On this date in 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Poland. Just before his death more than seventy years later, his book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (also called On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies) changed the trajectory of science. Copernicus asserted that Earth is not the center of our Solar System and, instead, that the planets orbit around the relatively stationary Sun.
As he began to think about how the Solar System worked, Copernicus also translated Greek poems into Latin and worked for his uncle, which gave him opportunities for travel and interactions with a variety of people. His initial version of his revolutionary model was a bit sketchy in terms of the mathematics and geometry, but he stuck with it and eventually made dozens of astronomical observations that helped him refine and support his ideas. One of his important discoveries based on these observations was that Earth moved in an eccentric, or elliptical, orbit, rather than in a perfect circle with the Sun in the dead center.
The heliocentric—helio means Sun—model was further delineated by Johannes Kepler, who established the laws of planetary motion based on elliptical orbits around the Sun, and by Galileo Galilei, who made confirming observations with his telescope. (This past Saturday marked Galileo’s 450th birthday!) Almost two-hundred years after Copernicus presented the theory we now take for granted, Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Catholic Church for his heretical and correct view of Earth and the Sun. In 1992, more than five-hundred years after Copernicus presented his heliocentric model, Pope John Paul II finally acknowledged Galileo’s accomplishments and the Church’s errors and also admitted that the planets circle a “stationary” Sun and, thereby, agreed with Copernicus. The official apology to Galileo came in 2000.
Sixty years before the pope forgave Galileo and affirmed Copernicus’s heliocentric model, Joseph P. Kerwin was born on February 19, 1932, in Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park is one of the oldest suburbs of Chicago, a place where we lived for a few years and a place where Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright lived long before we were there.
Eventually, Kerwin earned his medical degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, another of Chicago’s oldest suburbs and where Anna was born. The summer befor Anna’s birth, in the midst of the Gemini space program and as Apollo was ramping up to put men on the Moon, Kerwin became an astronaut. In fact, he served as a CAPCOM—capsule communicator—during the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission in 1970 and, later, was part of the broadcasting team for the first launch of the space shuttle.
Kerwin flew to space himself in 1973 as the science pilot on the Skylab 2 crew, which also included Charles Conrad, Jr., and Paul J. Weitz. The first Skylab mission was unmanned, so Kerwin’s mission was the first manned trip to Skylab and established, at the time, the new duration record for human spaceflight: 28 days. Their mission was crucial to the survival of Skylab, which had been damaged during launch. The repairs included deploying a sort of umbrella to shade the spacecraft from the Sun so that it didn’t overheat. The spacewalks were grueling, and repairs were not always accomplished on the first attempt. Their work gave Skylab a good six-year run, until its orbit decayed and it blazed through Earth’s atmosphere in a spectacle that attracted worldwide attention.
Today’s two birthdays—those of Copernicus and Kerwin—give us more than ample reason to ponder how we see our place and trajectory in the universe. We leave you with some words from the preface of his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies:
For I am not so enamoured of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them. […T]he scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken. […] Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution.