COLUMNS

DeWayne's World: A heavenly experience

DeWayne Bartels
This photo of comet Hale-Bopp was taken by North Peorians Eric Clifton and Greg Neaveill.

When space shuttle astronaut Scott Altman arrived at Lakeview Museum last week North Peorians Greg Neaveill and Eric Clifton were very anxious.

They had one thing consuming them — a question they have been carrying since May. The pair of amateur astronomers were anxious to find out if a photo they took 12 years ago made it to outer space with Altman.

They finally got their answer.

Before I reveal the answer, we need a little background.

Neaveill and Clifton, both 1966 Richwoods High School grads, are members of the Peoria Astronomical Society. That gives the pair access to the society’s dark-sky observatory at Jubilee Park. 

They were there the evening of April 5, 1997 to take photos of the comet Hale-Bopp.

They piggy-backed a camera on the observatory’s 24-inch telescope, a beast of a scope that can be very cantankerous.

They took photos of the comet when it was a mere 125 million miles from earth and had a tail stretching 10 to 15 million miles behind it.

As is the case with so many spectacular photos skill was mixed with luck.

Neaveill said conditions that night were fairly good, but Hale Bopp was rapidly setting behind some trees. 

“It turned out to be the last clear day for such a photo,” Neaveill said.

The photo is taken. It turned out well, very well. So good was the photo it was a blue ribbon award winner in 1998 from the Chicago Astronomical Society. In 1999, the photo was also published in the book “Earth — An Introduction to Physical Geology.”

But, that was not enough for the two. Clifton peered skyward and wondered if the photo could get some celestial mileage on it — like 5 million miles worth.

It was Clifton’s idea to see if the photo could be sent into space with a space shuttle astronaut.

Neaveill, it turns out, had a roundabout connection with Altman.

Neaveill owns a plane with Pekinite Steve Huey.

Huey was  Altman’s guidance counselor in junior high years ago in Pekin, and a neighbor of the future astronaut and space shuttle commander.

Huey said they stayed friends long after Altman left junior high.

He said they shared a common interest in flying and photography. 

“We have continued to stay in touch over the years,” Huey said.

Huey even took Altman flying.

“I got my pilot’s license and airplane at about the time Scott was finishing high school, and we went flying together on different occasions,” he said.

“Scott and I continued to see each other after he had finished college and his naval flight training. I was very aware of his aspirations to become an astronaut, and we discussed the very realistic possibility on several occasions. Later I was privileged to be a personal reference in his application process with NASA. There was no surprise in Scott’s becoming an astronaut since he was always very goal oriented and achieved all that he set out to accomplish.”

Knowing of Huey’s connection to Altman, Neaveill asked his friend last Spring to see if he could prevail on Altman to take the photo with him on his last mission — May 11.

Neaveill watched the space shuttle take off in May and monitored its progress.

He said it was exciting and nerve-wracking because he did not know if Altman took the photo with him.

So, when Altman landed in Peoria at Lakeview Museum on July 27 Neaveill and Clifton were there early.

They had only one question for Altman — “Did you take the photo?”

The reply was “Yes.”

“He said it made the trip — all 5.3 million miles and that it was sitting on his desk in Houston waiting to be shipped to us along with appropriate NASA documentation,” Neaveill said.

The pair plan to frame the photo and NASA documentation and present it to  Lakeview Museum.

Neaveill summed up his feelings about the photo and its trip.

“It’s awesome. It won’t hit me though until I see the documentation from NASA. And, if we can get everything framed and displayed at the new museum, that would be even better. It’s OK to have something framed and hanging in my office. It feels better, however, having it out for others to share . . . to share in the possibilities,” he said.

“We have a great group of astronomers in Central Illinois, many or most are members of the Peoria Astronomical Society. It could be larger. We see great pictures on television. And, thanks to the Hubble we’ve seen parts of the universe never imagined. However, people need to put down the remote and get away from the computer and go outside and look up. It’s been there the whole time.”