NASA – An Extraordinary Journey

With the space shuttle program now ended, it appears that manned space flight, (i.e. launches to the space station), will be left to either the Russians or commercial enterprise, at least for the foreseeable future.  But NASA will still play a role using Cape Canaveral as the launch site for any US commercial flights.  In addition, other great adventures lie ahead which I will discuss.  But first, lets look back.  In 1961, when President Kennedy declared to Congress and the world that, “before the decade is out we will land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth”, it was a bold statement.  In July of 1969 NASA and the USA successfully accomplished that goal.  As a young child I remember sitting with my family and watching in awe as the Apollo missions would take off in to space.   What could have been more astounding than seeing the astronauts walking, running and driving the lunar rover over the moon’s surface?  Every boy wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up.  The ingenuity and downright brilliance was under appreciated because it became almost routine.  The photos of the earth as seen from the moon are nothing short of miraculous.  That moment in history defined us as a nation.   Then, when I was in grade 5, my science teacher showed  us a picture of the newest rocket that would take off like a regular rocket but land like an airplane.  Not only was it futuristic, it was re-usable which made it very practical.  NASA has been playing a large role in out lives for the past 50 years without any of us actually realizing how large a role.  Here are just a couple of examples of everyday items that were developed because of the space program.  1) Scratch resistant eye glasses.  In 1972, the FDA required eye-glass lenses be made of plastic.  But plastic scratches very easily and would not have therefore been practical.  NASA had the same problem.  Due to dirt and particles found in outer space, NASA needed a special coating to keep the visors on the helmets as well as other equipment protected.  So they developed a scratch resistant surface that would solve this problem.  Foster Grant licensed this technology from NASA and the rest is history.  2) The smoke detector, which  has saved countless numbers of lives throughout the world, was invented for the Sky Lab space station.  Astronauts aboard would need to be aware if a fire or other noxious gasses were present on the station.  It’s use in everyday life was apparent.  In addition to everyday products, medicines have also been discovered in the weightlessness of space.  So where is NASA today?  Despite funding cuts, mostly due to the end of the shuttle program, there are many exciting projects in the works.  First, NASA is set ot land its latest  and greatest Rover, Curiosity, on Mars.  It is a 2000 pound rover that will be lowered by crane on to the surface.  It is a feat of engineering.  This latest and largest Rover will search for life on the planet for the next two years.  But Curiosity may function for a lot longer than that.  Stay tuned.    Then there is the James Watt Space Telescope (JWST) which is scheduled to launch in 2018 and is the successor to the Hubble telescope.  It will allow us to see the very earliest galaxies formed, following the big bang, and their relationship to our Milky Way Galaxy and solar system.  We will be able to see the most distant stars and planets in the universe, never seen before.  Next month I will be attending the launch of the Radiation Belt Storm Probe (RBSP) that will measure the sun’s influence on earth and near earth space.  In October Space-X technologies will launch the first commercial resupply mission to the space station from Cape Canaveral.  Finally, if all goes according to plan, in 2019 there will be a manned mission to Mars.  All of these projects require brilliant minds that are dedicated to achieving one goal and one purpose; answering the ultimate questions in the universe; the seemingly, unanswerable questions.  For more than fifty years NASA has been at the forefront of attempting to do just that.

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