. He always believed that Skylab could have been saved. He supported a special launch mission to do just that. However, NASA was putting all its eggs into the basket of the new Space Shuttle program. Dad believed a conspiracy to support the Shuttle was killing a perfectly viable space station program; he lamented the unnecessary loss of U.S. space station capability.

Russia launched Mir in 1986. Meanwhile, the U.S. went without a space station throughout the 1980s and 1990s. At just over six years, Skylab’s lifespan was short compared to Mir’s life of 15 years. Mir has had moments of glory (records for human time in space) and moments of fear and embarrassment (fire, collision, and the possibility of general system failure).

Two decades after Skylab’s fall, an aging fleet of Shuttles services the effort to build the International Space Station. Privately, NASA engineers grumble that the Russian contribution has actually slowed down the program. Soon the United States will have a Shuttle program on its last legs, with no replacement in sight — and a space station it can’t claim as its own. Perhaps that’s all an inevitable result of the end of the Cold War, but at least some of the engineers that designed Skylab think there could’ve been an alternative path.

Both my parents were alive back in 1986 when Mir was launched. Mother died in 1987, and I recall her bitter disappointment in the Challenger disaster. Dad passed away last year. He saw the dawn of 2000, but not the new International Space Station. I don’t think it would’ve impressed him much.

Today, 24 hour news channels and dozens of Web sites tracked Mir’s descent. Still, scientists once again had to reassure a worried public. Space analyst John Pike said, “The risk is not zero, but it’s pretty close to zero.” I wonder if the mother of a former Soviet space engineer was worried about her son getting hit in the process. If so, she can put her fears to rest; the Russian space agency managed the spectacular descent precisely – and with no injury to anyone.

About the Author: Richard Wiggins is a senior information technologist at Michigan State University who writes frequently about the Internet.

Here are links to some of our collaborative work

Community Information Toolkit – In 1999-2000 developed a tool kit to get libraries and communities on the Internet. Rich did the overview video and I did the camera work and post-production (on a 100Mhz 486).

An Archive of our Television Shows – Rich and I were on television from 1994-2000 and were the first nationally distributed television program about the Internet. We produced three television shows: Internet: TCI, Nuthin But Net[1], North Coast Digital and were a monthly technology experts on WKAR-AM Newstalk-870 program for many years.

Spectator Drag Racing at Mason, MI – In this less serious video Rich is the camera person and I am the “talent”.

We made a great team. His strengths were a great match for my weaknesses. It was why our collaborations continued over such a long period of time. He will be missed.

[1] Rich was never happy with the television show title of “Nuthin But Net” – because to him it was a misspelled word. :)