As we sit in the Press Center at Kennedy Space Center for the not-launch of Endeavour, we feel surprisingly positive. Our guest blogger today, Dr. William Taber, has a lot to say about the success of space exploration.
We met Bill at a Chapman University function, discovered he works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory not far away, and were especially impressed with his enthusiasm, curiosity, and appreciation of writing and poetry. Bill is the Technical Group Supervisor for the Mission Design and Navigation Software Group of the Mission Design and Navigational section. His group is responsible for the development and maintenance of JPL’s core navigation and trajectory design software. This software is used to design, navigate and control the flight path of all of NASA’s interplanetary exploration projects. Bill is also a fellow Illinoisan, earning his Ph.D. and M.S. at the University of Illinois and his B.A. from Eastern Illinois University.
We’ve had a slew of fantastic bloggers, and we know that Bill’s words both will make you think seriously and will stir up emotions.
POSTCARDS FROM EARTH
It was a long time ago in a place far, far away, but I still remember my introduction to the space age. On a dark, clear, moonless summer night in 1962, my dad told my brother and me to come with him to look at the night sky, black and filled with more stars than could be counted over our rural home in northwest Illinois. At age 7, I was used to looking up at the stars on a clear night. I knew that the stars didn’t move around. But that night one star moved. A bright point of light moved silently overhead, moving in a straight line across the velvet blackness between the stars. It was the communications satellite Telstar.
It would be poetic to say that evening launched me on the path to my career and my current position as the group supervisor of the Mission Design and Navigation Software group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. It’s more accurate to say it perturbed my trajectory, the way the gravitational tug of a planet alters the path of a comet pulling it into the inner solar system. The space race stirred my imagination and led me to study science and mathematics. I read everything I could find on astronomy, starting close to home with the moon. From there, I branched out to planets, to stars, to galaxies, and then to the cosmos. At some point, I fell in love with mathematics, in particular geometry and its ability to say something “true” about the world and the structure of the universe. All of this eventually led me to a Ph.D. in mathematics and a thesis in Riemannian geometry.
Through a series of improbable events, I ended up—in 1983—working at JPL, the world’s epicenter for planetary exploration. In 1985, I began working on the most extraordinary robotic exploration mission ever flown, Voyager. Launched in 1977, the twin spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, visited all of the giant planets of the solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. From Voyager we learned about volcanoes on moons, discovered rings around the outer planets, discovered new satellites, and got the first—in some cases only—close-up views of the planets and satellites beyond Mars. The Voyager spacecraft are still operating today, heading for interstellar space, sampling the tenuous flow of particles from the sun, looking for the boundary where our sun becomes just another star.
Yet even with all of their discoveries, the Voyager spacecraft are not entirely about science. They are also about who we are and where we have been. On board each Voyager is a “golden record” of sounds and images from the diversity of life and the people of earth. To see and hear some of it on YouTube, see below. Each record is a testament to the unbounded optimism of the scientists and engineers who built and flew the Voyager spacecraft. These artifacts of humankind will endure long after our planet and solar system have passed from the galaxy. They are a message in a bottle, a postcard from earth to the rest of the universe, saying we were here.
On Valentine’s Day, 1990, long after Voyager’s cameras could return any more science images, the mission controllers at JPL honored the request of the late Carl Sagan to command Voyager 1 to turn its camera back toward the inner solar system to take one last sequence of 60 pictures. These images show the sun, Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune as seen from the edge of the solar system. (Mars and Mercury were lost in the glare of the sun.) Collectively, Voyager’s last set of pictures has become known as the Voyager Family Portrait. These pictures have no scientific value. There is no new science to be learned from them. And yet, I learned as much from these images as I did from all of the scientific images returned by the Voyagers. Looking at these images displayed across the wall of JPL’s Von Karman auditorium, I was forever changed. The reality of how tiny we are in the universe and of the vast emptiness between the stars was seared into my mind. And with this sense of smallness was sense that I was witness to a piece of humankind taking one last look in the rearview mirror, before heading out on a voyage to the stars, carrying postcards from earth into the cosmos.
Frequently, those of us in space exploration are asked why we do it. Is it worth the cost? We talk about the new science we will learn and how we will better understand our own planet. Those are all good, rational reasons. But when it comes down to it, those rational reasons don’t do it for me. They probably don’t do it for anyone else either. We explore space for the collective fun of humankind and to satisfy our curiosity. Space exploration challenges and excites the imagination. It changes what we are—for the better, I think. And maybe, by sending our robotic emissaries out into the cosmos, we have a chance to look back at ourselves and discover something of our humanity here on earth.