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STS-72

  Using a camcorder I videotaped the STS-72 reentry as seen from central Texas.  These two images are frames from that video.  Photo Credits: Mine
STS-72 Reentry Video Frame 0
STS-72 Reentry Video Frame 1
STS-72 Plasma Trail
STS-72 Heads Over The Horizon
Friday January 19, 1996

This was a very special day.  It was the day when my first grandchild turned one year old. Coincidentally it also was the day when NASA planned to fire the orbital maneuvering engines to bring the space shuttle Endeavour home after a successful mission in space on STS-72.

On January 20, 1996, during the wee hours of the morning, my family and I were witness to a most amazing sight.  It is difficult to convey in words the emotions felt and describe the view that we had during this experience.  I will however attempt to convey at least a glimmer of what we felt.

Earlier in that week, I had read a posting on the internet by NASA engineer Jim Oberg which indicated that the re-entry of STS-72 should be visible throughout central Texas. I was determined to not let this opportunity slip by without trying to see this.

Not only did I want to see it, but I wanted to see it from the best possible vantage point. To me it made the most sense to be directly on the ground track of the re-entry in order to get the best view.  By studying a chart that Mr. Oberg has posted, a friend of mine and I determined that the Endeavour would pass directly overhead at a point near Buffalo, Texas.  It was time for a road trip.

The plan was set. Its execution, however, was somewhat precarious.  My family and I would go out to dinner in Addison, Texas, on Friday evening to celebrate my granddaughter's birthday.  I would then load my family into our van and drive them to Buffalo, Texas in the middle of the night.  That part was simple enough.

The precarious aspect involved the timing of our journey.  We had to be in our viewing position before 1:26 AM on January 20.  It would take us around two hours to drive from Dallas, Texas to Buffalo, Texas down Interstate 45.  That meant that we would be leaving Dallas before the deorbit burn of the shuttle. Further more we would be on the road before the shuttle was committed to reentry.

I loaded up the entire family into our van and set out from Dallas at about 11:15 PM.  Our entourage included my wife, two daughters, one son, one granddaughter, and one sister-in-law.  The most amazing thing to note about this assembly was that mutiny was never threatened.

Our precise viewing location was selected on the fly.   Buffalo was our goal, but when the time approached 1:05 and we still weren't there I was getting a little nervous. It was time to take the next exit and find a safe place to park away from streetlights.  We stopped the van at about 1:15 AM so we had about 11 minutes to wait.

Our viewing location was from just South of Fairfield Texas on a country road West of I-45 and South of Highway 179.  The best place to describe this location is that we were out in the middle of nowhere.  There were no buildings or lights anywhere close to where we were parked.

The weather was brisk with a temperature around 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  By now adrenaline was in full swing, so the temperature didn't matter.   The winter sky was perfectly clear.

If you haven't been away from city lights in a while to look at the stars, you really need to try it.  The universe itself provided an awesome view. While waiting for the shuttle to fly over, we were treated to a couple of meteors also called shooting stars.  It was obvious that these weren't Endeavour because they were flying the wrong direction.

We waited with some apprehension.  The first issue was, did the deorbit burn ever happen or did they wave it off.  Not having a portable satellite dish we were waiting in the dark literally and figuratively.

The second point of apprehension was how fast was this thing going to be?  Were we talking of something like a shooting star so that if you blinked you missed it?  I had never seen a space shuttle re-entry before, yet alone one re-entering at night.  With this lack of experience I really had no idea of what to expect.

My wife was the first of our group to sight the object of our quest.  On the South Western horizon we saw what looked like the trail of fire from an extremely large 4th of July rocket.  The difference now was that this trail of fire kept climbing.

How majestically and graceful it rose. The speed of the pass seemed to be similar viewing an orbital pass of the shuttle. It went almost straight overhead of us, perhaps 5 or 10 degrees off vertical.  The two-hour drive had hit pay dirt. Endeavour and the crew of STS-72 put on a most spectacular show.

The ionization trail left behind by the vehicle stayed illuminated in the sky for some time. It was like a huge neon tube from horizon to horizon by the time the pass was over.  I thought the color was orange. Of course my night vision was slightly disrupted by looking in the viewfinder on the video camera.

My wife and my son thought the color was green and white while it was overhead. One daughter also thought it was orange.  My sister-in-law thought it was cream colored.  The other daughter did not comment on the color since she watched from inside the van with her one-year-old baby.

There was a slight breeze, so not a lot of sound was able to be heard from the passing fireball.  At times it seemed like you could hear something caused by the passing, but I'm not sure how to describe it.

Also describing the reentering vehicle as a fireball is a misnomer I think.  The shuttle was glowing.  It appeared white-hot trailing an orange contrail.  I really don't think I could make out the shape of the shuttle as it seemed amorphous and didn't really hold a specific shape.

As it passed overhead you could see the contrail coming off in a broken pattern similar to smoke.  Endeavour was shedding bits of plasma as it flew through the atmosphere.

Before you knew it, this spectacle was gone.  Time passes so quickly when a sight such as this entrances you. I didn't measure the time how long it was visible, but the duration was more than adequate.

The next event to wait for was the sonic boom left behind by this supersonic fly over. We waited and waited for what seemed like an eternity after the shuttle had disappeared beyond the horizon.  In reality it was probably only about 3 or 4 minutes.

Then the sonic boom came. It wasn't the loudest of booms that I have ever heard, but there was no mistake of what it was and what produced it.

The party was over, but it was well worth the effort.   As I mentioned previously, January 19th, was my granddaughter's first birthday.  What a candle, Endeavour provided in celebration!

My family is sort of getting used to my crazy expeditions.  Back in April of 1994 we were in Florida for the launch of STS-59.  On that trip, I also dragged them out in the middle of the night to watch an unmanned Atlas launch from Patrick Air Force Base.

Fortunately for me, the Atlas delivered in April of 1994 and the STS-72 crew of Endeavour delivered in January of 1996. Otherwise I might still be tied up to a tree out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere near Buffalo, Texas.


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UPDATED : January 10, 2007
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