News From the Final Frontier

by Claude Tate

This is not something I normally put out for public consumption, but maybe the time has come.  I’m a space nerd, and have been since I first became aware of rockets.

Neil Armstrong on the Moon

Neil Armstrong on the Moon

I can’t remember when I was first introduced to rockets, but I do remember seeing the launches of the first manned flights in the auditorium of my elementary school.  I remember our teacher taking us to the auditorium where a single TV was placed on a stand. It was a small country school with few resources, so while I don’t remember whether it was the only TV in the school or not, it may well have been. At least it was the only one I was aware of. Our class and a number of others would sit there staring at the rocket sitting there on the pad on that small, grainy, black and white television way down there on the stage. The early Mercury flights always had delays, so often it would take some time before the big moment happened. But it always happened.  The rocket would come alive and lift majestically for the heavens. It only lasted for ten seconds or so, but what a magnificent ten seconds. I was hooked. A fire was lit that still burns today.

Last year, politics dominated our news. John King is probably doing something to torture that touch screen election map he stood in front of every day, day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out. I hope he got extra pay for that.  I was listening to NPR one day and they had a story about a 5 year old being shown a picture of President Obama. When they asked him if they knew who that person was, he said “I’m Barack Obama and I sponsored this message”.

But while everyone seemed to be focused on every word that was uttered in the political arena, there were some significant things happening on the final frontier; some of which received attention, some did not. While the following does not comprise a comprehensive list of everything that happened, these four events stood out for me.  One was a milestone, two signified the passing of an era, and the other was a WOW! event for NASA.

The Voyager Interstellar Mission

First, a milestone was reached as the two Voyager spacecraft began leaving the solar system.

Voyager Spacecraft (Both Voyagers were identical)

Voyager Spacecraft (Both Voyagers were identical)

Their mission can be broken down into two parts. The first part was to increase our knowledge of the solar system. Voyager 1, launched in September of 1977, did flybys of Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 was launched in August of 1977, and in addition to flybys of Jupiter and Saturn, also flew by Uranus and Neptune. The second part, the Voyager Interstellar Mission or VIM began after Voyager 2 passed by Neptune.  The VIM consists of three phases, the termination shock phase, the heliosheath exploration, and the interstellar exploration phases.  Both are now in the heliosheath exploration phase. We do not know how thick this environment is, so we cannot determine exactly how long they will be in this phase, but it will probably be several years.  After that, it will be interstellar space.  They are still operating like champs and have enough power to last until around 2020. After that they will drift.  And providing neither are hit by anything, Voyager 1 will come within 1.6 light years of a star called AC+79 3888, and Voyager 2 will pass within 4.3 light years from Sirius. And then, who knows.

The Retirement of the Space Shuttle Fleet

A Typical Space Shuttle Launch

A Typical Space Shuttle Launch

The next two events signaled the passing of an era.  First was the retirement of the Space Shuttles and their final trips to their respective exhibition sites.

The Space Shuttle flew 135 missions and was the face of the American space program for 30 years, from 1981 to 2011. The accomplishments of Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor are far too numerous to list here. But two things that really stand out to me were the contributions it made to the construction of the International Space Station, which would probably have been impossible without the Shuttle, and the placing into orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Enterprise Being Flown Over New York To Her New Home

Enterprise Being Flown Over New York To Her New Home

Enterprise was the first orbiter built, and while it never flew in space, was essential to refining the technology and design for the other Shuttles. It has been moved from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum to the Intrepid Sea, Air &Space Museum in New York City.

Endeavor at home in Los Angeles (shuttles are big)

Endeavor at home in Los Angeles (shuttles are big)

In October Endeavour was moved to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.  Shuttle Atlantis has been moved to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex in Florida and will be placed on display in 2013. Discovery replaces Enterprise at the Smithsonian. It was heart-warming to see so many people turn out to see the shuttles make their final voyages to their respective retirement destinations.

The Death of Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong

The other event that signified the passing of an era was the passing at of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, at the age of 82 from complications following bypass surgery.

Armstrong, a Navy pilot during the Korean War, served as a civilian test pilot until being selected as part of the second ‘class’ of astronauts in September of 1962. He was one of two civilian astronauts (the preference was for military test pilots) and the first American civilian to go into space when he commanded Gemini 8 in March of 1966. He was selected as commander of the Apollo 11 crew in December of 1968. The other members of the crew were Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.

Apollo 11 left on its voyage on July 16, 1969.  His coolness under pressure was legendary; a trait that would serve him well in those last few seconds over the moon.  In the final seconds, as the lunar module, Eagle, descended to the surface of the moon, the landing computers became overloaded.  When Armstrong saw they were headed for an unsafe landing site, he took over and manually flew the Eagle to a safe touchdown some distance away. The folks at NASA were worried, but they should not have been. As it turned out, while estimates of the amount of fuel left has varied over the years, the number most often cited is that they had under 20 seconds of fuel left when they landed.

The Apollo 11 crew:Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin.

The Apollo 11 crew:
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin.

The landing took place on July 20, 1969.  I was among those millions around the world who were glued to the television and listened to the NASA audio and animations as the Eagle approached the moon; heard Armstrong describe the descent to Mission Control in Houston; and felt that feeling of pride as he said, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”  I was still there when after several hours of rest and preparation, Armstrong opened the hatch of the Eagle, attached a TV camera to its leg and descended the latter to the moon’s surface.  And I watched and listened on live TV as his first boot touched the moon and he uttered those famous words, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” In 1960 our rockets were blowing up on the pad and just nine years later, we were walking on the moon. Words simply cannot fully capture what America accomplished in July of 1969.  The closest I can come is to say it was beyond extraordinary.

After the moon landing, Armstrong could have cashed in and made untold millions of dollars.  Instead, he chose to return to Ohio and lead a quite life. He taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati from 1971 to 1979, worked on his farm, served on several commissions including the investigation of the Challenger explosion, accepted membership on several boards, and took a few jobs as a spokesman for companies he believed in. But until the end, he insisted he was no hero.  He was only doing his job and was one of many who were responsible for the moon landing. NBC had an excellent story of his death and also those first steps on another world.

His family released a statement after his death responding to the many who had asked what they could do to honor Neil.  It stated that in addition to honoring his service, accomplishment and modesty, when you look at the moon, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.

The Curiosity Mission

The other event may not equal the moon landing, but I would still classify it as a WOW! event, the landing of Curiosity on Mars.

Curiosity, which was launched from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011, made a powered soft landing on Mars August 6, 2012.  The landing used a technique never before attempted and was nothing short of amazing. The following description is taken from the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Fact Sheet.

Engineers designed the spacecraft to steer itself during descent through Mars’ atmosphere with a series of S-curve maneuvers similar to those used by astronauts piloting NASA space shuttles. During the three minutes before touchdown, the spacecraft slowed its descent with a parachute, then used retrorockets mounted around the rim of an upper stage. In the final seconds, the upper stage acted as a sky crane, lowering the upright rover on a tether to the surface.

And it all worked perfectly.  We have sent a number of unmanned missions to Mars; missions that have yielded a great deal of information about Mars.  But Curiosity is by far the most sophisticated unmanned probe we have ever launched, and has the potential for advancing our knowledge of Mars exponentially. For more information on this amazing mission, go to NASA’s homepage for the Mars Science Laboratory Mission.  A good place to start when you reach the page is the Fact Sheet I referenced above.  It is under Mission Resources located on the right side, and it provides an excellent overview of the mission.  The scope of Curiosity’s abilities is nothing short of amazing.

Self Portrait by Curiosity on Mars

Self Portrait by Curiosity on Mars

We will not be sending men back to the moon anytime soon. And I was disappointed when our new moon program was cancelled.  And presently we have no vehicle to send astronauts to the International Space Station. But we are moving forward into that final frontier. Private U.S. companies are developing the vehicles that will soon be sending Americans back into in a few years.  SpaceX has already developed a rocket and capsule that has begun making supply runs to the space station, and will soon have the capability to send men into space. NASA, in addition to continuing to send men to the space station and someday to an asteroid and Mars, will be undertaking missions that will increase our knowledge of the earth and unlock the secrets of the solar system.  And hopefully in the near future, the James Webb Space Telescope will be ready for launch. The James Webb Space Telescope may not sound as exciting as some of the other missions, but it should extend our vision to the edge of the universe.  And of course, Hubble continues to make discoveries that prove the universe is far more magical and wonderful than we ever imagined.

Our future in the final frontier is bright. And for this old space nerd, it’s going to be exciting.


One response to “News From the Final Frontier

  1. Pingback: Claude R. Tate, Jr. | The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies