For 21 U.S. fishing boats in the South Pacific, life has gotten exciting — a little too exciting — since last week.
Less than seven days ago, the albacore tuna anglers learned their boats could become floating targets as at least 27 tons of scrap metal from Russia's Mir space station hurtle through the atmosphere toward Earth.
Watch a simulation of Mir's decent.
"I don't know whether we are fortunate to be witnesses of one of man's greatest artificially created astronomical sights," Stan Davis recently wrote in an e-mail from his fishing boat in the South Pacific, "or cursed at ground zero waiting for 1,500 hot molten metal pieces that could easily sink our boats or explode our empty fuel tanks."
Only by 'Mir' Coincidence
At about midnight ET tonight, the engines of Mir's Progress rocket are expected to fire for the final time and send the 15-year-old station into the South Pacific between Australia and Chile. Most of the station is expected to burn up as it re-enters the atmosphere. But about 27 tons of scrap are expected to reach the ocean's surface early Friday morning.
Although Russians have assured that the region where Mir is expected to hit is free of islands and any human habitation, Wayne Heikkila of the Western Fishboat Owners Association, which includes Davis, estimates the splash down zone could lie only about 150 miles from his fleet's cluster of fishing boats. The estimated 34 boats in the region operate out of Oregon, California, Alaska and Washington state. Six others hail from New Zealand and Canada.
"All the news releases we read say this is a 'windswept and desolate area,'" continued Davis from his position in the South Pacific, "so I guess our 34 boats and 200 souls don't count."
Some of the fisherman, who are accustomed to other kinds of perils like storms and rough seas have taken the news with a grain of salt. Barry Diehl, a fishing vessel owner who originally hails from Alaska wrote in: "This is the only time in my life when I've hoped that a little piece of heaven doesn't fall in my lap."
And Morgan Davies and Ruth Arkless of the fishing vessel Alliance have thought up some good puns, including the "Mir coincidence" of being hit by molten hot debris and how the experience could warrant a movie called The Perfect Splash. Others have proposed making T-shirts when they return labeled with the boast: 'We Survived the Crash of the MIR-2001."
But Tana McHale, a fisheries consultant with the fleet, says, despite their humor, most of the anglers are also feeling very uneasy.
"At first the idea of a space station landing in our fishing ground was just so mind boggling that it was hard to take seriously," she said. "But then it appeared the Russians moved the path even more towards them. We're talking 1,500 pieces showering down so they're nervous."
Specks in a Huge Ocean
Especially nervous, says McHale, are those fishermen who have their families with them on board. One boat, the F/V Wendy Seaa, houses a family of four, including sisters Megan and Jaime Slater, ages 11 and 12 years. On Wednesday, older sister Jaime wrote an e-mail explaining how they were nervous about a piece of space junk making them "goners."
But, they also said their parents assured them: "we were like tiny specks in this HUGE ocean and it was unlikely that any flying objects from space were going to hit us."
McHale says the people on board the cluster of Western fishing vessels in the South Pacific have given up trying to clear completely out of the area since their boats move at a maximum speed of 7 knots. She adds they're still debating how to situate themselves — in clusters or scattered throughout the region — during the hours when Mir is expected to hit.
"The benefit of clustering the boats together is they could see each other," she said. "But we also wouldn't want everyone's life in danger if something comes bursting in from the atmosphere."
Although he understands why they might feel jittery, University of Colorado aerospace professor Robert Culp says he considers the fishermen near Mir's target area "lucky."
"I think it will be spectacular," said Culp. "And the odds of being hit are less than the odds of being hit by lightning. These are small objects hitting a very, very large space."