Rocket Winter

(from the March 1995 Eyepiece )

The Spaceships of 2001 (ISS and Mir)   |  Meeting Buzz Aldrin   |  STS-108: A Return to Space
My Hunt for SOHO Comets   |  My AstroWeb

The launch of STS-63 from the Kennedy Space Center
on February 3, 1995 (NASA photo).

The opening chapter in Ray Bradbury’s classic science-fiction novel, The Martian Chronicles , is called “Rocket Summer.” It is set in 1999. Although we are still a long way off from manned Martian exploration, we have had a “rocket winter” of sorts.

Two items in last month’s Eyepiece caught my attention and inspiration: Bruce Kamiat’s account of viewing the asteroid Vesta, and Joe Rao’s report on observing prospects for the night launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery for its mission to rendezvous with the Russian Mir space station. On January 31, I sighted Vesta in binoculars, plying its way between the horns of Taurus, and then caught Ceres, heading westward from the Sickle of Leo, probably my first two-asteroid night in nearly two decades. I had never seen a space shuttle launch, and until I read Joe’s item thought I would have to wait until some future trip to northern Florida to watch it roar into space.

On February 2, I got up after midnight to catch the launch of Discovery --only to find out that it had been scratched. The report said that repairs could be done in 24 hours, but might take 48 hours or more. I got up again around midnight the next day, still not knowing whether or not the launch was on. At 12:20, though, the radio said it was T minus 2 minutes and counting! I sat through the last seconds with an anticipation I hadn’t felt from a rocket launch since my youth, and with the memory of a zillion last-second scratches and shut-downs over the years. But this time, lift-off was not to be denied, and Discovery roared skyward, in the able hands of Eileen Collins, our first American woman space pilot—unless you count Kate Mulgrew, who as Captain Janeway had taken the helm of the Starship Voyager in the latest Star Trek spinoff.

Once Discovery had cleared Pad 39, I was out the door and over to my makeshift observing site, a small park and walkway that abuts the Prospect Expressway, which cuts through the hill there, well below the level of the park. Apart from a few long clouds, the night was brilliant. The Big Dipper was high, and Arcturus a brilliant orange. The minutes ticked away. I expected at any moment to see the rocked come zipping upwards, climbing into our sky on a jet of flame. Then 12:30 came and went. Instead, I noticed what I thought was an airplane among the treetops to the southeast , bright and orange and heading horizontally to the left, not far from Spica. But no sooner did I train my binoculars on it than it abruptly disappeared, not to return. Was this the shuttle, at main engine cutoff? Or was it just a “bogey,” that happened to be in the right area of the sky at the right time, moving in somewhat the right direction?

I had to wait until I got to work for the answer. One of my co-workers and her husband had seen the shuttle, and their description matched mine—except they had an unobstructed horizon,a nd were able to see the rocket exhaust. Next time, I’ll have to find an observing site with a really good southern horizon. Maybe sneak into the Greenwood Cemetery….

E-mail to tonyhoffman [at] earthlink [dot] net