Spot the Station

6:11 AM, January 15, 2018

So, on Monday I saw the International Space Station for the first time this year. I qualify this year—2018—because I’ve been looking for (and usually finding) the ISS in the sky for a couple of years, now. And I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while, too, but something else always seems to bump it back in line.

I began this exercise two years ago, when a friend from work told me you could sign up for alerts, to let you know when the Space Station is visible in your corner of the sky. The alerts are super convenient, because they take all these factors into account:

  • It has to be dawn or dusk, because the ISS reflects the light of the rising or setting sun. It’s not visible in the middle of the day or night.
  • The ISS must be 40 degrees or more above the horizon.
  • It also travels at roughly 17,500 miles (28,000 km) per hour, circling the Earth every 90 minutes. So it’s visible in a pretty tight window, usually anywhere from two to six minutes.

NASA does a good job of tabulating all these things, and sending a text about twelve hours before your next viewing opportunity. Here’s the website where you can sign up, if you’re interested: https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/

For any given opportunity, the only things that keep me from spotting the Station are timing and weather. If it passes overhead while I’m still asleep, or when I’m in the car on my way somewhere, then I’ll miss it. And weather is about the only thing NASA doesn’t include in the alerts—you can’t see the ISS if there’s too much cloud cover.

It was supposed to be visible a bunch of times in late December, at the end of 2017, but I came up empty several days running because it was too cloudy. I took it as a good omen for 2018 that everything was perfect for Monday morning’s sighting—the sky was crystal clear, the air was cold but not too windy, and it wasn’t so terribly early as to be obnoxious. The city of New Orleans needed a good omen, as our beloved Saints just suffered a devastating loss the day before, taking us out of the playoffs.

And here’s the thing (or things), the reasons I keep going outside and looking at the sky to spot our friends in the Space Station. One, it’s a great perspective check: whatever’s going on in my world, whatever’s causing me anxiety or drama (like the collective misery of a city with dashed Super Bowl hopes), those alerts are a reminder to look up. Up in the sky, I know there are six people who are an orbit away from their homes and loved ones, who’ve given up their time and Earth’s gravity for science, for progress, for adventure—I’m sure their reasons are plentiful. It reminds me of the reasons I wake up early to pursue my writing.

Two, it’s an opportunity for a quick meditation. About whatever—perspective, gratitude, ambition. And faith. Faith that even if the sky is cloudy, and I can’t see them, the Space Station and its occupants are still up there. Faith that the next time the weather will be clear and I’ll get to track that little point of light as it zooms across the sky. And if not the next time, then maybe the time after that.

And finally, I’m not only a sci-fi geek, I’m a science geek. Astronomy, geography, geology. The very first thing I ever wanted to be was a cartographer (I’d say “map maker” when I was little). I imagine the occupants of the Space Station, looking down on me as I look up at them, a tiny speck way down in the boot of Louisiana. Each of us thinking how valuable, how fragile, and how momentous our endeavors are. As troubled as things may be, all over the map of the Earth, if we ever stop reaching for the stars, then hope is truly lost.

Per aspera ad astra.

5:31 PM, November 26, 2017

One thought on “Spot the Station

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