Impossible Journey
The Re-entry of STS-78 - July 7, 1996
A Personal Account

06:45 July 07
I am sitting here back in the studio entering this while monitoring post-flight ops; remembering the awesome sight that I wish everyone could see. . .

23:45 July 06
From the participants in the Space Shuttle Usenet Newsgroup I have learned that this is the last 39° inclination mission in the schedule for quite some time to come. 39° missions bring the orbiter only a few tens of miles North of my position and the re-entry will be along that path if the landing site is set for Kennedy Space Center. This is my only chance. I have lost my NASA Select feed so have to get all of my current mission data over the Net. CU-SeeMe provides low-res video and audio of current flight activities through NASA TV. The DEMOS display from NASA JSC Mission Control Center confirms that my orbit tracking software data are accurate and that my orbiter re-entry pass prediction is good. The U. S. Weather Service satellites in visible and water vapor, however, show no chance of being able to see this pass. Coastal fog and clouds so prevalent this time of year are to do me in. Time to get a couple hour's rest and see if anything changes, though I'm planning to go anyway, fog or no fog.

03:42 July 07
Rising, I check CU-SeeMe one last time to learn that the crew are pressing on toward deorbit burn. Weather still overcast, satellite data shows conditions worsening but decide that "nothing ventured..." But I have no idea which way to drive to get to clear sky.

Heading north and inland seem to be best, but not through any abilities of my own. One hour of driving in medium to dense fog, following only feelings, I find myself amid the artichoke fields half way between San Juan Batista and Hollister with no relief in sight. Ready to turn around and try another direction, I perceive a subtle change in the light falling on the dashboard. Off to the right, dimly through the mist, shows a luminous cross floating high in the fog bank. It looks to be an apparition a hundred or more feet off the ground and a message that I have arrived where I am supposed to be. I stop, get out, and observe a gloriously clear vault above the third quarter moon shining clear as a bell in the morning sky. Back in the car and continue east, farther from the coastline. BANG! Smack into the fog once more. Returning to the spot where the cross had first shown, I locate a dirt road leading toward it and into St. Francis Retreat.

I search the stars and get my bearings to west, and checking the clock, wait a confident and pleased wait. My eyes become more dark adapted. All around me march clouds and fog, right down to the ground on up to a 7°-10°+ horizon. But this spot is not being overrun by them. Magnificently unbelievable. An oasis of stars in the middle of a water vapor desert. A lanky farm cat eyes me warily as it makes its way down the road. Black-faced sheep stare at the individual new to their presence. Morning horizon glow gaining in the northeast lets me see more clearly the extent of the bowl of clouds I am in. Surely, this was meant to be. At this point I have no method of determining if the de-orbit burn has taken place. It won't matter, as the pass 90 minutes from now will then have my position in full sun. If it did not go as planned on the first landing opportunity, I will know as the orbiter passes at altitude.

Roosters from all around announce the dawn as I scan the western rim of clouds for the first sign of glowing movement. The orbiter will come over the hill just before coming into refraction and the timing is perfect to view this pass whether it re-enters or not. As Rocket J. Squirrel says: "This trick never works." But I have a feeling it's going to work this time.

Continuing to scan the western horizon with binoculars I access the bird right where the prediction had placed it. Glowing salmon red, it moves steadily in toward me. My pulse quickens at the sight. I can't believe what I am seeing though the eyepiece, though I fully know that it is happening just as it should. Alternating between naked eye and binoculars, I watch in awe as it traverses the clear sky just to the north of my position at an altitude of ~40°. Incredible to be standing here seeing this! The plasma surrounding the orbiter is star-like in appearance, teardrop shaped and fairly large considering the altitude. As it reaches closest approach the plasma brightens dramatically through bright orange, turning to a pink-white, leaving behind a thin white plasma trail as it passes, marking its path through the early morning air. Maximum deceleration during this phase as the bird slams through the ever-thickening atmosphere at Mach 20+.

The orbiter leaves my sky, silently passing over the cloud bank to the east. It winks through some of the openings in the distant clouds and is gone. The plasma trail slowly fades and dissipates leaving me and the sheep to wonder at the events taking place in our midst.

Sonic booms come by as predicted. They are faint due to the altitude of the orbiter, but they are distinct if you know they are coming. The show is over and I stand and take in the brightening sky that I have been so fortunate to have found. Back in the car and off to home.

I pick up the clock that I brought with me to time the approach, and as I drive back into the Pacific Coast fog, I realize that they are already in Florida. An hour's drive home gives me time to reflect and know that I was surely led to that spot. The odds were too great that I could pick, out of all of the directions to go in a seventy mile radius, to the one spot that would afford me a rare and valuable sight. I have stood in the gathering morning light and witnessed Space Shuttle recoveries before, but I had always been at the landing site; a member of the Space Shuttle Recovery Convoy crew caught up in the activities of the time. I will always cherish those experiences. This time I was alone, though the atmosphere was somehow the same. Having the opportunity to view a re-entry 2500+ miles up-range is something that I will value as much as the others - and in certain ways, more.

We are living in a time of wonder that we are able to traverse the boundary between earth and space. One day this sight will have become commonplace like all others. But here and now, it is very special indeed.

Good Morning and Happy Trails.


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