SP-4208 LIVING AND WORKING IN SPACE: A HISTORY OF SKYLAB

 

Appendix F

Comet Kohoutek

 

NASA'S OBSERVATIONS OF COMET KOHOUTEK

[390] Comet 1973f, discovered by and named for Lubos Kohoutek, was an exception to the general experience with comets. It was discovered farther from the sun (73.9 million km) and earlier (7 months before perihelion) than any previously reported comet; early calculations of its path showed that it would swing inside the orbit of Mercury; and its brightness when discovered indicated that it was exceptionally large. Its size and near approach to the sun indicated that it would be extraordinarily brilliant when it passed perihelion in late December 1973.1

Presented with eight months of lead time, astronomers around the world began planning extensive and systematic observations. NASA prepared to use all its available instruments to contribute to this worldwide program. Some astronomers working on other NASA-sponsored projects diverted part of their resources to comet observations; a few special grants were awarded; other experimenters worked on instruments to be flown in aircraft or sounding rockets. A special "Operation Kohoutek" office was established at Goddard Space Flight Center to coordinate NASA's observations; it also coordinated activities with the Smithsonian Observatory, Kitt Peak National Observatory, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Existing instruments constituted the bulwark of NASA's program, even though all of them were designed for other purposes. Mariner 10, launched toward Mercury on 3 November 1973; Orbiting Solar Observatory 7, in orbit since September 1971; and Skylab's Apollo telescope mount were the principal ones. A new Joint Observatory for Cometary Research near Socorro, New Mexico, not yet formally dedicated, was brought into operation for Kohoutek.

As 1973 progressed, earlier predictions of the comet's size and brightness were modified downward by further observation. Astronomers were not surprised, as comets are probably the least understood and least predictable of celestial objects, but certain of the planned observations had to be altered. The rest were carried out very much as planned, with gratifying results.

Preliminary examination of those results showed Kohoutek to have been a most interesting comet. Spectroscopic evidence for water in a comet was obtained for the first time, supporting a widely accepted theory that comets consist largely of ice and frozen gases. Another interesting discovery was Kohoutek's emission of radio frequency radiation identified with the polyatomic molecules hydrogen cyanide and methyl cyanide. Both of these molecules have been detected in intergalactic space, but never before in comets. The observation lends credence to the supposition that comets are composed of the primordial material out of which the solar system was formed.

Kohoutek was also unique in being apparently a "new" comet, one that had never before passed the sun. This at least was offered as an explanation for its considerably diminished brightness after perihelion. Never having been heated before, it contained much more volatile material than periodic comets. This material boiled off during approach to the sun, releasing some of the solid particles embedded in it and creating a large cloud of highly reflective dust. But by the time the comet rounded the sun and became favorably placed for observation from earth, it had diminished in size and brightness much more than an older comet would have.

 


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391]

Orbit of Comet Kohoutek, 1973-1974.

Orbit of Comet Kohoutek, 1973-1974.

 

Skylab's observations of comet Kohoutek were a small part of the total study, but they were among the important ones. The photometric images taken daily from the workshop's orbit above the atmosphere provided a good record of the comet's intrinsic brightness. The crew's visual observations and color sketches were far better than any such made from the ground. Integrated into the rest of the studies made around the world, they will eventually play a part in understanding what comets are and where they come from.

 

KOHOUTEK AS A MEDIA EVENT

 

Kohoutek's early discovery and the busy preparations to study it were scientifically noteworthy, but-one might suppose-hardly the stuff to excite the press generally. Other comets had come and gone in recent years without drawing newspaper attention. But the coincidence of its perihelion with the Christmas season, the early predictions that it would be the most spectacular celestial display since Halley's comet in 1910, and the involvement of a manned spaceflight, combined to make it newsworthy. Over the last six months of 1973 American newspapers-ably assisted by an intensive public relations campaign by NASA-gave more coverage to its approach than to any such exotic event within memory.2

In July 1973 a Washington paper reported that NASA was considering delaying the launch of the third Skylab crew by two to three weeks in order to have the solar instruments manned as comet Kohoutek swung around the sun. Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight Dale D. Myers remarked that while such a delay would be expensive, "comets this size come this close once in a century. It really looks like the kind [392] of thing you can't pass up." 3 A few weeks later the preparations being made at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, attracted the attention of a San Jose reporter, who noted "the excitement bubbling among the ranks of researchers who are accustomed to deliberate, carefully qualified phrases." They were, he said, calling it "the comet of the century."4

Very quickly this phrase became ineluctably attached to the new comet. Preliminary estimates that it would be larger and brighter than Halley's comet, even that it might be visible in midday, were given wide currency. A magazine for serious amateur astronomers warned, "Just how bright the comet will become cannot yet be forecast reliably,"5 but from 16 August, when NASA announced postponement of the Skylab launch to allow observation of the comet, most of the press ignored such negativism.6

As the launch of the last Skylab mission approached, more comet stories, still featuring the earliest estimates of size and brightness, appeared. An Associated Press release, quoting NASA scientists, promised the most spectacular celestial sight in more than a century, reiterating the comparison with Halley's comet. Kohoutek might be as bright as the full moon, with a tail stretching across a sixth of the sky, according to another report. Again, for more knowledgeable readers, NASA's director of Operation Kohoutek, Stephen Maran, cautioned that comets are highly unpredictable; Kohoutek could split or even disappear as it drew closer to the sun.7

Through November the comet was still invisible to the unaided eye, but public interest intensified. A three-day cruise aboard the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth 1I was almost fully booked early in the month; by December, 1693 people had paid $130 to $295 each to sail out into the Atlantic, hoping to find dark and clear skies to glimpse the comet just before dawn. A leading marketer of telescopes for amateurs reported sales up by 200%. Eastman Kodak company published a booklet containing tips for photographing the yet-unseen spectacle. By now, however, skeptical notes were creeping into some accounts. While Newsweek was reporting that "astronomers are predicting that comet Kohoutek will prove an even more spellbinding spectacle than Halley's comet," the New York Times hedged: "some astronomers fear that the comet has been 'oversold' and will be a disappointment to many." An official of the Brevard County, Florida, astronomical society offered the opinion that Kohoutek would not be "the comet of the century.... I don't think it will be seen in the middle of the day." By late November it was reported that already there were signs that "the first predictions of post-Christmas brilliance may have been overoptimistic."8

That was not enough to still the frenzy that had been built up by most papers, however. Feature writers had a field day recalling the history of spectacular comets and the superstitions associated with them. Planetariums across the country staged comet shows, and here and there installed special "comet hot-lines" providing recorded information by telephone. And although by early December only a few astronomers and well equipped hobbyists had seen Kohoutek, the spate of stories did not abate, for as the comet approached perihelion it would surely begin living up to expectations.9

Those who sailed on the QE2, as it turned out, had to get their money's worth out of entertainment other than the comet-which, probably, many of them had planned to do anyway. Clouds covered the area much of the time and the sea was not kind: many of the passengers got seasick. Lubos Kohoutek, who was brought along as one of the featured attractions of the cruise, thought he caught a glimpse of the comet in the predawn darkness, but he was not sure. In the midwest, the early December weather foiled most of those who tried to get a look at comet Kohoutek. The New York Times reported that even those who could see it were likely to feel let down: "the much-publicized Comet Kohoutek is proving a disappointment to astronomers, if not a fizzle." Only three days before, NASA's spokesman for Operation Kohoutek had reiterated that the comet could be "the greatest fiery chariot of all time."10

NASA's promotion of the still-invisible comet was producing excellent results when [393] the third Skylab crew was launched-so good, in fact, that the White House made a tentative attempt to ride the comet's coattails. An adviser to the Domestic Council approached NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher proposing a half-hour television special linking comet Kohoutek, Skylab, and the first family's Christmas message to the country. Six months earlier this same adviser had urged the council to exploit the space program and its benefits for the benefit of the president's image. He argued that the "Flash Gordon" side of space ventures had been neglected. Comparing the coverage of spaceflight with the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and the television series Star Trek, he found it unimaginative, boring, and unappealing, and suggested that what was needed was to "really sock space to the American people for the first time in a way they have wanted it all along." Against that background, NASA's Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs John P. Donnelly reacted adversely to the television proposal, finding it neither imaginative, perceptive, nor incisive. Donnelly pointed out that involving NASA in politics-as the suggestion was sure to do-would be a very bad thing for the space program. (He did not need to say that it was a highly inopportune time to entangle the space agency with the fortunes of Richard M. Nixon while the Watergate investigations were uncovering damaging evidence against the president and his advisers.) Although the White House proposal was the subject of high-level and highly charged discussions within NASA, Donnelly's view prevailed.11

The comet could have done the president no good, as events turned out; the hazards of predicting comet behavior came home to astronomers and journalists alike in the next month. Over a period of three weeks Operation Kohoutek director Stephen Maran revised his pronouncements drastically. On 20 December he called early predictions of its brightness "optimistic" in view of current opinion that Kohoutek was a new comet. A week later he said it was "not the comet [of the century] from the point of view of public viewing." Scientifically it would be very important, but "it won't be as spectacular as we had hoped." When a reporter asked about the 160-million-kilometer tail that was supposed to stretch across a sixth of the sky, Maran said that estimate was "outdated." 12

Early in the new year newspapers were wondering what had become of the brilliant spectacle they had been touting for six months. Serious amateurs and professional astronomers obtained many valuable and beautiful photographs of the comet, but the general public was disappointed, to say the least. Reporting that the comet was about as bright as the average star, one paper headlined its story, "Kohoutek: The Flop of the Century?" No expert would venture a confident opinion as to the cause. By 10 January 1974 Kohoutek was visible only through binoculars. A spokesman for Goddard Space Flight Center acknowledged that "from a public relations point of view, it has been a disaster," though he insisted that "from a scientific point of view, it has been a roaring success." A story in the Philadelphia Inquirer summed up the press view succinctly: "The 'Comes of the Century' Went Phzzzt."13

With the comet sailing off into space, perhaps on a hyperbolic path that would never bring it back, serious reporting gave way to parody and satirical comment. A guest columnist for the Chicago Tribune broadly spoofed the astronomical debacle by attributing the pre-perihelion predictions to a government plot to take the public's mind off the unfolding Watergate scandals, or a conspiracy with the telescope industry to boost sales. In the New York Times Russell Baker wrote lightly of "The Cosmic Flopperoo," while Art Buchwald interviewed a fictitious comet dealer who pointed out that his product was not warranted against failure to shine.14 The Kohoutek binge was over.

Press treatment of comet Kohoutek had emphasized the spectacular possibilities. Perhaps reporters, encouraged by scientists' understandable enthusiasm for a major comet's appearance just when it could effectively be studied, overlooked the fact that comets are notoriously unpredictable. Kohoutek's unparalleled early discovery allowed much more time for both scientific preparation and public attention-which few comets get. Perhaps some writers, noting that comets had traditionally heralded the fall of [394] princes and other dire events, saw some connection between Kohoutek and Watergate. And no doubt the coincidence of the comet's passage around the sun with the Christmas season added interest.

Mostly, however, the press simply bamboozled itself, ignoring the cautions occasionally invoked by the astronomers. Kohoutek had been treated as a sure thing from the beginning, and when it misfired, the press felt victimized. None of it, of course, was really necessary. In its March 1974 issue, Sky and Telescope-which had calmly published the sober facts about Kohoutek-reflected on the press's overreaction:

The impression made by Comet Kohoutek 1973f depends very much on with whom you talk. Professional astronomers are enthusiastic about the observations they obtained that should tell much about the structure and origins of comets. Knowledgeable amateurs were rewarded by a beautiful and delicate object in the evening sky, better seen with binoculars than with the naked eye, and difficult to photograph. But the general public wondered what had happened to the spectacle promised by the news media.

Actually, 1973f was a large comet comparable to 197011 (Bennett), and any disappointment was mainly due to overenthusiastic advance publicity.15


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