A Thing of Shining Beauty

I watched the International Space Station fly over again tonight.  As I scanned the western sky, she leaped out from behind Venus and arched over my house, a thing of shining beauty slipping between clouds, stars, and silhouettes of trees.  She passed from the muted blue of dusk through the gradient into night, and I smiled.  In her wake, I felt hope. I felt peace and inspiration, and the wonder that Ray Bradbury had awakened in me when I was a child.

Nature’s beauty is always there, but sometimes it takes a pinpoint of light to make me look.


We went out to watch the Perseids last night, an activity I’ve long done with my kids.  Last night was the first time my wife joined us, though.  We leaned back and watched the sky, holding each other, overwhelmed.

There’s something about being out under the summer sky, with a breeze blowing and earthgrazers leaving streaks between the stars, that draws people together.  Maybe it’s the feeling of comfort we get from connecting with another against the vastness of the universe.  Maybe it calls up ancestral memories of pristine skies, kicking in primal instincts.

Whatever it is, it’s downright erotic.

Lunar Eclipse

Tomorrow evening, a total lunar eclipse will occur. Unfortunately for those of us in the Rocky Mountains and further west, it will be nearly over when the moon rises at 5:53 PM, and the umbra will have receded from the disk by 6:12 PM. People east of the Mississippi will be luckier; they will get to see more of the eclipse.

That’s too bad for us. The last time we saw a total lunar eclipse was October 27, 2004. My girlfriend (now wife) and I took the kids out east of the main city lights to a prairie dog preserve and watched the moon turn a deep red, as in this composite picture from the Astronomy Picture of the Day website. That night is a wonderful memory, and a keystone of our relationship.

The ancients were right; magic is enhanced by a reddened moon.

21 Years Ago Today

It was a cold Tuesday morning at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO. I had attended an early morning honors class synthesizing history, economics and science, and was heading back across campus to hang out in the music lounge between classes. Elsewhere in the world, Space Shuttle Challenger had embarked on STS-51-L, notable because civilian teacher Christa McAuliffe was on board. Chicago was still celebrating Da Bears‘ Superbowl XX win the preceding Sunday.

As I walked by the campus library, I noticed that the flag was at half mast. Odd, I thought. Something big must have happened. At that time, I was also part of the news staff at the campus radio station, KDUR, so I changed direction and headed for the practicum studio.

When I walked into the studio, the Teletype machine (those machines that make the clunking sounds behind the music at the beginning of news shows) was ringing almost non stop and continuously spitting out lines of text in all capitals. In the days of the Teletype, five bells indicated either a bulletin or an urgent follow-up to a prior bulletin, and were very rare. Even more rare was a ten bell flash; these were reserved for cataclysmic events, such as the assassination of President Kennedy. I learned later that the Teletype at the radio station had received one ten-bell flash, and all the subsequent updates were five-bell follow-ups. I entered in the midst of the follow-ups.

Only one person was manning the station at the time, and he was frantic. I asked what was going on, and he said, “The space shuttle blew up.” I started grabbing slips of the Teletype paper and organizing them by time stamp so I could see the sequence of events and hand the most significant ones to the deejay.

After things calmed down a bit, I started thinking about what angle I would take on my news story about the disaster. The basic facts had already been covered repeatedly by all the news outlets, and I wanted to do something different with my story. Having been a fan of the space program for most of my life, I thought back to prior space disasters, and wondered if there were any similarities to the Challenger disaster.

I found no significant similarities in the causes of prior disasters, namely Apollo 1 and Apollo 13, but I did find that the Apollo 1 disaster took place on almost the same day as the Challenger disaster. Apollo 1 burned on the launch pad during a January 27, 1967 test, nineteen years (almost to the day) prior.

Little did I know at the time that the space program would be derailed for nearly three years after the Challenger disaster. I fully expected that they would be back in full swing within a few months, as NASA had been after Apollo 1. In the three years following Apollo 1, NASA launched numerous missions, culminating in the ultimate goal of landing on the moon in July of 1969. After Challenger, shuttles would be grounded until the launch of Discovery on September 29, 1988 and mission STS-26. (After Challenger, NASA returned to the original Space Transportation System numbering scheme that they had used until the 1983 Columbia STS-9 launch.)

All of the astronauts on STS-51-L knew the risks inherent in space flight, including Christa McAuliffe, and they chose to fly anyway. I think that was noble, and I choose to remember them as heroes and explorers who died in the course of expanding human knowledge.

Write about the horizon

All for McNaught

The brightest comet in recent memory suddenly appeared in the sky a few days ago. Discovered on August 7th, 2006 by Robert McNaught in Australia, it has been hanging around the sun during mornings and evenings, becoming visible as light waned and waxed and then either dipping below the horizon or being drowned in the sun’s glare.

However, it surprised astronomers worldwide yesterday, by remaining visible in full daylight. Our chance to view the comet in the northern hemisphere is pretty much over now, but as the comet rounds the sun and slings itself back out into space, it will become visible in the southern hemisphere, much to the delight of its discoverer, I’m sure.

I should have made the effort to get up and see it some morning. The pictures look pretty astonishing. However, my energy simply hasn’t been there for that. I just finished the seventh day of my ten day stretch at work, and I’m already bound for overtime in the current week. As I write this, I’m yawning about every two minutes.