Wonders Never Cease: The Great Daylight Fireball and Other Sights I’ve Seen

Wonders Never Cease: The Great Daylight Fireball and Other Sights I’ve Seen

  • Sumo

Time and Chance

Probably the most amazing physical phenomenon I have ever witnessed—and ever will—occurred on Aug. 10, 1972, when I was yet a teenager and was working as a horse wrangler on the Heart Six Guest Ranch in northwestern Wyoming, a few miles from the settlement of Moran.

Witnesses at Jackson Lake saw the same phenomenon I saw, but from a different angle. I've seen this photo online with captioning that said that the fireball is passing above the Tetons. For most of the last 40 years, I believed the same. But I'm now convinced that it is (in this scene) probably 100 miles or so beyond the Tetons, somewhere over the neighboring state of Utah, and that it is 35 or more miles high. (At some point in its flight through Earth's atmosphere, it supposedly passed with 35 miles of the Earth's surface. The nearest point of its approach is called the perigee, and the accompanying map shows its perigee to be at a point due west of the Tetons, give or take a little). Meanwhile, it is plain that it is within the atmosphere, albeit the upper atmosphere, by the fact that it is aflame and is leaving a trail.

I witnessed what has been called the nearest approach of an asteroid ever observed. It is now known as “the Great Daylight Fireball of 1972,” and the details of its flight across the sky are well documented.

On that warm summer day I was walking with another cowboy from the bunkhouse toward the employee’s dining room at the main ranchhouse. The path we were taking—south and slightly westward—caused us to be facing the object as it came into view. Just to give some perspective—our line of view was across Jackson Hole, with the Grand Tetons lying off to the west (our right).

One report estimated the object’s “entry mass” at 4,000 metric tons, and its diameter at about 20 meters.

Most remarkable of all, it was captured on film. You can see it for yourself. Just click here.

The short clip you’ll see was from a different angle than our actual viewing, and not as close as ours. The film shows the object mostly moving away. For us, it was mostly approaching, though at an angle to us. Nor does that film give much sense of the thing as a solid object. But we could see the face of the rock.

It did not look like something real. It looked instead like a bad display of special effects, like something out of an old Flash Gordon movie. Flames were erupting across the face of the rock, stripping away, re-erupting.

As the years go by, I learn more about it. On the day that I am writing these words, I learned on one website that Astronomer Carl Sagan included the film footage in his PBS-Television documentary series Cosmos.

We guessed at the time that it went down in the Teton Wilderness that was to our backs— we knew there was more than a hundred square miles of it. Then later we heard the thing was sighted over Montana. But the most amazing part is that the bolide never touched earth at all. Apparently it entered the atmosphere and exited back into space somewhere over Canada, continuing on its way through the void.

Until recent years I have disbelieved the reports that the object passed over Utah, not Wyoming, and that it was roughly 35 miles or more above the surface of the earth. It seemed to my companion and me that it was low - hardly higher than a jetliner would fly - and that it was within cloud level. As I said, we thought it would have struck the earth north of us, somewhere well short of Montana. And at the time we had to look at it for some seconds to be sure that it was not a plane on fire. So, obviously, we did  not think it was an object passing over a neighboring state. Also, in one of the videos that can be viewed on YouTube, the meteor seems to be piercing a cloud that hangs just above Jackson Hole. It seems to shred a part of the cloud as it "exits" it.

But after revisiting that video and considering further, I've come to the conclusion that the object was indeed passing over Utah, not Wyoming. And that it was somewhere up in the stratospheric heights, not down at cloud level. The impression that it shreds that cloud is a false one... the "con trail" left by the meteor is what gives that impression. It did not pass through the cloud - it passed far, far behind the cloud. It's just that the object seemed so crisp and clear that it seemed to be much closer to us.

Wikipedia has a page on the event:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Daylight_1972_Fireball

And I found an interesting eyewitness account posted by writer Bill Vaughn on the web in 2008, cross-posted to two websites: darkacres.com and newwest.net. I quote from that piece, wherein Vaughn recalls that he was trout fishing on that Aug. 10, in Montana.

Map of the path of the Great Daylight Fireball of 1972

This map appears in an online article by Bill Vaughn - one for which I have provided a link within the text. It is quite well written, and worth reading in its entirety.

“The grasshopper landed with a little splash and quickly drifted downstream toward the exact spot where [the trout] was lurking.

Then the heavens exploded.

I grew up around Air Force bases and I’ve heard sonic booms many times. But nothing as deep and as resounding as this one. In an instant the fish ran back under the bridge. He was permanently spooked. I’d never see him again.

The great hunk of rock, glowing and hissing and trailing smoke, passed directly over my head, from south to north, and sailed out of sight behind Mount Jumbo.

Gaping at the place where it had gone I wondered: What just happened here? Am I hallucinating? Was this an illusion, some kicking-in of a random bit of mescaline or LSD that had lodged in a remote back alley of my brain?

But as I would learn, the thing I had seen was real.

Thousands of people from Utah to Canada had witnessed what would be called The Great Daylight Fireball of 1972. There were hundreds of pictures taken of the thing, and a pair of home movies, and it was tracked using infrared sensors aboard an Air Force satellite.

Scientists inferring from the temperature of the ball and its 900-mile trajectory from Utah to Alberta calculated that it passed over Montana at an altitude of less than 35 miles, was between ten and thirty feet in diameter, and weighed at least 4,000 tons, big enough to obliterate a Denver-sized city with a force equal to Little Boy and Fat Man, the uranium and plutonium bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Because no trace of the beast has ever been found, and because no sonic booms were heard as it sailed across Canada, astrophysicists now believe its low angle of descent allowed it to skip off the earth’s atmosphere like a flat stone on a still lake. One scientist predicted that the fireball would return in 1997, but no one saw it.

In 1972 the earth dodged a bullet. My fish dodged a bullet. And I dodged two bullets. From then on just standing by a stream would always seem a little bit like winning a prize.”

Interestingly, for myself at least, I had that same feeling of good fortune from having witnessed the event. Vaughn's article, by the way, can be read in its entirety here.

I wrote about the Daylight Fireball in an article of my own, one which I put into the Aug./Sept. 2008 issue of American Cowboy.

After telling my story, I received this letter from a reader:

Dear Mr. Mullins:

Is this a trip or what?! Lo and behold, in the Aug./Sept. issue I find “the Great Daylight Fireball of 1972”! We were still in Spokane, Wash., and I was… driving east of Sprague Ave., probably headed home in the early afternoon when almost dead ahead (I have goose bumps!) I see the ball of fire going north in the low horizon. I think, what was that?? And I wonder, who can I tell that I saw this ball of fire? So I tell my faithful bride and she accepts it without comment that I can recall. Over the years it has been mentioned to me on occasion with the underlying thought that I may have been a bit delusional! I never mentioned it to anyone else—never a word about the “daylight fireball” that was 36 years ago! It is great to see that after all these years the thing I saw was in fact a fact! Thank you! Wonders never cease!”  This was from Joe Schreier, of East Wenatchee, Wash.

Yes, wonders never cease. And my view is that they never cease to confront all of us. My whole point in relating my own tale within the magazine was not to suggest that extraordinary things have happened to me. Rather, it was that such things happen to everyone, but we don’t keep a mental inventory of the strange sights that cross our paths, and so we tend not to notice how extraordinary even the most “ordinary” life is.

As a journalist, I have found that fascinating tales exist within each person. And while I have not kept a thorough record of my own encounters, I shared (in that article) several of my own remembrances just as one person’s record of the phenomenon-packed parade that is human life on this earth.

I shared them not as proof that I’ve encountered more than my share, but as proof that each one of us sees or senses a lot more of life than we give ourselves credit for seeing.

And so I quote here some of the other phenomena that I shared in that piece:

“There was the nighttime lightning strike that was no more than 100 feet directly in front of me as I drove down Northwest Highway in Oklahoma City. As I passed through the spot where it had struck, my windshield was touched by some of the burning ash that was fluttering down, glowing red.

The time canoeing on the Buffalo National River in Arkansas, when a fully mature oak tree unexpectedly cracked, popped, and just toppled over, spanning the river, its topmost leafy branches reaching the far side and capsizing one of our two canoes, though injuring no one.

In Colorado, a neighbor’s teensy Shetland stallion interloped and drove off a horse herd into the national forest.

A bat giving birth to a litter on the sidewalk. A road kill beaver. The tarantula my dad casually pulled out of his shirt collar not knowing what had dropped there from the tree limb above. The giant, oblong, jagged hailstones in Wichita, Kan., on June 19th, 1992, in one of “the worst hailstorms in recorded history.”

The bald eagle just outside Sheridan, Wyo., who stood in the highway median and stared at vehicles as they cruised by on both sides. The man on our road construction crew who was struck and killed by the tack truck. The Great American Cattle Drive of 1995 entering into Miles City, Mont., after starting six months earlier in Fort Worth, Texas.

The heavy feeling in my chest when I first breathed in air at 40 below. The numerous funnel clouds observed before age 8—and none since.

The surprise and pleasure that was the initial broadcast of Lonesome Dove. In sports—the Immaculate Reception; Big E over Big Lew; Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series home run. All unexpected; all caught live on television. The Oklahoma-Nebraska “Game of the Century” for which my buddy Kim Carter won two 45-yard-line seats just hours before kickoff.

The way that my Angus bull Barney would do a standing broad jump that cleared the cattle guard and took him from the pasture to the lusher grass in the yard, but would do it only if I were looking off in some other direction, not directly at him. (So maybe that doesn’t count as an observation?)

The time at the National Cowboy Museum when I heard sculptor Allan Houser play an Apache pipe tune that his mother played for him. I reflected at the time that his mother dated to Old West days, that his father was Geronimo’s translator, and that this haunting melody I was hearing was precisely some ancient tribal music, removed from the Old West by only one degree of separation. That was magical.

Life is like that—so full of unexpected marvels. Nor does life require any special kind of living for it to reach out and confront us.

I daresay that a comparable record of wonders, anomalies, and surprises has confronted anyone else who has lived well into adulthood, and that for many the happenings must have been much more impressive than these.

As Will Rogers said, ‘We can’t all be heroes. Somebody has to sit on the sidewalk and applaud as they go by.’ But there’s a lot to be said for the richness of watching the parade.

It was Solomon who said it best: ‘I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.’ ”

Thanks for taking the time to savor this slice from my own no-more-significant-than-anyone-else’s life. Here’s hoping you can smell the roses and etch the memories that daily drift into your own.

JFM



8 Responses to “Wonders Never Cease: The Great Daylight Fireball and Other Sights I’ve Seen”

  1. Derek Yungling says:

    I observed the 1972 Great Daylight Fireball from my vehicle as I headed west from WY into ID where Hwy 33 changes to Hwy 31.

    The Fireball exited northward from a cloud bank to the SW towards UT and traveled N ~30 deg above the western horizon until it disappeared into the scud towards MT/Alberta.

    It was very bright, and was trailing large chunks of glowing blue and green.

    I think the trajectory shown in the insert is a good approximation of the actual trajectory.

    Please respond!

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  5. Jesse says:

    Hi Grae -
    It's good to hear from another eyewitness. It would be neat if enough people could assemble their impressions so that a running account of the fireball's progress could be posted somewhere. Anyway, I learned more just by reading your comment. One thing that still surprises me: if you look at the 8 mm clips of the fireball that are posted on YouTube - I think I have seen two different ones, both shot from somewhere east of the fireball and in Jackson Hole, about 25 or so miles south of my vantage point - you notice that the fireball seems to (?) cut right through a large cloud, and seems to tear a ragged exit point on the north side of the cloud. That has made me question some of the accounts that put the object at a very high altitude. As I look at the film again I question whether it passed through the cloud... maybe it was far to the other side of it. Anyway, if that map you shared is correct, the object was high above Utah (!) when I was seeing it. But like you, I thought it was down in normal airspace and that it was about to hit the ground. I definitely thought it was on a path that ran between me and the Tetons, which I was facing. I fully expected it to strike the earth somewhere maybe 10-20 miles north of where I stood. And we could see the smoke trail clearly after it had passed. Like you, I sort of paused to hear the impact. So to think that it might have been, oh, 200 (?) or more miles away, well, that is remarkable. Just indicates how big the thing was - if it was truly that far away. But still... how could it have passed through that cloud that was visible in the film clip? Was that cloud over Utah? It looks to be over the Tetons. It's perplexing to me, and makes me wonder about the charting of its path. By the way, I believe there was an article written about the fireball in an issue of Sky and Telescope, and published a few months after the event. I have never seen the article, but I imagine it is interesting. Anyway, thanks much for your comment, and I hope that if others have eyewitness reports and they have landed on this page, that they, too, will leave a comment. Jesse

  6. Grae says:

    Oops, that should have been May 1980

  7. Grae says:

    Jesse,

    I found this post while googling the '72 fireball. I was a witness to it and have yet to find any video/photo of it from anywhere close to my vantage point. From what you have posted of Bill Vaughn's account, his is remarkably close to my experience. It sounds like he was to the east of Missoula, Montana as he states the Fireball disappeared behind Mt. Jumbo (ele. 4,768'), which is located on the east side of Missoula between Rattlesnake Creek and East Missoula/US-90. It went almost directly overhead from where I saw it in Missoula, Montana (if you were to face north, it followed a path about 1 o'clock in the sky, from south to north. So I was facing Mt. Jumbo to the east with my head tilted to look almost directly overhead.

    I was 11 and swimming in the "Big T" (the municipal swimming pool at McCormick Park that was shaped like a T and has now been replaced by baseball fields). We heard it before we saw it, crackling like a rocket. At first we thought it was a very large airplane on fire, but it moved faster than any airplane we had ever seen, and there were no wings. It disappeared behind the mountains to the north of Missoula (on the west side of Rattlesnake Creek). Everyone in the pool was silent for several minutes after it had disappeared, waiting to hear the impact that never came. I tried to tell my mother when I got home and we looked for it in the news and in the papers, but didn't see any reports. Just like Joe, I never mentioned it to anyone until I saw the film clip of the Fireball in a documentary called "Hyperspace". You won't believe how excited I was to see the film which confirmed to me what I saw (and had forgotten about) was real. I had no idea what a close call it was and what a devastating natural disaster it would have been.

    I have since survived two other natural disasters: Mount St. Helens eruption in May, 1890 (I was still living in MT and experienced the weeks of ash fall when car air filters and pantyhose sold out - people used panty hose to wrap the air filters to keep the ash out) and the Loma Prieta earthquake of Oct, 1989 that razed portions of San Fransisco (I was in Gilroy, 12 miles from the epicenter at Loma Preita peak). It's these near misses that make you realize just how tenuous life is and gives you an appreciation that every moment is a blessing.

    Here's an image that shows the path of the Fireball tracking just to the east of Missoula:
    http://www.astrosociety.org/pubs/mercury/9806/images/5.gif

    Blessings,
    ~Grae

  8. KayJeanette says:

    Awesome experience, Jesse. I have experienced one meteor in my lifetime and that was awesome. It came over Interstate 94 in heavy nightime traffic just south of Milwaukee. I took the survey on Salvation on the website. As I'm looking in my King James Bible in the Biblical Cyclopedic Index on Salvation there are 45 scriptural references to Salvation mentioned throughout the Old & New Testaments. What an awesome God we serve.

    Kay Nechvatal

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