I awoke with a start...it seems like I awake with a start a lot some seasons, though the past few have been low on sleep disrupting drama. The time I'm remembering was January 28th, 1986. Yet another hard to forget day in America. Just before 9AM PST, Shuttle Challenger exploded one minute and thirteen seconds into it's tenth mission to space. I woke up with the television on just as she disintegrated while the solid rocket boosters traced that "Devil's Horns" pattern in the sky.
I was disoriented when I awoke, and I wasn't understanding what I was seeing. Waking up a little more, it finally started to dawn on me what had happened...God, I hated that.
I'm a child of the Fifties, and I was nine years old when American Astronauts began blasting off, into Space. I ate that stuff up! The Original Mercury Astronauts were bigger than life in my young eyes, and Philip Kaufman hit the nail on the head with his film "The Right Stuff" twenty-odd years later. I watched every Manned Launch, throughout the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Programs...I didn't miss a one. When John Glenn was up in Friendship 7, I listened in live from school on my first Transistor Radio. I watched the first Spacewalk outside of Gemini IV.
All the Manned Spaceflights were reported by Walter Cronkite on CBS-TV. To me, Cronkite was the voice of the Space Program. I paid rapt attention to the Moon Landings, to Skylab and to Apollo/Soyuz. I was a big fan, I built the plastic models, read everything I could about NASA and the Astronauts, and I still have my Gemini Program Lunchbox.
I'm not sure what happened to me after the Moon Landings. Maybe it was the lag time between the Moon and the first Shuttle launch. Oh, I saw all the shuttle testing, the launches and landings, the 747 piggy-back rides, but somehow I stopped getting up to watch the launches live. Now I was watching taped packages on the evening news, instead.
The Shuttle Program really started getting off the ground about the time I moved up to Donner Summit and started working at the Mountain. I was the FNG at the Mountain, and I worked my ass off. I must have been too darn tired to get up and watch those early shuttle launches. I really didn't reconnect with the Space Program until I was grooming full time, and NASA began to visit the USSR's Mir Space Station. These missions took place in the mid-90's, just as the Internet was beginning to roll out to the masses.
I built a friend's house over the summer of 1996, and we got up in the middle of the night to watch STS-78 the Shuttle Columbia re-enter on it's way back to Cape Kennedy. My friend's friend had an internet hook-up, and fixed us up with the info we needed to see the show. The friend printed the twenty-plus pages that had the times and directions to see the Re-entry show, and even had a page telling how long after the shuttle passed overhead, we'd hear the Sonic Boom!
Well, that lit the fire under me all over again. Watching Columbia re-enter right overhead was awesome! She was going through the Maximum Dynamic Pressure phase, surrounded by highly ionized atmospheric particles. The orbiter appeared to be glowing purple as if a comet's head, leaving a long ionized trail in glowing orange that hung in the night sky for a couple of minutes...Imagine a neon electric con-trail. It was beautiful, but it dissipated well before the Sonic Boom that followed the fly-over by 4:30 (4min 30 sec) As it passed over us, Columbia was doing Mach 25!
I decided that night that I'd get my own computer with the internet, so I could know when to see more stuff in the Night Sky.
Graveyard Groomers can't help but start wondering what all the stars overhead are named, what the Constellations are called, and what all the stuff moving independently from the rest of the stars are. Over the years, there have been several Comets that hung in the sky like mysterious visitors from beyond...this never fails to inspire us to learn a little more about Astronomy.