SPECIAL REPORT: Kohoutek: Comet of the Century

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Comet Flight. Excitement about the comet is not confined to scientists. Planetariums round the world are drawing overflow crowds for Kohoutek shows. Telescopes and binoculars are being sold at an exceptionally brisk pace; Edmund Scientific Co., of Barrington, N.J., reports a 200% gain this year in its sale of telescopes; Los Angeles' Marschutz Optical Co. is completely sold out. This week the Queen Elizabeth 2 sailed from New York, booked to the gunwales with 1,693 passengers on a three-day comet cruise. Before dawn every morning, passengers were invited to the decks for telescope viewing and comet lectures. In January, when the comet will be visible in the evening sky, New York's Hayden Planetarium is planning an even more elaborate happening: a six-day "Flight of the Comet" aboard a chartered Boeing 747. The tour will feature stopovers at observatories in California and Arizona. There, the participants will be treated to candlelight dinners and lectures while Kohoutek glimmers in the sky. Cost: $1,750 apiece.

The reaction to Kohoutek is also taking more metaphysical forms. A militant Jesus cult called the Children of God, which claims a worldwide membership, is convinced that the comet is an omen of disaster and is directly predicting doomsday ("Forty days," warns the group's leader "Moses David" Berg, and "Nineveh shall be destroyed!"). A different alarm is sounded by the Italian parapsychologist Astaroth, 52 (real name: Claudio Giannantonio), who counsels members of the Rome political and movie set. Astaroth explains that comets disrupt the "psychomagnet-ic equilibrium" of the planetary system. He adds: "Human beings will be drawn to commit acts of violence—not only singly but collectively." In McFarland, Wis., the self-proclaimed head of the Church of the Odd Infinitum, Edward Ben Elson, is selling tickets at $10 each for his intergalactic spaceship ("No warranties expressed or implied"). He says it will take off Dec. 24 before the comet's gases can ignite the earth's oil supply and bring death to most of mankind. UFO Cataloguer and Astronomer J. Allen Hynek, who was born under Halley's comet in 1910, is taking a more realistic view; he is bracing himself for a flood of calls at his Northwestern University UFO center from people worried about the fiery space spectacle.

Others of a mystical bent feel less threatened by the comet, particularly because of its coincidence with Christmas. "I do not mean to suggest that another Christ will be born," wrote James Grayson Bolen, editor and publisher of the magazine Psychic, "but rather that an inner birth of Christ-like consciousness might occur." Imprisoned Acid Guru Timothy Leary, who was recently the beneficiary of a fund-raising "Comethon" in Santa Cruz, Calif., shares this optimism: "The Comet Starseed [Kohoutek] comes at the right time to return light to the planet earth." Adds Carl Schleicher, whose Washington-based Mankind Research Unlimited Inc. exploits mind control and other fringe sciences: "A majority of our 'sensitives' have good vibrations about Kohoutek. The portents are good."

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