On the 20th of February 2010, around 19:20, while camping in South Africa’s Golden Gate National Park, Marie and I were busy preparing our evening meal in the rapidly darkening valley. I happened to glance up at the sky, as I often do for no particular reason, looking for planes, for birds, for friendly or threatening clouds, for signs of times to come or navigational clues in a complicated world…

Then I looked again. Ascending some 30 or 40 degrees to the east from a rough southern origin, bright and crisp in a sky that was barely inviting its first stars, two satellites were racing each other, in the immediate intimacy of a shared orbit.

Despite having disconnected with worldwide news while we were scouting desolate roads in South Africa, I instantly knew what the two lights were. Only two of our Earth-made satellites could manage to coexist in such bright proximity. The International Space Station and the Space Shuttle were dancing a space ballet, a rendez-vous far above the ground that would be witnessed by millions, or no one.

Very few, in any case, would get such a privileged seat. There was virtually no light pollution and the air was clear. One of the orbiters seemed to be catching up with the other. I called Marie over and we watched, fascinated, as the two man-made crafts zoomed across space and disappeared towards the north. I took note of time, location and elevation and promised myself to look it up when back to civilization.

I turned out the ISS and Endeavour had just recently finished a joint mission and the shuttle was proceeding with post-separation maneuvers. I am still amazed. That they were so clearly visible, obviously much brighter than any other Earth-orbiting objects. That we could see them from such a remote location. That I just looked up.

Of course, anywhere on the planet is equally good to stare at the sky and satellites don’t think in terms of population. They overfly what they will and that’s that. But for us, lost in Southern Africa, far from the internet, TV, traffic, news, worries and toaster ovens, seeing these two beacons in our night sky was a direct link to all things wonderful, to the best of what humankind has managed to create, to dreams come true and those to be born.

The least I can say is that I was moved. And they too, were moving. At over 17,000 mph.

Thanks to Marie for reminding me.


Also see my previous post about some amazing photography of the Space Shuttle silhouette against the sun, and my own silly attempts on the matter…


«Cartwheels Over Lesotho» Series

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Marie’s recount: Lesotho