Thursday, July 30, 2015

On The Boardwalk

Great night on the Boardwalk in Virginia Beach on Tuesday! The Back Bay Amateur Astronomers had an even dozen telescopes of various types and sizes out there, giving passersby glimpses of the waxing gibbous Moon and Saturn. And there were a LOT of you can tell by the photos the Boardwalk is a popular place on a warm summer's evening! I think this may have been the biggest crowd I've ever seen at a public stargazing event.

I'd planned to bring my "120" to the waterfront but was stymied by parking; as might be expected on a fine July evening the area was crowded and the closest parking I could find was four blocks away from the boardwalk!  I'm dedicated but not a muscleman, and the prospect of carrying scope, mounting and counterweights from car to site--and later back to the car!--was quite daunting.  In the end this was probably a good thing; there were already plenty of scopes but not a lot of room to spare! (I did help out with crowd-control and even manned a fine 12-inch Dobsonian for half-an-hour or so, sharing the view of the gibbous Moon with dozens of passers-by).

What the good folks of 'Back Bay' were up to that evening was Amateur Astronomy Outreach on an major-league scale; being rather experienced at "sidewalk astronomy" I am impressed by their equipment and knowledge and the obvious pleasure they take in sharing both with strangers "in the night".  Kudos to the BBAA for an excellent job of getting people to look up and take notice of the Universe!

And that's what Outreach is all about.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Thoughts From A Service Wife

For some time I have been wondering how to commemorate a small anniversary; the one-hundredth entry on this Blog.  I had thought to summarize my seagoing and/or astronomical career, or perhaps to finally publish one of the several articles I have labored over literally for years.  Those entries will wait, I think.

This morning I would like to hand the 'mic' over to my infinitely better half, the woman who willingly shares my life and therefore the tribulations of being "the sailor's wife".  Lucy is indeed my lighthouse and my anchorage, friend and wife and all-too-often distant confidant for these 28 years, and she knows all too well of what she writes. Heed her.


For a while now, I have been asked to contribute to this blog.  In light of some recent events, I decided it was time. 

Being the wife of a military man is a hard job.  Not necessarily for all the weird work schedules, strange commutes and places of residence, but for making the civilians who comprise our families, friends and co workers understand what we have chosen.  Because it IS a choice, and we make it for the man we love.

We go through relocations to strange new places and major life re-adjustments, house and appliance repairs, sick and dying pets, all perfectly timed when the husbands are deployed.  We slog through the missed birthdays and missed holidays.  We are the accountants, the keepers of the lighthouse that keeps the men coming back home. 

We have good days and we have bad days.  We keep ourselves busy with work and projects just to stave off the loneliness.  It is the latter that sometimes gets the better of even the toughest among us.  We put on a brave face, especially for the outside world, but inside, we are screaming for an ounce of comfort, comfort that is usually thousands of miles away.

That is when we tend to hear the inevitable: How do you do it?  How do you put up with it?  These questions are like a knife twisted in a festering wound.  Please don't ask.  Be there for us to talk to, to go to the movies with, to have tea with.  We love our friends and family, and your greatest support for us, the military wives, is just to BE there.

 When we are told that 'it must be great to have all this time to yourself', the words are a double edged sword for us.  Yes, it is nice to have the time, but it can also be too much.  "Your husband is on a cruise?"  Well, not really.  He works long hours with little sleep, and in an environment where anything can happen at anytime.  "Can't you fly over and meet him?"  Not exactly.  Schedules are subject to change, and we the wives, have obligations, if not to children, than work commitments, pets, etc.

With all due respect to families and friends, next time you are tempted to say any of the above, PLEASE rethink, and help us put up a clothesline, pot up a plant, or paint a cabinet!   We will thank you with a meal instead of tears after the phone has been hung up.

                                                                                                            Lucy Marie Epps
                                                                                                            Newport News, Va.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Down To The River

A young couple enjoy the view of Saturn through the "120"
Last night I loaded up my favorite telescope and drove to the shore of the James River for a few hours' Sidewalk Astronomy.  Arrived at the Crab Shack* just a few minutes after sunset, noted that the restaurant and adjoining fishing pier were quite busy, and began to set up.  The plan for the evening was to alternate between Saturn and the Moon, inviting passersby to come over for a look-see.

As noted I had my preferred telescope for "sidewalking" along; it's a Celestron 120mm ED-APO refractor on an Orion Sirius mounting, which I've recently refitted with a GSO focuser.  Technical lingo aside, I like using this scope for public events because its superb tracking capabilities allow me to spend less effort adjusting this or that and more time talking to people and answering questions.  In addition--full disclosure here!--a big, beautiful refractor on a hulking mounting is extremely cool-looking, and attracts the attention of the "public" very nicely.

And getting people's attention, making them notice the skies above them, is the object of the exercise!

It normally takes me about fifteen minutes to set up tripod, mounting and telescope; long before I was ready to begin folks began to come by, asking what was "up"and whether there was some special event to be seen. When I answered that I'd be showing passersby the Moon and Saturn there was immediate interest. Just as twilight began to fade I completed preparations--and none too soon.  Immediately I had a family (on their way to a night's fishing on the pier) lined-up for the Moon.

Conditions were excellent; our natural satellite's image was rock-steady at low powers, and even at higher magnifications there was very little distortion to be seen (mostly when heavy trucks roared by on the nearby highway).  In addition to trying-out my new focuser (it performed splendidly) I was also testing a recently-purchased 6mm eyepiece which delivered a magnification of 150X--in the exceptionally calm air the views of both the Moon and Saturn were spectacular!

I kept busy; between 2030 and 2330 (when I began closing down) I was able to share the beautiful views with forty-five people coming and going from the pier and restaurant.  Many stayed a while to talk and ask questions, and one young man actually tried to give me five dollars after enjoying the sight of Saturn and Titan framed in the eyepiece! (I refused, of course--told him to use it to start saving for a telescope of his own!)

As I drove home I took a few minutes to reflect on this aspect of my favorite hobby.  Sidewalking is one of the more pleasurable things I know, for a number of reasons.  In addition to my ingrained need to show off, I draw a great deal of enjoyment from the "wow" moments, when an unsuspecting "guest" (often a child) first sees the amazing rings of Saturn (many think it must be a "picture" I am somehow displaying in there) or the Moon's highlands through the eyepiece.  There is the quick breath, the "ooohh" of surprise, and the excitement of seeing something totally new to the person in question!  I am reminded of my own reaction to "first light" so many years ago; through sharing the heavens with strangers I get to re-live those days of wonder.

Sounds like a "win-win" to me.

The Crab Shack, 8-Day-Old Moon, and Saturn (to left of Moon)
 * I've used the Crab Shack as a "sidewalking" site for several years now, with the permission of the owners. A terrific establishment, and I recommend them for fine seafood, a great view of the river from their dining room, and of course their support of Amateur Astronomy!

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Viking Invasion

The Viking lander begins its descent, 20 July 1976
A few days ago NASA’s New Horizons probe performed its primary mission; after over nine years in transit it streaked past the dwarf planet Pluto, passing within 13,000km of this mysterious world’s surface.

Now comes the waiting.  It will take months for New Horizons to transmit all its images and data back to Earth; months before the real labor will begin, years or even decades before a real understanding of Pluto and its satellites may emerge.  And there is near certainty that the data recovered from our robotic reconnaissance of Pluto will also generate new questions, new puzzles about this tiny world and its moons. 

I’d like to take some time to remember another un-manned space mission, another nail-biting wait.  This one happened exactly thirty-nine years ago.  The Vietnam War was behind us (but only just), America’s Bicentennial celebrations were still in full swing, moviegoers were flocking to see “The Omen” in theaters across the country, and Billboard’s #1 song was Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight”. 

And on the morning of 20 July 1976 space exploration history was being made in a cold, rocky place called Chryse Planitia…
The Viking Spacecraft (with Lander)
Viking 1’s Lander separated from the orbiter while I slept; by the time I awoke its instruments were already beginning to taste the gases of the upper Martian atmosphere.  My head buzzing with the excitement of the day, I rushed through breakfast to settle in front of our little black & white television at about the same time a brilliant meteor might have been seen in the sky above Mars.

The Viking program was a dream given form; a pair of sophisticated spacecraft launched in 1975, traveling to Mars with a clear-cut, specific objective: to search for life on the Red Planet.* To facilitate this quest the Vikings each carried a Lander equipped with sampling arm and a chemical laboratory designed to analyze soil samples in an effort to detect evidence of biological processes.  While the orbiters would carry out the first comprehensive photographic survey of Mars, the Landers were on expedition—hunting very small game.

In other words, they were looking for Little Green Microbes.
The Viking Lander
I watched and listened as commentators and experts discussed the mission, the camera frequently scanning tense faces as the Viking Team awaited a radio transmission from the Lander confirming that it had survived atmospheric entry, parachute deployment, and the final powered descent to the surface.  I know that my expression mirrored theirs—the tension in my own living room must have equaled that at Mission Control.

Today I know that I was not alone in my vigil; while I waited nervously for the first signal from the surface of Mars in my living room in southern Louisiana another teenager, in faraway New York, also anxiously watched her family’s TV.  Her name was Lucy Marie Prochazka.  Yes, this is the story of a shared experience between me and my wife—ten years before we would ever become acquainted!

Finally, a signal!  The Lander had safely touched down at 0753 EDT, deployed its antenna and meteorological sensors, and almost immediately began imaging the Martian surface. I think I forgot to breathe for a few moments as the vertical scan of Viking’s cameras began to appear on the screen.  Slowly, so very slowly, line by line and working from left to right, that first image of the surface of Mars, harbinger of so many amazing views over the past four decades, began to appear. 

The first image from Mars
Traveling across the many millions of kilometers of space between two worlds came the first of the images that would reveal the face of that other world to us.  A planet of rugged, rock-strewn landscapes, towering volcanic calderas and vast canyons, pale skies and polar caps.  A world from which our own Earth appears only as a morning or evening “star”.
Viking 1's First Panoramic Scan
Viking 1 didn’t find conclusive evidence of life on Mars, and neither did Viking 2 which landed in September of the same year.  There is some debate even today over the results of the chemical analyses that the Landers completed, and of course the search for extant life on Mars has shifted to study of whether Mars might have had a biosphere in the distant past.

The Viking orbiters carried out their surveys, showing us the face of (and, according to some conspiracy theorists, on ) Mars, creating the maps that later mission planners would use during the preparation for further expeditions.  These spacecraft, and for me especially Viking 1, were the trail-blazers, the vanguard of an armada of un-manned probes.  They, their designers and engineers, imaging teams and investigators opened Mars to the exploration it is now undergoing.  They truly were the pioneers.

I think we can consider the Viking invasion a success; it was certainly one to a boy in Louisiana and a girl in New York!

*   To my knowledge this was the only NASA mission to publicly include the detection of life outside of Earth’s atmosphere as a stated objective.  I can only imagine that political reaction to the ambiguous results of the Viking chemical analyses has caused NASA to soft-pedal that particular aspect of Martian exploration in the decades since.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Magical Mystery Tour

Today I'm pleased to present as guest-blogger my own dear wife Lucy.  She and I have shared many a voyage over the years, and I think it's only fitting that she have her "say" on A Sea of Stars.

The world holds its collective breath as a little probe called New Horizons turns its ears, eyes, and nose towards a little world known as Pluto. 

It has been a long time since the world seemed so united in one goal, so filled with expectation and wonder, that for a few minutes the horrors of wars, floods, hunger and devastation were pushed aside to eagerly await news from the deepest reaches of space.

The wonder, the sheer amazement of this most recent mission by NASA can only be compared to the marvel of the Viking mission to Mars.

On July 20, 1976, the world waited, united, as the first ever transmission from Mars was broadcast. Line by delicate line, the Martian plain came into focus.  Viking 1 had made planet-fall on Mars.  NASA had begun to wow us with the wonders of our planetary neighbors. 

Through the years, we have marveled at Jupiter and the Red spot; Saturn's mysterious hexagon; Neptune and it's beautiful blue oceans.  Now,  Pluto has charmed it's way into everyone's hearts.   Demoted to a 'dwarf planet', Pluto has become the darling 'child' of the solar system.

Now, through the incredible hard work and dedication of many men and women, we know that Pluto has a heart, that it has mountains of ice, and that Charon has a canyon almost 500 miles long!  Wowie!   

Where to next, NASA?  Alpha Centauri?  Is there Vulcan in our future?  What's with the white spots on Ceres?  And what's up with that hexagon on Saturn anyway?

Amaze me, thrill me with the mysteries of our own neighborhood!
New Horizons, the little probe that could. Hurrah!  And Curiosity, still chugging away on the Martian plains.
Take me away, on a wonderful, magical, mystery tour! 
      Lucy M. Epps


Friday, July 17, 2015


I can't sleep tonight.

I try.  I really do.  But then I have to get up and stare at this amazing image from the New Horizons probe.  And stare.  It's hypnotic, it is!

What are we seeing here?  It's Pluto (on the left) and its largest moon Charon.  Click to enlarge it.  You can make out the dark polar area nicknamed "Mordor" by the JPL folks on Charon and clearly see the "heart" of Pluto. But there's something more here, that keeps me coming back to this "space shot".

This image, of dwarf planet and over-sized moon, is the sum and substance of my childhood dreams of Solar System exploration.  It's a double world revealed for the first time to humanity, a 'Star Trek' special effect, a 'Star Wars' matte painting, and every descriptive paragraph from every great science fiction novel ever written, all rolled up into one.

I can feel my pulse racing, heart pounding. 

Every great human effort has a signature image. Lindbergh arriving in France, the Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, Apollo Eight's  photo of "Earthrise" over the lunar horizon, Apollo Eleven's close-up of a boot-print on the lunar regolith, The Curosity rover's 'Johnny Five' Martian "selfie".  Each an image to be instantly associated with a new frontier crossed, a new challenge met.

When the histories of 21st Century space exploration are written, this will be the signature image of the first encounter with the worlds of the Plutonian system. It will be an emblem; a marker indicating the finale of the first great exploration of the Solar System.  Not the beginning of the end; this is only the end of the beginning.

Now, please excuse me while I stare.

The Face of the Ferryman

In Greek mythology Charon was the boatman of the underworld, ferrying souls across the River Styx into the domain of Pluto. Fearsome of visage and manner, he offered no consolation to his passengers, only collecting their fares for what truly would be a one-way voyage.

Let’s meet his namesake.

This is Charon, Pluto’s largest satellite; New Horizons captured this image on 13 July during its flyby (though perhaps “fly-through” might be more appropriate)  of the Plutonian system.  At the time this photo was captured the spacecraft was slightly less than 500,000km from the rugged surface of Charon (for comparison our own Moon orbits Earth at roughly 400,000km), and the detail is impressive; we can see craters, mountain ranges and even an enormous canyon (estimated at 9km deep) along the upper right limb as seen in this image.  Note the north polar region’s (top of the image) smooth appearance and dark coloration, this area of Charon has been un-officially named “Mordor”!

What I find most impressive is the overall shape of this body; it’s lumpy.  If you’ll examine the photo in detail it looks similar to a shot of our Moon rising or setting, at which time the thickening atmosphere between our eyes and Luna tends to distort the image.  The difference here is that there is no atmospheric filter in place; Charon really is that shape.  Combining the odd form of this icy world with the impressive and varied geological features that we can see here (that canyon is rather “grand”, wouldn’t you say?), and it seems clear that this faraway object has had an interestingly dynamic geologic past.

Throughout our robotic explorations of the Solar System we’ve encountered surprises like these; it seems that however exotic the environment encountered there are processes at work. Geologic forces, chemical reactions, tidal stresses; there appear to be no static worlds out there even in the hinterlands of the Sun’s kingdom.  Nature, it seems, abhors boredom above all else.

And this is only the beginning.  As data continues to be beamed back from New Horizons over the coming months I expect we’ll have some questions answered and many more raised; after all, this is only the first reconnaissance of these cold, distant worlds.

Who knows what we might find?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

What Am I Doing In New Jersey?*

Why, transferring cargo, of course!  Medgar Evers arrived yesterday and is now moored on this (ridiculously) long pier at Naval Weapons Station Earle, New Jersey.

Only a few hundred yards from Sandy Hook, the gateway to New York City and the Hudson, this facility must be one of the best-kept non-secrets on the Jersey Shore--when the Weapons Station was built during WWII this was a lightly populated area of the Garden State, but today this arsenal is closely surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people.  In fact, Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen are said to live within a few miles of this pier!

Parenthetically, I've always wondered why we never see protests outside the gates.  Surely someone is unhappy about the idea of living next-door to "bomb central"!

I've actually spent quite a lot of time in this area since I joined MSC; I underwent my new-hire Indoctrination and Basic Safety Training at a training center near the base, and then was assigned to USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8), which at the time was home-ported here.  Between 2005 and 2012, whenever Arctic wasn't deployed overseas, this pier was my home-away-from-home.

Working here was fun in the summertime and hell in the winter;  The sea breeze always kept the summer heat within tolerances and the sixty-knot winds out of the north-west would drive the temperatures well below zero between November and February!  I've spent some of the coldest days and nights of my life here, toting a shotgun and trying to keep my footing as the decks ice over.

As you might guess, I'm pretty familiar with the area.  I have a favorite coffee shop right outside the gate, know where the Barnes and Noble is in Holmdel, and can find my way handily around Red Bank and Eatontown.  I'll be going out sometime during the weekend to visit a few old haunts, and perhaps I'll try to get together with the local amateur astronomers, too.

* This is of course the title of a classic album of stand-up by the late (and great) comic George Carlin.  We miss you, George!

Monday, July 13, 2015

The New World


Pluto.  Distant, ancient, cold.  So very, very cold.  A small world with one oversized moon and several tiny ones, occupying an orbit so far from the life-giving Sun that for most of the eighty-six years since its discovery it has existed as only a dim point of light in our telescopes.  Even the most powerful of modern earthbound or orbiting instruments can only give hints as to its character, its personality.  Pluto; so tiny, so far away, so inconsequential.

And yet…

As I write this the New Horizons probe is homing-in on the “former” ninth planet*.  Tomorrow this robotic emissary will fly by Pluto, passing less than eight thousand kilometers from its surface.  After a journey of more than nine years a human-made “bullet” will streak past the Plutonian satellites and give us our first (and for quite a long time, last) close-up images of Pluto and Charon.

Frankly, I’m completely psyched!

Pluto has been a source of wonder and an imaginary destination for me since childhood.  I can still clearly remember the science fiction stories and popular scientific speculation as to what it would be like, and what we might find when we first made it that far out.  In my teens I read the story of Pluto’s discoverer, a Kansas farm-boy named Clyde Tombaugh who went to work at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; an amateur astronomer who, through perseverance and skill, “made good” and added to our knowledge and understanding of the Sun’s family of planets.**

To date I have orbited the sun fifty-three times; Pluto has accomplished less than one quarter of its “year” in that same period, one of its orbits requiring over two hundred and forty-seven of our years.  I’ve observed it several times through the telescope over the years—first when I was only fifteen years-old, and at that age experienced a sense of awe in the viewing entirely out of proportion to the image itself; that dim point of light, indistinguishable from any other except via a careful process of elimination, seemed so much more to me than “just” another star.  Growing up in the age of Apollo and Skylab as I was, that impossibly remote mote was to me a goal—a destination.  A place to be visited and explored—another world waiting for man’s indomitable curiosity.

And now it’s happening, though not in the way I imagined it. 

Fresh from the lunar landings of Apollo, I and my friends were convinced that human landings on Mars lay but a decade or so away, Jupiter perhaps twenty-five years, Saturn just a few more.  Our imaginings were of tough, pioneering humans in tremendous spacecraft blazing nuclear-powered trails across the outer Solar System.  Na├»ve?  Admittedly, yes; as youngsters we could not see the Space Race as the politically-motivated effort that it was.  Nor could we understand the transient nature of the Public’s fascination with space flight; if you had suggested to us in late 1969 that the Apollo program would end after only six successful missions we’d have thought you mad.  No, we weren’t living in the real world. We lived in a better place.

While the human exploration of space would remain in Low Earth Orbit for at least the next four decades, another hardy brand of explorer was in the 1960s and ‘70s already blazing those trails that we dreamed of.  Our pathfinders in the Solar System would not be mammoth manned spacecraft as imagined but instead compact, affordable space probes.  In the shadows of the Mercury and Gemini programs they had already been hard at work on an initial reconnaissance; the Explorers, Lunar Rangers and Orbiters, Luniks and Surveyors were the first wave of the invasion, testing the waters before human life could be committed to deep space.

As Apollo left man’s footprints on the Moon the Mariners and Veneras probed Mars, Mercury and Venus for the first time, and as the Skylab orbiting laboratory and Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous mission were being executed the Pioneer twins, 10 and 11, were aloft on their missions to Jupiter. And there were more robotic explorers; the twin Vikings were the first to land on Mars in 1976, Giotto probed Comet Halley a decade later, and the magnificent Voyagers, initially following in Pioneer’s tracks, made a Grand Tour of the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Pathfinder, NEAR, Curiosity…the list goes on.

And what have we learned from these missions? The photos sent back to Earth fill dozens of coffee-table books, the data returned fill many libraries for eager researchers to explore, but what is the most important thing learned, the vital message sent back from dozens of un-manned spacecraft ranging across the Solar System?  What have their sensitive instruments and cameras accomplished for all of us, every human being?

Simple.  Each time these mechanical and electronic extensions of our senses have crossed vast distances to reach other planets, dwarf planets and asteroids; each time they’ve lifted the metaphorical veil of yet another unique member of our Sun’s family; each time they have given us (quite in-expensively) a fresh look at what had before been only a fuzzy dot on an observatory photograph or a faint, starlike object moving slowly across my telescope’s field, they have done an amazing, priceless thing in every case.

They have given us worlds.  They have changed our perspectives, our viewpoints; taken what were for untold millennia only distant, moving lights in the sky—or even objects invisible to our limited vision—and made them real.  Made them not simply abstractions or dimensionless wanderers in the heavens but places.  Just as our Moon stopped being simply a bright light in the evening sky forty-six years ago, so do our un-manned probes alter our perceptions of the myriad worlds that surround us.

And now it is Pluto’s turn.  In the next few hours Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of eighty-five years ago will be forever changed in our perceptions, an irreversible alteration in the way we will think of Pluto.  Yesterday that tiny world orbiting beyond Neptune was only a faint point of light to me; tomorrow in the wake of New Horizons’ historic flyby it will be a different place.  A plant/dwarf planet with geology, weather and unique features, dynamic in its own way.

I can’t wait.

* In 2006 the International Astronomical Union established a definition for “Planet” (interesting that in more than three thousand years of astronomy no-one had done this) which places Pluto—and quite a few other objects traveling the hinterlands of our Solar System—in the category of “Dwarf Planet”.  There has been quite a bit of media attention given to this “demotion”, and I’ve been asked many times about it at star parties and whilst volunteering in the Virginia Living Museum observatory .  My response: Pluto doesn’t care what sort of taxonomical box we try to squeeze it into—it’s a fascinating world well worthy of study and contemplation as we explore our little corner of the Cosmos.  And since Pluto doesn’t care, neither do I.

** Tombaugh’s story, I think, is often mis-represented.  He is portrayed as the yokel who ‘lucks’ into fame and prominence, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  Yes, he lived on a farm, but what made his employment by Lowell Observatory possible were his well-known amateur astronomical accomplishments and skill at designing and fabricating precision telescope optics.  Like many amateur astronomers are doing today, Tombaugh’s abilities and observations paved the way to his association with a major astronomical institution; there was no “luck” involved.

I actually met Clyde Tombaugh in March of 1980.  As a member of the Flagstaff Astronomical Society and a volunteer at Lowell Observatory I received an invitation to the ceremonies commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of Pluto, and you might say that this particular 17-year-old amateur astronomer was ecstatic over the chance to attend such an event. Mr. Tombaugh was 74 years-old then (he would live another 16 years), and I was thrilled not only to have the chance to shake his hand but to have a few minutes to speak with him—and to have him autograph my program for the evening!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Quick Post: The Old Moon in the Storm

With rainy weather bearing down on us out of the east I had little hope of observing the crescent moon on the outskirts of the Hyades of Taurus, and I was at least partially correct.  I could see Luna in the gaps between the rushing cumulus but she was a pale ghost filtered by high, heavy cirrus, and I was unable to catch a glimpse even of Aldebaran, let alone the dimmer stars that comprise the face of the Bull.

Medgar Evers is cruising westward; for the first several days of this voyage the weather was fine, with quite smooth seas.  This morning, however, we're beginning to feel the effects of a tropical depression well to the south and feeling quite a bit of motion in addition to rising winds and a falling barometer.   All of these are classic signs of a "blow", and usually mean that the skies will not be clear enough to pick out the 3rd and 4th-Magnitude stars
of the Hyades.

Still the moon was quite a beautiful sight, a “ghostly galleon tossed upon the cloudy seas” as the poet put it*.  The difference in the apparent speeds of the upper cirrus and lower cumulus was almost vertigo-inducing in its impression of the thin crescent moon dashing at break-neck speed, running flat-out into the dawn twilight.

A lovely sight; worth getting up early, I think.

* Alfred Noyes, “The Highwayman”

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Wanderers and Nomads, Sinners and Saints

It's a bright morning here in the mid-Atlantic.  The deck presses against my boot soles as the ship breasts a swell, the pressure eases as the bows dig into the sea, white spray exploding from beyond the deck's curving edge.  The newly-risen sun is caught by the white caps; they turn momentarily to gold
before falling away again into ashen shadow.

I stand on the starboard bridge wing of Medgar Evers, enjoying the dawn's light on distant cumulus, brilliant sky above a rising seaway and the sensation
of the warm wind on my scalp and cheeks.  Tiny droplets of brine, swept from wave crests by the zephyr, make the bulkhead and railing shine with
minute diamonds, the same jewels that dampen my windbreaker and hands.

And I haven't even finished my first cup of tea.

I've been aboard Evers for only three weeks now, and already my new office and small but well-appointed stateroom are becoming quite familiar. As is the
ladder-well leading from my quarters up to the bridge (where I spend most of my working day) and down to the mess deck (where I probably spend too much time),
and the many offices and working spaces of this ship which I am already thinking of as "mine".

It doesn't take long.  A mariner can spend months or even years developing what seems an unbreakable bond with his or her ship, coming to know the vessels'
strengths and flaws, to think of Shipmates in a manner nearly equating them in importance to blood relatives; to consider the Captain as patriarch (or
matriarch, as may be) as well as ship's Master… and then find him- or herself suddenly swept away from the comfort of this strange family, moved by currents and eddies
of life at sea to another steel hull, another collection of perfect strangers.

And then, without any sense of betrayal or guilt, he or she will begin to form bonds with these new crewmates, this new ship.  The last vessel, and all of
the ones before it will live on in recollection and conversation, but like promiscuous lovers we of the maritime profession slip from relationship to
relationship, passionate wanderers moving from hull to hull, family to family.

So, what is the constant of the nomad's lifestyle? What is it that gives continuity to the lives and careers of me and my fellow voyagers?  The answer is
as obvious as the tilt of the deck, the plume of spray, the wind that rattles the wires of rigging and tears the very breath from the unwary laborer on deck.

Of course, it is the Sea.

Whatever ship we sail, flag we fly, or corporate livery that adorns our funnels, it is love of the sea that makes us all comrades out here.  We come from
all possible backgrounds and locales, sons of workmen and daughters of lawyers, new-hires who've barely known port from starboard and veteran seaman who learned
the trade under sail. We form a community of individuals joined in this one passion, one calling; we must go down to the sea or face the misery of dreams and voyages unfulfilled.

It is this passion, and this alone, that makes us all the same despite differences of flag or ideology, politics or religion.  This is the bond we have between us; the force that joins the hundreds of thousands of mariners and sailors and fishermen; toilers all upon the waters of the great oceans. This
is our vast, varied family, the source of quiet pride and our sustenance in adversity. We are the brotherhood of the sea.

Shipmates all.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Mistaken Identity

Okay, how on Earth was I supposed to know that there is a brand of furniture called "Telescope"?!?  Durn near caused a traffic accident when I saw this sign on I-13...

The Four (?) Doctors

Hey, your screwdriver is bigger than mine!
On Friday night Lucy and I took a few minutes to get into costume (and character), then drove down to the Barnes and Noble at Patrick Henry Shopping Center for a little fun with fellow "Doctor Who" fans.  Lucy garbed herself in the green jacket, pocket-watch and neck-cloth of the 8th incarnation of the titular Gallifreyan (as portrayed by Paul McGann) whilst I donned the hat, coat and (early model) scarf of the 4th Doctor (though it must be noted that Tom Baker played the character with a much more prominent coif than I am able to muster on short notice--if at all!).  Of course we prepared ourselves for temporal adventure with our trusty Sonic Screwdrivers!

Once at the bookstore we quickly discovered that some sort of timey-wimey paradox had occurred;  I had a doppelganger attempting to usurp my role as the 4th Time Lord!  This sharply-dressed fellow (with quite a bit more scarf than I, meaning that he came from a point further "down-stream" in the Doctor's time line) and I joined in the trivia contest and found ourselves dead-locked; we soon realized that Mr. Baker's personification of our hero was broad enough for two cos-players and quickly joined forces.

But we weren't alone!  The 10th Doctor (complete with red trainers and "modern" hair) joined the party and, along with a very young lad in a red bow-tie and suspenders (hmmm...can't imagine "Who" he might have been!) had a good time with the displays.  There were quite a few Whovians of all ages, which is always a pleasure to see.

In addition to the trivia contest and costumed fun, the young 'uns each took a turn at building Adipose "children" out of marshmallows and toothpicks (yuck!), and a raffle closed the evening, prizes going to three of the younger fans.  Lucy and I left for dinner and a movie--a private screening of "Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D."!

An excellent time, I think, was had by all.
The Tenth Doctor and the Eleventh share a moment.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Planetary Pavane: Finale

If you stepped out into the gathering dusk yesterday evening you probably saw the fading colors of the day, shading down through deep blue and violet.  You might have watched as the streetlights came to life, as the Moon rose through the trees or as the first stars appeared overhead.  Perhaps you saw a few fireflies. You may have heard the hum of distant traffic, the fluttering of a hungry bat’s wings in the still air, hushed conversation or even the laughter of a small child at a distance.

I truly hope that, in addition to all of the myriad possible sights, sounds, scents and sensations you encountered last night under the darkening skies, you also felt a moment of vertigo.  That, in glancing up into the heavens and seeing two bright “stars” very close together high in the west, you experienced an instant of wonder at seeing with your own eyes two sister worlds to the Earth brought together by gravity, momentum and perspective, appearing so close as to seem only a hairs-breadth away from collision!

Did you look up last night to see Venus and Jupiter in conjunction, wheeling past each other as close as you will ever see them?  With less than half-a-degree of sky visible between them, did you watch the display and catch your breath at the sight of the largest planet in the solar system and the most reflective one by far suspended in the twilight?

Did you, for just one magnificent, awe-struck moment know the orbits, the revolutions, the perigees and the apogees and the ellipses that make up our lives, every one of us?  Did you feel it?

Did the Earth move for you last night?