Who Owns the Skylab Junk? That Was Settled 25 Years Ago When Stars Fell on Alabama
07/30/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT
When Skylab finally dumped some of its 26 tons of debris on Australia's Outback two weeks ago, the only known damage was to Australian pride. Nobody was injured, fulfilling NASA's calculation that the odds against a specific John Doe being smacked by Skylab were 600 billion to one.
Presumably, the same odds hold true for other objects from space, which makes Alabama's Hodges Meteorite a unique statistical wonder. It created an unwilling celebrity out of Ann Hodges, whom it hit, and plunged Birdie Guy into a precedent-setting legal battle.
The 8.5-pound, seven-inch-long piece of black rock plunged to earth on Nov. 30, 1954. It ripped through the roof of Mrs. Guy's frame house in Sylacauga, caromed off a radio and landed on Mrs. Hodges' hip. It is the only known case of something from Out There striking a human being.
Police took Mrs. Hodges to the hospital and the meteorite to headquarters. The Air Force whisked it off to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio for analysis. While Mrs. Hodges recovered—she fortunately suffered only a huge bruise—her husband, Hulitt, began trying to get the meteorite back from the government. With his congressman's help, he succeeded the following month, and offers to purchase it began flooding in. At that point Mrs. Guy, the Hodges' landlady, claimed the meteorite herself. "I'd read in the paper," she recalls, "that things like that belonged to the person whose property it fell on." (Last week NASA apparently agreed, telling irked Australians it might want to "borrow" some Skylab remnants for tests, but promising to give everything back.) The Hodges family and Mrs. Guy settled out of court, and Mrs. Guy sold the rock back to them for $500. They kept it for 15 months—Mr. Hodges wanted to use it as a doorstop—before giving it to the U of Alabama's Museum of Natural History. Mrs. Hodges died in 1972 of a stroke, eight years after she and her husband were divorced.
Ironically, Mrs. Guy, now 75 and a great-grandmother, had never seen the Hodges Meteorite, so when Skylab jitters were at their highest she journeyed to the museum to take a look. Like most meteorites, it has a thin black crust caused by the fiery trip through the atmosphere. A second, smaller (3.7 pounds) meteorite was found nearby. Scientists estimate that both rocks, like the Skylab junk, were doing an awesome 200 mph at impact.