Monday, April 7, 1997
Eyes on comet inspire
glimpse of the future

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The comet seekers looked in wonder at the heavens.

Then they laughed with their fellow earthlings as they compared their own mortality with the endlessness of space.

They had journeyed for miles to see Comet Hale-Bopp, a dash of pink in a blue-black sky.

From Monfort Heights and Covington, from Milford and Madeira, they convened on the lawn of the Cincinnati Observatory atop Mount Lookout. The last two weeks have been prime viewing time for the comet's once-in-many-lifetimes show in the sky.

Groups of seekers squinted through portable telescopes spread across the lawn and the big 11-inch scope peering through an opening in the observatory's domed roof.

Adults gasped. They took turns saying: ''Oh My God!''

Kids were more inventive. They saw the comet as a foggy headlight or a flashlight in the sky.

Paul Nohr, the observatory's curator, saw it as a great opportunity to get people hooked on the heavens.

Before Hale-Bopp appeared, the observatory's lawn was an empty green space where neighborhood dogs romped and solitary joggers burned off winter's fat.

But with the comet came the crowds.

''The lawn fills up every night, whether or not we have a special program,'' the curator said while adjusting a telescope.

Nearby, comet gazers peppered the observatory's director, Mike Sitko, with questions about Hale-Bopp. How big is it?

''Anywhere from 6 to 30 miles across,'' he replied. ''Technically speaking,'' he said, ''it's big.''

The crowd heard about Hale-Bopp's tail. Depending on which scientist got the better grade solving those ''a speeding train leaves the station at 7 p.m.'' story problems in math class, the tail could be 500,000 or 50 million miles long.

Mike Sitko votes for 50 million miles. ''But either way,'' he said, ''it's long.''

As he answered comet questions, antsy seekers drifted off to see Hale-Bopp through the observatory's telescope. They were greeted by a line snaking through the building, out the front door, down the steps and into the night.

''Might as well get in line,'' said Ruth McGregor of Madeira. ''Never see this again.'' As an after-thought she added: ''Next time it comes through, I'll be able to see it a lot closer. I hope.''

Janet and Art Wehrman drove ''all the way from Monfort Heights'' to view something that's 123 million miles away.

''We just came to see the comet,'' Art said. His wife had bigger plans.

''They say comets are made up of the same stuff that created the solar system and killed the dinosaurs,'' Janet said. ''So, we're here to see the past.''

And the future.

According to the latest calculations, Hale-Bopp's next flyover should be in 2,300 years. That's the year 4297. So, mark your calendars.

Morgan Baker already has. The Covington fifth-grader spent his 11th birthday comet-watching at the observatory.

''I am very interested in the stars and comets,'' Morgan said with a chaw of taffy in his cheek and his hands stuck in his pockets. ''I'll be around to see it again.''

Imagine what Cincinnati will be like when Hale-Bopp comes back. And Morgan Baker welcomes its return.

In the year 4297, Cincinnatians won't drive to the observatory. They'll beam themselves up.

When they materialize, someone will probably do what a family from Milford did last week. They got out of their mother ship - a swayback Buick - and saw the comet. The father said, ''Yep! There it is.'' Then they turned around and went home.

For Hale-Bopp's return trip, Cincinnatians will go into space the way we fly in planes. Those rides into space will cost more from here than from Columbus or Louisville. Cincinnati will be a hub for the Delta space shuttle.

The last time the comet passed the planet, the Egyptians were building the pyramids

In the year 4297, Cincinnati will be trying to decide where to put a bowl-shaped edifice where teams bat around a small, leather-covered ball. Will it be next to the Newport Jetport? On Broadway Commons? Or just east of the moon?

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.