Walter Mitty Goes to NASA
November 2nd, 2000
Just before 23:00 hours Universal Time on November 17th, 1999, an Air Force EC-135 took off from Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. On board were several tons of equipment and instruments, two dozen scientists and technicians, the air crew – and me. We were heading for an appointment with the Leonid meteor shower. In just three hours, it was scheduled to storm: a single observer might see thousands of meteors per hour. This was the first time in history that scientists were prepared for a meteor storm; the data we would gather this night would surpass everything obtained before. Eight observers stood ready to monitor the equipment and pass the data through to my custom-built computer, which would combine and record all that data. There was only one problem: my computer wasn’t working. Oops.
However did I get myself into this jam? It’s not as if I’m some kind of astronomer; while I did get my master’s degree in physics, and my thesis work was on astronomy, I’ve spent the last twenty years as a computer game designer. Why did NASA pluck me out of a vast supply of eager and talented people to sit in one of the best seats on the planet to see this storm? I didn’t even ask for it!
I’ve been watching meteors for 34 years now – it was one of my hobbies in high school and I never quite abandoned it, although other interests elbowed it to a rare indulgence. Now, anybody who has watched meteors quickly gets the uncanny feeling that those meteors come in bunches. For years meteor observers have been claiming this, and for just as long astronomers have been denying it. Careful scientific experiments denied the existence of such clustering in meteors. However, these experiments were never conclusive, because there wasn’t enough data to say for certain.
But everybody knew that the 1999 Leonids were going to be big. They’d provide us with far more data than any previous meteor shower. They would be my one big chance. So in December of 1998 I started thinking about how to get the data I needed to definitively answer the question of meteor non-randomness.
The data I needed was quite simple: the time of every Leonid seen for a span of several hours. No fancy scientific equipment was needed; a bunch of people in sleeping bags could do the job. You see, the human eye remains the last bastion of meteor astronomy. [Note added 2011: No longer.] Machines have replaced the eye in every other field of astronomy, but for watching meteors, no instrument can match the sensitivity and accuracy of the human eye. There is one problem, though: when an observer sees a meteor, how does he record it? He can’t very well check his wristwatch and write down the time – that would take his eyes away from the sky at a critical moment. In times past, observers would call out their sightings and a centrally placed bean counter would write down the time. But this scheme only works when there aren’t many meteors. If the Leonids lived up to expectations, the data would be lost in a wild cacophony of shouting. I needed something faster.
The obvious solution would be for each observer to press a button when he sees a meteor, with a central computer recording the times of each button press. A piece of cake, I thought. With my background in computer hardware and software, I could slap something together in a few days.
Eight months later, I still didn’t have it ready in time for the dress rehearsal with the August Perseids. This was proving to be quite a piece of cake.
I did have a working system by early September; it was much more complicated than I had imagined. It used two computers, one dedicated to watching the buttonpresses from the people, and the other digesting and logging the results. There was a circuit board with a dozen computer chips and a rat’s nest of wires. There were two programs, one for each computer, that had to cooperate. Oddly enough, everything actually worked.
I posted a message on an Internet newsgroup of meteor observers: did anybody want to be part of my observing team? Dr. Peter Jenniskens of NASA saw my post. He’d been preparing NASA’s airborne effort to study the Leonids, and my computer system was exactly what he needed for one of the experiments. Would I lend my system and my expertise in return for a seat on the aircraft?
Well, what would you say if you were offered a place on a NASA mission?
Of course, there were a few small changes Peter wanted. They were simple enough, so I made the changes. Then there were a few more changes; I scrapped my circuit and built another one. This triggered a few more requests, and – well, we all know where this goes. This was entirely my own fault; every engineer knows that the only way to handle this kind of situation is to solve the problem in the first week, then keep your boss on edge for the remainder of the project with horror stories of engineering impossibilities. Meanwhile, you play games on your computer. When the deadline comes, you dust off the finished work and triumphantly present it to the boss, faking utter exhaustion and astonishment at your own success. Works every time, but I was too stupid to do it. The changes kept coming.
Fortunately, the Leonids put an end to my Sisyphusian efforts; as they bore down for their appointment with Earth, we stopped improving the computers and converged at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California, where the aircraft awaited us.
Friday, November 12th
It’s 6:03 AM and the phone is ringing. It’s Peter, the PI (Principal Investigator, head honcho). “We’ve got to hurry! We’re late! Get all your luggage packed and be in the lobby in five minutes!” I’m too sleepy to respond coherently. I just mumble, “Sure thing, Peter”. I get dressed and start packing. Ten minutes later, Peter is pounding on my door. “Hurry! We’re late!” I protest, “But I’m not packed!” and he waves his hand dismissively. “Leave it behind! Come right now!” I grab a few things, including a bagel, and follow him as he dashes off.
At 7:20, we walk into the scheduled 7:00 briefing, which doesn’t start until 8:15. Not much happens at it, just the usual welcoming comments. Our flight suits are passed out and we’re told to get into them immediately. They’re really quite smart, with NASA patches and a special mission patch. We also have an identification batch giving our name and official affiliation. Since I have no formal affiliation, my badge announces me to the world as an “AMATEUR”. All through the mission, it’s the first thing people notice when we shake hands.
We head out to our aircraft. Six of us are walking together as a group, secretly proud of our new flight suits. “We should all walk side-by-side” I suggest; Gary knows exactly what I mean and adds, “in slow motion”. Michael also had the same idea: “with Tchaikovsky playing”. We all laugh at our fantasy.
Our aircraft, ARIA, an acronym whose meaning I’ll never know, is a Boeing 707 converted for research work. It has a 7 foot radio dish in its nose, inside an ungainly housing. It looks for all the world like a cucumber has been stuffed up its nose.
Inside, all is chaos; everybody is setting up their equipment: spectrometers, infrared detectors, videocameras, image intensifier tubes, and a great many custom setups. People scowl at nasty surprises arising from insufficient space, cables that are too short, power outlets that are too far away. Few of the experiments are confined to a single location; instruments peer out a window, computers and data recorders are scrunched into equipment bays 20 feet away. Despite the tight space, the scientists manage to string their cables without turf battles. Meanwhile, the Air Force guys wander around, insisting on rearrangements to maintain a reasonable safety level.
There are eight of us in the “flux measurement team”. We’re all amateurs in the sense that none of us are paid to do this, but there are some impressive credentials among our team members. Klaas is probably the world’s leading expert on using image intensifier tubes to observe meteors; Gary wrote the textbook on cometary astronomy; Jane teaches telescope making and leads a bunch of amateur astronomy groups; and me, I can program computers. We sit around waiting for some guidance, but eventually we realize that nobody is going to make this work except us, so we decide to make it up as we go along. We amateurs make a good team; plenty of cooperation, deference to whomever has the better idea. Thank god for good teammates. In two hours of confused labor, we manage to get most everything taken care of. The temperature inside the plane climbs, and we eventually sneak out for some cool air. We’re called back inside for an electronic interference test at 11:30, which doesn’t happen until 12:30. Then we rush back to the briefing room for a 1:00 briefing, which doesn’t happen until 1:30. One of the scientists, whom I will charitably call Typhoid Joe, is hacking and sneezing something terrible. What’s wrong with this guy; didn’t his mother teach him manners? If he couldn’t remove himself from the mission, the least he could do is quarantine himself and cover his face when he sneezes. But no, he seems to enjoy hearty sneezing. I’m sitting only a few seats away, in the front of the room. I pointedly stand up and move away from him; he doesn’t notice. That selfish jerk will infect everybody else on the mission. At least he’s on FISTA, the other aircraft; I’m on ARIA.
The rest of the afternoon is spent similarly; we run around in convoluted circles accomplishing very little. We leave at 4:30. In the parking lot, Peter can’t find his car keys. I amble over to the van and look inside – curses, the keys aren’t in the ignition. I rejoin the group. A moment later another chap ambles over the van and peers inside, scowls, and returns. A moment after him, a third fellow repeats the process.
We drive off just as the sun is setting. We’re all punch-drunk with exhaustion; I lamely crack “and so we ride off into the setting sun” and everybody laughs much more uproariously than the wit of the comment deserves.
Saturday, November 13th
It’s 8:50 and all ten of us are waiting by the van. Peter shows up and off we go. Driving to Edwards through the dry, dry desert, Peter admires the stark beauty of the wide open desert landscape. I can’t see what he sees; all I can see is the endless expanse of living things desperately scrabbling for some pittance of life. Along the way, we pass five acres of desert land that has been transformed by the hand of man into a cuddly little suburb, neatly circumvallated (to protect the residents from what?). Its primly laid out streets and fine houses reflect the best traditions of American suburban life. The lawns are a well-watered green, which in this environment seems sacrilegious. The automatic watering system is already at work, but one of its sprinklers has blown its head and is spraying a stream of water 15 feet into the air. Further on, I spy a golf course at Edwards. These people seem to revel in their power to turn nature upside down.
We climb aboard ARIA and settled in. This being a military plane, the safety practices are stricter and slower than in commercial aviation. The emergency air supplies aren’t stowed in the overhead compartments, they dangle down from them, with big rubber face masks and rubber hoses feeding them. We try them out for size. The oxygen is turned on for the duration of the flight. And should we choose to leave our seats, we’re required to carry our POKs – portable oxygen kits – with us, just in case. The Air Force guys busy themselves about the plane, but they’re required to keep headsets on at all times, which are connected to the system with long cables. No taking chances on radio systems – these guys drag their cables behind them where ever they go. Walking around the aircraft, we constantly dodge moving cables snaking along the floor. We’re required to wear flameproof gloves during takeoff and landing; our flight suits are also flameproof, just in case we have to run though flames on exiting a crashed aircraft. These Air Force people run a tight ship.
Once in the air, we set up our stuff. I’m getting the computer system operational. After a few minutes of fiddling about, everything seems to be working just fine. But this is all too easy for Murphy’s taste, so some new problems appear out of the blue. First we get some problems with loose wires inside my box. I had checked them all thoroughly and they were all fine, but the bumping and banging have knocked some loose. Then the killer problem strikes: suddenly my compiler refuses to work. The compiler is a big program that allows me to build the little program actually used during the mission. Without the compiler, I can’t fix any problems – and there remain a few problems that, however trivial, MUST be fixed. This is ominous; everything was working just fine and the compiler doesn’t fail because of errors on my own part. Something more serious is going on. No matter – I have a backup laptop. I bring it up, transfer the source code, and set to work. Within five minutes its compiler is refusing to work. I am baffled. There’s no way any viral contamination could have been transferred in a simple source code file, and I was careful to transfer only the source code. What’s going on here? The problem is serious, but I have several hours to fix it and I won’t allow myself to panic. I hum to myself as I start implementing a series of tests to isolate and track down the problem.
An hour later my humming has been replaced with tense grunts; two hours later, with imprecations at the compiler, the programmer who wrote it, at the computer, and at myself whenever I make a mistake. I make some progress, eliminating some possibilities. I am triumphant when a test successfully reveals an apparent bug in the compiler, but my elation deflates when the resulting workaround fails to fix the problem. The errors keep changing their colors. A shift in one direction generates a refusal to link; a moment later, the compiler announces that it cannot write the symbol table. What’s to stop it from writing a damn file? I can do that all by myself! Next, I’m told that there’s a SCSI bus error – but I’m not even using the SCSI bus! The final straw comes when the system reports an error 20002022. There’s no such thing as an error 20002022. Even the error reports are in error.
My easygoing demeanor has evaporated. All I can think of are two lines from the poem “Casey At the Bat”:
“The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate; He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.”
I am frantically groping for a solution and getting nowhere. The Air Force guys come through telling us to stow everything in preparation for landing. I spend the next half-hour stewing in my own failure, trying to reason my way through the utterly irrational behavior of the computer. If I can’t fix this, the entire flux measurement experiment is ruined, and eight people will be standing around uselessly, staring at me.
We have two hours on the ground at McGuire AFB in New Jersey; for everybody else this is a break, a chance to grab some Chinese food or pizza, to call home, to watch some TV, or just veg out. Me, I bring everything I have (who knows, the soldering iron might come in handy) and set up shop on the floor next to a power outlet. During the descent I carefully planned out my strategies on the ground. I call my wife Kathy and walk her through a detailed procedure to email me some software that might possibly help. I call my old comrade Dave Walker and discuss the symptoms with him. Dave’s a great sounding board – the synergy of our conversation always generates ideas for me. We jointly conclude that I’ve got some bad RAM. Walking back to the computer, I resolve to minimize all RAM consumption in the hope that I can confine my software to the RAM on the motherboard. Perhaps the bad RAM is in the expansion board.
Great galloping horny toads, it works! I don’t really understand it, and can hardly believe it, but I’ll snatch at whatever straws of success I can find. I leave the computer on while we march back to ARIA. The intense and very young military chap who escorts us there assures us that, should we fail to follow him closely, we will surely be shot by the guards. There aren’t any guards to be seen.
Once we get airborne, I hook everything up, run the program and behold! it works! I’m bouncing up and down on my seat, clapping my hands in exultation. My colleagues, who had previously watched my grim face with mounting concern, break into relieved grins. If my equipment doesn’t work, they’re here for nothing. Everything falls together with astounding ease. Within ten minutes, the system is humming along happily, and everything works perfectly. Now it’s my turn to sit back and wait while the others get the video connections working, line up goggles with cameras, and try to identify the star fields.
While on the leg to McGuire, we were given menus with 14 appetizing sandwhich choices such as barbecued beef, corned beef on rye, or chicken filet. I had difficulty deciding between the corned beef on rye and the chicken filet; I finally settled on the chicken. Now we head back to the rear of the aircraft to pick up our orders. The airman has a list of our names and choices. "Crawford? You ordered the chicken filet, right? All we’ve got is turkey or ham. Which do you want?" Oh well, I’ll take the ham.
Our team’s equipment consists of six image intensifier tubes pointing out the optically clean windows, each looking in a different direction. These tubes, the basis of night-vision goggles, make everything look five to ten times brighter. We can see down to seventh magnitude with them. Their output goes into small TV cameras whose output feeds into head-mounted video displays, just like the ones used for virtual reality stuff. Our task is simple: whenever we see a Leonid, we press a button on a mouse that I have modified just for this experiment. A tiny single-chip computer system that I built monitors all the mice and reports the results to a Macintosh Powerbook. I programmed the Powerbook to log the raw data and perform instant data reduction, reporting its results every few minutes over a LAN to a server on the aircraft; from there, it goes through the satellite dish in the nose of ARIA up to a satellite, back down to Moffett Ames Research Center, where it will be posted on a website. The real-time results will be monitored by scientists all over the world, helping them to prepare and adjust their own experiments.
The rest of the night goes quietly. A few minor problems arise, but they’re nothing compared with the crisis of a few hours ago. I cope with them almost jauntily.
The high point of the night comes when Jane, gazing through goggles, gasps, exclaims, and shares her goggles with me. At first the image looks hazy or damaged; there are vague bands of light moving quickly across the field of view. I stare, trying to make out what I’m seeing, when the light dawns on me: it’s the aurora borealis! Seen through our image intensifier tubes, the northern lights are five times brighter than we can see with our naked eyes, and the result is breathtaking. Instead of the slowly-shimmering curtains I’ve seen before, there are intricate patterns of flame, pillar, and curtain, dancing furiously across the sky. The speed of their motion is astounding; when you can see so much more detail, the fine shades of motion stand out sharply. I can actually see sheets of particles sweeping across the ionosphere! In the midst of this spectacle, a single meteor sweeps across the center of my field of view, like the prima ballerina prancing in front of a flock of supporting ballerinas. I pass the goggles to another eager observer; I have seen a once-in-a-lifetime vision.
We land at 9:45 AM Sunday morning. It takes us an hour to get into the bus, make sure that we haven’t left anybody on the plane, go back and check the plane two or three times, wait for the airmen to put the covers on the jet engines, and all manner of other desperately important things. Eventually we get up the courage to move about fifty feet, but then somebody calls a halt; we wait for another ten minutes. Then we drive 200 yards to another part of the airbase, where we wait for thirty minutes while some guard decides whether to let us in. Then we drive 20 more yards to our dorm, but we still need 20 minutes to actually get off of the bus and get our luggage. I drag everything up to my room upstairs, dump it all, and head for breakfast at the officers club, arriving there are 11:45 AM. Breakfast is nothing to shout about, but it’s hot, and I’m smart enough to stick with the special-order stuff like omelets and waffles. My impatient friends grab for the buffet stuff, which is doubly damned by being both mass-produced and prepared by English cooks. My food suffers the single handicap of the English cooks, and so tastes twice as good. We have a waitress assigned just to us, a delightful elderly English lady who charms us with her solicitous ministrations and her lively banter. Who needs great food when the company is so good?
I stumble into bed at 12:30 and sleep till 9:00 Sunday night. I stay up all night, trying to maintain vampire hours.
Monday, November 15th
Today is a blessed day of rest. After dinner, I go to work on the program, completely re-writing the display, adding thorough diagnostic reports, and making the damn thing even more bullet-proof. Meanwhile, there’s a great party going on next door. The Air Force guys are shouting and laughing, and the astronomers are trying their damnedest to act like good old boys having a drunken jolly old time. They’re all well-lubricated and enjoying themselves. The sparkling gem of the party is Jane, who is perfectly at home having a dozen drunken reveling males in her room. She’s pretty raunchy talking about her telescopes: “My favorite was a ten-incher, but I dumped that one for a 16-incher.” [Wild hoots] “Now I’ve got my eyes on this 18-incher, and it’s quite a sight!” [more wild hoots]. I stay for ten minutes, but I’m hopelessly out of my element; my risque Latin puns just don’t do anything for this crowd. Loudly announcing that I’m leaving this dull party for some real action with my computer, I take my leave. I go to work on the hardware, checking every connection and testing every single line for its voltage levels. 45 minutes later I find my problem: an unsoldered pin! I don’t know how it had sneaked through earlier testing, but there it is. I run over to the party, showing off my discovery. Some of the guys examine it, but I don’t think that they can focus their eyes on the board, much less see an unsoldered pin a tenth of an inch long. Back in my room, I solder the pin in place and test everything one more time. All is perfect; now all I have to do is get it safely onto ARIA.
Tuesday, November 16th
I sleep all day; we take off for Israel around 23:00. This is our first real data-taking event. Lo and behold, the equipment works. There are plenty of minor problems with the data-reporting, but the raw data is taken properly. Unfortunately, the uplink to the satellite isn’t working, so we can’t get the data out. They’re talking about faxing the data to a guy on the ground, who can re-type it and upload it himself.
The meteors themselves are OK; we’re seeing about 50 meteors per hour. This is nothing to get excited about, but it’s decent, and we get plenty of nice meteors to watch. It doesn’t matter; our task tonight is to get the whole system working smoothly and establish some base-level data. We fly southwest from England to Spain, because the French won’t let us into their airspace. The Greeks are also unforthcoming. Perhaps we would have had better luck requesting Libyan airspace.
Wednesday, November 17th
Israel is a blur. We land at 6:00 AM, then spend a good hour collecting our luggage and changing into civilian clothing; the security briefing back at Edwards had made it clear that under no circumstances were we to reveal our American affiliations to anybody in Israel. I sleep all day, wake up and get to work on the program, adding more diagnostics and error-catching routines. Two of the guys take a walk on the beach and are pestered by a very inquisitive young man. At first they are alarmed by his probing questions; later on they decide that he’s a gay fellow on the make.
We board ARIA at 22:00 (local time) but we don’t even start the engines until 00:30. I use the time to work on the program. Peter had noticed that the rates from last night weren’t right, so I combed the program, looking for problems. Finding nothing obvious, I decided to give it some fake data just to see how it would handle it. Horrors! The results are obviously very wrong! I hit the panic button and try to track down the problem. The clock seems to run in double-time as I struggle with the problem. Trial after trial fails to reveal the problem. I’m starting to sweat; this could ruin the whole mission. They begin the safety briefing and I start the last chance compilation; during the briefing I feed it the fake data. Lo and behold, the computation appears to be working! Of course, I didn’t see the final results, but I think it will work. This will have to do; we’ll start observing the minute we get above 10,000 feet. At this point, all I can do is cross my fingers and hope.
We reach altitude and plunge to work. The team is practiced now; equipment comes out of the bays and gets plugged together in a matter of moments. I’m mentally reviewing every detail of the software, trying to assure myself that it will work. This is the moment of truth; the storm is upon us and there’s no time for any fixes. The stuff works or fails here and now. I’m too tired to feel tense. I just want this to be over.
Observations begin about 11:45 UT (Universal Time). I’ve long since given up trying to keep track of local time, we keep changing our location too fast to get used to the local time. The peak is due to hit at 2:00 UT; we have just two hours of lead time. Everybody is working quickly and smoothly, but I don’t sense a lot of excitement; we’re all too sleep-deprived. People don their goggles and set to work. I watch the data reports from their mouse buttons scroll up the screen; they’re coming faster and faster. The count rate is climbing fast, 50% every ten minutes. Now we’re starting to feel excited; people are calling out to each other in excitement. I occasionally tour the group, advising them of the current rate. It’s so noisy on this plane that I have to lean close to their ear to be heard. Everybody’s wondering; how high will it go? I’m scribbling numbers on a piece of paper, making quick-and-dirty calculations. I figure we’ll break 2,000. Nobody wants to surrender their goggles, but the strain of watching so many meteors is beginning to tell; somebody finally goes for a quick break. I steal his goggles and start taking data. The meteors are really coming fast! They come in clusters, three or four in a second or two, then nothing for a little while. They’re not big or bright – actually quite faint they are. But there sure are a lot of them! I watch for half an hour, then surrender my goggles to another eager observer.
Back at the computer, things are really cooking. The rate is now up to 1200 and still climbing. People are shouting to each other about the meteors they’re seeing. Every now and then the Japanese at the station behind us break out into a cheer; they’ve gotten another fireball on tape. This HDTV tape is certainly going to impress the folks back home.
The data comes flooding into the computer. This is the torture test of my system; will it be overwhelmed by too much data coming too fast? I had asked Peter about this prospect: what would we do if there were too many meteors? He waved off my question: we won’t get that many. I’m not so sure; if the rate keeps climbing like this, the system is sure to overload.
Consternation breaks out among the team; the cameras have reached the end of their tapes and shut down. We need merely reload them with tape to resume observations, but the fear is that hundreds of meteors will be lost because of the delay. Everyone scurries to help; I watch the rate of meteor reports plummet. When the cameras come back on, one of the observers graciously turns over his station to me. This is my chance. The rate is nearing 2,000. I don the goggles and set to work. Gad, the meteors are coming too fast! There’s a long empty stretch, ten or twenty seconds of nothing, but then come four meteors at once, with four more in rapid-fire succession. I am hard-put to keep up with them; on several occasions I fear that I’ve lost count and missed a meteor that came at the end of a quick burst. This is the most astounding meteor event of my life; nothing I have seen remotely approaches its intensity. The meteors just keep pouring across the screen; I’m averaging one meteor per second. My index finger grows tired from the frantic mouse-clicking.
There’s no question at all that these meteors are clumped together. The groupings are pronounced, and the long gaps between groups are even more pronounced. My old hypothesis about meteor nonrandomness looks right on the money, and now I have the data to prove it. I can actually SEE the clumping – two or three meteors in rapid succession marching across the screen. Several times I can sense the three-dimensionality of the upper atmosphere from all the meteors. Sometimes I see four, five, or six meteors in the frame simultaneously. It’s just amazing, but I’m too busy to feel awe. I’m exhausted, concentrating on the task of catching every meteor, and never quite get a moment to let the wonder of the moment to sink in. That will have to come later.
Feeling guilty that I’m hogging one of the six best seats on the planet for watching this event, I surrender my goggles to a waiting observer, who eagerly snatches and dons the goggles before I can get out of my seat. Then he simply stands there, too overwhelmed to sit down.
Back at the computer, I check the latest numbers. The rate is clearly above 2,000. We are seeing something beyond the ken of normal experience. People are moving through the cabin, exclaiming and slapping each other on the shoulders. Peter comes by; Jane heroically offers him her goggles. Peter indulges himself the opportunity to directly observe the meteors he’s been planning for for the last two years. He takes up a mouse and immediately starts clicking, exclaiming over each meteor he sees: "Oh! Oh! Ooh! Oh! Ooh! Ooh!" He’s shouting with delight, bouncing in his seat. Jane and I laugh with him; it’s heartwarming to see him getting his chance to see this once-in-a-lifetime event. Peter enjoys himself for 15 minutes before duty takes him away. Colonel Worden, the Air Force fellow who pushed through the funding for this project, takes a quick look and is overawed. With a PhD in astronomy, he knows what it means – and no human being can fail to be moved by this display.
I settle back into my seat. The computer is still working perfectly; the numbers indicate that we have passed the peak now. It appears that we peaked at 1:58 UT with an official rate of 2100 meteors per hour. We were actually seeing about 3500 per hour, but with our image intensifier tubes we had an advantage that must be corrected for honest comparison with other observers.
I look out the window and block the inside light with my hat. I set my stopwatch; in two minutes I see 30 meteors. That’s a rate of 900 meteors per hour, looking out of a crummy airplane window with a limited field of view. Three or four of those 30 meteors are fireballs or bolides, exploding in mid-air. I see a monster meteor explosion in the remote distance; that must have lit up the ground brightly. Back to work.
The rest of the night sees the rate steadily fall. Within two hours, we’re back down to 50 per hour. The observers don’t give up, though; they keep at work, logging the data to give us good base data. They’ve been running on adrenalin; Peter didn’t provide for any food on board and now they’re all starting to collapse. I’m glad that Kathy cajoled me into bringing so much food; I share some with my comrades and become their savior and hero. I even pass out the 90-proof chocolates that Kathy bought. They’re 70% pure cocoa, with very little sugar. You eat just one; your stomach would revolt at anything more.
Thursday, Nov 19th
We land at Lajes Field in the Azores. First comes the triumphal press conference, attended by four Portuguese from the local media and four Air Force people. After all, it’s 7:00 AM. There are lots of standard thank-you speeches and welcome speeches. There are also the deadly scientific speeches explaining technical details that only a scientist would think newsworthy. I’ve been chosen to give the report for the flux measurement (meteor counting) team. This is a synopsis of my presentation, as best as I can recall:
"Our team had a task that’s easy to understand: we counted the meteors. Unfortunately, they were coming too fast for us to use our fingers, so we had computers to help us count. We counted 15,251 meteors last night. That’s a lot of meteors. That’s more meteors than I have seen in 30 years of watching meteors. I myself saw only about 1300 meteors, because I had to babysit the computer, but one of our team saw 3,000 meteors. These are record-breaking numbers. As I said, I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. It will take me months and months just to calculate all the results. Jeez, I don’t know how I’m ever going to do it." At this point I simply walked away from the podium, shaking my head in mock dejection.
I spend most of Thursday sleeping; in the afternoon I traipse around the base, trying to find an email outlet. I find an office with a secretary and a serviceman chatting; I interrupt as politely as I can and ask if there are any telephones in the office with dataports. She isn’t sure; we examine several telephones. The serviceman offers to call Comm for me; I put him off for the moment, figuring that I’m better off finding my own solution. After five minutes of scrabbling around for the right kind of connection, I give up. The serviceman again suggests that we try Comm. I haven’t anything to lose, so I relent. He picks up the phone and dials a few digits. "Hello, this is Major ___." I suddenly feel very stupid; I had never imagined that this fellow might be anything other than a lowly airman. He continues, "We’ve got one of the NASA scientists here and he really needs to get his email. I’ll put him on now; you do whatever it takes to solve his problem." Thoroughly chastened, I explain the problem to a lieutenant, who promises to call me back when he gets a solution. I go back to my room and busy myself with other tasks while I wait. After an hour I give up, figuring that he lost my room number. Two hours later, the telephone rings. "This is Lieutenant ____. I have searched the entire base and we don’t have the kind of connection you need to get your email. I’m sorry." I thank him profusely and hang up, kicking myself for underestimating these people. I’ll just have to send my email from Florida. Later, somebody advises me that there are only 24 outgoing telephone lines for the entire island.
Friday, November 20th
We fly from Lajes to Patrick AFB in Florida, taking data as we go. The Leonids are winding down; during the course of the flight I watch the rate droop from 25 down to 15. The observers hang in there, watching hard even though they aren’t seeing many meteors. It’s hard to stay focussed on an empty star field and keep staring at it. They try to compensate with lots of conversation (which screws up the reliability of the data, harrumph). Their general exhaustion is evident, but everybody sticks to the plan and does their job. Me, I give in to my fatigue and take several naps. This trip has been too much for me. Of course, I had a tougher row to hoe than the others – when they weren’t observing they were pretty much free, but I was observing AND babysitting the computer AND reducing data AND reprogramming the computer. Indeed, between takeoff from Edwards and landing at Patrick, I’ve had only about eight hours of free time. The rest was eating, sleeping, waiting, or working. Now I’ve gotten myself into a nasty cranky mood.
We fly into some high clouds and the meteors are blocked. To compensate, nature provides us with St. Elmo’s fire. This is a static electricity discharge. It was discovered by sailors in the Middle Ages, who must have been terrified of the blue glow on the masts of their ships. It doesn’t happen often, because the conditions required are rare. I’ve never seen it before. The leading edge of the wing looks as if it is generating big sparks, which are instantly blown back over the wing by the slipstream. They stretch only 3 inches back, a bluish glow that flickers like flame. As we fly through thicker or thinner patches of cloud, the sparks grow more or less dense. When I point it out to the airmen on board, they all take a look; apparently this isn’t so common for them, either.
We land at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, not far from Cape Canaveral. It takes several hours to unload the aircraft, get through customs, and gather onto our bus; we’re all so tired, it hurts. We get to the hotel, but they’ve made a mistake. It seems that they knew we were coming, and reserved the many rooms required, but forgot to have them cleaned before we arrived. So we all camp out in the lobby, waiting for our rooms. Several of us flop down and fall asleep right there. After about an hour and a half, they start dishing out rooms. I struggle into mine, dump my stuff, and fall into bed, not to awaken until nearly sunset. A brisk walk on the beach helps wake me up, but after 15 minutes hunger takes priority. There’s a celebratory dinner scheduled for 7:30, but I can’t wait. I settle into a table in the hotel restaurant with a book. What joy it is to be awake, free of deadlines, and alone! I read my book with gusto; I’ve haven’t had my nightly reading hour in 9 days. After dinner I avoid the big dinner. They’re handing out certificates of achievement to everybody on the mission, but I don’t need a piece of paper as much as I need time to catch up on my life.
The next morning we all meet in the lobby. Some of us are leaving the group now. We take a last group photo, say our goodbyes, and head out to Patrick AFB. The flight to Edwards is a chance to catch up on my sleep; like all the other flights, there’s no food, but most of us have learned how to forage for food on the ground. We break out our secret rations and watch the ground drift by underneath. Those optical windows sure make a difference – everything on the ground is crystal clear. I never realized just how crummy regular airline windows are. We fly over the Barringer meteor crater in Arizona, and everybody snaps photos. It seems a fitting wrap-up to our mission.
At Edwards, we run around in circles for the requisite several hours before cramming ourselves into a van for the six-hour ride to the Bay Area. I’m surrounded by Typhoid Joe’s victims, sneezing and coughing. Curse him, I’m sure to get it now! I wish I’d waved a magnet over his equipment. We’re driving at night, across some of the most unscenic terrain in California. Peter’s manic driving style is enhanced by his drowsiness; on one particularly tight turn I loudly pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name..." Several people laugh through gritted teeth.
We haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast (plus our surreptitious snacks), and our Florida breakfast was at 8:00 AM Eastern time. It’s now about 9:00 PM Pacific time and we’re hungry! We march into a Denny’s wearing our blue NASA flight suits. The waitress stares; I ask her if she can give us directions to Cape Canaveral.
We finally reach Moffett Field sometime around 11:00 PM. People are too tired and frazzled for long goodbyes. I and several other out-of-towners have no place to stay; Peter has made no arrangements for anybody; we’re on our own. One of the local team members volunteers to drive us to a hotel near the airport. The first hotel is full but the second hotel has room. As one last kick in the shins, my credit card is rejected. We scrape together enough cash between us and say goodbye. That’s all there was.
Was it worth it? Right now, I can’t say. Like some cynic once said about love, it was a few moments of ecstasy for a lifetime of troubles. The special moments – the meteors pouring down like rain, the Saint Elmo’s Fire, the aurora borealis with the volume turned up to max – were truly once-in-a-lifetime. The days and days of tough grinding were something I never want to do again. But I do have some fantastic memories to cherish for the rest of my life.