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Explained: How and why a space station entered UP poll horizon

Accusing Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of neglecting backwards and Dalits, Maurya suggested he had been dropped into the chair like “Skylab”.

Written by Shivnarayan Rajpurohit , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 18, 2022 4:06:39 pm
Skylab space station clicked by a departing crew in June 1973. (Courtesy: NASA)

Formally joining the Samajwadi Party after exiting the Uttar Pradesh government and the BJP, Swami Prasad Maurya made a reference that was unusual even by the standards of the state that has seen it all. Accusing Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of neglecting backwards and Dalits, Maurya suggested he had been dropped into the chair like “Skylab”.

The space station

America’s first space station, Skylab, was launched by NASA on May 14, 1973, to monitor meteorology, solar activities, materials processing etc. From its launch until the return of its third and final crew on February 8, 1974, the Skylab programme proved that humans can live and work in outer space for extended periods. The first crew spent 28 days in orbit, the second 59 and the final 84. The record set by the final crew was not broken by an American astronaut till more than 20 years later.

The last crew undocked the station in February 1974 and pushed it into a higher orbit by attaching thrusters. The original plan was for the station to remain in space for another 8 to 10 years. To NASA’s surprise, Skylab began de-orbiting faster than it had anticipated. The chief reason was a warmer atmosphere in the mid-1970s due to coronal mass ejections, or “small balls of fire”, emitted by the Sun. This created an atmospheric drag on Skylab and pulled it towards the Earth.

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Multiple plans to push Skylab into a higher orbit came to a naught, and it became clear the station would re-enter the Earth in 1979, four years earlier than expected. The planned splashdown in the less populated southern hemisphere caused a frenzy across the world, from Canberra in Australia to Karimnagar in Andhra. Weighing 85 tonnes, Skylab was the heaviest space object till then, according to NASA.

As per media reports at the time, people in the coastal states of Andhra and Orissa (as it was called then) migrated to “safer places”, and some even took to wearing helmets. The issue of “reported panic among people fearing fall of Skylab splinters” was even raised in the Lok Sabha. The Union government was asked if it had taken appropriate measures to protect people. As his government reached the point of collapse, then prime minister Morarji Desai told newspersons in July 1979: “Even if the Skylab falls here, I will remain unruffled.”

Eventually, during its “faster-than-a-bullet” descent, most of Skylab went up in flames due to atmospheric friction. The rest of its debris fell off the south-western Australia coast. Bemused callers to an ABC radio programme reported having seen “a meteoric shower” with a “sonic boom”.

Local authorities imposed a $400 penalty on NASA for littering.

Spacecraft kill rare

“It is almost rare that a spacecraft would hit populated areas because our deorbiting methods have improved over the years,” says Sanat K Biswas, Assistant Professor and Head of Space Systems Laboratory of Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi. Biswas, who is developing an algorithm to predict collisions between satellites and space junk, said the probability of space debris hitting a populated area was 1 in 3,200.

What Maurya said

At the event where he joined the SP along with other BJP leaders on January 14, Maurya said: “The BJP formed its state government (in 2017) with the support of Keshav Prasad Maurya (now UP deputy CM), Swami Prasad Maurya and the backward community. Discussions were held that the CM would either be Keshav Prasad or Swami Prasad Maurya. But an attempt was first made to drop a Skylab from Ghazipur. But that Skylab had a blast before reaching here. Another Skylab was picked from Gorakhpur and placed on the CM’s chair to hoodwink the backward classes.”

What he meant

Speaking to The Indian Express, Maurya said he meant to convey that Adityanath’s selection was a bolt from the blue. “The (2017) election was fought under the leadership of Keshav Prasad Mauryaji, who was then the state BJP president. The other two CM contenders were Mahesh Sharmaji and Dinesh Sharmaji (also a Dy CM currently)… If any of the three had been chosen, there would have been no Skylab.”

The BJP had delayed naming a CM for a week after its stupendous win, with Adityanath emerging as the surprise choice after a day-long meeting.

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While the Gorakhpur Skylab reference was clearly to Adityanath, a four-time MP from Gorakhpur, Maurya did not specify what he meant by Ghazipur. Maurya’s aides told The Indian Express he was referring to Manoj Sinha, who was also in contention to be UP CM after the BJP’s victory. In 2014, Sinha had been elected to the Lok Sabha for the third time from Ghazipur. A Union minister of state at the time, he was later sent to J&K as Lieutenant Governor.

“Instead of choosing either of the Mauryas, the BJP parachuted Yogi Adityanath from Gorakhpur to Lucknow,” an aide of Swami Prasad Maurya said.

Asked why he thought of the ‘Skylab’ reference, Maurya said that during his student years, in the 70s, Skylab had been one of the hot topics. The period also saw the continuation of the Russia-US space war.

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