In the summer of 1987, during my first sailing voyage, it took us 23 days to sail from Christmas Island to Kauai (no wind, no engine, no toilet, no refrigeration). My cousins Rocky and Joe had sailed from California to New Zealand, and I got to join them on the way back as a high school graduation present. I spent my three-hour watches every night reclining in the cockpit, facing aft, looking due south. By the end of the summer I could identify thirty constellations and sixty individual stars. I can only name half of those now. Any shooting star or cool cloud bore mentioning to the next watch, because there wasn’t much going on out there for 23 days.
Just after midnight one night the shooting star of all shooting stars appeared overhead. As it burned across the sky it got brighter and brighter, until it was as bright as a full moon and cast shadows in the cockpit. For a moment I could hear it, like the sound of a jet plane. Soon its trail turned from white to orange, then from orange to green, then it hit the water, or disappeared below the horizon. I was sure this meteor had grounded out – part of it had actually made it through the atmosphere and hit the ocean. Soon small but highly intelligent slimy men began climbing up the topsides…nah. The next morning I told Rocky and Joe about what I’d seen, but as with all amazing sights that only have one witness, it was hard to convey its enormity.
Flash forward two months: I’m happily drinking myself to death at San Diego State when I get a letter from Cousin Rocky, which contains a newspaper clip. The newspaper clip says that the Soviet satellite Cosmos 1871 crashed “in ‘the middle of nowhere’ in the Pacific Ocean” on the night I saw my big shooting star.
A quick look at the chart American Samoa to Hawaii, which my cousins gave me, and which I had taped to my dorm wall, showed that the satellite crashed just 900 from us. 900 miles! – It might as well have been fifty yards. Here’s what a space exploration timeline has to say about it:
“1987: Cosmos-1871 would have been the heaviest satellite ever placed in orbit around Earth’s poles, but the ten-ton Russian spysat reaches only an insufficient 90 miles altitude. It falls harmlessly into the South Pacific 1,500 miles east of New Zealand near Antarctica, the first time the USSR announces beforehand one of its satellites is dropping.”
I can assure you it was nowhere near Antarctica. Our original newspaper article gave coordinates.
So, I think I can safely say I was the only witness to this puppy going down. Ten tons burning up at 17,000 miles per hour is, well, I couldn’t really explain it that morning, and I can’t really now: Giant! Blazing! Flaming! Orange! Green! Wow!
The question is, how did Rocky find this newspaper article – which must have been a blurb on the 35th page – two months later? When the paper came out he was in the middle of the Pacific with me. I’ve asked him since, and his answers are similar to those about why we had an engine but didn’t use it all summer – “er, grumble, I dunno, I don’t remember.”
Rocky closed his letter (yes, kids, back then we sent paper letters with colorful stamps on them) with, “We’ll be thinking of you sweating behind that desk while we’re out here where the wind and the waves are born. Be smart.”