Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cheers to the Space Station

The first few years of my federal career were spent at NASA Headquarters working for the Business Management Division of the newly initiated Space Station Office. During those early “design phase” days, I looked forward to the day when the Space Station would actually be up in orbit, with astronauts on board carrying out interesting science experiments in zero gravity.

Little did I know that someday I would be a Peace Corps Volunteer on a tropical island, watching the Space Station go over my head, along with more than a dozen screaming youngsters from my village. I had previously compared my village to Coalwood, so tonight was their version of watching Sputnik fly by.

This has been a good week for astronomical events in my village. Sunday night was a beautiful lunar eclipse, Monday night had a big, bright, nearly full moon, and tonight was the first time since my arrival that the Space Station—now large enough to be the second brightest object in the night sky (after the moon, of course)—passed over top of Dominica. There have been a few passes overhead in the early morning hours, but I was waiting for an evening transit to invite my students to watch with me. It worked out well!

Anyone can go to the NASA web page (http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/) and sign up to receive email notifications for whenever the Space Station will be passing over your location. I had often used this service back home in West Virginia to watch the Space Station go by. After I arrived on Dominica, I was pleased to find out that this NASA service was not just limited to locations in the USA, but also international locations. The only city listed for Dominica was the capital of Roseau, but I figured my village was close enough so that the timing and location information that NASA provides would be nearly the same.

I announced at school today that I would be down at the playing field tonight, and anyone who wanted to join me would be welcome. The station was scheduled to pass overhead between 6:51 and 6:55 PM. Some students said they would watch from their own homes, but others said they would join me. I also encouraged them to come around 5:30 to wait and watch the bats leave the bat cave.

The bats streamed out of their cave at about 5:50 PM tonight, and a handful of youngsters watched them with me down by the shoreline. Then we started getting more youngsters as it grew darker. At first, we counted stars as they appeared, and talked about the Space Station and what they could expect (“No, the astronauts will not be able to look down and see you waving at them”). We were all eagerly counting down the minutes until 6:51. I was a bit worried when it did not immediately appear, but I should have realized that the mountains behind us would make its arrival a bit later.

Eventually, one of the students noticed it moving up from behind the mountain. All the students started screaming with glee as this big, bright “star” slowly and silently moved across the night sky. It turns out that many folks in the village heard their screams from the playing field (I think the students were yelling so loud because they wanted the astronauts to hear them!), which alerted them that the special event I had described to them was now taking place.

While we were waiting for the designated time to come, I tried taking a picture of my “Space Station crew” (a few more came after the picture below was taken). The picture didn't come out all that well in the darkness, but I loved seeing so many youngsters who were interested enough to join me tonight. Although it hurt my ears at the time, I also enjoyed hearing their enthusiastic cheering as it flew overhead. It was good to capture their imaginations about the vastness of space, and the universe beyond the confines of our little village. Hopefully we can do this again someday, but eventually the novelty will wear off. The first time is usually the best time, and tonight was a wonderful experience!

I think you can sense the excitement in these 14 youngsters!

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