Monday, November 18, 2013

Sharing the Holidays with a Few Friends

USNS John Lenthall (at right) and Customers (US Navy Photo)
Pierside again, and apparently we’ll be in-port until after Thanksgiving.  This is a very nice treat, as Lucy and I have had far too few opportunities to celebrate that day together; usually we are a few thousands of miles apart!  But this HAS been an unusual year; a new phase of my seagoing career, new ships, and new opportunities both at sea and ashore.
I’m enjoying my new duties immensely, being the fella behind the curtain making UNREPS and other "ops" happen.  It certainly beats handling lines and cleaning heads!  Just a few days ago we were involved in an ASW exercise off JAX and I got the opportunity to “run” the formation’s zig-zag plan, directing High-Value Units (HVUs) and escorts in the complicated maneuvers that (hopefully) would complicate a sub’s fire-control solution. 
Not only was this exercise extremely challenging, it also had me pondering my distant predecessors who had conducted such maneuvers in earnest.  While we bucketed around, making near-continuous speed and course alterations, I couldn’t help but think of the convoys and “runners” of WWI and WWII, zigging and zagging their ways across the Altantic Ocean with U-Boats and commerce raiders a constant threat.  What was to me an enjoyable and engaging day’s “practice” was to them the slim hope of avoiding the torpedo, of dodging the raider.
Back home, we are moored only a few yards from another, more recent bit of history; each day as I walk to and from parking-lot to my ship I stroll past the sharp profile of USS Cole (DDG-67).  I admire her lines, the obvious pride of a crew in their ship in gleaming brightwork and fresh paint, and think about a day, not so many years ago, when this lovely vessel was maimed and blackened by an awful act of terror.  Some Sailors died, others were injured, but they rallied, they fought back, and they brought their ship home with honor to be restored to the Fleet. 
USS Cole DDG-67 (US Navy Photo)
Only a few yards away, just across the pier lies another ship, the cruiser Normandy
CG-60 also invokes a sense of history; this time personal.  Normandy, you see, was one of "my" ships; I served aboard her in both 2nd and 6th Fleet AORs from 1994 to 1996.  My time in her was cut short by events, but Normandy will always sail in my memory as the most capable, powerful command of my Navy career.
USS Normandy CG-60 (Tom Epps Photo)

Walking past Cole and Normandy, seeing the fine, proud men and women working and standing watch on their decks, has been something of a daily affirmation to me.  I know it won’t last long—one ship or the other will eventually set sail or shift berths—but while it does I take advantage of this daily reminder of the values and fortitude of the young Americans who defend us every day.
Thomas L. Epps
Operations Chief
USNS John Lenthall

Friday, November 1, 2013

Shadows at Dawn

Hello Everyone,
Just a quick note here to invite all hands on the U.S. East Coast (or close to it) to enjoy Sunday's (3 Nov) solar eclipse.  This will be a "hybrid" eclipse--for those of us fortunate enough to be able to see the event this means that only a portion of the sun's disk will be obscured by the moon's rounded bulk--and will be visible only at sunrise and for most of an hour afterward.  Still, it's pretty impressive stuff, and well worth the effort of rising early on a day off!
One caveat: when you gaze at this event you are literally staring at the SUN, the radiant energy of which can quickly cause permanent damage to unprotected eyes.  So be sure to protect 'em--if you don't have a properly-filtered telescope or binoculars drop by your local hardware or welding-supply store and pick up a couple of #14 welding lenses.  These will protect your eyes and allow a great view of our eclipsed star. 
Tom Epps

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Christmas Story (Retro 2007)

What follows is an "All @ Sea" email that I sent out to friends and family on 23 Dec 2007, just a day after the ship I was working, USNS Arctic, was involved in a Search-And-Rescue {SAR} in the Persian Gulf.  This happened long before I thought of starting this Blog, and I was pretty happy to find an intact copy of the text recently.  So come with me now, back to a cold Winter's day in 2007...

December 23, 2007
Well, here we are, nearly two months into our deployment, and now Arctic is working in very familiar waters indeed: the Persian Gulf! Officially, according to the US Govt., it's known as the "Arabian Gulf", but this appears to be a political issue as acknowledgement of the "Persian" name implies Persian (ie; Iranian) influence over the region. Most of us go by the name that this body of water has had for four hundred years-it's worked so far!

We came south thru the Suez Canal and Red Sea early in December and relieved our sister ship, Supply, a few weeks ago, and now we are acting as "one stop shopping" headquarters for the 5th Fleet and Allied units operating in these waters. We rendezvous with a destroyer, cruiser, or carrier, they come alongside, and we transfer fuel, refrigerated stores, ammo, and-of vital importance-mail via "highlines" stretched between the hulls as we cruise along. For a frigate or destroyer, the process of refueling can usually takes an hour or two, but with a nuclear carrier and her very thirsty aircraft it can take a sizeable chunk out of one's day.

But that's how we make the money out here, supplying "bullets, beans, and not-so-black oil" to the fleet. As I've mentioned in previous missives, it's hard work, long hours, and I enjoy the process thoroughly! Especially when the unexpected happens...

Yesterday morning we were transferring fuel and supplies to our local "nuke" carrier, Harry S Truman-a weekly event, when our lookouts noted a ship dead ahead which showed no inclination to get out of the way (per the international Rules of the Road). I was on the bridge, preparing to take the helm, when we made radio contact with this apparent miscreant, a supertanker named British Courage, and discovered that the tanker was maintaining position in order to provide a lee (a calm area caused by the ship's hull and superstructure blocking the wind) for a life-raft that they had discovered drifting across the sea-lane. Suddenly the day got a bit more interesting-as we came within visual range someone in the raft raised an arm and began waving for help!

Tanker British Courage and one of our Knighthawk Helos
British Courage was doing all she could to provide a lee, but she wasn't able to close in on the raft safely due to the high winds and seas. That's where Arctic comes in! We executed an Emergency Breakaway, freeing Truman from our tender embrace, and immediately launched our two helicopters, "Villain" 01 and 02. As we closed on the rescue scene (I still had the wheel and so heard most of this from the lookouts and the Captain) our helos went into hover over the raft and quickly determined that it held eight survivors of a sunken ship-and that they'd been adrift for well over a day! In a raft of that size they must have been very uncomfortable in terms of space and the action of the seas (from our 60,000 ton hull it's easy to see even high seas as minor...), and they seemed pretty happy to have suddenly garnered all of this attention.
Our Helos commence rescue operations
Our rescue swimmers (brave guys who actually jump into nasty seas ON PURPOSE) went into the water and started hoisting the survivors up into the helos, while we continued to maneuver to maintain a lee-British Courage, relieved that a far more maneuverable ship had taken over, had moved off to continue her journey-and Truman stood by with her superior medical facilities to receive the survivors. It was all over in an hour, and our two helicopters headed for the carrier with their human cargo. We proceeded to sink the raft with machine gun fire, and then made our way back to Truman to continue the day's work of transferring supplies and jet fuel.
Castaways safely aboard USS Harry S Truman
I still don't know what ship the eight castaways abandoned, and I may never know; given how fast things move out here our little rescue operation is already "old news"; but I can't help thinking of them, huddled in a tiny raft after the trauma of seeing their ship-their home-lost, waiting in the cold and noise of the 50-knot winds for rescue that doesn't seem to ever come. How long until one begins to lose hope, when a day has passed since the sinking? They must've seen a hundred ships on the horizon (the Gulf is a busy place) but with no way to signal, and little chance of being seen, those distant hulls must've seemed more a cruel taunt than potential salvation. What was it like, I wonder.
And what was it like, well into the second day of their exile, to see the enormous bulk of British Courage moving in to shield them from wind and wave; to see men on deck searching for a way to reach them. And then the roar of rotors and jet engines, rising over the sound of the zephyr, and the sight of our two helos, gray, stumpy and ugly, moving across the water towards them. And the coming down of two professional rescuers, in black neoprene, leaping from the hovering machines, and then seeing their shipmates, one by one lifted from the grip of the cold, cruel sea, and carried aloft. Carried to a huge, gray ship and warm beds, and medical help? Saved at last.

How did it feel? Well, I've never experienced anything remotely as terrifying as what they went thru, but if I should hazard a guess, I would say it probably felt like a miracle to those eight men; it probably felt like Christmas.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy New Year.

Tom Epps,
USNS Arctic
Persian Gulf

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fire and Ice

10 August 2013

The Hairless Star
Imagine if you will a mountain far larger than Everest or K2.  Now imagine that this mountain is made of ice; ice with a leavening of stony debris and dust—gravel and particles of fine grit.  Color it the darkest shade of charcoal, with perhaps a slight reddening, and then lift it into the sky.  If your imagination can reach, place it far from earth—out in the vast spaces beyond the planets, on a curving path that takes it even farther from the faded Sun, a path that will not return it to the warmth of the inner Solar System until the year 2125.

This is Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle*.  Too far from the heat and light-pressure of the Sun to display tail or even the dusty crown of coma, 109P tumbles through space on the outbound leg of its 133 year-long orbit, naked, dark, invisible against the background stars.  Darkened by uncounted centuries of exposure to Sol’s ultraviolet radiation, it has long-since been lost to sight by Earth-bound observers with even the greatest of telescopes.  Farther and farther from the warm center of our solar neighborhood, Comet 109P journeys alone.  But not forgotten.

Yesterday’s Comet
Comet Swift-Tuttle was probably observed by Chinese astronomers in the first century BC, and certainly it has appeared many times in our skies over the centuries, but it acquired its hyphenated name in July 1862, when independently discovered by Lewis Swift and Horace Parnell Tuttle.  It’s orbit was calculated and soon researchers realized that this “hairy star” had appeared in the heavens before.

Comet 109P is also part of my own history; in the early 1990s I was able to observe its passage through our skies with my portable telescope and binoculars, and so I have a small but definite proprietary feeling regarding this frozen visitor from afar.  It is one of the few dozen comets I have been fortunate enough to view over the forty+ years I’ve been stargazing, beginning with Comet Kohoutek in the early 1970s.

I’ll never see the bloom of coma, the fan-shaped tail of Swift-Tuttle again; my own journey through life is quite short when compared to that of this lonely voyager.  But I will see the orphaned children of 109P, and soon.

The Dusty Trail
Like all active comets, Swift-Tuttle leaves behind pieces of itself as it travels its long orbital track around the Sun.  In the heat and pressure from our star the crust of the comet loses infinitesimal portions of its mass; sublimation of its shell of ice from a solid to gaseous state results in a slow dispersal of its solid mass along the portion of its orbit that crosses the inner solar system, dust and ice particles slowly spreading out along its track and following in the wake of the parent body with only the tiniest of differences in velocity.  Comet 109P has been pursuing nearly the same orbit—with only occasional perturbations caused by the gravities of planets passed along the way—that this slow process has spread the lost mass along the entirety of Swift-Tuttle’s orbit.

Imagine this—not only is the 26-kilometer-across mass of 109P continuing faithfully to follow this well-defined pathway around the Sun, but that same pathway is also inhabited by the debris that the comet has generated over the countless millennia!  The individual orbits of the billions upon billions of particles of dust and icy residue vary slightly, so there is some spreading-out; some are lost forever through perturbation by the giant planets, others simply wander away due to miniscule differences in momentum, and many, many are channeled by gravitational variations into twisted ribbons of matter, invisible streams of dust and ice.  Unseen they rush through space, in general following the orbit of their parent body.  These particles are known to science as Meteoroids.

Tonight’s Meteors
Comet Swift-Tuttle’s orbit is an ellipse that drives deep into the solar neighborhood, and compared to the open vastness of the outer system our warm central region, close to the Sun, is a crowded superhighway of planets and asteroids; it is remotely possible that 109Ps orbit will intersect that of one or more of these bodies at some point.  And when it does…

Now we come to the most wonderful co-incidence of our story; the intersection of one of those ribbons of dust and ice—a meteoroid “stream”—with a planet near and dear to us--Earth.  For the past few weeks our world has been driving deeper into the spread-out debris of Comet 109P, being struck by more and more particles over recent nights, and as I write this we near the central, most dense portion of Swift-Tuttles’ stream.  Because of the same effect of relative motion that makes snowflakes seem to streak toward your windshield from a certain point in the distance, this stream of debris appears to drive toward us from the direction of the constellation Perseus; for this reason we call this collision of planet and meteoroid stream the “Perseid” meteor shower.

When the particles of space debris dive into our planet’s atmosphere they are known as “meteors”; striking the thin upper air at incredibly high speeds they begin to slow, transferring their kinetic energy they heat the surrounding molecules of gas to incandescence.  This is the bright streak you see—a “shooting star”.  The Meteoroid is not “burning up” as much as breaking-up; the increasing air pressure overcomes the objects tensile strength as it shatters into smaller and smaller pieces until—in most cases—only the finest dust remains to sift through the lower atmosphere to the ground.  The rare fragment that makes it intact to the ground is known as a Meteorite.

The Sons of Perseus
The Perseids are one of the years’ most impressive and reliable meteor showers—the “old faithful” of annual celestial fireworks shows.  Each year, beginning in the last week of July and strengthening into the second week of August, the bombardment begins; millions of tiny bits of matter striking our planet’s upper atmosphere.  Most are too faint for us to see; the vast majorities are detectable only by the “hiss” of radio static to be heard on certain frequencies.  Many are seen as quick “shooting stars”, and a tiny fraction—a few thousands—will light up the night sky and draw appreciative gasps from all observers.  To see a bright “fireball”, drawing a green or yellow trail behind it, is one of the most sought-after experiences of the meteor watcher.

The next two nights; 11-12 and 12-13 August, are forecast to be the critical times to observe the Perseids; from a dark location with a wide view of the sky it may be possible to observe 50 to 80 meteors an hour after midnight, and even before that time there should still be a pretty impressive display.  I’d like to invite you all to go out under the August skies and meet the wayward children of Comet 109P Swift-Tuttle; they’ve come a very, very long way. Weather permitting, I’ll be out on deck to greet them.

Tom Epps
Operations Chief
USNS Alan Shepard
Persian Gulf

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Superlative Moon

Hello, Shipmates!
By now I have no doubt that most of you have heard some small part of the “Super Moon” hype—at best you’ve been informed that the Full Moon on Sunday night will appear somewhat larger and brighter than usual, and at worst you’ve been treated to the “doomsday” scenarios that connect the “Super Moon” to floods, earthquakes and bizarre weather around the globe, usually accompanied by “photoshopped” images displaying a Moon of ludicrously impossible apparent size, dominating a skyline.

Here’s one now…

Of course, there is no known relationship between the Moon motions and such disasters, beyond the normal effects of the tidal effect that it has on our planet’s oceans and crust; the Moon will be no closer tomorrow night than it has hundreds of thousands of times in the past, and will have no more effect than usual, with the exception that many, many more people than usual will be out looking at it!

So what is happening here, that our companion world will appear up to 18% larger –and 30% brighter—than a normal, run-of-the-mill Full Moon does each and every month (a measure of time that originates in the orbital period of our natural satellite—perhaps we should call it a “Moonth” instead)? It’s quite simple, actually…the Moon orbits Earth along an elliptical path, taking 29 53 days to complete each journey from New Moon through Waning Crescent, First Quarter, Full, Last Quarter and back to New again. Since its path is an ellipse (above) the distance from Earth to Moon varies considerably during the course of a single obit, with the near-point of it’s path (“Perigee”) being considerably closer to Terra than the far (“Apogee”).

It is on those occasions that the Moon reaches that near point of Perigee at a time close to the Full Moon that a “Super Moon” (the astronomical term for this event is a “Perigee-Syzygy” for the combination of a Perigee with Syzygy, or the alignment of Sun, Earth and Moon) occurs in our skies. Of course the Moon reaches Perigee every month, but the effect of a larger-looking Luna is less obvious when the Moon is a crescent- or Quarter-phase, or especially New. Just as importantly, most people hardly notice those less-brilliant apparitions of our natural satellite; the sight of a Full Moon, however, can stop folks in their tracks!

So plan to get outside tomorrow evening and enjoy the Perigee-Syzygy (THAT name will never catch on!). Try to go to a location with a fairly clear Eastern horizon just about sunset; then you can enjoy the sight of our Moon rising above the trees (or water, buildings, mountains, etc.) and the effect of its brightening as the sky darkens. Print out the attached moon map and see how many lunar features you can identify with your naked eye or with binoculars. Got a digital camera? Try taking several photos using Manual settings, adjusting ISO, focus and exposure to get the best image you can.

And as you gaze at our Moon, think about what you are seeing. You are looking at another world, the only body in the Solar System that we can regularly study without benefit of a telescope, without special filters, and still perceive actual details of its surface. And the only celestial body that bears human footprints—that members of our frail, troubled species have actually walked upon its surface. More than that, without the Moon, it is very possible that we wouldn’t be here to enjoy our view of and to ponder our relationship to it.

So show Luna some respect, and look up more often—you may find that our Moon is always “Super”.

Tom Epps
Operations Chief
USNS Alan Shepard

P.S. Announcing the "Super Moon" photo contest: send me your best picture of Luna, and tell me of your experience…I'll post the best of them here.

The Alan Shepard Observatory

First Light

On the evening of 25 May Alan Shepard’s bridge team watched a lovely spectacle from the bridge; only a few minutes after sunset the members of the watch could see a brilliant point of light about ten degrees above the western horizon. It was quickly joined by a slightly dimmer spark above and to the left of the first, and finally a third gleamed in the hazy twilight, a dazzling triangle of "stars" shining between the clouds.

What we were seeing that evening was a conjunction of three planets; Venus, Jupiter and Mercury. The four of us on the bridge enjoyed the view for nearly a half hour before the three worlds vanished into the dust-laden air of the horizon. They were a brilliant sight through binoculars; I could just fit all three planets into the 5-degree field of view.

I’d been aboard since 14 May, but between the murky skies to be found in the Persian Gulf and the hectic pace of the turnover I was receiving prior to assuming my duties as Ops Chief I’d not had any real opportunity to star-gaze; in astronomical parlance this conjunction of three ‘wanderers’ is known as “first light” for me aboard this ship. I find it quite appropriate, in fact, to commence astronomical observations aboard a vessel named for a Mercury Program astronaut with a sighting of the elusive planet Mercury itself!

Under the Dome

Alan Shepard is not my first sea-going observatory; since 1981 I have (rather selfishly) used nearly thirty vessels as roving platforms for viewing the heavens, staying up long after my assigned duty hours to watch the skies. In fact, the vast majority of the entries in my Observing Journal over the past three-and-a-half decades recount the observation of meteor showers, solar and lunar eclipses, planets, stars and other “deep sky” objects from pitching, rolling decks. Such is the nature of my career @ sea; that I am rarely to be found at home and able to use my telescopes there for their intended purpose of exploring the visible universe.

I have to leave my heavier instruments behind when I come to the sea; my telescopes packed carefully away, eyepieces, tripods and the hundred peripheral parts and pieces boxed and placed into storage. I have learned that in the shipboard environment they would be useless; extra baggage to carry to faraway ports only to languish in a locker, delicate optics and mechanisms risked to no advantage. Long experience has taught me that the best astronomical instrument for this environment is a pair of trusty binoculars; when I travel to meet my newest vessel I carry mine with me; sturdy 10x50 instruments useful for spotting that dhow on the horizon as well as observing the motions of Jupiter’s satellites or studying our own moon’s features.

Starry Night

Yes, my observations are limited but, Ah, the trade-off! Far from land and the light-polluted coastal realm, I am routinely able to see the night sky as few land-dwellers can; with no intrusive city lights to mask the heavens they blaze forth in dizzying splendor, much as our distant ancestors must have seen them in the time before artificial lighting. From Shepard’s deck I can see the Milky Way arcing overhead as no-one in a town can see, the light of its multitudes making as if to drown-out the dimmer stars of the familiar constellations, blurring the lines of Swan, Eagle, Fox and Scorpion.

And between those stars, wonders! Nebulae bright or dark against the background glow of a hundred-billion stellar candles, open clusters with their often oddly regular patterns of stars like strings of pearls, globular clusters blurry and spherical, and the galaxies, distant and often hard to spot, each a stellar “city” in its own right, home to its own multitude. They tease the eye, one moment invisible, the next an obvious spot of cosmic “fuzz”, and then vanishing again.

And still more to see; through my binoculars the classical planets lie within reach. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and his moons, Saturn and the far-away ice-worlds of Uranus and Neptune. The brighter asteroids I regularly watch as they silently play amongst their larger cousins, and the comets, slowly following gravity’s summons diving down into the Sun’s warmth before rushing to escape again, dashing back to the outer Solar System as if Sol’s heat had scorched their tail-feathers! They are the leftovers of creation; the flotsam and jetsam of the sky.

The Lights Go Down

This is my world of night, the time and place where I feel most entirely at peace. Deck rolling beneath my feet, wind whistling in the rigging, dolphins splashing and playing in the phosphorescence of the wake. And the sky above, slowly shifting from east to west as the night wears on, Gemini and Auriga setting on the port bow even as Hercules and Lyra rise from the haze on the starboard quarter. Arcturus overhead and Spica due south, paired with Saturn; all old friends to be greeted and admired. A flash of light to the north; a bright meteor has neatly bisected the “scoop” of the Little Dipper, leaving a fading trail of green mist.

Welcome to the Alan Shepard Observatory. I wonder what the night holds for us.

Tom Epps
Operations Chief
USNS Alan Shepard
The Persian Gulf

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Changing Course II

USNS Alan Shepherd

"Amateurs talk tactics; professionals talk logistics."
(Military quote attributed to practically every great general who ever lived)

It's a familiar scene; a resupply rendezvous on the open sea between three grey vessels. The replenishment ship takes "tactical control" of the two warships, then directs them to their stations while maintaining a precise course and speed so that the two combatants can orient correctly on the formations' "guide".

Soon heavy wire-rope cables will physically join their hulls and fuel will pulse through massive hoses; all the while the heavy beat of rotor blades fills the air as a heavy-lift helicopter conveys cargo from flight deck to flight deck. Forklifts position enormous "lifts" of palleted cargo for transfer while line-handlers, winch operators, supervising Boatswain's Mates, and helo control officers perform the industrial ballet by which navies are refueled and resupplied at sea.

Puma 06

Puma 06

Puma Vertrep of USS Carter Hall and USS San Antonio

Suddenly the fueling, the cargo transfer are complete; at a signal from the supply ship the small formation disperses as the combat ships separate and "proceed on duties assigned". In minutes they disappear over the horizon on their various missions and the replenishment unit comes about, shaping course for the next rendezvous, the next scheduled event. There are other "customers" out there that need fuel, food, ammunition and mail.

HMAS Toowoomba

PNS Tippu Sultan

Puma 06 and USS San Antonio

Another UNREP completed, another mission accomplished. Such a dance of machinery and people does not happen by accident; as in any complex undertaking the pieces do not fall automatically into their places to make it all "work". The event must be carefully scheduled, coordinated, and plotted days and even weeks in advance to ensure a successful resupply at sea. All the players must understand their roles in the play, all the materiel and equipment must be prepared, tested and staged, and every possible contingency--weather, shipping traffic, mechanical breakdown, and even enemy action--must be prepared for lest the operation fall apart in mid-execution, endangering ships, aircraft, and lives. There must be a solid, universally-agreed-upon, well-briefed plan.

My plan.

The rendezvous with and UNREP of USS Carter Hall and USS San Antonio in the Gulf of Oman a week ago, which the accompanying photos illustrate, was my masterpiece in the older sense of the end of my apprenticeship and the true beginning of my new career as an Operations Chief with Military Sealift Command (MSC). To bring three mighty ships and their crews together with one purpose I had to negotiate with my opposite numbers aboard them; I had to understand their requirements and limitations as well as our own in order to prepare my briefings and plots. I had to consult 'Shepard's Captain, officers and helo crews repeatedly to ensure that the developing concept of operations was workable, and their feedback was invaluable as I trimmed the rough edges from the plan.
Then, with the "customers" on the horizon, I had the duty of actually driving the process, communicating intents and last-minute information and orchestrating the entire event.

The old saying that "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy" could be well applied here; there were minor problems in the execution of the UNREP, and some improvisation was required, but in the end we had an effective, safe transfer of stores and fuel and all objectives were met; I even had the pleasure of receiving a "well done" from our Captain as the party ended.

I'm proud of my accomplishment, and also humbled by it; my "lessons learned" from this particular event fill three pages in my wheelbook, and though the UNREP went off well I am more aware than ever of the responsibility I bear for this and future operations. The learning process has only begun, and I look forward to the challenges to come.

I think that this change of course in my life and career came at just the right time.

Tom Epps
Operations Chief
USNS Alan Shepard

USS Carter Hall

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Ready in All Respects for Sea...

Finally, I've received orders...I'm to report in two weeks' time for duty aboard USNS Alan Shepard, T-AKE 3, and I'm quite pleased by this assignment.  Not only is my new ship named for a personal hero of mine, first American to launch into space and fifth to walk on the moon, but she has a great 'rep' in the Fleet.  I've been hoping for several weeks to "score" these orders, and when the folks in the front office told me I had to restrain myself from a celebratory fist-pump!
USNS Alan Shepard seen from USNS Arctic, 2011
I'll be spending most of the next two weeks helping Lucy move our accumulated goods down from New York to Virginia, but already I feel the old excitement.  I'm headed back to sea again, and this ought to be a good one!

Mare Est Vita Mea!

USNS Alan Shepard, 2011

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Sea as a Playground

So, you took a cruise.  Knowing the good record of the major cruise lines, chances are that nothing happened save that you wore yourself out on the dance floor and put on three pounds at the buffet.  You enjoyed picturesque vistas of lovely islands and sunsets and lost some but not all of your money in the casino.  You took a thousand digital photos for your loved ones to admire and in general had a terrific time.

Alternatively, your cruise ship had a major engine room fire that caused a general loss of electricity, food and sewage service throughout the vessel, which then drifted dead in the water off the coast of Mexico for several days.  No lights.  No AC.  No toilets.

Or your vessel struck the rocks off a tiny Italian island and rolled onto her beam-ends, drowning dozens of your fellow passengers and leaving you to swim ashore while--apparently--your Captain took more comfortable passage.  Hey, at least she capsized onto the rocks--a few hundred yards further out and she'd have rolled completely over, killing thousands. Including you.

Or a fitting carried away below decks and the entire South Atlantic tried to come in.  By the time you realized that anything was wrong the ship had taken a severe list--and the crew had abandoned ship, leaving one of the entertainment staff to send a distress call and arrange your rescue before the ship herself succumbed. 

Perhaps your great-grandparents also enjoyed a pleasant, tranquil transatlantic voyage.  Or perhaps they didn't... 

Okay, so you signed up for the adventure of a lifetime.  Just remember that not all adventures are pleasant, and that the sea can be a cruel and unforgiving playground.  Those of us who regularly work on great waters know this all too well; a sea voyage can be uncomfortable, unpleasant, and even dangerous, and a ship--no matter how elegant and solid she may seem--is simply a steel shell filled with machinery that can break down, flammable materials ready and willing to combust, stores of food and water that may or may not be of the highest quality, and--lest we forget--many, many representatives of that frail, fickle, and unpredictable herd called humanity.  Many of them in the crew.

There is no such thing as "safety".  It is a myth, a fiction, a phantom that we seek but can never achieve.  We can expend enormous energies in an attempt to make a vessel, an automobile, an airliner more safe, we can in fact go a great distance toward achieving that goal--but we will never, ever fulfill the dream.  People make mistakes.  Ships founder.  Shit happens.

So book your cruise, make sure your passport is up to date, and pack your bags.  Plan on having  a great time aboard that floating hotel.  But make sure you pay attention to the safety briefings, watch carefully as that crewman demonstrates how to fasten your life-jacket, and learn the emergency exits from your assigned deck and common areas.  Do this first; the casino, dining room or cabaret will wait a few minutes.

And if the worst should happen--as has happened before and is statistically certain to happen again--keep calm, make your way to your emergency station, and follow instructions.  Take care of your loved ones and yourself, and do your best to survive while the sea does her best to kill you.

You can always call your lawyer and get interviewed by CNN later.

Caveat Emptor

P.S.  Trust an Old Sailor: NEVER put on a life-jacket inside the "skin" of the ship.  Wait until you get out on deck.  Too many people have been trapped inside a sinking vessel when she rolled over, the deck became the overhead, and their life-jacket buoyantly pinned them to it.

Sailors are meant to be on ships...

Sailors are meant to be on ships,
Ships are meant to be at sea,
And land ain't nothing but a hazard to navigation!

After all of these years I certainly understand the meaning of this saying, oft-repeated in the Fleet.  Life on land is complicated; at sea it becomes simpler, more manageable, comprehensible.  When ashore I have to deal with the traffic on I-64, standing in line at the ATM, the noise of small children in the cinema, and a thousand other complications that arise when I find myself caught up in the "real" world; when sailing these stressors diminish and fade away.

Aboard ship I know my place, I am familiar with my duties and responsibilities, there are few surprises to interrupt the splendid routine of life underway; a life which resembles closely that which Sailors and Mariners have known for many hundreds, even thousands, of years.   The self-contained world of a sea-going vessel has a structure honed and refined over uncounted voyages which, while perhaps not perfected, serves well to maintain her bottled ecosystem, her government, infrastructure and citizenry. 

On the deck of a great gray ship alongside other seafarers, whether in calm or storm, in close-quarters maneuvering with an aircraft carrier or transiting the Strait of Gibraltar, I am at peace.  I'm not a spiritual man by any definition that I know of, and not prone to "new age" ideas, but if there is a place where I am 'centered' or find 'balance', it is out there on the deep sea, where the days' tensions can be wiped away by the sight of a broaching whale, inevitable "personality conflicts" put into perspective by a sunset or sunrise.

I have been ashore since late in February, and confess that the yearning is upon me.  As much as I enjoyed being with Lucy in New York, as much pleasure as walking Delany and enjoying the woods behind our little house gave me, as much as I treasure those nights at the museum where I volunteer, introducing guests to the wonders of the night sky and our own central star--the call of the sea beckons.

I'll be there soon.

Friday, April 5, 2013

In Control...

Well, I finished Helicopter Control Officer (HCO) school on the base in Norfolk this morning--aced the simulator runs and the written test, and so am all set to begin running things in the control tower.  Bring it!


Of course, not.  This was only the initial step in the qualification procedure; no Skipper in his right mind would allow a newbie like me to run his/her helicopter operations based on a five-day course and a few launch-and-recovery runs in the sim.  As they say, the past week's study has given me just enough knowledge to be dangerous.  Very dangerous.
The course was fascinating--unlike the vast majority of training curricula I've endured over the past three decades--and I can honestly say that I learned a great deal about helicopters; their flight characteristics and performance "envelopes", avionics and safety/survival equipment, what makes them fly, and what doesn't.  I do confess to have put our poor instructors through the wringer--I was the annoying fella who kept asking questions and slowing down the proceedings.  I was also the oldest member of the class by about fifteen years, and the only one to show up in t-shirt and jeans rather than a uniform.

I have at least one more shoreside course to complete before I return to sea, and then I'll begin "under instruction (UI) training in the tower of whatever ship I am assigned to.  This "OJT" under the tutelage of an experienced HCO will give me a greater understanding of my duties regarding flight operations and safety, so that when I do finally "solo" I'll be far more ready to assume my duties.

I have a lot to learn and un-learn, and perhaps a few ghosts to put behind me, before I can assume the Air Boss chair.  But I'll get there.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Passing Arrangements

Hello All!
Sorry I've been a bit incommunicado recently; preparations for the Big Move segued a week ago into my return to work, checking in to the "pool" in Norfolk.  I have this weekend off, and will be catching-up on some housekeeping and doing some volunteer work at the Virginia Living Museum, and perhaps (if this beautiful weather holds) a bit of star-gazing tonight with a few friends.

I'm living in our house in Newport News; Lucy and I drove down two weeks back with a big U-Haul trailer full of stuff we really didn't want to entrust to the tender mercies of the movers--crystal, the telescope and music-box collections, and quite a bit more as well.  My Sweet One has since gone back to NY for the last month of occupancy in our house up there, and to supervise the Move itself, and then (in early May) she'll be coming down here again--this time to stay a while!

On Monday I'll begin the training I need to be able to competently perform my new duties as an Operations Chief; firstly a week of Helicopter Control Officer school in Norfolk, to be followed by a series of operations and communications courses.  Oh, and I'm due to renew my firefighting and survival quals as well...April looks to be a very busy month!

Stay tuned...


Friday, March 8, 2013

Watch The Skies...

Just a heads-up for the astronomically-inclined; this evening is the time to begin looking for Comet PANSTARRS! It should be visible soon after sunset for the next two weeks or so, low in the west. Look about a hands-width above the horizon. (you'll need to find a site with a clear western horizon and few lights to interfere with the view; a pair of binoculars would probably help as well). Remember, a comet DOESN'T "streak across the sky"--so don't be seduced by passing airplanes or other fast-movers. If you don't see it on your first attempt, don't give up--over the next week or so the chances of spotting the comet should improve. Good luck--and let me know if you see it!


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rain on the Sun

Once in a while I experience something (a book, a video, or even a conversation with one of my fellow mortals) that completely floors me.  Makes me simply stop and try to comprehend the wonder, the scale of our world, our universe, and our amazing species--so violent and cruel yet so creative and capable of great things.  This video brought me to one of these moments, and I thought to share it with you.

Okay, give me a few minutes to catch my breath...

Monday, February 25, 2013

Changing Course

I'm just in from walking our english bulldog Delany through the woods that surround our little house here in Ballston Lake, New York.  It's a beautiful day out--nearly 40f and sunny without a breath of wind, and what little snow remains in the open is disappearing quickly--and I enjoyed strolling alone beneath the bare branches (adjusting slowly--as always--to the uneven texture of ground beneath my boots after months of steel decking) while The Beast made a detailed study of last night's deer activity through examination of their tracks and spoor.  The latter research was perhaps a little too extensive...

It is the third day of my leave, having shouldered my seabag and paid-off Supply on Friday afternoon.  I have now a little less than four weeks to relax, recharge the batteries, and prepare for the next voyage.  The relaxation sounds pretty good to me.  Peace and quiet after desert heat and winter's icy storms @ sea.

Oh, who am I kidding?  Lucy and I will spend the next month preparing for our impending Move back down to Virginia, a process mainly consisting of sorting, packing, and in a few cases selling our assembled belongings, plus making one or perhaps two runs down to the house in Newport News (a full day's drive each way) to prepare said dwelling for occupation.  In other words, the next few weeks will be rather busy, if not chaotic!

As an aside, HOW on Earth did we ever accumulate all of this stuff?!  26 years ago, when I met the lovely Lucy Marie Prochazka in Philadelphia, nearly all of my worldly possessions fit in my seabag and a small case for my old Pentax 35mm SLR.  Today, a mere quarter-century later the bulk of our personal property--furniture, books (and more books), telescopes, electronics and knick-knacks--will require a big truck and a few good men (well, strong ones, anyhow!) to transport back to the Commonwealth.  I'd love to say that I plan on reducing our load, but I really don't know where to start.

Tacking Before the Wind
When my leave is done (on the 25th of March) I'll report back to MSC's Customer Service Unit-East--otherwise known as 'the Pool', placing myself again at the mercy of that bureaucracy for processing and assignment.  But this time something will be different; instead of awaiting orders to report to a ship as an Able Seaman I will be sailing in a new capacity, that of an Operations Chief--at a considerable raise in pay.

Yes, a promotion, and a change in the course of my career in MSC.  No longer will I stand watches, perform roving patrols of the vessel, scan the horizon as lookout or even man the helm with a warship alongside to take fuel; my new job will be different, definitely less physical but no less challenging--and I'll still be working on the bridge where I feel at home.

Operations Chiefs act as part of the ship's Executive staff, with one Chief usually assigned per vessel working directly for the Operations Officer and indirectly for the Captain.  Their position as Assistant Ops, AOPS for short, involves operational and tactical communications, intelligence collection, control of close-in maneuvering situations, and managing the ship's scheduling and planning processes--in essence he is in charge of keeping the Captain in the loop, and effecting his orders.

Readers with a U.S. Navy background (I know you're out there, Shipmates!) will recognize similarities between this general description of my new position with that of my job in my previous career in uniform, that of Operations Specialist (OS).  This is no co-incidence; the Operations Chief billet is modeled on the OS mission of collection, processing, display and dissemination of operational and tactical information for the use of the ship's Captain in making decisions, and so they are endeavoring to hire OSs for the job--or, as in my case, promoting from other ratings within the 'company'.

Sea Change
So, a major alteration in the course of my maritime career, but why?  And why now?  An obvious answer is an increase in basic pay, coupled with better quarters and the opportunity for overtime, but I have never been that ambitious about these things in the past and now is no exception.

The only real reply is that over the past few years I have become somewhat tired of the day to day routine of my job as an Able Seaman; the long watches (standing...always standing), the janitorial duties of cleaning, polishing and cleaning again, the sometimes less-than-stimulating intellectual environment, and the often arduous working conditions (I think that it was while hauling mooring lines for four hours last summer aboard Joshua Humphreys in the 120f heat of Djibouti that I reached "critical mass" on this factor--it turns out that I am no longer 25 years old, and it is about time to admit it).

Even so, my own lack of ambition would have had me hamstrung--at least until Captain Jason Ivey of Supply gave me the encouragement I needed to make my application.  Over the years the Captain and I have been through a lot together, and I thank him here for seeing my need for a change in job description and for his assistance in preparing and transmitting  my "package" to the promotion board.  I'm proud to call him a true Shipmate and (if I may) friend.

So, a new job--still sailing the great ships that I love, but in a different capacity.  Even with my Operations Specialist background I know that my new duties will be challenging; the learning-curve will be steep, but I'm looking forward to the experience.  I'll certainly keep you informed of my progress thru this Blog, so stay tuned as the next voyage begins.

This ought to be fun! 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The "Chelyabinsk Event"

 A "dash-cam" image of the bolide over Chelyabinsk
A Star Falls on Russia
Last Friday I slept-in, having had the evening watch the night before.  My alarm woke me at 0900 and half-an-hour later I was walking out the base gate, walking in the chilled morning air to my favorite coffee shop on Rt 36, "Jersey Shores Coffee Roasters".  Not that I drink coffee, mind you--this little cafe simply has the best Wifi within easy walking distance of the Weapons Station; twenty minutes' stroll brought me to the little blue building with the yellow roof and the somewhat incongruous (to me, at any rate) mural of a surfer "hanging ten" on the exterior wall.

Ordering English Breakfast and an onion bagel I settled down at my usual table and booted-up my laptop to check email and see what was going on in the world.  At this point I must explain that I strongly dislike television (Lucy and I don't even own one) and usually get my news online.  No, it isn't any kind of religious issue; I simply abhor the endless commercials and infantile chatter which is part of practically every "news" program.

As soon as I logged-in, I was stunned by the news from Russia; whilst I'd slept a large meteor had entered the atmosphere over the Urals, passing high above the city of Chelyabinsk as a brilliant fireball, or "Bolide".  The shock wave of it's passage had shattered windows and some structures in the city and outskirts, and roughly a thousand people of "Tankograd" (a nickname bestowed upon Chelyabinsk during the 'Great Patriotic War" because of the enormous number of tanks and other armored vehicles produced by the city for the war against Hitler's invading armies) were injured, mostly by broken glass as unprecedented "sonic boom" rocked the city.
A twenty-foot diameter "crater" in a frozen lake near Chelyabinsk
The bolide itself dis-integrated  high above the mountains, crushed into small fragments by the very mass of high-altitude air the rocky mass compressed ahead of it--a fate most meteors suffer as they plow into Earth's atmosphere at more than thirty thousand miles per hour.  The back-pressure of the air being compressed at last exceeds the tensile strength of the mass itself and it violently "explodes" as it's enormous kinetic energy is translated to heat and concussion.  This is why most scientist expect that no large fragments of the asteroidal body will be recovered.

Watch for Falling Rocks
When I returned to Supply I actually spent some time watching TV--partly to keep abreast of updates from Russia, and partly because another asteroid was in the news, a football-field-sized rock that in mid-afternoon passed Earth only 17,000 miles above Earth's surface.  Were the Russian bolide and "2012 ad14" related in some way, perhaps part of some kind of "asteroid shower"?  No, it seems not;  the bodies were traveling along very different orbital paths around the Sun, and their arrival in our planetary neighborhood on the same day seems to be just an astronomical co-incidence.  Pardon the pun.
 A nice comparison diagram

As I followed the coverage of the Chelyabinsk story I found myself experiencing some profoundly mixed emotions.  Concern for the injured, of course, and relief that there appear to have been no deaths resulting either directly or indirectly from the event.  Sympathy for the people of the city, confronted by a phenomenon outside their experience, who feared for themselves and loved one, and for those who honestly thought that the "end" had come.  And of course fascination with the enormous number of usable video and audio recordings that will provide scientists with vital data on the behavior of large meteors.  But there is also another reaction...

Asteroid Envy
Yes, following the reportage and commentary on Friday and since I have been found myself overwhelmed at times by the "green-eyed monster" known as jealousy.  I feel like a little boy whose friends all got bicycles while he got a sweater, simply because I couldn't be there to see such a magnificent sight as the people of a faraway Russian city were treated to!

Understand now, I have seen (conservative estimate here) tens of thousands of meteors over the past forty years of stargazing.  Most were your garden-variety "shooting star" appearing to streak across a few degrees of sky and then vanish, some thousands were seen while watching meteor "showers", a hundred or so chanced to cross the field of telescope or binocular, and only a few dozens can actually be called bolides, bright fireballs that crossed the sky leaving fading trails behind and faint afterimages in my eyes.

At every opportunity, whether on land or at sea, I have kept my eyes on the sky, seeking always that random flash of light that signals the breakup of a fragment of asteroid or comet in the upper atmosphere, the addition of an infinitesimal bit of mass to Earth.  I have watched, and seen wonders in the display of nature's fireworks, but I've never observed, and know well how unlikely it is that I ever will, anything approaching the "100-Year" fireball that the good people of Chelyabinsk saw last week!

Eyes on the Sky
But I'll keep looking.  As statistically unlikely as it may be, I'll continue be out there on every clear night, waiting and watching for that flash of light that rivals the sun and drowns the full moon with it's radiance, for that trail of fire across the sky, for the  hypersonic "boom" that heralds the arrival of a mass of asteroidal rock, a fragment of cometary nucleus.  Oh yes, I'll keep looking.

And I'll make you a solemn promise now.  If it happens that I miss my "100-Year" fireball, whether I happen to be inside the house having dinner with Lucy or within the "skin" of whatever ship I am sailing at the time; if my watch schedule has me sleeping when that visitor from space arrives.  Whatever the reason why I miss my bolide, whatever the excuse, I can promise you that it won't be that I was watching TV at the time!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Telescope Tale

A Telescope Tale

From my astronomical journals...

12 June 1986

Flagstaff, Arizona

Weather:            clr/cm, Temp 48f, Bar 1019, Hum 35%
Instrument(s):    60mm Bushnell Refractor on Equatorial Mounting
Narrative:         Mars and Jupiter observed with 60mm Refractor/no times noted.

MARS: Approx. on meridian.  20mm eyepiece (no filter) visible disk, but no detail due to glare.
12.5mm (filter) Definite detail-polar cap & dark greenish area. 12.5mm (w/out filter) Detail visible, but partially obscured by glare. 4mm: Hard to focus, but nice view of polar cap.
JUPITER: High in SE. 20mm: Three satellites visible--glare obscured planet. 12.5mm: (filter) surface detail visible--3 band. 4mm: four major cloud bands visible--no red spot.
The telescope I was using on that cool June evening in Flagstaff (a Bushnell "Banner Astro 400" and the subject of this post) was actually the second refractor I have owned in the course of my forty-year-long love affair with the night sky; the first was a similar but lower quality 'scope that my mother purchased for me at Christmas of '72.  I recall her concern that I would outgrow the hobby, losing interest in the stars, and the inexpensive Sears telescope she had selected for me would end up gathering dust in the attic.  

Of course, this didn't happen.

After six years of usage in the yard of our home in Mandeville, Louisiana, and at numerous observing sessions of the Ponchartrain Astronomy Society of New Orleans, the little Sears telescope was on the verge of falling apart; my enthusiasm for the hobby (and a little youthful impatience) had worn out the mounting and tripod, and my incomplete knowledge of the 'scopes' proper care had done some minor damage to the tube and optics.

In the summer of 1978, gathering my savings and collecting the monies earned by working the summer before on my uncle Sterlings' fishing boat (I'm pretty certain that he over-paid me), I went shopping for a more capable instrument.   (Looking back I find it interesting that I wasn't thinking of an "upgrade" so much as a replacement for my first 'scope; by this I mean that I seem not to have been infected at that time by that dreaded-but-oh-so-pleasant disease of the amateur astronomer, "aperture fever", which draws the observer to seek larger and larger telescopes and mountings until they strain both lower back and bank balance!)
A Touch of Glass
The telescope I settled on was the Bushnell refractor mentioned previously, no larger or even more powerful than my old Sears 'scope, but with a substantially heftier and more capable mounting and tripod and much better optics.  This last point was brought home to me on the first night "out" with my new instrument--lunar craters and maria were much better-resolved, and giant planet Jupiter revealed for the first time not only his four bright moons but the thin parallel lines of cloud bands girdling his equator!

From the moment of "first light"--that initial glimpse of the Cosmos through a new telescope--I was in love.  And, like any young couple in love, we went nearly everywhere together!  From observing planets in my backyard in Mandeville to splitting double stars in the Florida Everglades, spotting my first asteroid (4 Vesta) under Flagstaff's clear skies and watching a lunar eclipse in the heavens above Newport News once I'd joined the Navy...the Bushnell 'scope vastly expanded my astronomical horizons over the next eight years.  My experiences using this telescope under skies across the country over nearly a decade certainly helped shape my perspectives as an amateur astronomer, and I think they also made me a much better observer, more appreciative of every opportunity to get out there under the stars.

All Good Things...
Every love story, it seems, must have a tragic moment; a tearful goodbye or revelation upon which the tale turns.  In the case of myself and the Astro 400, this came in the Autumn of 1986; after a brief separation from the Navy I was about to embark on my second enlistment. The petty officer who deserves credit for making this happen was one Gary S., then serving at the Navy recruiting office in Flagstaff.  A fine Shipmate and good friend, he made the process of returning to uniformed service easy and even enjoyable, not only signing me up but putting me to work talking to potential new recruits about the benefits and downsides of naval service.

When the time to ship-out came, I asked Gary to look after my telescope while I got back into the Navy groove.  He agreed, and I packed-up and left the telescope with him when I departed for San Diego in the first week of September.  And that was the last time I saw the Astro 400...

A few months later, with my career re-booted (and, incidentally, recently engaged to the lovely Lucy Prochazka of Ardmore, Pennsylvania--but that is another post!) assigned to a ship sailing out of Virginia, I wrote to my mother and had her contact Gary to coordinate the shipping of my goods from Flagstaff to Newport News, where Lucy and I were busy building our lives together.  

At this point something went wrong; when my boxed belongings arrived via Greyhound there was no telescope.  When contacted, my mother told me that all the boxes had shipped.  I'm not certain why I didn't try calling the recruiting offices then--I think that perhaps I had already given up on the idea of ever seeing my refractor again--but in the build-up to our wedding and the separation of our first shipboard deployment as husband and wife I think it finally slipped my mind altogether.

The years flew by...

The Ghost of Solstices Past
Only a month or so ago I was surprised to receive an email from Gary.  He had run across All @ Sea! and recognized my style in the posts he read--it seems that I write in much the same fashion as I speak--and so made contact with a "are you the same person who..." email.  I was of course amazed to hear from him after a quarter-century--and further thrilled to learn that he still had in his possession my old 60mm telescope, and was prepared to ship it immediately!

Consider for a moment my old friends' dedication; I left my instrument with him for what I expected to be (at most) a few months, and he took excellent care of it for over twenty-six years!  I am reminded of the stories you hear about letters delivered decades after being mailed and beloved pets finding their ways home across hundreds of miles of wilderness.  

To say that I am grateful is a major understatement.

I came home on a weekend's liberty a few days after Christmas, excited to be back from the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea and looking forward to three days in the company of my wonderful wife Lucy and our small but energetic menagerie of an English Bulldog and two cats.  But I will confess here that another reunion filled me with almost as much anticipation as the long-awaited return to the bosom of my family, for waiting in the wings was a familiarly-sized box, recently arrived from Oregon.  

In my own defense I will state here that I did not leave Lucy in the lurch upon arrival; I managed to resist until after her welcoming embrace and our exchange of holiday gifts the draw of that well-wrapped parcel!  When the time came I was very pleased by what I found; the Bushnell 'scope had weathered well the decades of storage as Gary moved from place to place, shifting it from storage unit to garage to yet another unit.

My fingers moved by instinct, it seemed, the long years of separation forgotten as I assembled my old observing companion.  In a few minutes my old refractor stood before me in the living room, needing only a good cleaning and some lubrication of the mounting and focuser before it would be able to return to full duty.  A trial run outside was impossible due the overcast night, but I'm willing to wait a few more weeks for that second "First Light".

The Once and Future 'Optik Tube'

Now that the Banner 400 is restored to me, what will I do with it?  As capable as it is, it now stands as the smallest member of my observing collection--the 120mm APO refractor I use these days is double the Bushnell 'scopes' aperture and five times its weight, and my 8-inch reflector telescope also dwarfs it in size and light-gathering power.  In other words, the tiny refractor that aided me in my entry into observing is seriously out-classed.

However, for its type and size it continues to be useful.  I suspect that I'll fix the '400' up and perform a few modifications (the finder scope especially needs an upgrade), keeping it handy for those evenings when I feel like a quick look at the moon or a few double stars, and for when newcomers to astronomy join me at the altar of the stars; the telescope that got me started may yet inspire others to turn their eyes toward the heavens, and that strikes me as a perfect way for this particular telescope tale to continue.

The story goes on.

The photos in this post were all taken of the Bushnell Banner 400
on the morning of 29 December 2012.