Space: Still the Final Frontier

In western Kentucky, August 21, in the path of a total eclipse of the sun, I put pen to paper....
#space #perspectives-and-provocations


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It’s the afternoon of the 21st of August as I’m putting pen to paper for this column. I’ve driven south and west for four-and-one-half hours to western Kentucky to be in the path of the total eclipse of the sun — the first visible anywhere in the US since 1979. It’s also the first time a solar eclipse has been visible at points across the entire continental US in 100 years. 

I’ve found a secluded position on a ridge, surrounded by soybean fields, with no one else in sight, just to be one with this rare phenomenon. I’ve got the eclipse glasses, and I’ve got music on in the background — Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (what else?). And I’ve got a lot of inspiration! Later, when I return to the office, I plan to type these words I write, and submit this column. But for now, I am just relishing the moment. And writing.

Like many, as a child I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing and dreamed of being an astronaut. Growing up in Houston, TX, this dream was accentuated by the occasional visit to the NASA Johnson Space Center in nearby Clear Lake City, also called “mission control.” We watched Star Trek, and later, Star Wars, and got lost in the idea of interstellar travel. Although I grew up to study chemical engineering, I remain fascinated by space exploration.

During my Fiberite years, we supplied the phenolic ablative prepregs used to make the nozzles for the Space Shuttle booster rockets and, for that reason, on a very memorable occasion, I got the opportunity to “hang out” for an evening with the astronauts of the Discovery, the first shuttle to return to space after the Challenger disaster. Secluded in the concierge lounge of the Huntsville, AL, Marriott, we noshed on appetizers, watched the baseball World Series and the astronauts talked about how they needed to get back home and mow their lawns, which were growing in their absence. Other than having the opportunity to soar in space, they were much like us Earthbound mortals. At least, it felt like it, that night.

Forty years ago, in August and September 1977, the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes were launched, to explore our solar system’s outer planets. Successors to the Mariner craft that explored Mars, Venus and Mercury between 1962 and 1973, Voyager 1 is now in interstellar space, some 13 billion miles (20.8 billion km) from Earth, and Voyager 2 is in the heliosphere, a mere 10.7 billion miles (17 billion km) away. Both probes are still operating. That makes them the longest-ever missions to space. On the way to their current positions beyond our solar system, the probes provided information on Jupiter’s great red spot, Saturn’s rings, the cold temperatures of Uranus and the “great dark spot” of Neptune. They also identified numerous previously undiscovered moons of these planets. A recent count put the number of Jupiter’s moons at 69. Earth has only one. Today, it blocked the sun for a few minutes.

I don’t know if the Voyager spacecraft took advantage of the properties of high-modulus carbon fiber, but it’s highly likely it did, because the material’s prized properties of stiffness and low coefficient of thermal expansion were being introduced into a variety of aerospace applications around that same time. Today’s satellites and probes use carbon fiber in many structures, including the framework, antennas, reflectors and pressurized fuel tanks.

The final image taken by Voyager 1 before the cameras were turned off was a rear-facing photo in 1990 that included a view of Earth, and it was the inspiration for Carl Sagan’s famous book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Sagan’s book included the following: “The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit? Yes. Settle? Not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve, and cherish, the pale blue dot — the only home we’ve ever known.” 

Yet we continue to look up. Outward. Exploring space continues to be important, as evidenced by the numerous spacecraft launched since Voyager. And our fascination with solar eclipses. How was my eclipse experience? It was as ethereal and exciting and as unique as promised. I wanted it to last much longer. The next total solar eclipse visible in the US happens in 2024, and this time, it will pass directly over where I now live. I can’t wait.

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