Steve Hawley has a long history with celestial adventures – some historic, some at 600 mph. And some kind of funny.
The next newsy celestial event will be Aug. 21, when that much-ballyhooed solar eclipse rolls like a bowling ball of darkness across the United States.
The “Path of Totality” will turn midday dim for hundreds of cities, including in northeast Kansas.
Millions of people, including astronomer and Salina native Hawley, plan to watch it as the light dims in a huge swath from Oregon to South Carolina.
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Regarding that eclipse, we called Hawley, for two reasons:
▪ One, Hawley was the NASA astronaut who parked the Hubble Space Telescope in low Earth orbit, where it made some of astronomy’s most spectacular discoveries ever. So he knows celestial events like few others do.
▪ And two, Hawley tells funny stories. About solar eclipses and other celestial events.
Not his first space rodeo
The Aug. 21 solar eclipse won’t be Hawley’s first.
He watched his first one in 1979 while traveling at more than 600 mph at an altitude of 40,000 feet. Over Montana.
“And that was pretty much a boondoggle,” he said – arranged by himself and five other NASA astronauts.
A boondoggle, according to dictionaries, is defined as “work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.”
Hawley defined it like this: “We were all new to the space program. And we really wanted to see the eclipse, which was the last total solar eclipse to reach the United States until this new one.
“So we sold it to (NASA) management, even though it sounded like a boondoggle: We told them we needed to take a flight together, flying jet trainers along the Path of Totality.
“We took off from the Air Force base in Minot, North Dakota – or was it Grand Forks? We intercepted the eclipse, and I got pictures of it. And ... I learned that at 40,000 feet, traveling at 600 miles an hour, the eclipse lasts just a little longer for you and is slightly different in time and place from how other people experience it.
“We told (NASA management) that it would be good for our training if we planned a mission together, flying two astronauts in each trainer, recording data, all while in flight.”
“Management bought it.”
What’s your name again?
Media reports say that millions of people plan to watch the Aug. 21 eclipse inside the Path of Totality, including in northeast Kansas. This doesn’t surprise Hawley.
“One of the common things you hear people say is how rare this is and that they want to be there,” he said. “So even though you couldn’t spell the word ‘eclipse’ two weeks ago, you now plan to go see one.
“I think this is mostly about having the experience and not about science,” he said.
Most people are busy living their lives and don’t have the knowledge or the passion for science or the space program that astronauts have – and that’s OK, he said.
But that general lack of knowledge has led to funny conversations.
“There was this NASA event I was at one time, a (space crew) homecoming event, where there were autograph collectors coming around to all of us,” he said.
“So this guy asked me for an autograph. And I said, ‘I’ll give you my autograph – if you can tell me who I am.’
“He didn’t know.”
Hello, Jackson Hole
Hawley, 65, won’t see the Aug. 21 eclipse in Kansas, even though he teaches physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas.
He will instead watch it in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he’s a featured speaker at an eclipse event organized by an old college friend and fellow astronomer.
“I agreed to speak there because, at the time, I thought I’d be retired from here (KU) by now,” Hawley said. “But it turns out, I’m still here.
“I’m not really sure yet what my friend might want me to talk about,” he said. “He won’t tell me.
“But I guess I’ll do what I did for the Cruise to the End of the World: They just wanted me to talk about my experiences in the space program.”
This is the end
The Cruise to the End of the World took place in 2012, because the internet that year was filled with wild speculation and click-bait stories about how an ancient Mayan prophecy predicted the world would end on Dec. 21 that year.
Hawley agreed to be the featured shipboard speaker for the cruise because his astronomer/college friend, the same friend bringing him to Jackson Hole in August, asked him to do it.
And so, during the end-of-the-world day, Hawley and his fellow cruise ship passengers lay anchored in the Mexican tourist harbor of Cozumel, which in ancient Mayan history “was pretty much Ground Zero for the Mayans and their prediction.”
“We spent the day on the aft deck of the cruise ship, having a glass of wine,” Hawley said.
“We all agreed that if this was the day the world ends, then this is the way to go out.”