Satellite Crashes, Misses the Hamptons

Pieces of an American Research Satellite—one of which is the size of a school bus— came down through the atmosphere on Friday afternoon at 3:45 p.m. and landed without hitting anybody in the Hamptons. That’s probably all you need to know about it. But if you’re interested in more, read on.

The satellite, launched in 1991 into a high orbit, was “repositioned” into a low atmosphere orbit when the International Space Station got seriously under construction. Doing this, the scientists knew, meant that someday pieces of their satellite would hit the earth when its work was done. But what was more important? The people on Earth? Or the Space Station? They made the choice.

In 2005, the satellite was decommissioned and abandoned. It would now break up into thousands of little pieces. Most would burn up in the atmosphere. But 26 of them—they did the math calculating the satellite’s weakest points—would not burn but would instead come down possibly onto the heads of one of the 9 billion people here. Too bad.

NASA sent out a press release two weeks ago that said 26 pieces of a satellite were coming down, one of which was the size of a school bus. Get ready. It did not say where it was going to hit but it did say that the debris would get sprinkled over a 500-mile path with the school bus as a sort of exclamation point when it did.

That left it up to the rest of us to wonder why they wouldn’t tell us where this was going to happen. Since they didn’t, we worried about it. Look up in the sky! Is it there? They wouldn’t tell us what time or day either but that it would be sometime between Thursday and Saturday.

Some said that NASA knew it would be coming down to hit Muammar Gaddafi and we didn’t want to alert him. Still others said it was coming down on an historic city in Europe— this was going to be a huge embarrassment. Others sold T-shirts with bull’s-eyes on them that said HIT HERE! This was a contrarian approach. The sellers said these were lucky shirts, since NASA couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn or a bull’s-eye, so wearing them would make you completely safe.

Still another view was that NASA wasn’t saying where it would hit because if they did everybody would rush there in the hopes of either for the thrill of it seeing others get hit, or getting hit themselves so they could sue.

A TV commentator recalled that back in 2005, an Oklahoma woman named Lottie Williams was hit on the shoulder by something fluttering down from the sky, which officials later determined was a piece of a defunct satellite. This was the only time anybody had been hit by something like this. And she couldn’t sue, because she was uninjured, although she was, she said, startled for a moment.

What are the possibilities of any person being hit by a satellite? There are thousands of satellites up there circling the earth and what goes up (and doesn’t get through to outer space) must come down. Getting hit is a one in a trillion chance.

That does make that one person who does get hit very special, if he lives. Wow. I was the one, he’ll be grinning in his hospital bed.
 In the end, the school bus came down in the Pacific Ocean on Saturday at 12 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. It bonked a striped bass.

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