In the beginning there was Sputnik, a beeping assemblage of Soviet hardware that had red-blooded Americans quaking in fear of going to bed in the light of a Commie moon. Next came the orbital dysfunction of Skylab. NASA couldn’t keep it up, but the Russians sure could with Mir, the virile but trouble-plagued Yugo of space travel, expected to splash down soon in an ocean near you.
Fast forward to 2001 (cue timpani and horn crescendo). The Montana Space Grant Consortium at Montana State University in Bozeman has launched a new website—www.montana.edu/msgc—for professional and amateur skywatchers (or anyone splayed outdoors in a supine position) to track the daily orbits of the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is already visible to the naked eye, identifiable as a rapidly-moving, non-airplane-like speck almost as bright as Saturn soaring across the night sky. At least 40 more missions will be necessary to complete this stratospheric condominium, which will feature research laboratories, ample closet space, free parking, a cafetorium and Starbuck’s. (Not a guarantee. Your space station may differ.)
When the zero-G ribbon-cutting ceremony occurs sometime in 2006—watch for the dudes in puffy white spacesuits chasing a pair of oversized novelty scissors 60 miles above the Australian Outback—the station will be the size of a three-bedroom house and shine brighter than Venus, or almost as bright as the sign in front of your neighborhood Wal-Mart. Plus, the newest addition of 240-foot solar panels will provide enough energy to power 15 homes, where deregulation won’t be an issue.
Outside the window of our Media Watch Department, there is a thick tangle of balloon ribbon caught on a power line. Every day, we watch it slide back and forth in the wind—stuttering along and then stopping and then starting again—while our boss is talking to us. It’s been there for three years now, this multicolor snarl of psychedelic spaghetti, and it’s starting to drive us crazy.
But at least we’re not alone. In the latest issue of Mother Jones magazine, the fair-weather Missoulian and subject of last year’s Spring Reading Issue Ian Frazier has written an article on that very same topic. Seriously—garbage that gets caught in things. Seems that Frazier—or “Sandy,” as his intimates call him—has invented something called a bag snagger, a pole with a wire claw on the end that can be used to inveigle (he specified that word) plastic bags, spent Mylar balloons, or even damnifying colored ribbon from the limbs of trees. And not only that, he received a patent on his invention (patent number 5,566,538), with the hopes that municipal governments will purchase hundreds of the garbage-grabbers to help cleanse city trees of airborne detritus. So far, no such orders have arrived.
But the invention—and the article itself—stand as proof that Frazier is not only broad-minded, he can be witty as well. The article’s a good read. So is his other recent venture into raillery, a story called “Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father,” published in Mirth of a Nation: The Best Contemporary Humor (Perennial, paper, $15). The piece is something of a Ten Commandments of the Suburban Home, as sent down from father to children. And it’s funny, but still not as funny as the fact that Frazier actually invented something to fix something that was bugging even us. And no, Sandy, we won’t really try to use it around power lines.