Watching the heavens
London, ON, March 2009
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See below for descriptions
The scene: My daughter asks me for help with a school assignment. She's supposed to go outside after dark, look skyward, and write her observations. Given the modern-day uber-protective parental views on kids going outside alone, she asks if I'll accompany her. But of course.
Over dinner, we discuss what she expects to see when she gets out there. The moon? Venus? The Big Dipper? She lists them all off as if they're endless opportunities just waiting to be discovered. She's excited. So am I.
As is her little brother, who begs to come along. She's not pleased at the prospect of an eight-year-old, a boy, no less, bouncing around her while she focuses on work. After much negotiation, some of it loud, she relents, but only after extracting a promise from him that he'll be on his best behavior. She turns to big brother and asks to borrow his telescope. Zach generously consents.
Because I'm never satisfied until I've completely saturated every experience with as much technology as I possibly can, I suggest we look up the ISS and shuttle orbits online. If we're lucky, we may see an overflight or two. Sure, they're just dots in the sky. But what dots they are, and I figure it'll make a routine assignment that much more memorable for her if all the figurative stars align.
As I pull the data down on my laptop, I realize tonight's going to be a great night to scan the heavens. The upcoming ISS pass is slated to be the brightest and longest viewing oppoprtunity for at least the next ten days. Dahlia bounces into my office and we review the numbers together, just to be sure. I explain what they mean, tracing the path with my hands as I try to contain my excitement. High fives are exchanged. The dog looks on quizzically.
We head outside 15 minutes early with all our gear. I preset the camera as best I can and the three of us banter about what we're about to see and what it means. We talk about the people living on board, how the shuttle Discovery (STS-119), which we'll also see about 20 minutes later, is chasing the mother ship and will be docking with it tomorrow. Noah skips up and down the sidewalk, counting down the minutes and asking if the ship makes noise when it flies by, and if the astronauts will be able to see him wave.
I use my BlackBerry to send out a tweet via Twitter, asking if anyone else out there is watching the sky. Within minutes, we're getting answers from just a few blocks away, and from across the continent. The kids keep asking me to check the time, calculating the minutes to 8:47 as if that's the only math problem that matters. Right now, it is.
Suddenly, the dot appears in the sky right where the prediction said it would be. They chatter excitedly as it arcs over our house and continues to brighten in the inky black sky. We double- and triple-check that it's not just an airplane - no flashing lights, and the coordinates seem to match up. Dahlia watches through the telescope. I work the camera to grab as many long exposures of the pass as I can before it disappears into the night. Funny how a ship that never lands is visible only for blinks at a time.
Noah waves and dances excitedly on the cold, dark sidewalk. Dahlia asks how many people are on-board. And then, as quickly as it appeared, it slowly dims, then disappears in the eastern sky. It's flown right over our house, and right into their imaginations.
Alternately chilled and excited by the experience, the kids head inside to share the news with mom. It may have been a mere dot in the sky, but as I gather up my equipment and watch for Discovery to fly over, I hope it helps them form a memory they never forget.
Your turn: Making a memory for the folks who matter most. Please discuss.
Photo list (from top to bottom):
- Top - Dahlia takes to the telescope
- Left - ISS appears over our house (all ISS photos are 13-second exposures)
- Right - ISS passes the maple tree
- Left - ISS winks
- Right - Noah watches big sister at work
- Left - A much dimmer orbiter, Discovery, flies by 20 minutes later. The chase is on