Has anyone been hit by falling debris?

Reportedly, only one individual has been struck by debris from a reentering spacecraft. Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma, reported that she was struck on the shoulder while walking. The timing and location were consistent with debris from the Delta second stage reentry from which debris was recovered several hundred miles away in Texas. CORDS analyzed the piece and confirmed it to be part of the fuel tank of a Delta II rocket that launched a satellite in 1996.

Ms. Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma holds the debris that struck in the shoulder. Photo: Tulsa World

There have been several noteworthy reentries affecting populated areas. For example, the Feb. 7, 1991, reentry of the USSR’s Salyut 7/Kosmos 1686 space station, with a mass of 36,700 kg, occurred over a populated region. Soviet ground controllers attempted to control the space station’s reentry for impact in the Atlantic Ocean by setting it into a tumble, thereby altering the atmosphere’s drag on the vehicle. However, their efforts were unsuccessful. Salyut 7 reentered over Argentina, scattering much of its debris over the town of Capitan Bermudez, 400 km from Buenos Aires. The townspeople observed the reentry of Salyut 7’s debris in their night sky as incandescent meteors, traveling from the southwest to the northeast. The next day, metal fragments were found dispersed throughout town. Luckily, no one was hit.

The 1979 reentry of the U.S. vehicle Skylab was similar. NASA controllers modulated the attitude of Skylab during the final orbits to encourage reentry in an orbit that passed over as few populated areas as possible. The final reentry of Skylab rained small bits of debris over a town on the southern Australian coast. Heavier debris landed inland. Again, no one was hurt.

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