Friday, February 13, 2009

It Came From The Sky

The collision this past Tuesday between two communications satellites sparked some conversation at my place this week. In case you missed it, a U.S. Iridium 33 communications satellite collided with a non-working Russian military communications satellite almost 500 miles above Siberia. Surprisingly, this type of event is extremely rare -I say surprising because there is a lot of material orbiting Earth. This collision created an estimated 500 pieces of debris, which adds to the 18,000 man-made objects already in orbit.

Of course, the 18,000 objects aren't all satellites - although with the first satellite launch all the way back in 1957 and an average of 200 satellites launched per year since 1964, according to NASA, there are thousands up there.

The reason why this created a stir at my place goes back to a recent post on this blog (See Is This A Good Idea? ) where a reader forwarded a photo and a comment about the size of some of the items falling from space. We went looking for more fallen space debris and found this "Top Ten" list at

...where, among other things they note that objects ranging from titanium water tanks to large chunks of SkyLab and the Mir Space Station have found their way to Earth. Then my writer relayed her memories of one day just over six years ago.

February 1st fell on a weekend in 2003, and my writer and her husband drove to Livingston, in East Texas, to attend a Civil War reenactment, a favorite activity for both. (One would think she would be content relaying the activities of erudite extraterrestrials, but she has the occasional odd yen to camp in a damp canvas tent and eschew all modern conveniences.) At any rate, that weekend found them up early, already wandering among the tents and cooking fires while visiting with various soldiers and camp followers. If you've ever been to a reenactment, you'll know they can feel surprisingly real, because the participants work very hard to make them as historically accurate as possible.

So it was while listening to Confederate soldiers talk about the homes they left behind, watching a Yankee cavalry officer saddle his horse, and smelling the coffee boiling in front of a laundress's tent, that my writer and her husband first heard about things falling from the sky. The news trickled in slowly, in bits and pieces. Families who arrived at the park before noon told of a rare daytime meteorite shower, the next wave thought that a satellite might have broken up, that strange chunks of debris had been found in small town parking lots and residential backyards. By noon, grimmer rumors were circulating, and by early afternoon they were confirmed. The Space Shuttle Columbia had disintegrated on reentry, with loss of all crew aboard.

Everyone has their own memories of where they were and what they were doing that day. For as long as my writer lives, the past and the future will be inextricably entwined. Each time she lights the wick in their lantern and hangs it from the shepherd's hook in front of the tent, she'll think of the crew of the Columbia and what they gave so humans could take the next step into space.

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