Friday, September 14, 2007

Fifty Years in Space

All right. Let's get on with it!— T. Keith Glennan, first NASA administrator, regarding the space program, 7 October 1958

How time flies when you're having fun.

The ESA's Venus Express has been slinging itself around Venus for over 500 days. Cassini was launched 10 years ago in October and has been sending back goodies from Saturn for over three years. The Mars Rovers are into the 44th month of their 90 day mission.

But, these guys, amazing that they are, are pikers.

The Voyager probes are thirty years old this month and still going strong. which isn't bad for a mission that was supposed to last 5 years. Currently, they're the long-distance record holders for objects launched by human beings.

For pure longevity, Pioneer 10 takes the prize, still barely functioning. For a long time, Pioneer 10 and 11 were the distance champs, but the faster Voyager vehicles passed them a few years ago. The Pioneers have also posed a puzzle to scientists because they don't seem to be where they should be. All sorts of ideas have been proposed for why this is, including something wrong with the theory of gravity (why won't these guys leave Einstein alone?), but it seems that opinion is moving toward more mundane causes, such as dust, heat from the nuclear power sources, and collisions with alien vessels. Okay, I made the last one up, but it makes more sense than saying that theories of gravity need "tinkering".

Planetary exploration began to take center stage when the Pioneers sent back their grainy pictures of Jupiter and Saturn. I say "grainy", but those shots were amazing stuff when they came back. They represented a leap in our technological abilities. When the Voyagers arrived at the outer planets, we were again stunned by the information sent back, and a new generation of planetary astronomers began to yearn for more. Thus came Gallileo and Cassini.

The wonder of it all is that the more we learn the more we want to know.

But, if you want a truly epochal event, you have to look at October 4, 1957, the day the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

It's hard to believe that it's been fifty years since the American public was shocked out of its post-war complacency to find a basketball-sized hunk of electronics circling the Earth. Our own attempts at building ballistic missiles had been feeble by comparison with the various military services each doing their own thing. In an attempt to save face, the Navy rushed a launch of it's Vanguard rocket, tipped with a little orbiter. The entire world was able to watch on television as the missile rose a few feet only to come crashing down and explode in a massive fireball.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not amused. While the military struggled to get something launched (the Army eventually launched Explorer on a Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone missle), Ike decided that the only way we were going to succeed in space was to have a central agency calling the shots; thus was NASA born. He also noticed that what space program we did have was completely dependent on a bunch of German rocket scientists that came to the U.S. after WWII. Obviously, we needed to do something to get our educational system so we could produce our own technically competent people.

And produce them we did. What they produced changed not only spaceflight but the world in which we live.

Take computers as a simple example. It is now popular to bad-mouth the computers that the Apollo astronauts had to guide them to the Moon and back. What people choose to forget is that these machines were beyond state of the art when it came to miniaturization and computing ability. When you use your MP3 player or pull out you slim little laptop and connect wirelessly to the Internet, you utilizing the fruits of that "primitive" computer.

Without the space program, I wonder if technology ever would have advanced to the stage it's reached today.

All that technology has been great (for the most part), but the real reward has been the knowledge gained. We've learned more about how our own planet works by discovering phenomena on other worlds. And we have the continuing opportunity to search for life somewhere other than Earth.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that, instead of competing with other countries to do this, many nations have come together to work cooperatively. Unfortunately, this hasn't extended to returning to the moon, where, once again, it's every country for itself. Hopefully, at some point, the successes in planetary exploration and even the clunky old ISS will convince the holdouts that cooperation is a good thing.

The upside is limitless.

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