RE: Satellite watching a recent event?

Philip Chien (
Sat, 20 Mar 1999 03:57:42 -0500

I think satellite watching as a hobby is evolving with interst in the space

When Sputnik was launched the West was caught by surprise - how could
Russia have beat the U.S. in to orbit?  But the visual evidence of seeing
Sputnik with your own eyes (or in most cases seeing the much brighter
rocket and believing that you saw Sputnik) was pretty impressive.

With early medium to high inclincation launches of large objects it became
popular to have satellite predictions published in the local newspaper
along with the weather reports and which planets were visible.  I can only
guess at the effort involved in the separate calculations for hundreds of
cities in that discrete transistor era.

Some of my astronomy books from the early to mid 1960s talk about how
interesting it is to look for artificial satellites and even listed all of
the launches to date.  (suffice to say that this was when the number of
launches would fit on one page).

But gradually the space program became commonplace - rockets only made the
news when they failed instead of when they worked.  (which is a good thing
BTW - it indicates the space program's come of age when it isn't treated
any differently from airliners or trains.)  The general public became bored
of the space program, and astronomers (amateur and professional) got used
to the occasional satellite crossing their fields of view.  There were
exceptions though, many members of SeeSat were enthusiastic satellite
observers from the beginning of the space age.

The public's interest in the space program sort of parallels Antarctic
exploration at the turn of the last century.  For a while it was big news -
would the next expedition to the South Pole succeed or have to turn back
before reaching the pole, or fail?  But once the goal was reached the
excitement was gone and interest in Antarctica waned until the
International Geophysics Year.

With satellite tracking there were a couple of important changes which made
the hobby more accessible.  Most important was friendly tracking programs
which predicted when particular satellties would be visible over a given
location.  I may still have a rather crude program which the National Space
Society distributed to track Mir in the late 1980s.  You'd call their
hotline number for the latest keps and it would give you a crude text
printout.  Friendlier programs became avaiable later.  A different program,
written for the Commodore 64(!), actually resulted in my first shuttle
sighting since somebody at the local newspaper was interested enough to
publish when to see Discovery on the 51-D mission.  It was a great kick to
see that moving point of light and know that I had met most of the folks
who were flying on it.

Another significant change was the electronic distribution of satellite
elements.  TS Kelso's BBS and the Canadian Space Society made it possible
for satellite enthusiasts to obtain keplerian elements for the more popular
satellites and exchange information on their sightings.  When Sean Sullivan
and I determined the secret identity of the STS-53 DoD-1 (USA 89) payload
and that it would be visible in many areas we made sure the information was
distributed before the launch.  In addition Ron Parise at Goddard and Gil
Carman at Johnson did an excellent job distributing predicted and actual
shuttle elements making them easier to track.

And, of course, the Internet.  Keps at the cost of a local ISP account.
Automatic mailing lists for keps, and Chris Peat's excellent site to make
it as easy as possible to obtain predictions.

On the flip site dark sky locations are harder and harder to find.  And
satellite observing (and astronomy in general) as a hobby has much more to
competition - including the Internet.  It's common for every society to
complain about how the next generation isn't as interested in intellectual
items and wants just easy mindless entertainment (I suspect that that's
been true for all of civilized history).  But it does appear that the more
intellectual hobbies (astronomy for example) are losing interest while
video games and the like are increasing in popularity.

Higher interest satellites (major new ones, ones which get a lot of press
coverage) are still popular with the general public.  Most of the
Intercosmos flights to Salyut 6, 7, and Mir were timed so the Russian space
station was visible in the skies over the Intercosmos member's country
during the flight.  And I have no doubt that if the STS-95 launch had been
delayed another two hours, making it visible over much of the U.S., then
there would have been plenty of news stories about how to go look for John
Glenn (trust me, I had the stories ready to go but couldn't convince the
launch team to delay the launch just for me).

I was able to convince the Babylon 1 (ISS) controllers to schedule a
visible pass for Wednesday night to coincide with the local astronomy
club's monthly meeting and even arrange with the Air Force for fairly
decent weather.  So I got the club to go out and view it as it went by.
Some had experience watching satellites others didn't.  Many worked on
preparing the U.S. Node for launch and got a great kick out of seeing their
job go across the sky.

Satellite watching as a hobby's quite active and anybody who wants to do it
has many resources available.  But it's no longer the gee-whiz "wow I
didn't know you could do that" that it was in the early days of the space

Anyway - enough rambling.

Philip Chien, KC4YER
Earth News
world (in)famous writer, science fiction fan, ham radio operator,
all-around nice guy, etc.