The sun beats down on the Benalla airport. Overhead I hear a long drawn out "Swish-sh" as the glider descends and makes a swift but perfect landing on the grassy swathe.
"I will never fly again, never!" Or so I vowed years ago, after an attempted night's sleep on a flight to England. Amongst the sleeping bodies in 'cattle class,' I sneaked my window shade up and looked out. There against the curve of the Earth, I saw the Earth's shadow. A band of a deep blue grey topped by 'The belt of Venus', a dusky pink band blending to a bright apricot that heralded the dawn. The distinctive upward angle of the tip of the Qantas planes wing was darkly etched against the pink strip and I was forever hooked; hooked on flying, hooked on astronomy and on all things natural on this planet and beyond.
A cool breeze eddies around the astronomy pad at Winton Wetlands. The distant hills and mountains recede into the gathering dusk. As night falls a myriad of jubilant frogs raise their voice in ecstasy of the waters of the newly filled lake.
Overhead we view the wonders of the night sky. Planets Jupiter and Mars; star clusters, the red star Antares in the constellation of Scorpius and the rings of the planet Saturn. We view galaxies so far away that through the eyepiece of a powerful telescope they are but a mere smudge.
One freezing cold night on the deck of a small Russian ship in the Greenland Sea, I asked our guide to show me the Pole Star. This central star indicates north, around which all other stars appear to revolve on their nightly journey.
Long ago when the great navigators steered their ships by the stars, the early explorers sailed into the unknown seas of the Southern Hemisphere. Far away from land and beneath unfamiliar stars it was a whole new ball game!
The poet John Mansfield wrote:
I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky.
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.
In his book “Carrying the Fire,’ Michael Collins, the pilot of the command module for the Apollo 11 space program, wrote of taking a fix on the star Capella to check his position when he was orbiting the Moon.
In 2011 an Atlas rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral, California. Its very special payload was a NASA space craft named Juno after the mythical Roman goddess, wife of Jupiter the chief Roman god.
About nine hundred people built the space craft and launched it. It took approximately another three hundred people to care for it on its 2.8 billion kilometre journey to the planet Jupiter.
The Juno project hopes to uncover the secrets of the early solar system. It’s thought that Jupiter may have been the first planet formed and thus influenced the formation of the other planets.
Juno spent two years circling Earth before getting a sling from Earth's gravitational field to increase its speed. Arriving at the giant gas planet on time after a five year journey, the burners fired to slow the spacecraft and place it into orbit, as programmed. It was one second late!
On board are three specially constructed LEGO mini figures; Jupiter holding a lightning bolt, his wife Juno, holding a magnifying glass to search for truth and astronomer Galileo Galilei holding a telescope. It’s hoped that the inclusion of these LEGO figures will increase children’s awareness of the space program.
Will our quest for adventure and knowledge someday take us far away from our home here on Earth, using the old practise of navigating by the stars with the Earth as a reference point?
In a musty old autograph book, I found an inscription scrawled in ancient handwriting "Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw the dust and the other saw stars."
Man is an explorer, forever pushing the boundaries and seeking new horizons.
In everything we do may we always have the far sight and cooperation to work together and plan for the future and a very bright star to steer by.