When The Fall Of American Space Station Kindled My Scientific Quest

It has been 37 years since the first American space station, Skylab, crashed into the Indian Ocean and parts of Australia; nevertheless, this event reverberates in my mind as an inspirational story that I share with my students in United States. The rise and fall of Skylab reminds me how we can stretch the limits of possibility with Mathematics and Physics, and how Science can encourage curiosity to formulate the knowledge of the natural world.

I grew up in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which mythology describes as created by Parashurama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, when he threw his celestial axe across the sea to create a new land after destroying the entire line of kings who dominated the earth-apparently he was tired of the corrupt rulers and unleashed this bloody revolution well before humans thought about it.

In addition to its geographical advantages Kerala nurtured a relatively secular society with a Hindu majority but a considerable percentage of minorities like Christians and Muslims. Ironically, religious identities were not publicly displayed in ‘70s and ‘80s as it is practiced now. Even without crazy urbanization, the state enjoyed higher standards of health care and literacy compared to many other parts of India. Those days, the perfect rhythmic life cycle of people and animals in my small town even evaded the need for mechanical timepieces, though, a few people displayed watches but they never looked at it. Mysteriously, the relative nature of time and space was fully comprehended by everyone, and measuring them was pointless anyway- they thought.

Somehow, my community maintained a constant ratio of birth and death through some divine intervention (that was the only explanation I was told at that time), and everyone, by some means, knew everything about others- comparable to the concept of quantum entanglement, which I learned quite later. So, the God of death, Yama, had a hassle-free work to do with the town, and people acknowledged his visit by either ringing church bells loudly in simple harmonic fashion or diffusing smell of Puja (Hindu rituals) materials from their homes. Unaware of these rituals Yama visited the village, on a regular basis, taking away people and animals to his kingdom. No one complained about it as if they were supposed to be in compliance with this cosmic law.

But, when imminent fall of Skylab reached the village in 1979, the religious bodies in my community had an opportunity to chime in. The Hindu temple performed Puja (to deflect the falling space station) and quoted relevant texts from Ramayana and Mahabharata describing how flying objects were known to the ancient wise folks. The pastor invoked Bible quotes and warned this as a punishment from God for humans venturing into stars and asked his followers to plead for God’s mercy to save them, yet, he was bit soft on USA that owned and operated the Skylab. The few leftists lived in the village were apparently rejoiced by the fact that an American imperialist machine is coming down and used the occasion to celebrate the bright future of Soviet Union.

As a tween boy, my curiosity to observe the falling Skylab grew more powerful than the fear of death itself. So every night I looked at the sky with great apprehension but my inquisitiveness destroyed the fear. A few days later, specifically on July 11, 1979, the fall of Skylab was brought to the collective social psyche of the village by a Christian worshiper. He described seeing the night sky littered with heavenly lights and the spacelab, in his words, fell through like a star as described in Bible. He even claimed to have seen biblical verses inscribed on the fireball from the book of Revelations. The Hindu priest’s narration of Skylab resembled the chariot of Arjuna piloted by Lord Krishna (a scene that look a lot like the epic battle of Mahabharata) cruising and crushing everything on its path. These narrations were accepted by some people and they were satisfied with the primeval interpretations of this inevitable outcome that was orchestrated by God of their choice.

Somehow, these explanations didn’t placate my quest. Unfortunately, the only Physics I knew that time didn’t help me either, although, I was aware of the force of gravity from my middle school classes. We were taught that Sir Isaac Newton discovered the force of gravity with his observation of falling apple and claimed that the same force keeps the moon around the earth. However, as a child, both apple and moon were inaccessible symbols for me, for Kerala didn’t cultivate apple trees and moon was, anyway, quite far to see how it falls! But, my puritan teachers never wanted to deform the Newtonian theory by bringing the much common example of coconut falling off the trees which I was so familiar and, in fact, avoided the hit on several occasions to save my life.

The following weekend my elder brother brought some magazines from his college town and I curiously scanned the pages and one had a fussy picture of Skylab as it fell in part of southeastern Indian Ocean and Western Australia. The magazine explained, although I didn’t get it completely, how the force of gravity make and break the material objects and caused the fall of Skylab when its control was lost by NASA. Many years later, I realized how Scientists were able to find a positioning for the Skylab, using the prescriptive mathematical model that heavily depended on Physics, to minimize the human loss.

Now, almost four decades later the crash of Skylab remains as a powerful interdisciplinary learning experience. So I share with my students, what Johannes Kepler, the famous German Astronomer said: “If there is anything that can bind the heavenly mind of man to this dreary exile of our earthly home and can reconcile us with our fate so that one can enjoy living,—then it is verily the enjoyment of the mathematical sciences and astronomy.”

Back to Kerala, since the fall of Skylab, despite its early achievements in social reform, education and health care, the middle class has become more religious and ritualistic than they were decades ago, most significant erosion visible in the fundamental strength and courage of a society that fostered open-minded ideas in the past. Perhaps, Kerala now has the highest concentration of different versions of Godmen - bishops, pastors, spiritual gurus, and mullahs in India or even in the world, and yet, not many attain spiritual epiphany. Scientific thoughts or progressive social ideas are not cherished or debated but the news about of religious leaders, film stars and political elites consume the new age media. I am sure puja will be held for rain, cross for grabbing land and weapons to chop off the head of blasphemous person. And, I am afraid Parasurama will not return to save the land of his making from disasters and no one seems to care about it.

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