Astronomers at Large

July 14, 2013

Astronomy, History

A meeting of the gods.Did I ever tell you about the time I prevented a bombing? Okay forget I said anything, but here’s what happened.

On July 11, 1991 in La Paz, Mexico there was a total eclipse of the Sun. The Keystone Astronomers were there.

Keystone Astronomers at Large is a quirky cable access TV show that I co-produced years ago with RL.Dietz in Spokane. It was a weekly half-hour show. The tag line is “a non-serious organization.” We entered into production with no intention of taking ourselves seriously. For example one week it was a puppet show. Captain Warp and his crew managed to exceed light speed, leading to paradoxical results.

Often the show was just RL and I against a green screen background, with the green electronically replaced allowing us to appear someplace exotic, or fly from one astronomical object to another other and discuss what we like or don’t like about it. The green screen process is known as chromakey which is one reason we called ourselves the Keystone Astronomers. The other reason is that we bungled our way through the episodes “live to tape” leaving in all bloopers, like the Keystone Cops of the silent film era.

A partial solar eclipse. March 9, 1989 Spokane, WA during a live television event hosted by The Keystone Astronomers. Photo by Brad Snowder.I had a tree trimming business in those days, but RL and I eventually grew to be the pet astronomers of the local news outlets, being interviewed anytime an astronomical event came along that was news worthy. We hosted a couple of live shows. In each case we stayed true to character, operating without a script, and rarely giving a serious answer. We were less Bill Nye and more Mystery Science Theater 3000.

RL and I wanted to film a major expedition, a real expedition, and this eclipse in Mexico was just the ticket. We had referred to ourselves many times on the show as “world famous” so now it was time for life to imitate art. RL managed to get a seat on a jet chartered by some folks in Salt Lake City. I hooked up with a small gang of Portland’s star hoppers on a five-seater twin engine turboprop in Oregon.
A small twin turboprop.
On the flight south I was in the co-pilot’s seat and allowed to control the plane while the pilot Toby gave me instructions. My only previous piloting experience was Microsoft Flight Simulator but it was very similar. One thing that Toby taught me is that when you see another plane, you point to it and say “traffic.” This alerts your counterpart to the potential danger and then the two of you combine assessments of the other plane’s altitude, and vector. Even a slight fender bender is a big deal up there at 10,000 feet and at 400 mph a plane can cover a mile pretty quickly. Toby said that any traffic within a few miles was a matter of concern.

We didn’t have any dangerous encounters on the flight down, although over Oakland I did cruise closer to the Goodyear blimp than is probably considered good form. Sorry.

When we got to La Paz the sky was full of planes, traffic, traffic, traffic. A lot of folks had decided that this was the place to spend this special moment, and like us, they were arriving at the last moment. As we circled I began to worry that we would miss the event. I’m not sure the local air traffic controller had ever seen more than one plane arrive at once in his whole life. Unfortunately for us his English was poor. Our pilot began to speak directly to pilots in other planes. The pilots began to organize their own traffic control among themselves, saying things like “I’m low on fuel, how about I go next” and so on. Pilots are trained to do exactly that if needed, as they are the ones that are ultimately responsible, not the controllers on the ground.

Finally landing and getting randomly parked in a field, we were herded into a line. I had no idea where RL might be. There were thousands of people spread out into the desert in all directions. I decided to take aggressive action. I gathered up my gear, stepped out of line, and walked to the front. There was a yellow and black striped board across the exit, the type with a big counterweight, which the guard lifts up to let people or cars through. I smiled and nodded at the guard and ducked down to go under the board while the people in line stared. The Mexican customs officials were very friendly but unofficial looking in their blue jeans and t-shirts. The guard nodded back at me and raised up the barrier, and I walked out into the desert. Gracias.

Those El Paso folks are serious.I climbed over a small waist-high fence. I ducked under a big sign that said “Prohibido El Paso” which I assume does not mean “Welcome to El Paso.” People and telescopes and cameras were everywhere. My white umbrella shaded me and my backpack, with a video camera held akimbo, tape running. I needed to find RL. I met people who had come from England, Japan, Australia, and all over the U.S. I was eventually directed to where RL was busy within his circle of equipment. RL had been on the ground long enough for many travelers to have heard already about “Los Keystone Astronomicos.” RL is a professional photographer with a colorful way of self-promoting.

I walked up and set down my pack just as a shout went up from the crowd. First contact, the Moon had begun to nibble on the edge of the Sun. We cheered. Adrenaline began to flow. I hiked around interviewing and videotaping people.

There were all sorts of different viewing devices, pin-holes, solar scopes, eyepiece projections, filters, camera focusing screens, etc. One lady had on a broad brimmed straw hat, with little holes in it. The result was hundreds of little eclipses all over her white blouse. Someone reflected the waning image of the sun onto a large blank billboard with a small mirror. Women started taking out their makeup compacts and soon the billboard was alive with dozens of partial eclipse images dancing about.
It works because light is a wave with magnetic parts and the edge of the hole has electrons. But the hole needs to be small like a lightwave.
To the northwest the sky turned a dark grayish-blue. People rushed to white sheets that had been spread on the ground to expose the mysterious “shadow-bands” that rippled across and heralded the coming event. The Sun’s crescent waned further and it was as if someone was turning down a dimmer switch. Adrenaline rushed again. In the far distance we could see that brighter sunlight still fell somewhere on Earth. Then the whole sky turned a dark gray topped by a bright reddish haze. It looked like a sunset, turned upside down.

Someone shouted “Get ready.”

Suddenly, second contact. The light switched off. The sky became dark and the Sun blossomed. From the direction of the farm we heard a rooster crow. The fibers of the corona flowed outward and were grouped into several large cones pointing off into space. The limbs of the Sun were decorated with large, bold prominences. These crooked peaks of orange were easily studied with the naked eye. One looked distinctively like a seahorse. There was a clicking sound from the multitude of cameras recording the event. After the initial cheer, the sound of the crowd had become subdued. We were awestruck. I felt honored. I was euphoric. I was overwhelmed. The next thing we noted was that our thermometer dropped a full 18 degrees. It felt like walking out of the desert into a cool building.

The Sun was clearly in Gemini. Many of the brighter stars stretching from Leo to Orion were twinkling and also plainly visible were Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury. It was all so glorious.
Corona Galore, July 11, 1991 by RL.Dietz
Diamond Ring. A moment at the end of totality - also known as 3rd contact. Photo by RL.DietzSix minutes and forty seven seconds of totality and then, third contact. The Sun took on the look of a bazillion carat diamond ring. The rooster crowed again and everyone laughed. The lunar shadow was seen racing away to the southeast and people began screaming in triumph. The euphoria actually magnified at this point. The crowd whistled and clapped and submitted commentary such as “aaawooooo.” We had come to see the might Ra and his unblinking eye, and we saw him blink. The shadow bands briefly returned to wave goodbye as we packed up our gear.

The planes took off and the sunny town of La Paz receded.

Don't tell any jokes. Don't even mess with these guys.U.S. Customs in San Diego is not of the same chaotic “oops sorry about that” style of La Paz. These guys are serious. They wear white shirts, black ties, and gold badges. And guns. These guys are dead serious. We had to stand with our toes on a white line while we and our bags and our plane were thoroughly searched. No contraband here, so we soon flew off in the direction of Arizona. Our expedition wasn’t over yet.

After a tasty meal in Flagstaff, where the cook asked us to sign a testament of satisfaction for his parole officer, we re-boarded and headed over to the Barringer Meteor Crater. The real pilot had taken control at this point. He circled the crater repeatedly while doing a wing-over, which is basically turning the plane on its side, one wing pointed to the ground and one to the sky. This allowed me to get a clear shot of the crater with my camera, without having an airplane wing in the picture. Around and around we went. It was no small feat. The crater is almost a mile across. When we finally finished the aerobatics, the rest of the gang was getting pretty nauseous.
Near Winslow, AZ. About 1.2 km across and .2 km deep. An impact about 25,000 years ago. The meteor that caused it is estimated at 50 meters diameter which would have weighed about 300,000 tons. Photo by Brad Snowder.
I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of my meteor crater photo over the years. Several college textbook publishers have seen it on the web and contacted me to purchase the right to include it. So far I’ve resisted the vanity of choosing one of those books for the courses I teach, even though I typically have latitude to do so. I like the book I’m using for other more practical reasons. A few years ago I was contacted by someone from Griffith Observatory. They did a big remodel at Griffith and put in a new solar system display. They purchased a high res file of my image for a hard copy print. When I went down to JPL for the Mars Curiosity Rover landing I finally got to see it, with my name displayed underneath. That was pretty cool. I’ve since been told that the reason I have a rare shot of the crater is that this is technically a no fly zone. We weren’t supposed to be near it, let alone doing wing-overs around it. Sorry.

With our entourage queasy and tired, and Portland still a long way off, we voted to find our way to Reno and spend the night, and then mosey on home in the morning. The pilot decided it was time to start teaching me about navigation. So I took control of the maps.

Toby said that the number one way to navigate a plane is called “pilotage.” It involves looking out the window at features on the ground, and figuring out where you are. Highways, towns, lakes, mountains, it’s all fair game. My job was to get us to Reno. One thing Toby didn’t mention is that the Earth, unlike a map, doesn’t have big dotted lines on it indicating forbidden areas. Thanks to my novice pilotage, although it was truly Toby’s responsibility, we headed straight across the Tonopah Test Range, where a brand new secret stealth bomber was about to drop its load. Sorry.
It couldn't cost more than a couple million to start the exercise over.
Naturally a bunch of bozos still high on moon shadow didn’t notice any of that. We also didn’t know that two F-18’s had scrambled and locked onto us with their radar targeting, and were presently assessing our intent. We just kept lollygagging our way, zigzagging to random points of interest. We saw missile silos. So we flew down and did wing-overs around the silos. There were all sorts of bomb craters. Then we saw where I’m assuming they used to do underground atomic bomb testing. Those were huge smooth craters, each shaped like a contact lens. We saw triangles about a mile across, with weird symbols in the middle. I never did find out what those were. Fascinating stuff.

Then it happened. I looked out my window and saw a turboprop plane twice our size, only a few feet away. I pointed my finger at it and tried to say “traffic.” All I got out was “aiaiaahaiiiah ahha.”

Pandemonium ensued. We all started screaming. Toby tried to steer away but the other plane stayed right with us. We finally noticed he was holding up a sign with some numbers, a radio frequency. We tuned in and he said “You have violated military airspace and interrupted a military exercise. I’m going to have to ask you to follow me.” Toby began to explain that we were lost, trying to find Reno. The other pilot simply said “We’ll discuss it at the debriefing.”

I believe this is English for Prohibido El Paso.Well, getting debriefed didn’t sound too inviting. But what could we do? We followed him until he contacted us and asked us to land. We looked down and there was nothing there, just desert. He assured us it was fine, that he landed there all the time. He suggested we land near a cluster of small buildings that were arrayed in the middle of the nothing. As we descended, he maneuvered around behind us, and both planes touched down at the same time. Apparently this place is somewhere near where they keep the bodies of dead aliens when UFO’s crash.

We were invited to deplane and enter one of the little shacks where there was a cold coffee pot, a small table, and a few chairs. We waited there while the mystery pilot, dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt like a La Paz customs agent, searched our plane. He confiscated everyone’s film, except mine. As we were being “pulled over” I instinctively hid my film in my underwear. It’s something I learned in high school.
A Google Earth shot of the Tonopah Test Range, a restricted area.
Mystery Man returned. We were told that he would process our film and any photos he liked he would keep, and any he didn’t like he would mail to us. He must have liked them all. Next he collected our ID’s and went into a back room to make copies. This might have been a good time for our group to have a discussion about providing a self-consistent story as to who we were, but no. He returned and told us about the bomber practice and the fighter jets targeting us, and then he told a story about a previous citizen interloper, some sort of protester apparently, from whom they removed one airplane and one pilot license.
Apparently it was our job to make sure our flight plan was a legal one.
Our host passed out some paper and pencils, and asked us each to write a short essay concerning who we were. This is where that self-consistent story might have come in handy, but no. On the other hand maybe it was for the best. One guy wrote that we were sight-seeing. One wrote that we were on vacation. I wrote that we were on an expedition for the world-famous Keystone Astronomers. I don’t know for sure but I think real spies might have had one good story, as opposed to the assortment offered by a bunch of giddy unwashed travel-rummy astronomy geeks like us.

Eventually we were judged to be confused and careless, but more or less harmless. He decided to return our aircraft and escort us off the base. But first there was the matter of the document. He distributed to each of us our own copy of an affidavit. Before we signed he wanted to make it very clear what we were signing. He emphasized this point. What we were agreeing to amounted to two separate declarations.

  • We must agree, that for as long as we live, we will under no circumstances, ever tell what we have seen here to anyone.
  • We must agree, that for as long as we live, we will under no circumstances, ever tell what we have NOT seen here to anyone.

The terms of number two seem to be strongly implied in the terms of number one. Whatever, it was legalese I suppose. But one of our crew was a lawyer. So he had to speak up at this point of course. He asked the guy “Can I ask you some questions?” The guy said sure.

Unless it was aliens.
Lawyer: “What is your name?”

Guy: “I’d rather not say.”

Lawyer: “What agency do you work for?”

Guy “I’d rather not say.”

Lawyer” “What are you going to do with us if we don’t sign?”

Guy “I’d rather not say.”

Long pause. I handed a pen to the lawyer.

The remainder of our journey involved squeezing between some scary thunderheads full of lightning bolts, but we made it to Portland. I drove up the Columbia River and across to the full-sized replica of Stonehenge. Walking among the stones and pondering my expedition, I had an epiphany.
Stonehenge and Crescent Moon at Maryhill, WA. Photo by RL.Dietz
I decided that my passions needed a new direction. I decided it was time to phase out of my tree-trimming period and go to college. Shortly thereafter I enrolled and signed up for remedial math. First lesson, the order of operations. After a few years and a few more epiphanies, I had a degree in astrophysics.

The world-famous RL.Dietz got noticed by the production designer of the TV series Babylon 5. A dozen or so of RL’s images appeared on various sets in the show, including some of the eclipse shots from La Paz. The director eventually invited RL to come down and be an extra on the show.

Click to see The Barrens Fine Photographics, including the Babylon 5 Collection by RL.Dietz
So there you have it, the total story. But I really am sworn to secrecy by some unknown government agency and with all the national security demagoguery going on these days, we should probably keep it just between us. Thanks.

Carpe Noctem.

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One Comment on “Astronomers at Large”

  1. Barbara Ulrich Says:

    Wow… just wow. I am so glad you are writing about all your adventures and this one is a doozy. Although I must say that no one at our high school ever taught me how to hide film canisters the way you, ahem, describe. Guess I was in the wrong classes.


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