Writer behind The Post’s Skywatch astronomy column retires

Writer behind The Post’s Skywatch astronomy column retires

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A bright star rose from the newspaper firmament last week: Blaine P. Friedlander Jr. featured his latest column on Skywatch.

Blaine began writing the Washington Post’s monthly astronomy column in 1986, the same year Halley’s Comet arrived. It would be unfair to insist that it last until the comet’s next appearance, in 2061.

“I just wanted some time to myself, that’s all,” Blaine, 61, told me by way of explanation when I called him the other day in Ithaca, NY, where he lives. “And the Post was very nice about it.”

The heavens cooperated in Blaine’s farewell as well, kindly arranging to align Jupiter and Venus.

Planets were always some of his favorite things to look at. Blaine said his most memorable experience in the nearly 37 years he’s written the column was going to the US Naval Observatory and looking at Saturn through its 12-inch telescope.

“It blew me away,” he said. “It literally hit me. The rings were crystal clear. I had definitely seen pictures of Saturn, but there was nothing between me and the eyepiece and Saturn at that point. It was just an amazing sight.”

Blaine is not an astronomer. He told me that he doesn’t even consider himself an astronomy buff. He’s a journalist who loves the sky, though when he started writing for The Post, he focused on the part of the sky that’s much closer to Earth: the clouds.

He grew up in Falls Church, Va., went to Ohio University for college, then started at The Post, first in the public relations department and then as a copy assistant on the night shift. Among his duties at Metro was creating the weather page, putting together all that type of agate that listed highs and lows across the country. In 1986, Blaine was asked if he wanted to take over the Skywatch column by Carol Krucoff, who was creating The Post’s Health section.

“I had a very simple notion: Just show [readers] what was going on,” Blaine said. “It was basically a play by play of what was happening in the sky.”

And because Blaine isn’t an astronomer, that meant calling someone who is: Geoff Chester, public affairs officer at the Naval Observatory, who was always available to fact-check.

“I think the first time I met Blaine was when he called me to say he was getting all these reports of a strange light in the sky,” Geoff said.

Not only had Geoff heard of the light, he had seen it – and had a photograph of it. He and a friend had watched the sky from a convenient dark spot — a Christmas tree farm in Rixeyville, Va. – when they had seen the extended light. It turned out to be a sounding missile launched from Wallops Island, Va., as part of research for Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. (“I don’t think people were supposed to see it, but oh well,” Geoff said.)

Since 1994, Blaine has been a science writer at Cornell University, which, he notes, was the lead institution on the Mars, Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

Blaine said other highlights of his time writing the column were Comet Hale-Bopp, which visited our celestial neighborhood in 1997, and the partial solar eclipse in 2017.

What about all these “super” moons and “blood” moons and “worm” moons? I told Blaine that I don’t remember them being a thing when he started writing the column.

“Hype,” Blaine calls them.

“If you look at my columns over the years, I’ve rarely written about the supermoon,” he said. “When I did it, I always put it in quotes because it’s an incorrect name for it.” The moon isn’t much closer, he said.

And besides, the night sky is pretty enough on its own. Is there something spiritual about seeing our solar system and the stars beyond it?

“Let me make a point here,” Blaine said. “We as a society, we watch Netflix, we watch YouTube, we watch TikTok, we watch a lot of different things. And when you see the night sky, we’ve had it for millennia. When you see it up close in a telescope, you begin to appreciate the vastness of the universe. Jupiter is in our court. Saturn is in our court. Beyond that, there’s a whole universe to be explored.”

Skywatch is ending, but the Capital Weather Gang will be posting about interesting features of the night sky. As for how people can begin to gain an appreciation for the heavens, Blaine has some simple advice: “Go outside, turn off the porch light, and look up.”

Spring is almost here. In astronomy, it begins on March 20. And that means I need your Washington Spring haiku. The deadline for my annual contest is Monday. Send yours—in 5-7-5 format, please—to me at [email protected] Put “Haiku” in the subject line and include your name and city.

John Kelly’s Washington

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