The Mars Rover Is So Worth It, But Meteor Showers Are Free

I love space stuff – not enough to take physics or anything, but enough to really wish I had the cash to chase solar eclipses around the world. Why? Because I was in grade school during the best years of NASA’s Apollo Program and some of my fondest memories are of our little family huddled around the TV to watch the launches and splashdowns of Apollos 14 to 17.

I know the exact date Neil Armstrong walked on the moon because it happened on my sister’s sixth birthday (July 20, 1969) and our mom made a “Pin the Man on the Moon” game for her party. On my birthday in 1973 the comet Kohoutek reached its perihelion, which is the only reason I know what both perihelion and unfulfilled media hype mean. Ah, the early ’70s; it was all Tang, Space Food Sticks, NASA mission patches and a pop-cultural appreciation of science and the vast wonder of the universe. Even we campers at the JCC took a break from jacks to watch Skylab flit across the night sky at a sleepover scheduled for the occasion.

It all kind of faded away in the 1980s with the terrible tragedy of the Challenger disaster and such fitful happenings as the post-Hippie yawnfest that was the Harmonic Convergence and all those sad, sad Star Trek movies (yes, nerdlingers, except for The Wrath of Khan).

Maybe the awesomeness skips a decade, because the 1990s were spectacular for the casual astronomer. I saw a total lunar eclipse on a dusty, cluttered rooftop in Cairo in 1992; a breathtaking display of meteor showers on a different, cleaner rooftop in Turkey a year later; then a total solar eclipse in the spring of 1994 in Berkeley, and the collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter a few months after that. You could see the comet Hyakutake not too far from any U.S. city in 1996, and anyone walking around town at night in 1997 could see the comet Hale-Bopp (two tails, very bright) on her way to dinner in Dupont Circle.

Again, skip a decade and here we are in the 2010s, which have been pretty excellent so far: we had a once-in-a-century Transit of Venus in June this year and the successful landing of the land rover “Curiosity” on the planet Mars just the other day. I’d say the heavens have opened up again.

And late tonight (August 11/early August 12) is the peak of the Perseids, the best meteor showers of the year, so please, go out and celebrate the wonder of popular science by standing out on your lawn or driving out to a park someplace this weekend. Look for the constellation Cassiopeia (it’s shaped like a wide “W” in the northeast) and fix your eyes on the space just below the back of her chair toward the constellation Perseus and watch. If the weather cooperates, you’ll never forget it.

Space stuff is awesome: it’s forever and it’s free - all you need to do is look up.

Photo by jking89 via Flickr