Posted by: Cody Coyote | April 20, 2010

April 20 : Earth Day and Spaceflight, too

There are Gods of aeronautics and astronautics that favor the common people in isolated places like Wyoming who make offerings.  The pantheon heard my call this week and the heavens parted. The space shuttle Discovery flew directly over Cody at 6:48 -MDT  this morning on its way home to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida from a 15-day voyage to the International Space Station. Shuttles usually return over the Pacific Ocean , crossing Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba before landing, mainly to avoid population centers , in case they come home in pieces, as did Columbia in February 2003. On certain rare occasions, NASA will send them home over the American heartland instead, arcing diagonally across the Lower 48 states from the Pacific Northwest across the Great Plains  and the Deep South. That has only happened three times that I can recall, the last being in November 2007.  Today , after some angst across two full days  due to an extended mission and rainy weather in Florida , everything aligned for Discovery to blaze across northwest Wyoming just after sunrise.  California and Florida  clans maybe be used to seeing  the Great White Spacebirds coming home to roost, but for us in Wyoming it’s like spotting a pink Whooping Crane or a Unicorn.

But you had to be quick with  the eyeballs, and know exactly when and where to look. Discovery was in view for maybe 10-12 seconds’ time. It was invisible on approach and vanished very quickly once it passed almost directly over Cody . There was no contrail or any kind of aeronautic plumage. It was only visible for the few seconds that the shuttle’s bottom fuselage ( the black tiled bottom and wings ) were pointed back at us…  the shuttle comes in with it’s nose 40 degrees up, almost the same angle as your hand out in front of you of you start to fall.  Discovery was flying at Mach 22 some 30 miles high over Cody , nose up, the thin atmosphere piling up in front of the black tiles creating a forward envelope of super-hot super-bright plasma with an orange tinge.  Still, a shuttle 45 miles away is very small. It’s no bigger than a Boeing 737.  You don’t actually see the spacecraft, you see the plasma cocoon it’s wrapped in, which fortunately is as bright as an arc welder’s bead.

My friend Andy Frazier actually got a photo of Discovery . We were observing from one of our favorite astronomical road camps out at the Sagebrush Hoppers public RC Model Airplane field three miles north of Cody, which has an excellent all-sky view and Heart Mountain on the north skyline .  Andy’s wingshot photo  is nothing stellar, but it is what it is— presented herein in its  full glory.

andy shuttle pic

Me myself and I, the alleged professional photographer, got nothing. I realize now I should’ve shot a short video clip with my point and shoot Nikon , instead of trying to hit the big bird on the fly with the  Nikon D80 digital skeetshooter. By the time I had spotted the shuttle and was ready to  shoot, it went into stealth mode. Gone as quick as it came. We never saw it coming, and it was providence alone that allowed me to catch it out of the corner ( or top , actually ) of my eye.  Our consolation prize was a delightful sonic boom a little less that 4 minutes later…enough of a boom that you could actually feel it. About a minute and ten seconds after the shuttle passed over us, it was already out east of Denver , barnstorming the good folks of Nebraska, Kansas, and Arkansas, scaring the children and the chickens. Yo ! Those shuttle sonic booms grow in intensity as the shuttle drops into lower thicker air and gets closer to Terra Firma and the trailer parks, but  intentional sonic booms over populated areas are outlawed these days for anything other than spacecraft and maybe spyplanes.

A shame…when I was a kid, there were local flyboys who had been issued government warplanes , and they always made it a point to buzz their hometowns .Impromptu FortheHellofit  one man air show in their F-102 Voodoo or F-104 Starfighter.  One of these jet jocks lived in Lovell and repeatedly gave a great big ‘Howdy Do’ on burners at Mach 1+ when he could, like the time he came through Shoshone Canyon over Cody heading for New Mormonia up there in Big Horn County. I was about 8 years old. I miss those carefree days , the “Duck and cover” drills and Cold War surrealism . But I digress.

ISS pass-annotatedTook this short time exposure last week, of the Space Station and Space Shuttle docked passing overhead before dawn near Ursa Major, the Big Dipper.

What made Earth Day’s performance by the space shuttle possible was the cancellation of several previous landing attempts. Two on Monday , and the first attempt on Tuesday when fog and rain permeated the Cape Canaveral area. They fight controllers deferred Discovery for one more lap around the Earth, hoping the morning sun would burn off the clouds in Florida . It did.  Otherwise, the shuttle would’ve very likely landed in California at Edwards Air Force Base that same orbit , or the one after. NASA doesn’t like going that route because it adds ten days and $ 1.5 million to a shuttle’s turnaround  for its next flight to fly  it “home”  from California on the back of the giant 747 NASA uses for just that purpose.  It was serendipity  or that small animal I ceremoniously eviscerated before dawn that brought Discovery over Wyoming today.  The next time it flies, it may be the very last shuttle flight ever, this coming September, unless the program is extended.

The last flight of a space shuttle, ever.  After 129  launches and 127 landings in 29 years, only three more missions are on the manifest. It made this viewing opportunity over Wyoming all the more precious, and worth getting up early for.


I do have one question for NASA. Discovery was granted an extra day in orbit after the original landing slot on Sunday was cancelled due to that fickle Florida weather ( pagans down there simply are NOT meeting their quota of sacrificed live chickens !).  This mission had 4 men —and three rather attractive women on board, an African-American, an Anglo, and a very cute Japanese lady astronaut.  What exactly do they do on those R & R days  in orbit, in zero gravity ?  I have to ask.  Research ?

Postscript:  Not only is it Earth Day , it’s also time for the annual Lyrid Meteor Shower, the so-called “ April Fireballs”.  If you should happen to be out before dawn after the Moon has set on April 20 and 21.

Here’s a couple of Earth Day pix  that came thru the Nikons this past week :

My backyard Daffoldils bloomed out early this year, before April 10. I can’t really recall seeing bumblebees  this soon , either. Photo taken April 15.


And my hobby birds have arrived for the Summer.  The flock of adult male Turkey Vultures  (Cathartes aura) have done their Reverse Snowbird thing   and taken up residence in the trees at 11th Street  and Canyon Avenue.  I started observing these birds 11 years ago there.  The same birds return to the same trees every summer.  I was pleasantly surprised to see the full complement of vultures already roosting on April 16.

It is definitely an early Spring in Cody Coyote Country.


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