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Celebrating July 13, "Skylab-Esperance Day"

In November 2008, astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper dropped her tool bag during space shuttle Endeavour's visit to the International Space Station.

This was unfortunate, as you can't pick space tools up from your local hardware store, these things are custom-made, hi-tech pieces of kit, so it's little wonder Stefanyshyn-Piper exclaimed, "Oh great!" as she saw the bag drift out of her reach toward Earth. On that day, the spacewalking astronaut became a record breaker for all the wrong reasons; this was one of the the biggest pieces of kit accidentally dropped by an astronaut.

This event, in the grand scheme of things, was pretty inconsequential (apart from being an expensive and frustrating mistake), but it was the beginning of a unique adventure for Scott Barley, a DJ for the California-based Highway Radio...

"When I saw that news about that dropped tool bag, I thought 'that will leave a lump on your head,'" Barley told Discovery Space.

As it turns out the toolbag doesn't pose too much of a risk to us on the ground, and NASA was quick to point out that the rucksack-sized bag will burn up in the atmosphere very quickly. But still, Highway Radio DJ was intrigued and had a look around on the web to find any examples of space debris hitting the ground.

That was when he stumbled on the story about the re-entry of Skylab in 1979, when parts of NASA's space station scattered over the Indian Ocean and a small corner of Western Australia.

As previously reported on Space Disco, the re-entry of Skylab came as quite a surprise for the residents of the Australian Shire of Esperance, and a light-hearted $400 fine was imposed on NASA for littering their territory. The debt was never paid.

After some further digging, Barley decided to call the Esperance mayor's office to investigate whether or not the fine was still valid. After receiving the standard "no, NASA's fine was written off years ago" message from Esperance, Barley was determined to make good on NASA's debt, despite the fact it no longer existed.

So, using his reach on Highway Radio (you'd hear the DJ's voice on the I15 when traveling to and from Las Vegas and LA, near the small city of Barstow), he appealed to his listeners to help pay NASA's fine. Sure enough, he received a healthy response; listeners at home sent a couple of dollars and a local gym pledged that they'd match anyone that sends in a $50 donation, should someone feel generous. Sure enough with the help of small donations from listeners at home, truckers and businesses, the $400 was raised.

Triumphantly, Scott Barley wrote a $400 check and posted it to the Shire of Esperance. The 30 year debt was officially paid.

He heard nothing from Western Australia for two months.

But when he did hear something, it was a personal invite for him to fly to Australia. Esperance wanted the Californian radio host to be their guest of honor at the Esperance-Skylab 30th Anniversary celebrations this weekend, giving him three days of free accommodation. On Sunday July 12, Barley will present a comedy-sized jumbo check from the Highway Radio listeners, for the total amount of $400, finally paying off NASA's debt.

This whole event may seem a little insignificant when compared with the billions of dollars that are spent on launching the shuttle, or when compared with the international economic meltdown, but it is a touching story that has grown beyond the $400.

In a gesture of goodwill and thanks, Barley has become a representative of the City of Barstow, CA, as the US mayor has signed a document that will twin Barstow and Esperance (both cities with a population of about 14,000). Barley will present the key to the City of Barstow during the celebrations where the 1979 Mayor of Esperance will also be in attendance.

"It came as a joke, but something significant came out of it," Barley said. "The whole thing has really captured people's imaginations."

From now on, in the US city of Barstow and the Australian city of Esperance - where the only similarity used to be their populations - will be united by the fallen US space station 30 years ago. That day, July 13, will be forever known as "Skylab-Esperance Day."

I think Scott is currently making the dusty journey to Esperance, but he was told some wise advice by officials in the Aussie Shire: As the airport is a long distance from this small corner of Australia, when making the road trip to Esperance, Scott should, "Watch out for the kangaroos at dusk."

The DJ is unsure what was meant by this warning, but he promised to take photos of his experiences and send them to Discovery Space on his return next week. Hopefully we'll find out what kangaroos really get up to in the evenings...