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ROCKET TANK DROPS IN AFTER LONG TRIP

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It was a BIG thing that went bump in the night outside Steve and Verona Gutowski's central Texas farmhouse. So big, Verona first thought a dead rhinoceros had fallen from the sky.

It took a couple of days, and the help of the local newspaper, before the retired couple learned what the huge cylindrical hunk of steel lying not 25 yards from their Georgetown, Texas, home actually was.Turns out it was a 500-pound tank from a Delta II rocket with a U.S. military payload that had plunged from space at no less than 178 mph, awakening neighbors a mile away when it thudded into the hard hay field at 3:30 a.m. Jan. 22.

The fact that the second-stage fuel tank survived intact its fiery passage into the Earth's atmosphere has space scientists scratching their heads. NASA and other experts believe it is the largest chunk of space debris ever to withstand the forces that normally turn enormous rockets into relatively small pieces of metal and other material that drop virtually unnoticed as often as two or three times each week.

Scientists presume that most of these chunks fall either in the water - which makes up 70 percent of the globe's surface - or in uninhabited areas. But the fact that the Delta tank came down not only in relatively complete shape, but also uncomfortably near the Gutowskis' house, leaves some experts wondering whether they should rethink their assumptions.

As the Gutowskis' close encounter shows, it is entirely possible that similarly big pieces are falling elsewhere, and, given the increasing use of space for satellites, may do so in greater quantities as well.

"Maybe we're building them too well, so they're not burning up entirely on re-entry," mused Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which owned the payload launched on the Delta rocket last April 24 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Lehner and other space experts say no one should fret about falling space stuff beaning property or body, because the odds of that occurring are extremely small. But they acknowledge that the Gutowskis were lucky.

"We're very sorry that it happened and very happy that no one got hurt," Lehner said.

The Gutowskis space junk saga began Jan. 21, when the U.S. Space Command spotted the Delta rocket body's re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. Officials predicted pieces of it would fall to Earth somewhere in the central United States. But they had no idea how big a hunk would survive, or precisely where it would land. No alerts were issued, although the command did call the ballistic missile folks in Washington.

The Gutowskis say they didn't hear it hit. Neighbors later said they were awakened by what they thought was a sonic boom around about 3:20 a.m. (Steve Gutowski, 72, attributes his blissful ignorance to particularly good home insulation.)

The couple's first inkling that something strange had happened came when Verona went out to fetch the paper. Seeing the tank, she called her husband outside to see. "There's something out there that looks like a dead rhinoceros," was the way she described it.

Gutowski said he quickly determined that the tank could not have fallen off a passing vehicle, because it was too far from the road. That left only the sky as the source.

He called nearby TV news stations, and was met with a brush-off. "As soon as I told them something fell from the sky in my field they weren't interested. I think they thought I was crazy," he said.

It wasn't until a reporter with the Williamson County Sun got on the case that they figured out what it was. Reporter J.B. Smith called NASA in Houston and faxed a copy of a photo of the tank, and the mystery was solved.

"They said, 'Oh, that must be the Delta,' " Smith recalled.

NASA scientists came out to examine the tank, which was peppered with holes as if from a blow torch. Some attempts were made to move it, but it proved too heavy for men alone to budge. The Army sent out soldiers to test the tank, and the soil on which it sat, for signs of toxic material, but found none.

On Monday, airmen from Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio hauled the now-rusty tank away. A UFO museum has expressed interest in taking it off the government's hands once NASA scientists are through studying it, Lehner said.

The tank's departure was a source of celebration for the Gu-tow-skis, whose quiet country life had been upended since it fell. People drove by day and night to look at it, and some tried to take pieces of it with them as souvenirs. The couple say they felt like prisoners in their home. And they're afraid their dogs, high-spirited border collies driven to distraction by the weeks of commotion, will never be the same.

"They've run out of bark," Gutowski said.