From the January 2016 issue

Strange indeed

When weirdness stalks astronomers.
By | Published: January 25, 2016
Beware the Ides of March. Strangeness can envelop not just celestial objects, but astronomers, astronauts, and even amateurs. Odd events seem to befall those who choose to explore the universe, and I’ve collected many stories over the years. Consider: Not one but three different observatory directors have complained to me about having to clear away snakes that had built homes in the dome.

The weirdest thing that happened on the Moon was caused by Neil Armstrong disobeying his training. He failed to cut the lunar lander engine when the blue contact light came on 5 feet above the surface. He was just too good a pilot, and he flew so gently to the ground that the honeycombed aluminum legs, designed to crush and absorb some of the impact, remained intact. Result: The exterior ladder did not extend to the surface. Thus those first astronauts had to leap from the bottom rung.

Contrary to Armstrong’s words, it was not “one small step.” It was a giant leap. When Buzz Aldrin jumped off, the long fall broke the urine bag inside his boot. He had a live mic and didn’t say anything, but his whole time on the surface was more like “one small squish for mankind.”

Four years earlier, the Russians had their own bizarro experience when Alexei Leonov became the first to walk in space. The vacuum expanded his newly designed space suit far more than expected, and Leonov could not fit back in through the hatch. It wasn’t even close. He also couldn’t use his fingers because the inflated glove section had gotten too rigid. A nightmare. He was trapped outside with immobile fingers. Eventually, with his spacewalk double its scheduled length, he managed to release a lot of the suit’s air, remain conscious, and squeeze through the opening. (The strangeness wasn’t over. The onboard computer failed, and his craft landed 600 miles off-course in a mountainous wilderness. It took his rescuers two days to find him.)

Total eclipses have their own strange tales. I myself have witnessed superstitious non-observers ducking indoors to hide from a total eclipse.


Eclipse expert Fred Espenak told me of a time in Africa when clouds started covering the Sun just as totality began. Improvising, he tore off at breakneck speed, and, staring upward while running, managed to keep the eclipsed Sun in a little hole.

A professional solar researcher told a different eclipse story. During a Soviet totality when that government had set up an observing station on an island in Lake Baikal, he and another American overslept. The hotel never gave them their wake-up call. They missed the ferry. Despondent, they set up their instruments on the hotel roof and watched the eclipse there. Later, they learned that the temperature drop during the eclipse’s partial phase produced a single giant cloud over the island. Nobody at the “ideal site” saw a thing. Only the late sleepers.

In 1971, the Indian government invited me to its largest observatory. The 40-inch telescope in the Himalayan foothills, which they’d equipped with a visual eyepiece for that night, was a lot of fun. But when a junior astronomer assigned to run the equipment for our session arrived, he was visibly shaken. A tiger had stalked him on the path from the nearest village. The previous year, a child had tragically been killed there. Now the animal was back — on the very night I was visiting. When the observing ended we all had to walk the inky, wooded, 2-mile path; we had no choice. It was uncomfortable and surreal.

Some years back, John Dobson came and spent a night. The Dobsonian mount inventor and father of sidewalk astronomy had a cantankerous nature and eventful life, but one idiosyncrasy stood out. His self-imposed poverty meant that he never wanted to stay at a motel. Instead, he’d sometimes sleep in his telescope. Yes, inside the tube.

A decade ago, I gave a talk for a wonderful group at the Connecticut Star Party, and the president kindly dropped me back at the local airport and drove away. The night was dark and spooky. The airport was now closed. That’s when I saw that the gate was locked, with no “entry code” visible. My plane was on the other side. So your supposedly distinguished speaker in his sports jacket had to climb the high barbed-wire-tipped fence like a terrorist, hoping no patrol car would appear. In that post-9/11 era, they’d surely wonder what was in the attaché case I’d tossed over. They’d never guess a meteorite. It wasn’t my favorite moment under Cassiopeia.

This really is a strange universe. Please send your own bizarre true story related to the cosmos, plus any verification. We’ll publish the weirdest ones eventually.

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