She with the stars in her eyes

My odyssey around the world in pursuit of the perfect piece of sky began more than 30 years ago, with a trip I didn't take. That trip was to Virginia Beach to see a total solar eclipse in March 1970. Even after so many years, the memory of that weekend is sharp and clear.

Some friends arrived at our house in Pennsylvania on schedule, but they had already decided it was not worth driving another six hours to Virginia for anything. Caught unaware by their failure to share my enthusiasm, I played the good hostess and stayed home.

The eclipse was well under way the following day and it was impossible to reach the path of totality in time when I realized how badly I wanted to witness this particular event. Looking back though, I realize that my disappointment was the beginning of my pursuit of things astronomical.

Since then, other eclipses - as well as meteor showers and transits - have pulled me around the world. I have traveled to India, Australia, South Africa, and even Antarctica to plant my feet on the ground under a special piece of sky. On June 8, I was in Greece to see an event that I'd known nothing about in 1970.

On that day, the blue sky stretched to the horizon, uninterrupted by even a tiny wisp of cloud. Flowing past the Temple of Poseidon and beyond, this perfect sky promised a hot day in the sun and an ideal view of the transit of Venus. A few feet away, ripples of the Aegean sloshed against the sand, but I was more interested in the celestial sea above my head.

On an incongruous piece of manicured grass surrounded by shrubs and rocks, our group assembled telescopes and cameras, all with solar filters, in the early morning. As the sun rose over the nearby hills, I knew it was almost time, after 122 years, for Venus and the sun to meet again as seen from Earth.

Surrounded by beauty and history, I waited for an event that had been seen and recorded only five times in past history. Three plane flights and a bus ride had brought me to this peninsula in Greece to view an astronomical event that no one alive had ever seen.

In the last few minutes before Venus began her transit across the sun, my mind wandered back to a cooler day in England. Several months ago, in the town of Much Hoole, I entered the centuries-old Carr House to relive a bit of history.

I climbed the thick, rough-hewn steps to the upper story and stood in the window where Jeremiah Horrocks, a 19-year-old amateur astronomer, had made the first recorded observation of a transit of Venus in 1639.

Gingerly I touched the windowsill where he'd stood nearly 400 years ago. I looked through diamond-shaped panes of bubbly glass toward the horizon. Through that window he had positioned a telescope to project an image of Venus crossing the setting sun. I felt I was breathing the same air. I couldn't begin to imagine his elation at predicting that rare event.

As the activity and noise increased around me, I was pulled back to the present. With only minutes to go, I searched for the black notch that would reveal where Venus was lurking. A fuzzy dimple emerged stealthily and at first I thought it might be my imagination.

Then, as though a scrim had been lifted, a dark dent pierced the curve of the sun. Over the next 20 minutes, Venus oozed onto the bright surface, teasing us as she clung to the edge for a few seconds before breaking free to continue her journey.

Now the marathon began. Did I have enough sunscreen and stamina to last through the six-hour event? Would I keep to my schedule of taking a photograph every five minutes? Would it seem just plain boring after two hours, or four hours - or even just one?

From early morning until midafternoon, I manned my telescope. I checked exposures, tweaked the focus, snapped the shutter, and retreated momentarily to the shade again and again. I was surprised it went by so quickly.

As Venus was approaching her exit, clouds began to appear, and the race was on. We hoped to see the magical end of the transit before the sun was hidden from view.

At last the black dot of Venus kissed the opposite edge and her exit from the fiery stage began. The pace picked up and within minutes she had vanished, not to be seen again in such a way until June 5, 2012. I had seen it, and now it was over. The highs and lows of astronomy came rushing in. The anticipation, the exultation of the event, and then, yes, the regret when it's done.

Just like that day in 1970, I wanted to turn back the clock and do it all over again, even though this time I had taken the trip and seen what I wanted to see.

I immediately began to think about the next transit, our last chance to see Venus do her dance. We will surely not catch the one in 2117, when my hypothetical great grandchildren could be nearly 90.

I will have other journeys to take under the celestial sphere during those eight intervening years, so I'll keep wandering the globe to places where I can gaze up and see something wonderful and unique.

Because of one missed chance, my vacation guide is now written in the stars. Sometimes the trip not taken is the most important one.

It has made all the difference to me.

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