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Leonid Storm 1999: A Trip to Remember

Part 3

The ARIA flew through the old comet debris. Never were Shakespeare's words "Parting is such sweet sorrow" more appropriate. The peak of the Leonid Storm of 1999 was over so soon! The flux measurement team was spent. We were exhausted! The anticipation, the speculation, the practice had drained every ounce of our energy. We had eaten every peanut butter cracker, every Skittle in sight. We even ate the fruit! Was it worth it? You bet! It was worth every every minute of wakeful or subconscious effort. We had witnessed a Leonid Meteor Storm! What do you do when the storm is over? Celebrate? Crack open some bubbly? Nah, we kept counting meteors, of course!

The storm peaked at 2300 ZHR barely 20 minutes after it began. By 03:00 the numbers were down to 500 ZHR, still alot of beautiful meteors to observe and count. By 04:00 the count was back down to less than 50 Leonids per hour, adjusted to ZHR. Although exhausted, we tried our best to keep observing, to catch the falling stars, to record our meteor counts. And to bid farewell to the Leonids. I gave up the ghost at 4:30 am, after nearly 5 hours of counting or looking out the window, and walked around the aircraft, watching the video monitors replay the best and brightest for the NASA highlight shows. I slept a little too.

We were all interviewed at one time or another over our nights of Leonid watching, sometimes with night vision cameras in the dark - filming the flux team in action, displayed in eerie green florescence on tiny monitors in the dark. We looked like some alien creatures from a science fiction show, goggles with a bright red "on button" light glowing out from where our eyes should be. Sometimes the interviews were conducted in more of a studio-like setting back with the media crew. We looked terrible, in the dark or in the light. Mole-like squinty eyes used to the dark (like the amateur astronomers we are!) or puffy sleep-deprived eyes and faces captured for the world to see on television. It was "Live from the Leonids", starring 70 or so of the luckiest folks above the planet!

This was a very long flight night. From Tel Aviv, carefully to the Azores we sped, skirting outlawed airspace. We were flying near Greece but not over Greece during the Leonid Peak. Out the window of the plane, we could see the blinking light of our sister aircraft, the FISTA often during the 10+ hour flight. That aircraft, too, was packed with researchers, all experiencing the same mental and physical euphoria and exhaustion we were. We communicated back and forth. 80 miles away, their parallel track matched ours. For a while the head winds drained their progress and fuel. There was some talk of refueling in Spain. Out our windows the great cities of Europe passed by below. Vast darkness was the more prevalent view. I spent some time observing the spoke-like shapes of light radiating from the great city of Madrid. The twinkling coasts of Spain. Bright Barcelona. Sparkeling islands offshore. Then more darkness.

November 19: The Island of Terceira.

Never did breakfast smell and sound more appealing than in the officers dining room at Lajes Field, Azores. We were famished. But first, the big press conference. Luckily, coffee, juice, water and sweet rolls were waiting for us after passing though Portuguese customs. We again were questioned, photographed and peppered with camera flashes. On to breakfast, sleep, and a walk about the charming village of Praia. Then some time to freshen up for the fantastic local dinner banquet on the island's golf course. Terceira, one of the nine islands that make up the Azores Archipelago boasts a geologic hump known as the Mid Atlantic ridge. Hot springs and cinder cones are evidence of the tectonic underwater activity here. We dined on a local dish, Alcatra. Beef simmered in clay pots left in the hot springs which abound on these islands. After no food on Leonid night, we were still starving by dinnertime, and dug in. We all savored the local fish, chicken, but most of all the Alcatra. Champagne corks were popping at every table (except for the Air Force crew's table). Portuguese wine filled the goblets. We hugged and cheered ourselves and each other.

I sat with a reporter from the Stars and Stripes Magazine over from Spain for the big story, and the Lajes Field Public Affairs officer. I learned all about the "burger burn," the ceremony of cooking hamburgers for our U.S. military returning from the hot spots of the world. Lajes Field is where many enter or leave civilization. After a year in the desert, or a tour of duty in a war torn part of central Europe, Lajes Field puts on an all-American feast for its honored guests. Kegs of beer and 'burgers are lavished on our servicemen and women - a brief glimpse of home, before a return to loved ones and special familiar places. A thank you, of sorts, from these far flung representatives of a grateful nation.

Afterwards we all had the luscious coffee specialty of the islands. Somewhat like a café latte, but even more yummy, it was served in a tall narrow glass. I'll remember what it is called eventually, probably when I search the internet for the recipe. I can still taste the Alcatra and smell the coffee from my brief stopover on Terceira. I hope to return someday.

Hours later, we donned our flight suits again, packed our gear and boarded busses for a drive to the Lajes flight line. It was another work night for the flux measurement team. We had a several hour wait in the aircraft, and finally took off for Florida. After what seemed like 12 hours, we landed. After what seemed like more hours we passed U.S. customs. After what seemed like even more hours, we checked into the Cocoa Beach Hilton. It was hours! Hours and hours and hours! We arrived at 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time to find our rooms would not be ready 'till 11:00 a.m. Flight suited researchers and Air force personnel crashed on the lobby floor, and every available chair and couch. Snoring blue and green flight suited beings (if you could call them that!) littered the lobby. 7 hours later, refreshed, tanned from walks on the beach or at least rested and cleaned, we all gathered for the final ceremony. A beach barbecue! The hurricane of the day was not too far out in the Atlantic, and soon we were pelted with rain and wind. In came the food and beer and desserts. In came the Leonid MAC '99 group, 80 strong, gathering 'round the bar! We all could toast each other, and celebrate this time. The flight crew were our special honored guests. Award certificates were handed out by Col. Pete Worden and Dr. Peter Jenniskens. We all exchanged email addresses. I sat with the parents of MSGT Greg Williams from Sarasota, Florida, and vowed to visit them next month when I spend the holidays in Sarasota.

More hours later, 9 of us piled into a small compact car and travelled about a mile to the Waffle House for breakfast. Best to leave the rest to your imagination, but the waffles, I understand were great!


What were my very favorite moments of this trip? Was it spending the darkened work hours with my friends on the Leonid Storm '99 Flux Measurement Team? Or was it sharing cream tea with Bill and Kristina Smith in Cambridge? Perhaps nudging Chris Crawford on the first night, to share with him the aurora borealis through my eye-goggles. No, maybe it was my first or my last Leonid, streaking through the goggles, or whizzing past Orion's belt through a scratchy 707 window. Was it looking down on Arizona's Meteor Crater, just an hour before landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Saturday November 20th at 3:00 pm? Was it the many bus trips to the many flight lines throughout the world? Strapping on the oxygen kits for a walkabout the aircraft? Watching moonset over the Atlantic? Sunrise over the Mediterranean Sea? A glimpse at the Southern Cross, Eta Carina and Omega Centauri through the window shortly before landing in Florida? The helpful teams of Air Force personnel at every stop of our great adventure? Maybe the Alcatra on Terceira?

Sights and sounds and smells will evoke all of these memories - more than enough to fill a lifetime or a scrapbook. I think I'll cherish all of them. And the many more that will appear in my thoughts as time passes.

Jane Houston