A Space Mission Worthy Of Our Attention

Three images of Saturn taken by Hubble in 2004 show a changing aurora around its pole. i i

hide captionThree images of Saturn taken by Hubble in 2004 show a changing aurora around its pole. Auroral storms on Saturn are caused by the solar wind (a stream of charged particles from the sun) striking Saturn. On Earth, such storms develop in about 10 minutes and may last for a few hours. But Saturn's auroral displays can last for days.

NASA, ESA, J. Clarke (Boston University), and Z. Levay (STScI)
Three images of Saturn taken by Hubble in 2004 show a changing aurora around its pole.

Three images of Saturn taken by Hubble in 2004 show a changing aurora around its pole. Auroral storms on Saturn are caused by the solar wind (a stream of charged particles from the sun) striking Saturn. On Earth, such storms develop in about 10 minutes and may last for a few hours. But Saturn's auroral displays can last for days.

NASA, ESA, J. Clarke (Boston University), and Z. Levay (STScI)
Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag, July 1969. i i

hide captionBuzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag, July 1969.

NASA
Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag, July 1969.

Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag, July 1969.

NASA

If you were born around 1960, you have a vivid if childlike memory of America's race to the moon.

It was a glorious but perilous quest. Two weeks after my seventh birthday in January 1967, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee burned to death on the launchpad in the Apollo 1 capsule.

The tragedy was seared into the nation's psyche. We fretted each time a subsequent Apollo mission to space counted down. It all felt like a wing and a prayer — who knew what would happen? But with every fiber, we rooted for our astronauts and the scientists nervously smoking away in Mission Control in Houston.

If the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement sowed seeds of national doubt about the justness of our cause, our voyage to the moon was the best sort of balm. Smart and brave, that's what America was about. The poster of Neil Armstrong standing on the moon was sold in nearly every grocery store. I put one on my bedroom wall. I was 9.

Doubt

Like the civil rights movement, America's mission to space lost momentum in the 1970s and '80s. Jim Crow was dead, we had gone to the moon, now what? A space station orbiting Earth was OK, but it was a comedown after what had come before.

With the space shuttle, science fiction became reality. Lifting off into space was like hopping a jet from New York to Boston — it was called the shuttle, right? The nation wasn't tuning in to Walter Cronkite for the countdown anymore. Then, when the Challenger disintegrated during takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986, and killed not only our brave astronauts but also a bright young schoolteacher, it did not firm our resolve like the sacrifice of Grissom, White and Chaffee.

It made us wonder why our scientists gave the green light to blast off on a freezing Florida morning when the Challenger's O-ring seals would be stiff and problematic. It made us pause: "What are we doing up there, anyway?"

Supercharged

But there are no deep philosophical questions about the space shuttle Atlantis' mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. Even the most begrudging, no-new-taxes or let's-take-care-of-our-problems-here-on-Earth-first types must concede that the Hubble telescope gives the world and its scientists the biggest possible bang for the buck.

Orbiting at more than 17,000 mph, struggling with stuck bolts and replacement parts that won't fit, this mission was judged to be so perilous that for the first time, a shuttle is standing by on the launchpad ready to rescue the crew of Atlantis should the worst happen.

Humans are trying to understand the origins of the cosmos, and Hubble's upgraded cameras and spectrographs, new gyroscopes, computers and batteries will allow us to look further back in time. The Hubble will emerge (hopefully) supercharged, better than new.

I've been captivated by the eight-hour-long spacewalks and the astonishing video being broadcast live on the NASA channel. While I conduct interviews and plow through research and write pieces for NPR, I watch Mike Massimino, Drew Feustel, John Grunsfeld and Mike Good struggle and toil in space hour after hour. It's like watching the NBA playoffs, with the outcome always in doubt (go ahead and force that stubborn bolt; there's nothing to lose now).

It is humbling, marvelous, full of the same thrill and romance I remember when I stood on my head on the couch cushions in 1969 to watch the first grainy pictures broadcast from the moon. (The initial broadcast began upside down. I remember saying to my parents, "Americans everywhere are standing on their heads!" I was completely convinced of it, but my parents informed me that the number of Americans upside-down on the couch with their feet against the back wall was less than I might imagine. Oh, well — their loss.)

What have we learned from Hubble? We now know that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, that the speed at which the universe is expanding is accelerating, and that it seems major galaxies have black holes at their center (what's up with that?). We are boldly going where no one has gone before. Hubble and the crew of Atlantis will take us there. Two more days. Good luck, everyone. I'll be watching.

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