Friday, August 26, 2011
“The skies were really busy last night.”
A friend’s chance remark last week sent us outside to look for ourselves. We really didn’t expect to see much, even though the night was clear, because we live on a hilltop overlooking the lights of town. Streetlights line the roadway in front of our house. So much light pollution washes across the evening sky that only the brightest stars shine through.
Growing up years ago in a Cascade Mountain rain forest, hemmed in by tall trees and cloud cover, we didn’t often see the stars either. But on an occasional clear night, we’d go outside, tip our heads back and gaze in awe at the Milky Way’s glowing path of stardust winding through a billion distant suns. Only the dim gas lamp shining through the living room window competed with the brilliance above. We seldom saw a plane pass over in daytime and never at night. Man had not yet been to the moon or fired a rocket into space. One night our parents called us out to see falling stars. They called it a meteor shower. We stood for an hour, ooh-ing and aah-ing as bits of debris in a comet’s trail ignited in the earth’s atmosphere and streaked across the starry sky.
Now we looked for a place where the glare of street and city lights would be dimmed. We found it in a corner of our back yard where house and garage walled us in on two sides, tall fences on the other two. Suddenly, the sky looked black, filled with more stars than we’d seen in years. Some stars blinked off and on as they traveled across the sky. They were aircraft lights, some on planes too far away to be heard or seen in daylight. Other far-away lights were satellites, their movement barely perceptible. The sky was busy.
Then, to the north, we saw a steady, bright light, moving smoothly along an east-west trajectory. It was the International Space Station. In a few minutes it had passed out of sight, but it would complete its orbit around the earth and we’d see it again in another 90 minutes.
It felt strange to know there were people up there, 250 miles above the earth, in that largest man-made object ever to be sent into space. Fifteen nations came together to design, build, and staff the space station, and crews will have lived and worked there continuously for eleven years, come November. We tried to imagine what the inhabitants were doing as the earth revolved beneath them. Might one of them have been looking down at the point of light that represented our community? Might he or she have been wondering who was looking up, wondering about them?
The night sky has always caused humankind to think deep thoughts. But now, if one can find a place dark enough to see it, there’s even more to think about.