Ground Control to Major Tiangong

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April 1st April Fool’s Day — is Sunday. Does anyone really get fooled on April Fool’s Day anymore? It has to be a well-crafted prank otherwise it’s No Bueno. We, somewhat old, current and former Milwaukeeans may remember the prank a radio station played on its listeners when they said Morrissey was making a “surprise” appearance at a downtown Milwaukee venue. I’m thinking it was the Eagles Club, possibly around 1988-89. Regardless, hundreds of Morrissey fans showed up — I didn’t think Morrissey fans could be so … never mind. Point is it was a good prank.

So a month ago we started to read about the Chinese space station, the Tiangong-1, tumbling through Earth’s orbit and was descending at an alarming rate. Scientists start ringing alarm bells very early on stuff, like global warming (1970), and most recently the Apophis asteroid which will zip past Earth in 2029 — 11 years from now — just a mere 18,600 miles away, give or take a kilometer or two.

They believe the close proximity to our planet will alter its trajectory to such a degree that on its next pass it won’t pass at all. It will smack us right up in our fanny perpendicular … wherever Earth’s fanny perpendicular might be. Could be Wisconsin, or Arizona or maybe the inner reaches of Siberia that even the bears and muskrats avoid.

If Apophis hits Earth in 2036 as sorta, kinda — but who really knows — predicted, it would leave a crater a mile wide and 535 meters deep. That’s 1,699.48 feet. It would also be 20,000 times more destructive than the Hiroshima A bomb. Hmm … well you know, the Russians are due for a major catastrophe. Actually, it would be catastrophic for the entire planet.

Tiangong-1 re-entry possibilities. Click to enlarge (European Space Agency)

We’re getting too far off the trail here which is leading to this Chinese space station that is due to come burning into our atmosphere on April Fool’s Day — Easter Sunday if you wanna be Christian about it.  Yeah, but then the scientists say there is a 16-hour margin of error so it could hit anytime between Saturday and Sunday afternoon. At the risk of being too picayune, by what time zone frame of reference?

Let’s assume Eastern because WTF, East Coast folk are special.

So I was talking to my friend Jeff Worman, who crafted the beautiful graphic you see above, about this Tiangong-1 space station hurtling to Earth and we began to brainstorm — quite innocently I might add — in a stream of consciousness conversation that recalled the movies Gravity and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. As you may recall, the Stanley Kubrick classic, starring Peter Sellers in three roles, ended with Slim Pickens, as Major Kong, riding the nuclear bomb down to Earth over Russia.

Kubrick was a visionary. He died right before his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, was released. Between Strangelove and Eyes is a list of classics, like Full Metal Jacket, Barry Lyndon, The Shining and the science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arthur C. Clarke helped write the screenplay, which is based on his book of the same name.

How would Stanley Kubrick do with a script about a falling space station? Or Alfonso Cuarón, director of Gravity? He sorta, kinda but not really touched on it in that soon to be classic film about being stranded in space. Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Stone, has to reach Tiangong-1 in order to ride one of its escape capsules to Earth.

Slim Pickens as Major Kong riding a nuclear bomb down to Russia in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (YouTube)

Did Dr. Stone die at the end? Was it her final dream? Or did she make it back to Earth in an escape capsule? I say she lived because nobody likes a sad ending. Okay, George Clooney dies, but people always die in feel good movies.

So as Jeff and I were chatting about this Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, crashing to Earth on April Fool’s Day. “What if,” Jeff asked, “instead of riding in the Chinese escape capsule to Earth she rides a burning hunk of a space station module, like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove?”

That was sort of the query. At any rate we laughed.

A few hours later the thought of burning debris from Tiangong-1, coming down across America … actually scientists say it could come down, “…somewhere between the latitudes of 42.7 degrees north and 42.7 degrees south.” Okay, that’s like most of populated Earth!

Because we only think about ourselves, I imagined it coming down across America in a fiery display similar to that scene in Steven Spielberg’s vision of War of the Worlds. Alien space craft crashing into Earth in a fiery display of destruction … The moral of that story: Bacteria good, aliens bad.

When I pictured the space station’s fiery display in my noggin, I could barely see Sandra Bullock, in a 1950’s-like curve-accenting space suit, riding a space station module, waving her helmet with a glorious “Yaaah-whooo!”

Then burning up in the lower atmosphere with the rest of the debris — although to be scientifically accurate a human would have burned up long before the lower atmosphere and a human would not survive that upper atmosphere without a helmet, and bearing in mind the speed at which the module would be falling it would be physically impossible to hold onto the module … but why get into the weeds with all these details? If Neil deGrasse Tyson calls tell him I went to Tierra del Fuego to avoid the space debris.

Is the sky falling? I guess so but I’m wondering if those jokers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will put out a press release late Sunday night (Pasadena time) saying, “April Fool’s!” Probably not. The entire scientific community would have to be in on the joke, as well as the Chinese government and those guys don’t tell jokes.

So, get ready for a fiery display, somewhere in the sky, any time between 9 a.m. Pacific Time Saturday to 9 a.m. Pacific Time Sunday — April Fool’s Day. Easter Sunday if you want to be religious about it. Scientists say we have a 1 in 1 trillion chance of getting hit by space debris. See? Playing the lottery is a good idea. The odds are better.

And if you see Sandra Bullock riding the burning hull of a space station module, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Top illustration by Jeff Worman