A shining star blinked out of the newspaper firmament last week: Blaine P. Friedlander Jr. filed his last Skywatch column.
“I just wanted some time for myself, that’s all,” Blaine, 61, told me by way of explanation when I rang him up the other day in Ithaca, N.Y., where he lives. “And The Post was very nice about it.”
The heavens cooperated for Blaine’s farewell, too, graciously arranging to line up 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 wrote the column was going to the U.S. Naval Observatory and gazing at Saturn through its 12-inch telescope.
“It blew me away,” he said. “It literally floored me. The rings were crystal clear. I obviously had 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 isn’t an astronomer. He told me he doesn’t even consider himself an astronomy buff. He’s a journalist who likes the sky, though when he first started writing for The Post, he focused on the part of the sky that’s a whole lot 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 aide on the night shift. Among his tasks in Metro was putting together the weather page, assembling all that agate type that listed highs and lows across the country. In 1986, Blaine was asked if he wanted to take over the Skywatch column from Carol Krucoff, who was creating The Post’s Health section.
“I had a very simplistic notion: Just tell [readers] what was going on,” Blaine said. “It was essentially 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 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’d seen it — and he had a photograph of it. He and a friend had been looking at the sky from a suitably dark spot — a Christmas tree farm in Rixeyville, Va. — when they’d spotted the oblong light. It turned out to be a sounding rocket 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’s been a science writer at Cornell University, which, he points out, was the lead institution on the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.
Blaine said that other high spots 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 I don’t remember them being a thing back when he started writing the column.
“Hype,” Blaine calls them.
“If you look at my columns over the years, I rarely wrote about the supermoon,” he said. “When I did, I always put it in quotes, because it’s an imprecise name for it.” The moon isn’t that much closer, he said.
And besides, the night sky is super enough on its own. Is there something spiritual about looking at our solar system and the stars beyond it?
“Let me put a thought together here,” Blaine said. “We as a society, we look at Netflix, we look at YouTube, we see TikTok, we see 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 immensity of the universe. Jupiter is in our backyard. Saturn is in our backyard. Beyond that, there’s an entire universe that needs 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 get started with gaining an appreciation for the heavens, Blaine has some simple advice: “Walk out, turn off the porch light and look up.”
Can you haiku?
Spring is almost here. Astronomically speaking, it begins March 20. And that means I need your Springtime in Washington haiku. The deadline for my annual contest is Monday. Send yours — in the 5-7-5 format, please — to me at email@example.com. Put “Haiku” in the subject line and include your name and town.