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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Brad's Sky Stuff - How to See Comet PanSTARRS

Last month, Comet PanSTARRS delighted Southern Hemisphere observers; steadily brightening and forming a wispy forked tail.  Now it’s our turn in the Northern Hemisphere as the icy rock swings around the sun into our evening sky.  From the middle to the end of March, PanSTARRS skirts low above the western horizon after sunset.  

If you’d like to observe this comet, the first step is to find a clear western horizon.   You must be able to see the sky meet the ground– no trees, houses, or superstores in your view.  Go out shortly after sunset and look toward the west.  You will be looking for a wispy object with a short tail.  Seeing it could be challenging since it must compete with evening twilight.   

The best time to search for PanSTARRS is on the evening of March 12 and 13.  On those evenings, a fingernail-shaped crescent moon hangs low in the west at sunset.  The moon can be used as a reference point to help locate the comet.  On the eve of March 12, the comet lies about two moon-widths to the upper left of the moon.  On March 13, it lies to the moon’s lower right.

Although PanSTARRS should be visible to the naked eye, binoculars will yield the best views.   On March 12 or 13, begin by locating and focusing on the moon with binoculars.  On the 12th, slowly sweep left and slightly upward of the moon, looking for a diffuse object with a short upward-extending tail.  Do the same on the 13th, except scan to the lower right of the moon. 

The comet is visible for about an hour following sunset.  Then it too will succumb to the western horizon.  For additional help in finding the comet, a quick Internet search leads to pictures, finder charts and other useful information.

Once you have located the comet, you can continue to observe it through the rest of the month and into April.  Each night the comet drifts slightly to the north in relation to the background stars.  It also fades from night to night, as it exits the inner solar system and heads back to the cold black of deep space. 

Comet PanSTARRS should be a nice predecessor to the much-anticipated Comet Ison, visible in November and December.  Expect more on that one as the time draws closer.  Until next time, Happy Stargazing!

Image Credits:  Top - Universetoday.com, Bottom - Huffingtonpost

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Brad's Sky Stuff

The Year of the Comet

As far as celestial events go, 2013 may very well be a year for the history books. 

Two comets swing into the inner solar system this year, one next month and the other at the end year.  Both comets have the potential to reach naked eye visibility.  But the second may be bright enough to view during daylight.

What exactly is a comet anyway?  Comets are best described as dirty snowballs orbiting the sun at the outer edges of the solar system in a huge cloud known as the Oort Cloud.  When nudged by the gravity of a passing star, they are hurled in long elliptical orbits around the sun.  As the comet nears the sun, it’s icy material melts, forming an enormous tail of gas and dust.  Sometimes comets brighten so much they can be easily seen with the naked eye. 

We begin with Comet PanSTARRS, which was discovered by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii in June 2011.  Throughout February, this comet is only visible in the southern hemisphere.   But in early March, PanSTARRS whips around the sun becoming an evening object for Northern Hemisphere observers.  It will grace the western sky after sunset from March 10 through the end of the month. 

If we’re lucky PanSTARRS may reach naked-eye visibility and sport a wispy tailing extending upward.  The problem with comets though, is that they are notoriously unpredictable.  It may be a breathtaking object or it may be a dud.  Time will tell.  In next month’s article there will be more details on how to observe PanSTARRS and by then we hopefully will have a better sense of how bright the comet will be. 

The real showstopper comes toward the end of 2013 in Comet ISON.  Discovered last fall as a very faint object in the cold depths of the solar system, this comet has a date with the sun on Thanksgiving Day.  ISON will graze the sun’s outer atmosphere, passing within a mere 680,000 miles from our star’s surface!  If it can hold together, and resist being torn apart by the sun’s immense gravity, it should emerge as a stunning object possibly brighter than the full moon.  Such magnitude would make ISON visible during the day!

Some are already calling Comet ISON the “Comet of the Century.”  But the unpredictability of comets can’t be overstated.  It could be a let down, as other comets have been.  In any case it is one to watch and you can bet that space enthusiasts around the globe will closely follow Comet ISON’s progress.  We at the Cosmosphere will as well.  Stay tuned for opportunities to observe with us.  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Brad's Sky Stuff

 October Planetary Observing

After residing in the morning sky through late spring and summer, mighty Jupiter returns to the evening sky this month.  It currently occupies the same sky region as the bright winter constellations.  At October’s onset, Jupiter ascends in the east around 10:30 pm against the distinctive stars of Taurus the Bull.   You should have no trouble finding Jupiter, however; the stars of Taurus can’t compete with the brilliant planet king.   To Jupiter’s right lies the reddish star Aldebaran, part of the Hyades, a V-shaped cluster of stars. 
Directly above the Hyades you’ll find another star cluster known as the Pleiades.  Also called “the seven sisters” the Pleiades are a jewel of the night sky.  At a glance these bluish stars look like a fuzzy glob of light.  But a closer look reveals individual stars shaped like a small dipper.   Binoculars yield the best view of this famous cluster.  Tomorrow evening, the 4th, a waning gibbous moon forms a triangle with Jupiter and Aldebaran.  The Moon rides alongside Jupiter a second time on Halloween night.  A few days past full, our lunar neighbor provides some natural light for trick-or-treaters. 
            The Moon pays a visit to yet another planet this month - Mars.   We’ve recently been treated to stunning high-resolution photos of the surface of Mars beamed to us by Curiosity, NASA’s latest rover exploring our red neighbor.  But with a naked eye view from over 155 million miles, Mars looks like a dim red star hanging low in the southwest after sunset.  The thin crescent moon lies to the upper left of Mars on the evening of the 18th.   Lower left of Mars is Antares, a red giant star that resembles Mars in the sky.  In fact the very name Antares means “opposing” or “rivaling” Mars.  Antares and Mars may look similar in the sky, but that is all they have in common.   Antares is so huge that if it replaced our Sun it would extend well past the orbit of Mars!
            And finally, for early risers, be sure and take note of the brightest planet, Venus beaming brightly in the east before sunrise.  This week, Venus is very close to the bright bluish star Regulus.   They should be visible at the same time in a pair of binoculars.
You can still catch Jupiter before daybreak also.  By that time it will be high in the southwestern sky.  

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Brad's Sky Stuff - Transit of Venus Tuesday

On Tuesday, June 5 the Cosmosphere will be holding a public observation of the Transit of Venus.  Unless by some miracle you will still be alive in the year 2117, this is your last opportunity to observe this rare astronomical event.  Just like Earth and the other planets, Venus is held in a continual orbit around the Sun by its immense gravity. Because Venus is inside Earth’s orbit, the planet passes between Earth and the Sun as it zips ahead of us on the fast track.  From our point of view it usually passes a little below or a little above the Sun and this is due to the slight inclination of Venus’ orbit compared to ours. 
During most years, Venus would be invisible to Earthlings during the passage, because of the blinding Sun.  But on rare occasions, Venus, Earth and the Sun line up so that Venus actually crosses the Sun’s face.  With a solar-filtered telescope, Venus is visible as a black disc, taking about 6 hours to cross the Sun.    
Like clockwork, these transits of Venus occur in pairs 8 years apart separated by 121.5 years and 105.5 years.  The first was predicted and observed by Jeremiah Horrocks in the year 1639.  Horrocks used a telescope to safely project the first ever visual observation of a Venus transit.   Transits also occurred in the years 1761, 1769, 1874, and 1882.  The last one occurred in the year 2004, completing the transit pairing for this century. 
From 5:15 pm to around 7:30 pm (or whenever we lose the sun behind the western trees) Cosmosphere educators will be set up with solar-filtered telescopes in the parking lot across the street south of the building (old Hutch Floral lot) to provide a free public observation of this rare event.  Of course, any observation of the sky hinges on the ever-changing Kansas weather, so as always we hope for clear skies. 
And we hope you will join us!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Brad’s Sky Stuff – Annular Eclipse on Sunday

Welcome to Brad’s Sky Stuff – a place where you can keep up with events that are up there in the sky.
If this month’s full moon seemed unusually large, that’s because it was.   On May 5, our closest celestial neighbor was just that – close. Known as a Supermoon, the May full moon was 221,000 miles from Earth (the average distance is 230,000 miles), making it about 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than other full moons of the year. Its slightly elliptical orbit causes the variations in the moon’s distance. Astronomers call the closest distance perigee and the furthest one apogee. 
If you’re worried about a Supermoon slamming into Earth, don’t be.  There is absolutely no danger of such a cataclysmic event.
This month’s apogee of the moon occurs on Saturday, May 19 when it is 252,000 miles from Earth. The next day, on Sunday the 20th, the moon passes directly in front of the sun, creating one of nature’s most breathtaking spectacles, a solar eclipse. Because the moon is furthest away from Earth, it won’t entirely block out the sun. Instead it will leave an annulus (ring) of sunlight around the moon. Fittingly, such an eclipse is called an annular solar eclipse.   A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon is at perigee; the closer moon blocks out all of the sun’s light.   
Not all observers are lucky enough to witness this month’s eclipse as a ring of light.  That privilege is bestowed upon those living within the narrow band in which the annular eclipse passes (See diagram to the right - those living within the red lines get an annular eclipse).  Those living outside that band will experience a partial eclipse.  The further one is from the band, the more partial the eclipse.  Only about two hundred miles wide, the band stretches from Southeast Asia, across the Pacific, and angles Southeast across the Western U.S. ending up in Northwest Texas.
For Kansans the partial eclipse begins around 7:30 pm and is still in progress as the sun sets an hour later.  Viewing the eclipse requires a clear horizon and cloudless western sky. 
How does one observe a solar eclipse?  It can’t be overstated that you should never look directly at the sun with your eyes and especially not with binoculars or a telescope.  Doing so can cause permanent eye damage or blindness.  The safest way to observe a solar eclipse is indirectly, by projecting the sun’s image.  A pinhole projector can be made by using simple materials. For instructions on making such a device, visit exploratorium.edu/eclipse/how.html
It is also possible to safely view a solar eclipse with a #14 welding helmet.  Anything less than #14 does not provide adequate protection for your eyes.  Remember if you do plan to observe the eclipse, safety is paramount.  Unless you just like the idea of going blind, make sure you safeguard your eyes!  Happy Observing!
Questions?  Drop me a line at bradn@cosmo.org

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

Forgive me gentle readers for my extended absence.  April was wonderfully, exhaustingly busy at the Cosmosphere, with teeming swarms of school children, special overnight education programs, scouts, and our very own tribute to our founder, Patty Carey last Saturday night.  Talk about the place to be.. the Cosmosphere is it.

I know you have all been holding your breath for over a month now, impatiently awaiting the #5 artifact in our Top Ten List of Most Fascinating Artifacts in the Hall of Space Museum.  Therefore, without further ado I present a truly remarkable piece of space history, the Russian Vostok.  

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

The countdown of the Top Ten Most Fascinating Artifacts in the Hall of Space Museum continues with the artifact in the sixth position. But, first let us review where we have been so far. At #10 was the Luna sphere from the Soviet Union; #9 were the RD 107 rocket engines, also of Soviet design. Filling the #8 spot were the slides rules previously owned by the German von Braun and the Russian Korolev. At #7 was the SR-71 spy plane. Who knows? Maybe, an artifact from the American space program will finally make the list at #6.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

One of the most awesome displays in the Cosmosphere collection is the SR-71 Blackbird that graces our front lobby. Mysterious to this day, the Blackbird is a plane that looks very much like an alien spaceship. It is so beautifully integrated into the lobby that people often miss it completely as they pass underneath it. Coming in at #7 in our top ten countdown of most fascinating artifacts is the SR-71 Blackbird.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

The Hall of Space Museum tells how the rocket shaped the modern world. The "Space Race" is a huge component in that story. There is a stark contrast between the competing cultures both in their approach to solving problems and in the hardware of their spaceships. The differences are easy for visitors to see when they compare the vessels of the two programs side by side. The Soviets were secretive and simple, while the Americans were free wheeling, and complex. However, the two programs shared the common language and philosophy of mathematics. The small and humble twin artifacts that share the number eight spot in our countdown are an enduring symbol of the undeniable power of numbers.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger

Among the many positions I have held at the Cosmosphere is the role of Planetarium Director. Back then, I went outside at night and scoped out the positions of the stars and planets, so I could point them out during planetarium shows. Now, that I am Director of Education, I have let this activity all but slip away. It is my loss. If you haven’t taken a look at the night sky lately or ever, go out tonight after sunset and look east. That brilliant red star that doesn’t twinkle is Mars. Then, turn around and look west. The two bright lights close together are Venus and Jupiter. Venus is the brighter of the two. If you look at these planets for a little while, you may be struck with a small sense of how many people have come before you and seen this same thing and felt as you may feel about the wonder of it all. It only takes a few moments to make that connection, but the feeling can last a lifetime.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

Many years ago, when I was the front desk evening week-end manager, I trained tour guides. They were inevitably high school students who were naturally apprehensive about giving a tour through a museum that primarily dealt with things they had not directly experienced. My advice to them was to go downstairs, identify their favorite artifact, then learn all they could about that piece. This exercise would eventually lead them to a deeper understanding of the whole story our museum tells. The cosmosphere's Russian collection is a big part of why the Hall of Space is so incredible. So, at number nine, is my personal favorite, the RD 107 rocket engines from the Soviet Union.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

The countdown of the "Top Ten Most Fascinating Artifacts in the Hall of Space Museum" begins with the Lunasphere from the Soviet Union.

When I decided to do a top ten list, I thought it might be a good idea to seek input from my fellow Cosmosphere employees. So, I sent out a little email to twenty people asking for their top ten. When I dissected the responses, I had 45 different artifacts on the various lists. It was obvious to me that
this approach would not work. In the end, the list is mine and you are free to argue with it or agree wholeheartedly. I would prefer the latter of course.

Reluctantly yours.
Tom Holcomb
Director of Education

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger

Once in awhile a seemingly onerous task brings unexpected clarity. I constantly talk and write about our numerous summer camp programs. There are thirteen distinctly different camps residing under the banner of Kansas Adventures in Outer Space and I was assigned the task of explaining our educational philosophy in 150 words. Here they are.

The Cosmosphere’s mission is to preserve the past and inspire the future of space exploration. We approach teaching about space as fun with a purpose. We strive to make learning exciting and unavoidable. Our students tend to have a sharp eye to the future. Some have not enjoyed the usual avenues of acclaim and success found in conventional environments. We create obstacle filled, immersive, space based scenarios that encourage students to forge creative team based ways to overcome them. We believe in the power of cooperation and the motivational force of competition and creatively weave both into the fabric of our challenges. Our campers often encounter other serious minded people like themselves. More often than not, they flower. Our goal in all of our programs is for our students to discover the hidden pool of potential within themselves and for them to begin to wield that potential in positive ways.

Don't trouble yourself. It is exactly 150 words. I'm kind of funny that way. Sounds like a great place to send your kids this summer.

Reluctantly Yours,
Tom Holcomb
Director of Education (not reluctantly)

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Reluctant Blogger: History in 90 Seconds

Once upon a time the most put upon man in the world was forced to write a weekly blog.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is pull some old thing off the shelf or out of a drawer, dust it off and run it by again. Sometimes, it’s the worst thing you can do. Back in 2009 I did a series of short videos called “History in 90 Seconds”. They were somewhat less than a hit, but I thought they were good, so here they are again. Episode One dealt with why the Cosmosphere is in Hutchinson. Meredith is doing that right now in our 50th anniversary year, so I will leave that to her. Please, judge me, but not too harshly.

Reluctantly Yours,

Tom Holcomb

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Cosmosphere at 50: In the Beginning

Why is there a space museum in Kansas? Why Hutchinson? These are two of the big questions we get asked here at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. People from all over the world come to visit our museum and are surprised to find such treasures in the Heartland of America. I don’t think I have ever been surprised myself about it, as growing up in Hutchinson it was ‘the norm.’ I will say I am impressed by the Cosmosphere. We have a supportive community of friends and museums who help us to maintain our stature as one of the premiere space museums in the world. Yet again you ask, why Hutchinson? It’s quite simple: someone had a dream.

Fifty years ago this year, Patricia “Patty” Brooks Carey started the Hutchinson Planetarium. The only planetarium in the state of Kansas at the time made its debut in the old chicken coop on the State Fairgrounds. Patty had a love for astronomy. This love of the stars is one of the reasons the Hutchinson Planetarium was created. In a single weekend, Patty gathered the finances from her community friends and neighbors to finance the purchase of a star ball. The first show, “Star of Bethlehem” opened December 2, 1962.

As the years went on, the Hutchinson Planetarium expanded and was relocated to the Cosmosphere’s current site at the Hutchinson Community College. In the 1980s, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Discovery Center maintained the Planetarium and other learning oddities, such as an Egyptian mummy and a real live snake! With Patty Carey leading the way and placing the right people in position, the Cosmosphere began to collect more and more space artifacts. The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center now houses one of the most comprehensive space artifact collections in the world.

Recently, I had the pleasure to sit down with one of Patty’s family members and take a stroll down memory lane. We were looking at old photographs and albums of Patty, which encompassed a large amount of Cosmosphere history. Patty was a world traveler by the age of ten. Astronomy was not her only love; she had a passion for history, the world, and public service. I was amazed at everything Patty Carey did in her lifetime. Her title as “Executive Mom” for the Cosmosphere was one of her most cherished roles.

In this 50th anniversary year of the Cosmosphere’s beginning, I hope to share with you all not only the Cosmosphere’s story, but Patty Carey’s story. Even more, though, I hope you all share back with us your stories and remembrances of Patty Carey and experiences at the Cosmosphere over the years.

Stay tuned! In the weeks to come, you’ll learn just how an Egyptian mummy became part of our past!

By Meredith Miller, Collections Manager

The Reluctant Blogger

Once upon a time the most put upon man in the world was forced to write a weekly blog. He pointed out that he was an expert at nothing, that in fact; he despised experts in general and therefore was not at all qualified to write about anything. His arguments fell on deaf ears. So, it came to pass that I, the he referred to above, became The Reluctant Blogger.

Experts in my opinion, come in five distinct types.

The Real Expert

This expert knows their subject, their limitations and their place. They are as rare as hummingbirds in Antarctica.

The Blowhard

This expert knows a lot about one or several topics. More often then not they come to believe themselves experts on all topics, resulting in a stoppage of both listening and learning.

The Bore

This expert knows everything about a specific narrow topic, speaking only of their beloved.

The Phony

This expert is an expert in name only. They know almost nothing about their topic, but sputter and bluster as if they do.

The Reluctant

This is me. I work in a space museum. I can think of few fields of expertise filled with greater uncertainty than space and history, and I am immersed in both. My museum is called The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. It is in Hutchinson, KS, and is, in my opinion, the greatest space museum on earth, and one of the world’s great museums, period. Bold statements, but I intend to prove them true.

The good news is that this is my dilemma and not yours. I will share with you the wonders of the Cosmosphere’s Hall of Space Museum and encourage you to decide if my boasts are true.

Reluctantly Yours,

Tom Holcomb
Director of Education

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

NASA’s Driven to Explore

NASA's Driven to Explore will visit the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center in Hutchinson, Kan., on Wednesday, September 15, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursday, September 16, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and September 17, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Come out with the whole family to enjoy this extraordinary exhibit!

NASA’s Driven to Explore (DTE) mobile, multi-media exhibit immerses visitors in the story of NASA. Guests will learn about the significance of human space exploration and how NASA provides critical technological advances to improve life on Earth. The walking tour includes imagery and audio and visual technology to connect visitors with the space program, highlighting advanced human research that will ensure safe and sustainable future missions, and next-generation vehicles and surface systems destined for use exploring beyond low earth orbit. The centerpiece of the DTE is a nearly 4-billion-year-old piece of moon rock brought to Earth by the astronauts of Apollo 17 in 1972, America's last human mission to the moon. The rock is one of only eight lunar samples made available for the public to touch. For more information about NASA exploration, visit http://www.nasa.gov/exploration.

Friday, August 19, 2011

This has been a hot and hopping summer, inside and out, at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center!

We are still coming back to earth from our
Free Family Fun Day celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Liberty Bell 7 and the historical last NASA shuttle landing of Atlantis on Thursday, July 21.

We got an extraordinarily early start and kicked the day off at 4 am with coffee and donuts to watch the landing of Atlantis at 4:56 am, exactly as NASA had projected! With 60 people in attendance we sat misty-eyed, yet joyful, as Atlantis took a farewell circle around Kennedy Space Center and landed safely for the last time. After the landing party the Hall of Space Museum remained open, admission free, until 9 am when we started Coffee at the Cosmo!

Chris Orwoll, President and CEO, gave an informative talk about the logistics of Liberty Bell 7’s flight, rescue efforts, and eventual retrieval from the bottom of the ocean floor. “Because of its importance to the space program’s history and our own, Liberty Bell 7 is a gem in our museum collection,” said Meredith Miller, Curatorial Collections Manager. A gem it is indeed, the Cosmosphere made the search and retrieval efforts their mission, and Liberty Bell 7 became the only flown American spacecraft not owned by NASA or the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). As part of Orwoll’s lecture he displayed artifacts from the Liberty Bell 7 that the public was invited to see up close.

The action packed day didn’t stop there! Morning and afternoon Liberty Bell 7 Restoration Q&A programs were conducted by Space Works, the group who restored the Liberty Bell 7 after its dramatic retrieval from the ocean floor! Dale Capps, Jack Graber, and Jim Franko, Space Works crew, as well as Meredith Miller and Amanda Bailey, Registrar, spoke in detail about their processes during the six months it took to clean the spacecraft after 38 years on the ocean floor.

As the film footage of the Liberty Bell 7’s rescue ran on the big screen, visitors enjoyed many different activities in the lobby. Children who visited that day were invited to craft their very own mission control patches while “The Right Stuff,” simulated astronaut physicals, was conducted in the KAOS camp area on the second floor.

It was an even more exciting day than usual at the Cosmosphere, one we will never forget!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How Slow can the SR-71 Fly?

Brian Shul, Retired SR-71 Pilot via Plane and Pilot Magazine, provides an answer.

As a former SR-71 pilot, and a professional keynote speaker, the question I'm most often asked is "How fast would that SR-71 fly?" I can be assured of hearing that question several times at any event I attend. It's an interesting question, given the aircraft's proclivity for speed, but there really isn't one number to give, as the jet would always give you a little more speed if you wanted it to. It was common to see 35 miles a minute.
Because we flew a programmed Mach number on most missions, and never wanted to harm the plane in any way, we never let it run out to any limits of temperature or speed.. Thus, each SR-71 pilot had his own individual "high" speed that he saw at some point on some mission. I saw mine over Libya when Khadafy fired two missiles my way, and max power was in order. Let's just say that the plane truly loved speed and effortlessly took us to Mach numbers we hadn't previously seen.

So it was with great surprise, when at the end of one of my presentations, someone asked, "What was the slowest you ever flew the Blackbird?" This was a first. After giving it some thought, I was reminded of a story that I had never shared before, and I relayed the following.

I was flying the SR-71 out of RAF Mildenhall, England, with my back-seater, Walt Watson; we were returning from a mission over Europe and the Iron Curtain when we received a radio transmission from home base. As we scooted across Denmark in three minutes, we learned that a small RAF base in the English countryside had requested an SR-71 fly-past. The air cadet commander there was a former Blackbird pilot, and thought it would be a motivating moment for the young lads to see the mighty SR-71 perform a low approach. No problem, we were happy to do it. After a quick aerial refuelling over the North Sea, we proceeded to find the small airfield.

Walter had a myriad of sophisticated navigation equipment in the back seat, and began to vector me toward the field. Descending to subsonic speeds, we found ourselves over a densely wooded area in a slight haze. Like most former WWII British airfields, the one we were looking for had a small tower and little surrounding infrastructure. Walter told me we were close and that I should be able to see the field, but I saw nothing. Nothing but trees as far as I could see in the haze. We got a little lower, and I pulled the throttles back from 325 knots we were at. With the gear up, anything under 275 was just uncomfortable. Walt said we were practically over the field-yet; there was nothing in my windscreen. I banked the jet and started a gentle circling maneuver in hopes of picking up anything that looked like a field. Meanwhile, below, the cadet commander had taken the cadets up on the catwalk of the tower in order to get a prime view of the fly-past. It was a quiet, still day with no wind and partial gray overcast. Walter continued to give me indications that the field should be below us but in the overcast and haze, I couldn't see it. The longer we continued to peer out the window and circle, the slower we got. With our power back, the awaiting cadets heard nothing. I must have had good instructors in my flying career, as something told me I better cross-check the gauges. As I noticed the airspeed indicator slide below 160 knots, my heart stopped and my adrenalin-filled left hand pushed two throttles full forward. At this point we weren't really flying, but were falling in a slight bank. Just at the moment that both afterburners lit with a thunderous roar of flame (and what a joyous feeling that was) the aircraft fell into full view of the shocked observers on the tower. Shattering the still quiet of that morning, they now had 107 feet of fire-breathing titanium in their face as the plane levelled and accelerated, in full burner, on the tower side of the infield, closer than expected, maintaining what could only be described as some sort of ultimate knife-edge pass.

Quickly reaching the field boundary, we proceeded back to Mildenhall without incident. We didn't say a word for those next 14 minutes. After landing, our commander greeted us, and we were both certain he was reaching for our wings. Instead, he heartily shook our hands and said the commander had told him it was the greatest SR-71 fly-past he had ever seen, especially how we had surprised them with such a precise maneuver that could only be described as breathtaking. He said that some of the cadet's hats were blown off and the sight of the plan form of the plane in full afterburner dropping right in front of them was unbelievable. Walt and I both understood the concept of "breathtaking" very well that morning and sheepishly replied that they were just excited to see our low approach.

As we retired to the equipment room to change from space suits to flight suits, we just sat there-we hadn't spoken a word since "the pass." Finally, Walter looked at me and said, "One hundred fifty-six knots. What did you see?" Trying to find my voice, I stammered, "One hundred fifty-two." We sat in silence for a moment. Then Walt said, "Don't ever do that to me again!" And I never did.

A year later, Walter and I were having lunch in the Mildenhall Officer's club, and overheard an officer talking to some cadets about an SR-71
fly-past that he had seen one day. Of course, by now the story included kids falling off the tower and screaming as the heat of the jet singed their eyebrows. Noticing our HABU patches, as we stood there with lunch trays in our hands, he asked us to verify to the cadets that such a thing had occurred. Walt just shook his head and said, "It was probably just a routine low approach; they're pretty impressive in that plane." Impressive indeed.

Little did I realize after relaying this experience to my audience that day that it would become one of the most popular and most requested stories. It's ironic that people are interested in how slow the world's fastest jet can fly. Regardless of your speed, however, it's always a good idea to keep that cross-check up. and keep your Mach up, too.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Second Saturday Free Tours

Saturday, May 14, the Cosmososphere is offering guided tours in the Hall of Space at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. These tours are free with your paid admission to the museum.

Going to the moon is considered one of man’s greatest achievements and it was a long process to get there. Even if you had time to read every panel in the Cosmosphere, there are still stories to be told. These tours will help you make the most of your visit on Saturday by giving you some extra insight.

This is the first of a series of “Second Saturday” tour days being offered each month. Bring the family and enjoy this added bonus.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Endeavour Watch Party Monday Morning

The Cosmosphere will be showing the last launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour on Monday, May 16, beginning at 7:30 a.m. It will be shown on a large screen in the Discovery Room at the Cosmosphere. This event is free to the public.

The crew members for space shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission are Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Gregory H. Johnson and Mission Specialists Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori. Commander Mark Kelly is the husband of wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is scheduled to be in attendance for the launch.

Endeavour was the last shuttle built, completed in 1990 at a cost of $1.8 billion. It has traveled 116,372,930 miles and spent 283 days in orbit. On its previous 24 flights it has completed 4,423 orbits with 166 crew members on board.

This is Endeavour's 25th mission. During the 14-day mission, Endeavour will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), the final major component to the space station. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is a state-of-the-art particle physics detector that will use the station's external environment as a platform to expand knowledge of the universe and lead to better understanding of the universe's origin.

Please be aware that weather or other factors could affect the launch date and time.

The Cosmosphere plans to show the remaining shuttle launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis, now scheduled for June 28.

Coffee at the Cosmo - May 19, 2011

Coffee at the Cosmo on Thursday, May 19, is entitled, "From the Sea to the Stars: 50 years of Naval Aviation in Spaceflight." It is at 9 a.m. at the Cosmosphere and is free and open to the public.

Seven of the 12 men who walked on the moon were Navy pilots, including Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last men on the moon. In fact, all but one of the Apollo commanders was a Navy pilot.

Cosmosphere President and CEO Chris Orwoll, a retired Navy Commander, will be doing the presentation.

Coffee at the Cosmo is an ongoing series of free presentations at the Cosmosphere. It's the third Thursday of every month at 9 a.m. and is always free. Enjoy coffee and pastries, meet new friends, and learn something new.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Interactive Gallery Opens Saturday at Cosmosphere

Saturday, April 9, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center is opening a new permanent interactive gallery titled “Investigate Space: Our Universe." It will feature information about unmanned exploration of our Solar System and the Universe and have opportunities for visitors to engage interactively. For example, visitors will be able to drive a virtual Mars rover and fly through space to objects throughout the universe.

To celebrate the opening, Todd Barber of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, will offer two different presentations, both free to the public.

At 1 p.m. he will talk about his work on the Cassini-Saturn and Mars missions. At 3 p.m. he will talk about JPL's continued work in unmanned exploration of our Solar System and Universe.

In conjunction with his visit, a full-scale model of the newest Mars rover, Curiosity, is on display at the Cosmosphere through April 29. It is on loan from JPL and will travel to North Carolina and Washington D.C. after it leaves the Cosmosphere. Curiosity was named by a 12-year-old Lenexa student, Clara Ma.

In addition, a model of the Mars rover Sojourner will be part of the new gallery. Another interesting addition will be a 233-pound meteorite on loan from Steve Arnold, who found it on the television show, "Meteorite Men."

No admission ticket is required to see Curiosity or hear Todd Barber. The new gallery is included with your regular admission ticket.