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Falling Space Debris Lights Up The Sky Across U.S.

January 21, 1989

Undated (AP) _ A spectacular light show that some mistook for a crashing airplane or a comet when it lit up the night sky over several states was just the body of a derelict Soviet rocket burning up in the atmosphere, officials said Saturday.

The Federal Aviation Administration, National Weather Service and military bureaus and bases across the Midwest and Southwest were swamped with calls about Friday night’s display, officials said.

Sightings of the object around 9:10 p.m. EST were reported from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi and Iowa, officials said.

″It was definitely a Soviet rocket body that was re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere,″ said Maj. Dick Adams at the North American Air Defense Command at Colorado Springs, Colo.

He said the rocket body that fell out of orbit was either ″destroyed in re-entry, or fragments of it have fallen to Earth and are some place, but who knows where.″ Most such objects burn up before hitting the ground.

The re-entry was unusual only because it happened over land and was visible in the night sky, Adams said.

Robin England of Abilene, Texas, said the object ″just appeared all of a sudden out of the south and fell straight due north and it left a line just as straight as could be.″

Some callers thought that was a sign of trouble.

″They thought a plane blew up in the sky,″ said Patsy Halfacre, dispatcher for the Washington County, Ark., sheriff’s department.

″It was the most horrible thing I ever saw and it scared the heck out of me. I kept worrying, and I called the airport, and they told me it was a satellite,″ said Katheryn Berger of Spring, Texas. ″I said ’Thank God it wasn’t an airplane.‴

Others were more appreciative of the display.

″It was fabulous, just fascinating. I’m 57 years old and I’ve never seen anything like it,″ said Jack Lippincott of Fulton, Mo. ″We had this terrific panoramic view of the thing. You could see the reflection of the moon in the rocket body. And there were these white and orange spots trailing along behind it at the same speed. Then it faded off.″

″It was the most spectacular thing I have ever seen in the sky,″ said Laura Kyro, an astronomer at the St. Louis (Mo.) Science Center. ″Even better than a shuttle landing.″

″People were stopping their cars on the highway and about a dozen came into our office because it is so spectacular,″ said John Feldt, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in St. Louis.

In Houston, David Czarnek and his 11-year-old daughter went outside to look at the moon and the stars, but their attention was caught by a very bright, falling light.

″It was real bright, a little yellowish, with a small tail,″ Czarnek said. ″The tail was shimmering, and then it went behind the trees and we couldn’t see anything.″

″It looked like a comet, you know,″ said Tom Wald of Atkins, Ark. ″I just happened to walk outside at the right time and I grabbed a camera - but I don’t think my pictures were any good. I was so excited, I don’t think I was focused too well.″

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