Like a fast-moving star, as seen from our front yard, the Space Station Mir slid across the velvet-indigo sky and into our imaginations, soft as a whispered prophecy"beware the ides of March."
Past the brilliance of Venusher scintillating disc clearly visible to the naked eye. Past the crescent moontilted like a bowl of champagne imbibed. On it tracked past Cassiopeia, the constellation shaped like a W. It headed for the region of space below the north starever-faithful, ever-modest hub in the cosmic wheel turning on high.
That far-flung wheel of stars is one reason I've lived mostly in the country. You city folks have gained a lot by moving into town, but mostly you've lost the night sky, crowded out by street lights and smog.
So you likely missed your chance last weekend to see the Space Station Mir through unfiltered eyes. I saw it Saturday evening, after a voice on my radio said it would be making an appearance at 7:24 p.m. EST. Look to the southwest, toward Venus and the crescent moon. Watch for a mid-sized star to pass just below those pendant jewels, in a path more precise than cupid's arrow, said the radio.
Mir is actually an orbiting apartment house, laboratory and space-dock all in oneramshackle and condemned after 15 years of providing safe harbor to 125 cosmonauts and astronauts from 12 countries and dozens of spacecraft.
A robust, old-fashioned space station that any school boy or aging space cadet could love, Mir has fallen victim to fires and leaky pipes; computer malfunctions and dead batteries; collisions with supply ships and oxygen leaks. Still, it was humanity's first more-or-less permanent space base, and will be missed by all who believeas I dothat humankind's destiny lies among the stars.
Translated, the word Mir means "peace," but it is fated to fall to earth around March 15, in a cataclysm of heat and fire that will belie its peaceful demeanor as it sails the night skies. You may read more about it here in a week or two, as I doubtlessly will touch upon it again when it comes crashing down.
I wanted to see this piece of history one last time with the naked eye. So at 7:20 I stepped into the front yard with my wife, Jeanne; my mother, Ouida, who was visiting, my two boys, Travis and Justin, and their friend Jeremy, who was spending the night.
We six stood scanning the sky. We knew the Mir would be gliding along a path no higher than 40 degrees above the horizon, which should place it comfortably in view above the ridge behind our house.
Venturing out had already paid off. The sky was brilliant with late winter stars and that sickle-thin alloy moon, as we looked aloft. Jeremy saw (gasp!) a shooting star. Travis and Justin were busy pointing out Orion the hunter, Leo the lion, the Seven Sisters, Taurus the bull, all decorating the sky in pools and streams of stars. Standing with these people, my mind tuned back and on back, 35 or 40 years, so that for a moment I remembered the feeling of standing outside with my own late father at my childhood home, as he pointed to some distant satellite passing overhead. I remembered how that tiny point of light ignited a spark of wonder that has burnt ever since that night. Maybe such embers would burn in the minds of my sons, I thought, but if not, a moment of cosmic entertainment would suffice.
I had doubts. How many nights had we stood in the yard hoping to glimpse some herald in the skysome meteor shower, comet or eclipse, and I wondered if this would turn out the same
Jeanne saw it first, in the vicinity of space just southwest of Venus and the nearby moon. It was a steady unblinking star, sliding toward its rendezvous with oblivion.
We stood awed by the promise of it, the mystery of it, as we watched for several minutes, scarcely breathing. Mir across the sky from Southwest to northeast in a straight line toward Ursa Major, that dark bear lumbering vertically up the sky with the big dipper serving as its tail. Slowly the light faded in the dark bear's fur.
But appearances are deceiving. Mir will not go gentle into that good night, to paraphrase the poet, Dylan Thomas. How it will rage against the dying of the light, when it comes crashing to earth on or about the Ides of March, betrayed by its own brilliance.