Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Make friends with the stars...

Each time I wrap up a visit to my hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania—as I’m doing this week—I always find it humbling to realize just how much I’ve received from this place, and the family, friends and even strangers who call it home.

I always loved those warm summer nights during my childhood, and one could usually find me lying on the cool freshly-mown grass, gazing into a star-filled sky. 

It was a simpler, more innocent time—a time when neighbors sat on their porches in the evenings, fireflies lit up the landscape, there was no homework for at least several months, and ice cream or watermelon was all we needed to stay cool. Life seemed just about as good as it could possibly get. 

It was on nights like these that I recall watching my favorite star Antares, its ruddy glow shimmering through the summertime haze that always seemed to hang over the Coursen’s house to the south. 

Antares marks the heart of the celestial arachnid we know as Scorpius, the scorpion, one of the most recognizable constellations in all the heavens; I always enjoyed seeing the several stars outlining its claws at the top, and its long curving stellar tail and stinger, all accompanied by the ghostly band of the Milky Way.

Though life has changed much since those halcyon days of the late 1950s and early '60s, Antares remains a wonderful friend.  Even today I enjoy watching Antares and Scorpius as they rise in the southeastern sky not long after dark.  It’s amazing how just a quick glance at them floods my mind and my heart with such warm memories of that wonderful time in my life, even from in my current home in the Anza-Borrego Desert many miles—and many years—from my Pennsylvania roots.

What a marvelous time of year to leave one’s mundane worries behind, get out under a dark rural sky, and make lifelong friends with the stars.

Monday, July 11, 2011

July 11... the 20th Anniversary of ”Big One!”

I’m sure that in everyone’s life there’s a date that sticks out as the most memorable.  For me, that date is July 11. 

It was on July 11, 1979 that Skylab, the first orbiting U.S. space station, came plunging through the atmosphere to its demise.  As you can imagine, that caused a bit of concern for people on the ground!

On July 11, 1992, I got a German Shepherd, and in the 13 years we were together she became my very best friend.  No judgment, no anger, no prejudice… only unconditional love.  We humans could learn a lot from our dogs. 

And on July 11, 1983, my father died of lung cancer and emphysema.  That was a rough summer for everyone involved.  But it was he who, during my childhood, supported my love of astronomy, even though he had no idea what it was really all about.  And it was he who, nearly 20 years earlier, took me to see my first total solar eclipse. 


I was 12 that summer (OK, I’ll wait for you to get your calculator…) and my parents had taken me on a long drive up the East Coast from our home in Pennsylvania, through Maine and on into northeastern Canada.  We did this during a few summers, but I remember that trip specifically because there was to be an eclipse of the sun.  

When the sky show began, my Dad pulled out some color film from his Super-8 movie camera and doubled it up so we could watch as the moon’s silhouette drifted across the blinding face of the sun.  This, I know today, is NOT a safe way to do this!  Nonetheless, we saw the eclipse and, somehow, managed to keep our vision.  

What sticks in my mind most vividly is that, near the eclipse maximum, the sun had nearly vanished.  It had become just a thin sliver—probably 98 or 99% of its full disk was blacked out—the sky darkened considerably and I was quite impressed.  Years later I looked back at a map of this eclipse and realized if we had driven just a few more miles we would not have seen a partial solar eclipse, but a total solar eclipse.   

Why should that matter?  What possible difference could there be between a 98% total and a 100% total eclipse?  Same questions I asked most of my life. In fact, during the 1970s and 80s a number of total solar eclipses passed over North America and I didn’t make the effort to get to them.  I couldn’t really afford to do this, so I rationalized it this way: “Why spend all that time and money to go someplace to watch the sky get dark in the daytime, when I can just wait a few hours and it’ll become dark here.” 

Well, it was exactly 20 years ago today that I found out just how dumb that was!

It was on July 11, 1991 that I experienced my first total solar eclipse—the “big one”—the longest total solar eclipse of our lifetime.  I use the word “experience” rather than “see” because it’s so much more than just visual! 

Many people from the U.S. went to Baja California or Hawaii for this sky show. I was lecturing on the Carnival cruise ship Jubilee off the coast of Mazatl├ín and, despite some weather issues and a near-mutiny by a few “difficult” passengers, we managed to get to the right place at the right time.  

This is important because, while one can see a partial solar eclipse from much of the day-lit world, only those along the eclipse “center line” can experience a total eclipse.  That’s because the moon’s shadow speeding across the Earth’s surface at more than 1,000 miles per hour traces out a path only a few dozen miles wide, so any error could be a disaster. 

But here we were, in the right place at the right time, and it wasn’t long before shouts of "first contact!" rang out as the moon's curved silhouette first darkened the western limb of the sun.  Camera shutters clicked and all eyes turned skyward.  The drama was on!

As the moon drifted gracefully in front of our star, excited chatter came from everywhere.  Some simply lay back on deck chairs enjoying the sights;  others were diligently operating complex batteries of optical tools, hoping to record every second of the action. 
Over the next hour or so, the eclipse progressed.  Nothing great; I’d seen this partial eclipse stuff before.  But sunlight was dimming significantly, and soon only a delicate crescent sun remained.  Shadows on the deck had become noticeably sharper, and the temperature began to drop, providing some much-welcomed cooler air.

Now, with only seconds to go, I got my first taste of “totality.”  

In the west, the moon’s dark shadow descended ominously and rapidly from the heavens, engulfing the Pacific in a still and eerie darkness. 

The dark shadow of the moon approaches the Yangtze River during the 2009 eclipse.

Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m as logical and rational a being as any you’ll find on this planet… yet, as I looked in the direction of this descending darkness I was overcome with the most profound sensation. I could feel my heart pounding, and remember thinking to myself: “My God, something has gone horribly wrong.  It’s not supposed to be this way...”

It was terrifying.  Of course I knew exactly what was happening and why, but this wasn’t intellectual; this was completely primal.  Somewhere deep within my DNA must be data encoded that the sun—our giver of life, light and power—is not supposed to vanish in the daytime.  I can’t even begin to imagine the terror felt by unsuspecting primitive peoples when such a celestial event removed the sun from their daytime sky.

Totality over the Paul Gauguin (2005)
Soon, the last beam of sunlight disappeared behind the moon's edge―the "diamond ring."   And then, totality!
The place where the mighty sun once shone was a void, around which the sun's gossamer corona streamed outward across the sapphire sky.  Some cheered its arrival;  some wept at its splendor.  I was somewhere in between. 

But all gazed in awe at the most glorious spectacle nature has to offer.  What a magnificent and exhilarating moment―one that some had waited an entire lifetime to experience.  Myself included.

In the twilight sky, the planets Mercury, Venus and Jupiter glistened like jewels near the pearly-white corona, and along the horizon glowed the wonderfully warm colors of a 360-degree sunset.  If ever an alien landscape existed on Earth, this was it.  Its beauty held even the most jaded sky watchers captive, and we all became swept up by the haunting celestial theater.
Six minutes and 53 seconds passed like an instant... and then it was over. Sunlight burst back into view.  As we toasted what was surely the greatest sky show I had ever experienced, a school of dolphins leaped in and out of the water alongside the ship as if to celebrate with us this remarkable celestial event.

2008 totality over
Lake Novosibirsk, Siberia
And I had learned once and for all why people will do almost anything to travel across the world to spend but a few fleeting minutes in the shadow of the moon.  

Since that total solar eclipse in 1991, I have experienced a dozen more on six continents and several seas, and have spent more than 30 exhilarating minutes engulfed by the moon’s shadow. No two were ever exactly alike, but each changed the way I view the cosmos and our place in it.

I sincerely hope that such a remarkable experience is firmly planted in your "bucket list," but please don't do as I did.  Don’t put it off.  Join me in November 2012 for our next total solar eclipse adventure in the magical Land Down Under—Australia and New Zealand.  I promise it’ll be an experience you will never forget!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Remembering the Space Shuttle...

As the Space Shuttle Atlantis begins its final mission, the best word I can use to describe my memories of the U.S. Space Shuttle program is "bittersweet."

Over the past three decades, this remarkable flying machine has accomplished more than most of us can remember. It carried into space the first American woman and first African-American. It helped build the incredible space laboratory known as the International Space Station, launched, serviced and upgraded the Hubble Telescope which, over the past 21 years has revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. And so very much more.

My first journey to Cape Canaveral for a launch was on April 28, 1989; I was there to watch Atlantis (STS-30) carry skyward the Magellan spacecraft which was to journey to Venus. Unfortunately, the launch was scrubbed with only 31 seconds left on the countdown clock, so I missed the opportunity.

Five years later--on July 8, 1994--I did watch as Columbia (STS-65) carried into space the International Microgravity Laboratory.  What an incredible show!

It was quite common to see the Shuttle pass over our homes during evening or early-morning hours. During the last bright pass of STS-69 over Southern California in September 1995, I photographed Endeavour as it flew in front of the constellation Canis Major before dawn.  On board was San Diego astronaut Jim Newman and, when the mission was completed, I presented to him my photo.  I didn't think it was all that great, but he asked for four more prints to give to each of his crew mates.  Why?  Because the constellation Canis Major, the great dog, was featured on their mission patch and the crew knew  themselves as the "Dog Crew."  And I'm now the proud owner of one of the patches that flew with him on that very mission.

And a couple of times I watched the Shuttle's fiery re-entry into the atmosphere. I remember once watching from my home in San Diego as its cherry-red light streaked over the southern horizon; when it was gone, I went inside and watched as it landed in Florida... only 20 minutes later.  Amazing!! 

Flying in space has always been a dream of mine, and in late 1985, I was one of 1,033 applicants for NASA's new "Journalist in Space" program. But that dream ended only weeks later with the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. Most of us remember where we were and what we were doing on that dark January day... I was teaching an astronomy class in Southern Arizona when I heard the news. I can't even begin to describe the sickness I felt; if you were not around at that time, no words can capture the feelings we all had; if you were, no words are necessary.

On board mission 51L that day was not only Christa McAuliffe, the first "Teacher in Space", but also veteran mission-specialist Dr. Ronald McNair. Ron and I came to know each other when he shot the very first wide-screen motion picture from space for a consortium of planetariums I worked with, and I interviewed him for an article I wrote ("America Rides the Shuttle") which appeared in magazines such as "The Planetarian," "U.S. Black Engineer, " and "U.S.Hispanic Engineer."

Ironically, I photographed the Space Shuttle Challenger on its last successful flight... on August 11, 1985. On that day, it took off from Edwards Air Force Bace on its return flight to Florida, riding on the back of a specially equipped 747. It stopped for re-fueling at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, and my family and I went out to welcome it and to see it off to the Cape.

Little did we know at the time, as we watched her vanish into the blue desert sky, that this would be her final flight.

It has, indeed, been a remarkable journey. It'll be sad to say goodbye to this magnificent flying machine, but I look forward to a glorious new era of manned space exploration--wherever it takes us. I can only hope that America will continue the dream.

Godspeed Atlantis!