This Is a Perfect Time to Panic

It’s coming right at you! Yes, YOU! If you’re reading this, you are directly in the danger zone of being hit by satellite nuggets sometime in the next few days. Okay, the odds are somewhat long-ish, at 3,200-1 (roughly the same odds that I will ever see a Social Security check once I retire), but you might not want to take the chance.

According to NASA scientists (“Um, has anyone seen the Mars Polar Lander?”), a twenty-year-old, six-ton research satellite is expected to fall into the atmosphere late this week, and scatter debris over a huge area centered on Florida. Or maybe New York. You know what? I wouldn’t plan any backyard barbecues in India either (not that they would). Actually, they can’t predict the arc of the disintegrating space jalopy with any accuracy, so nowhere is safe. Well, except for Antarctica. And possibly the moon.

Predictably, sales of cruises to Antarctica are booming in this week. For a mere $7894, you can fly from Seattle to Buenos Aires, and then spend ten days aboard the beautiful ship Akademik Sergey Vavilov, which will whisk you away to the Arctic Peninsula where you can look at a bunch of penguins and seals while freezing your booster rocket off.

NASA spokesman Oliver Klosoff is trying to instill confidence in the public, pointing out that space debris falls from the sky every day. “Just last week,” he told me in an imaginary phone interview, “a 1948 Cadillac transmission bell housing crashed into a chicken coop in Lander, Wyoming. No one was killed, although a young farm girl was overcome by feathers.” Klosoff added at the Cadillac transmission was part of a primitive early NASA mission to send a space probe to the sun. “We thought we were being clever,” he added. “We were going at night.”

The massive Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite has been orbiting the earth for twenty years, and is just one of more than 1600 objects currently looping around our planet. That figure doesn’t even reflect random trash like old Space Food Stick wrappers, zero-gravity diaper bombs, and empty pork ‘n bean cans from the Mercury project. The 35-foot-long UARS contraption will be the first large uncontrolled object to come hurtling to earth in ten years. Well, if you don’t count that time Rush Limbaugh fell off his office chair.

NASA decommissioned the satellite five years ago, and instead of using the last bit of fuel to send it off into space, which is pretty roomy, they DROPPED IT INTO A LOWER ORBIT. Really, folks, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that’s asking for trouble. Now, on top of everything else, we have to worry about something like a Ford Excursion falling from the sky.

If you’re old enough to remember Space Food Sticks, then you remember the panic of Skylab’s impending crash to earth in 1979. NASA said the odds of a piece of Skylab hitting a human were about 150-1. This spurred the sale of Skylab protective helmets, body armor and athletic cups. The unexpected demise of the satellite meant the loss of such major space experiments as the lemon-powered clock and a plastic frogman who could swim underwater if you put a baking soda tablet up his butt. Most of Skylab plunged harmlessly into the Indian Ocean, but several pieces came down in Western Australia. Unfortunately, Mel Gibson was uninjured.

After the Skylab debacle, NASA didn’t put another gargantuan space station into orbit for almost twenty years. The International Space Station has been lurking overhead for a decade now, populated with astronauts, cosmonauts and forgetmonauts from 15 countries. The ISS is the biggest thing anybody’s ever put into space. It orbits at about 200 miles above the earth, where there’s no gravity, no oxygen, and no weather. Even FedEx doesn’t deliver there.

Imagine what it’s going to be like when we’re finished with THAT thing. Will it fulfill its life expectancy and be in use until 2028, when the Russians start stripping it for modules, or will it be like that new Teen Center downtown? You know, kind of a cool hangout for a few months, but then after somebody gets caught holding weed, most of the kids abandon it and nobody goes there but the dorks.

I don’t know if you’ve seen photos of the ISS, but it’s like a small city made out of an erector set and really nice Tupperware. When that thing comes down, it’s going to make Skylab and the UARS reentries look like a mild case of dandruff. Most satellites and space junk that reenter the atmosphere burn up and disintegrate. They’re designed that way. Kind of like a Plymouth Neon after 80,000 miles. But sometimes one of these big mothers is just too much titanium, beryllium or whatthefrickium to be dissolved by atmospheric friction, and before you know it we’re being pelted with the entire contents of grandpa’s “free” box at the world’s biggest yard sale.

So take it lightly if you will, but I’m treating this UARS thing as a dry run for the Big One, when the International Space Station finally succumbs to gravity. I’m doubling up the tinfoil on my hat.

Sometimes decommissioned satellites can be repurposed, like this popular carnival ride that made me vomit.

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