Tag Archives: NASA

Everything’s Gonna Be Alright

by Shane L. Larson

The inimitable Mary Fahl has a remarkable song that I listen to all the time, especially on days when it seems impossible that the world has not totally fallen apart. It is a sonorous and passionate piece called “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” It opens:

Blind Willie Johnson in a capsule singing ‘bout the soul of man
Encoded traces of the human race and what we understand
A human choir out in the distance trav’ling by a satellite
Symphonic strains of our existence burned into a single byte
Mary Fahl performing “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”

For the uninitiated, Mary’s song may seem strange or obtuse — lyrical renderings of language that may have philosophical meaning if contemplated long enough, or may inspire deep visceral emotions if interpreted in certain ways, or simply seem to be pleasant nonsense in the way only songs and poetry can be.

But in reality, Mary’s song is a tribute, heartfelt and full of wonder, for one of our species’ most audacious and hopeful acts: the creation of a message that will far outlive our civilization, promising whoever hears it that we are sometimes better than we often are. The message was created, physically engraved in precious metals, and cast out into the wild voids of the Cosmos, never to be seen again.

That message is known as the Voyager Golden Record. Two copies of the record were minted from disks of copper plated in gold, shrouded beneath protective covers of aluminum, and mounted on the side of each of the two Voyager spacecraft. 

The Voyager Golden Record; the panel on the left shows the cover (inscribed with information to decode the record), and the panel on the right shows the record itself. [Images: NASA/JPL]

Launched 16 days apart in the autumn of 1977, the Voyager spacecraft were ostensibly part of humanity’s first reconnaissance of the solar system, sent to explore the giant worlds of the outer solar system — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. They swung by each world, dutifully snapping pictures and radioing their precious scientific data back to the distant rock from which they hailed. As they passed by each world, gravity latched on to them, propelling them ever faster and farther, on to their next destination.

Voyager flight paths through the solar system [Image: NASA/JPL]

Voyager 1 passed Saturn in November of 1980, and the Ringed Planet flung it up and out of the plane of the solar system, toward the constellation of Ophiuchus. In August of 1989, after a twelve year journey, Voyager 2 passed by Neptune, letting the icy giant’s gravity swing it down and out of the solar system, propelling it in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. After fleeting and tantalizing glimpses of our cosmic neighborhood, the Voyagers have started the long, slow sail to the stars. Today they are the most distant physical artifacts of the human race, both of them more than 20 billion kilometers away, the Sun and Earth mere flecks of distant light.

Powered by small nuclear generators, the Voyagers’ energy is nearly spent. They will dutifully continue to transmit faint bleeps of information back to Earth, but within a decade or so they will fall silent and grow cold, hurtling ever onward toward the stars. Time, space dust, and cosmic radiation will take their toll on these artifacts of Earth, but the Golden Records were designed to stall such inevitable decay for as long as possible. Made of metals that are unreactive and change slowly over time, and encased behind protective aluminum covers, they should resist the long slow death, surviving for a billion years or more..

But what possibly could we have put on the Golden Records to warrant such care and concern about their survival? Mary Fahl told us up front:

Encoded traces of the human race and what we understand

Within the limitations of a physical object that could survive a billion year journey into deep space, we captured what we could about our species, the planet on which we live, the lifeforms we share the Earth with, and the meager understanding of the Cosmos we have gained. Together with greetings in many languages of the planet, and a selection of music from around the world, we engraved the information on 12-inch disks of gold covered copper, and sent them to the stars. It was a gesture of hope and optimism that, in some imagined future, an intelligent species somewhere across the empty sea of space might stumble across Voyager and be able to know something about who we were, faint echoes of a lonely planet and species that once dreamed of sailing to the stars.

Blind Willie Johnson [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

The key elements of the Voyager record are the protective cover, an included stylus (phonograph needle) to play the record, 115 images, a collection of the “sounds of Earth,” spoken greetings in 55 languages, and 90 minutes of music in 27 tracks. Blind Willie Johnson is the second to last track, singing  Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, a blues Gospel song, with no words but Johnson murmuring and humming along with his soulful guitar picking.

By today’s standards, the amount of data on the record is miniscule — a handful of images that are 512 x 384 resolution, and only 90 minutes of music. But that’s all there is, a small snapshot of life on Earth at the end of the 20th Century. It is likely one of the only artifacts of humanity that will survive our species; for some distant intelligence that might someday find Voyager, it is the only thing they will ever know of us.

The assumption we are making is that whomever might find Voyager will make an attempt to decode the Record. It’s an all together human assumption — if you found a bottle washed up on the seashore, a message carefully preserved inside, would you open the bottle to read it? Of course you would! In our optimism, we trust the receivers of our message will do the same.

On the surface, it seems to be an audacious thought, that a message encoded on a facsimile of a phonograph record could be received and decoded by an extraterrestrial who knows absolutely nothing about us, our technology, our species, our cultures, or our languages. But the message was designed with precisely that concern in mind. Astronomers call the idea of receiving such a message “communication without preamble,” and believe understanding it is predicated on a single fact: that the receiving civilization is technologically skilled.

The Voyager record cover provides protection, but also has information about how numbers are expressed (the “barbell” in the lower right is a hydrogen atom, whose properties should be known), instructions for how to play the record (the image of the stylus on the circle in the upper left), instructions for how to get data off the record (the information on the upper right, showing the data and the first image), and a map of where Voyager came from (the starburst on the lower left). [Image: NASA/JPL]

One of the great truths of the Universe, and perhaps the greatest mystery, is that everything is governed by an immutable set of rules that we call The Laws of Nature. The idea, the logical chain of reasoning, is that if you are capable of travelling into space to discover Voyager, it means you have a deep understanding of those self-same laws, enough so that you can harness them to travel the void of space yourselves. So we encoded the Voyager message using the common foundations of astronomy, physics, and mathematics that apply in every corner of the Cosmos, and trust that an understanding of those foundations will provide enough of a clue to decode Voyager’s precious cargo of sounds, music, and images. 

If you think deeply about this, you might argue that an alien species that recovers Voyager may not have eyes to see as we do, so images may not carry the same meaning. They may not have ears to hear as we do, so music may not be perceivable in the same way. But consider: there are many phenomena in Nature that our senses cannot perceive, yet our intellect and technology make us perfectly capable of detecting and understanding. If an extraterrestrial species is technologically capable, we think they will similarly be able to apply their intellect to understand the story Voyager has to tell.

How do you decide what to include in a message you are sending to the stars? What do you put in a time-capsule to represent our planet and ourselves to an audience we will never know? What do you send to a world and a biology and a history and an intellect completely alien to our own? What do you want beings a million years from now to know about us?

We could be cynical, we could be optimistic, we could be realistic, we could be practical. What should we be?

It is often pointed out that we could have included images and messages about our great failings. The wars we fight, the violence we inflict on one another, our great failings in justice and equity for all the citizens and life of the planet. We could have included images of atomic mushroom clouds, of dead school-children, of wasted and decimated landscapes destroyed by our short-sighted obsessions. But we didn’t do that. We took a very neutral stance, perhaps a sanitized vision of our world. We included pictures of our planet from space, of a tropical island, of a mother and child, of a farmer in Guatelmala, and 111 others. A cynical person might suggest we were being overly deceptive, and not showing the truly ruthless and sad character of our species. Perhaps, but I think not.

Just a few of the images included on the Voyager Golden Record. See a more complete list at NASA’s Golden Record Site. [Images: NASA/JPL]

No, flipping through the image library of the Voyager Golden Record one also gets the sense that this is not just who we are, but what we hope we are — a species that is living through the challenges of our own adolescence, a species that is for the moment surviving, and a species that aspires and believes that many thousands of years hence, our descendants will still be here, wiser and better off than we. We tried to choose a series of images that say we learned enough to build Voyager, and while we’re aware of the dangers we currently face, we are also aware that we are part of a much larger Cosmos.  Our meager collection of images and music is a realization of what we have learned, manifested in the optimistic act of constructing an impossibly limited message containing a few precious tidbits of life on Earth, from a species called “humans.”

And we tossed the message into the Cosmic Void, knowing not where the tides of space might take it.

There is absolutely no consequence if Voyager is never found, nor if the message is never decoded. There is a certain solace we gain from the mere notion that it might be found and might be decoded. Perhaps that solace is rooted in a deep fear — the fear that we are alone in the Cosmos, and everything that we are and think and do will someday perish, extinguished utterly from the Universe.

But I much rather like to think that the solace is rooted in optimism. We believe that it is worth shouting into the Void, shouting that we were here and this is who we were. We believe that, perhaps, there will be beings as intelligent and curious and emotional as we, and that they too might find joy in the discovery of Voyager. We imagine they might feel inexorably compelled to decode the carefully constructed message, and discover that they also are not alone in all the expanse of the Cosmos. We imagine that they too might be struggling through their own adolescence, hoping to not destroy themselves. We imagine that if they receive this small, meager message from Earth, the knowledge that they are not alone might help them somehow. We imagine that such a message might help us.

It is remarkable to think that the act of creating the Voyager Record is an act of optimism, and precisely what Mary Fahl’s lyrical exploration suggests to me. It suggests that despite all the challenges our species faces, despite all the clear failures that we foist upon ourselves, that some part of us still knows the remarkable things we can achieve, and we imagine the good that could result.

In days of gloom, in days of sadness, no matter what we do here on Earth, Voyager sails ever onward, its Golden Record cradled carefully on board, a message for a billion years from now. Perhaps, as Mary noted, “everything’s gonna be alright.”

Memento Mori 1: Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth

by Shane L. Larson

From January 27 to February 1 every year is a time of remembrances at NASA: it is the week where we observe the anniversaries of the deaths of three flight crews, all of whom perished in the pursuit of human spaceflight. We remember and celebrate the the fallen crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia.

From just an altitude of 30 km, the view of the Earth is different — a planet against the void of space. Once the domain of astronauts, views like this can be obtained with balloons and simple digital technology. [Image: S. Larson & HARBOR Program at Weber State University]

Humans often think of themselves as invincible, as the apex species on planet Earth, but it seems clear that we are more fragile than we like to think. If you take our frail bodies and carry them just 50 miles over our heads, we cannot possibly survive on our own. But we are a curious and clever species, and not prone to accepting the notion that there is something we cannot do. Over the long course of our history, we have harnessed technology to allow us to take our bodies to places they were not designed to go, and to survive. It’s easy to discount our earliest endeavours as mundane: constructing shelters, building fires, and making clothing that permits winter wandering. Such skills ultimately transmuted from simple survival into dreams of mimicking the abilities of other lifeforms. Could we dive deep beneath the waves, or take to the air and fly?

Humans are good at walking the long road to making their bodies do things never intended for. (L) Early diving suits, used to explore the sunken Lusitania in 1935. (R) Samuel Langley’s Aerodrome was an early attempt to construct a powered heavier than air flying machine, prepping for launch test in 1903. [Images: Wikimedia Commons]

By the 1800s, aeronauts had successfully developed ballooning, and by the early 1900s the development of mechanical wings and controls launched the era of human flight that has evolved into the aviation industry we have today. But in the middle of the 20th century other dreams were simmering to the surface, largely in the minds of fiction authors. What would it be like to travel beyond the bonds of Earth? Could we make a remarkable voyage from the Earth to the Moon?

Historians and cultural specialists often frame the conversations about the dawn of the Space Age around the Cold War, the opposition of East versus West in the aftermath of World War II. The Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a war of ideologies, marked by strutting and preening. Technical achievements trumpeted how each ideology supported progress more, and reaching the Moon was the ultimate prize.  But while the national agenda may have been set that way, and resources committed to the endeavour, that is not what won people’s hearts and minds. Consider all the scientists and engineers who designed and built the great machines, the astronauts who flew in them, and the millions who watched from the sidelines: I’m willing to speculate that only a handful of them were motivated by politics. Far more of them, I think, felt the rapture of the all encompassing dream of reaching out from our small island home, the Earth.

Carl Sagan once noted that knowing the Cosmos is a humbling and character-building experience. Our conceits let us dare leave the Earth, even in the face of a Universe infinitely harsh and relentlessly brutal and unforgiving in ways that are hard for us to imagine. Our successes are soaring, exultant moments that we point to in later days, reminding ourselves of what we are capable of. But the failures, the disasters, are that much more crushing, reminders of how hard our goal is to attain, reminders of how painfully incapable and inexperienced we are in the quest to crawl out of our cradle.

The loss of the NASA flight crews were singularly painful moments — it is impossible to imagine the loss felt by their families, or by their colleagues and friends at NASA who had worked alongside them to make their journey possible. But for the rest of us, who watched the tragedy unfold on smaller than life television screens and brittle leaves of newspapers, those moments are burned in our memories, surrounded by the other parts of our lives we were engaged in that day.

The loss of Apollo 1 occurred just twelve days after the first Super Bowl, where the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10 in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Vietnam War was still raging and arguably occupied a huge part of the American psyche, dominating the news every day.

The Apollo 1 crew. Left to right: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. [Image: NASA]

On 27 January 1967 (25 days prior to launch) Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee — the first three person crew in the history of the Space Age — mounted the gantry at launch pad 34 and at 1pm Eastern Standard Time entered the Apollo 1 capsule for their “plugs out test.” Plugs out was a regular ground test NASA ran to assure themselves the spacecraft could operate on its own without being plugged into power and equipment here on planet Earth. After five-and-a-half hours of tests, the crew was still in their capsule, sealed inside and trouble-shooting problems (notably a problem with the communications link). At 6:31:04.7 pm fire broke out on the capsule and a garbled alarm to that effect was called out by one of the astronauts. The fire was fueled by the pure oxygen atmosphere in the capsule, and just 15 seconds passed before the hull of the capsule ruptured at 6:31:19 pm. It took pad crews more than five minutes to get inside the capsule to the crew, who had perished.

It was a horrific tragedy. Later analysis and investigation showed exactly how it happened and what prevented the crew from escaping and rescue crews from getting to them more readily. It was caused, as Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman later remarked, “by a failure of imagination.” NASA was not unaware of the dangers associated with spaceflight, nor were the astronauts. But up to that point, they had failed to imagine that a regular test on the ground could lead to the death of a crew.

There was an investigation, and Congressional hearings. There are plenty of machinations about why such investigations happen, but I think they happen for a very particular reason — to allow us to understand where we (those left behind) failed those we lost. We often reflect, particularly in the heat of our pain, on whether or not the loss of human life is an acceptable risk in our quest to go where Nature never intended. Gus Grissom himself had weighed in on such risk the year before he perished:

If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis, only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men.

Eventually, the Apollo program restarted, leading to six successful landings on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. The Space Age waxed on, and there were other close calls — nail biting moments when it seemed we might lose another crew — but NASA, with a flotilla of capable engineers and scientists, weathered them all and brought the crews home.

The Challenger crew on walkout. Front to back: Dick Scobee, Judy Resnick, Ron McNair, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory Jarvis.

That changed on 28 January 1986, with flight STS-51L and the space shuttle Challenger. It was the 25th mission of the space shuttle program, and Challenger’s tenth flight. The mission had garnered far more attention from the public than many of the previous flights because of the unique nature of its crew — it was the first flight to include a crew member for the “Teacher in Space” program, Christa McAuliffe. Her inclusion on the crew had electrified students, teachers, and schools across the country, and on the morning of the launch millions of people were glued to their television screens. I was among them, huddled around a large TV screen in our school library with a group of friends.

Launch of Challenger on STS 51L. [Image: NASA]

After three previous scrubbed attempts, and a delay of two hours that day, Challenger launched at 11:38am EST on 28 January 1986. Just 73 seconds into the flight, a small leak in the right solid-rocket burned through a support strut and into the main external fuel tank, leading to a catastrophic failure, and loss of the entire crew: Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, Judy Resnick, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, and Gregory Jarvis.

It was a devastating moment indelibly etched in the minds of everyone who had been watching. As with Apollo 1 before it, the brought the American spaceflight program to a standstill for 975 days. A six month investigation following the disaster identified a failed O-ring in the solid-rocket as the source of the failure, enabled by poor risk analysis and abetted by colder than normal temperatures that did not delay the launch on the day of the accident (though it should have).

The Challenger crew portrait. L to R: Ellison Onizuka, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Greagory Jarvis, Ron McNair, and Judy Resnick. [Image: NASA]

The loss of Challenger was particularly overwhelming because it was the largest crew ever to perish on a mission — 7 people, most of them civilians or civilian astronauts, not test pilots or military pilots. For all of us with day jobs as teachers, or 7-11 managers, or grocery clerks, or dental hygienists — it put a very real face on the fact that if we ordinary people ever travel to space regularly, there will be undeniable catastrophes that occur. Such realizations dramatically dampen the spirit and enthusiasm for daring greatly.

But the space shuttles did return to the skies, once again, just more than two-and-a-half years later, when the Discovery soared aloft with a 5 person crew for a four day flight. Space shuttle missions continued on apace again, the flights once again fading in the news cycle and noted only by those who were paying attention or soaring alongside in their mind’s eye.

After the Challenger disaster and return to flight the shuttle program had many successes, including visiting Mir, laying the groundwork for the International Space Station. [Image: NASA]

After the loss of Challenger a new orbiter, Endeavour, was commissioned and joined the other shuttles, Columbia, Discovery, and Atlantis. There were 88 more shuttle flights through the start of 2003, beginning with STS-26 by Discovery. There were spectacular successes all along the way, including the launch of space probes like Galileo and Ulysses. The space shuttles deployed the first two of NASA’s “Great Observatories,” the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle began visiting the Russian Space Station, Mir, and assembly began on the International Space Station. Other satellites were launched, and the Hubble Space Telescope was serviced and repaired. In a way, the space shuttles accomplished in that era what NASA had always promised — spaceflight had become common, an everyday experience. Seeing news of the shuttle launching on the backpage of the newspaper was kind of like seeing a story about the latest fleet of city buses or the bio of a new city manager. Spaceflight faded into the background cacophony of modern life.

The Columbia crew portrait. L to R: David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Willie McCool, and Ilan Ramon. [Image: NASA]

But in early 2003, the space shuttle Columbia launched on a 16 day mission, STS-107. The 15-day mission carried out a wealth of experiments. The carbo-bay held the Spacehab module, which provided additional habitable space for the experiments of crew, beyond the space available on the orbiter itself. Prominent experiments included video monitoring and characterization of atmospheric dust, as well as monitoring the web-building habits of orb weaver spiders in microgravity. At the end of the mission, on 1 February 2003, Columbia had reentered the Earth’s atmosphere heading for a landing in Florida. Undetected damage Columbia had sustained on the forward edge of the left wing during launch would be its undoing. During reentry, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter the airframe, burning through the wing and leading to a catastrophic breakup of the orbiter, killing all seven crew aboard: Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, and Ilan Ramon.

This has always been my favorite picture of the Columbia crew, the way I’ll always remember them. L to R, Front — Kalpana Chawla, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon. L to R, Back — David Brown, William McCool, Michael Anderson. [Image: NASA]

After the Columbia tragedy, the burden of returning to the skies once again fell to Discovery. Once again, return to the skies we did. On 26 July 2005, Discovery launched on STS-114, carrying a 7 person crew on a 13 day mission to the International Space Station. After the Columbia tragedy, there were 22 shuttle flights, but on 8 July 2011, Atlantis made the last space shuttle launch in history. When its wheels rolled to a stop in the cool morning hours of 21 July 2011 at the Cape, the era of space shuttles came to an end. The shuttles have retired, and like their capsule forebears, have retired to museums and science centers around the country where you can visit them, stare at them, and relive the adventurous journeys they made.

The space shuttle orbiters, now decomissioned, can be visited at various museums around the country. Discovery, responsible for two Return to Flight missions, after the Challenger and Columbia losses, can be visited at the Udvar-Hazy branch of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. [Image: S. Larson]

It should be noted that spaceflight is inherently dangerous; fatalities were not confined to the American space program — our nominal competitors in the Space Race, the Soviet Union, also suffered great losses. In 1967, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died on Soyuz 1, when the parachute failed to properly deploy on return to Earth; it was the first in-flight fatality of a spacefarer. In 1971, cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov were the first crew to spend time aboard a space station, living for 23 days aboard Salyut 1. They died returning to Earth after an accidental decompression of their capsule; they are the only crew to have died in space.

Today, the human spaceflight program is quieter than it once was. The United States currently does not have a launch system for sending crews to space, though American astronauts travel to the International Space Station aboard Russian rockets. That does not seem to dampen the enthusiasm for nor the mystique of astronauts!

Hero culture is a thing, and it isn’t always a good thing. Joseph Campbell, in his excellent book “The Power of Myth” says that “I always feel uncomfortable when people speak about ordinary mortals because I’ve never met an ordinary man, woman or child.” In general, I think there is deep truth in that. But astronauts are something different: almost universally, they encapsulate what can be good about hero culture. We watch and look up to astronauts the way many of us look up to our parents or our grandparents — as a source of inspiration, a source of motivation, as proof that we can and will be more than we think. Every day, we all do something in the world that matters, but we forget that, crushed under the press of noise from the news, or burdened by the weight of difficulties with our co-workers, our families, our social lives, or making enough money to survive. In some corner of our minds, we aspire to be more. We clamp down on that bright spark of aspiration, perhaps embarrassed by it, and seldom let it shine. Instead we only uncover it when we’re alone at night, gazing at it and daydreaming in the moments before sleep. Our heroes, whomever they are, are a spark we revel in, when we are willing to let it leak out.

For me, space has ever-infused my thoughts and dreams. Every time I see an astronaut spacewalking with the jeweled curve of the Earth reflected in their visor, or watch the long loping hops of the Apollo astronauts on the Moon, or look at the photographs of our lost crews, I still somehow imagine my face among them. Which is weird, because I long ago gave up the quest to be an astronaut, replacing it with other dreams of space in the forms of black holes, surging gravitational forces, and galaxies billions of lightyears away. Despite abandoning the quest, apparently I didn’t abandon the dream. This week every year always shows me that. Revisiting the fallen NASA crews every  year makes me remember what it is about human spaceflight that moves us so.

Kalpana Chawla.

And so, as this week concludes and passes us by once again, I encourage you to dust off your mental photo-album of your heroes and refresh your soul with them once again. For those who are still with us, embrace their vision and mission anew, and go out refreshed in your fight to make the world a better place. And for those who have left us, say farewell once again, to whomever they are. They are the ones that remind all of us that in our brighter moments, we strive to be something better, that we are more than the tribulations in our every day lives may suggest we are. Remember those brighter moments, and stretch for them every day. Kalpana Chawla reminds us, “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.”

And so, to the fallen crews whose gossamer memories drift in the back of my mind, I say farewell once again. Gus Grissom. Ed White. Roger Chaffee. Vladimir Komarov. Georgy Dobrovolsky. Viktor Patsayev. Vladislav Volkov. Christa McAuliffe. Gregory Jarvis. Judy Resnick. Dick Scobee. Ron McNair. Mike Smith. Ellison Onizuka. Kalpana Chawla. Rick Husband. Laurel Clark. Ilan Ramon. Michael Anderson. David Brown. William McCool.

From the stars we came, and to the stars we shall return, now and for all eternity. Ad Astra Per Aspera.


This post is the first post in a series that explores the ephemeral nature of human life in our quest to understand our place in the Cosmos. The posts in the series are:

Ineffable Images of the Space Age

by Shane L. Larson

The arrival of each new year always engenders a brief moment of reflection on how we all would like to improve and change our lives, and very often with a recounting of how transitory life actually is.  I was reminded of this yesterday when I was reflecting on the sad fact that on December 21, astronaut Bruce McCandless II passed away at the age of 80. He was a Naval Academy graduate who joined NASA in April 1966 as part of Astronaut Group 5.

McCandless joined NASA during the Apollo era, but never flew until the Space Shuttle era, logging 312 hours on two flights: STS-41-B aboard Challenger in 1984, and STS-31 aboard Discovery in 1990. It was on his first flight that he gained notoriety: he made the first untethered spacewalk in history, flying the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) some 300 feet away from the Challenger. The image of McCandless, flying free over the Earth, has become one of the most iconic images of the Space Age.

Bruce McCandless, flying the MMU about 300 feet from the space shuttle Challenger during STS-41B in 1984. It was the first untethered spacewalk in history. [Image: NASA]

There is something timeless and awe-inspiring about this image. What is it? Is it the ever-blue curve of the Earth behind him? Is the loneliness of a single human, flying in the void far from any others? Is it the thrill of the the adventure or a surge of voyeuristic fear, the “fun thrill” letting your mind roll around how you would feel in that same situation? I think it is a little bit of all of those. Just show the image to some friends at your next dinner party and ask, “Would you do that?” or “Can you imagine?” and listen to the direction of the conversation!

When McCandless made his historic untethered spacewalk, I was in high school and dreamed of being an astronaut. I didn’t become an astronaut, and likely will never travel to space, but the dream lingers in my mind and surges forward every time I see images like this one.  This isn’t the only image from the Space Age that has such an effect on me. Some photographs, some moments suspended in time on celluloid or pixels, somehow capture ephemeral emotions that are indescribable by any other means.

Many such photographs come from the astronauts themselves. Astronauts have had a singular, unique experience that is transformative to their consciousness. Nothing molds a person’s worldview more dramatically than first hand experiences, there are no first hand experiences quite like those of the astronauts. They have seen the Cosmos, seen the world, from a perspective that the rest of us can only catch elusive glances of in stunning photographs delivered from the shoals of space.

Take a look at this photo. Almost exactly 49 years before Bruce McCandless passed away, the crew of Apollo 8 made the first voyage from the Earth to the Moon. They completed ten orbits around the Moon, and on their fourth orbit were the first humans ever to see the Earth emerging from behind the Moon — the first Earthrise ever witnessed by the human species.

“Earthrise” shot by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on 24 December 1968. A recreation of the moment, with mission audio has been created by Goddard Spaceflight Center [Image: NASA]

The world first saw the image in the 10 January 1969 issue of Time Magazine, burning it indelibly into our collective consciousness.

Like so many moments captured on film and revisited with reverence and awe, the Earthrise photo was taken by chance; Apollo 8 just happened to be rolling at the moment, and the image just happened to be visible through the tiny windows on the front of the capsule. In retrospect, the moment could have been predicted, but every story told of that moment when Apollo 8 rounded the limb of the Moon describes the first sight of the Earth as an unexpected and ineffable moment — the first time in human history that we had ever seen our world in Cosmic context, behaving in relation to the rest of the Universe in ways that our minds had only previously considered for other worlds.

One of the most famous pictures returned from the Apollo missions was of Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint in the lunar soil, made and imaged by Aldrin to record the properties of the lunar soil. [Image: NASA]

Just seven months later, Apollo 11 made the first crewed landing on the surface of the Moon, leaving humanity’s first footsteps on another world. Buzz Aldrin famously took a photograph of his bootprint on the Moon to illustrate the behaviour of the lunar surface soil; it is an image that is universally recognized as being from our first journey to another world. Most of us have made footprints, in snow or mud or soft dirt. Often alongside many other footprints, a cacophony of shapes and patterns, each one a remnant of a journey from somewhere to elsewhere. The next time we cross that particular trail or particular riverbank, the prints have changed and tell new tales of new journeys. But the footprints on the Moon are different — so far, there are only 12 sets of prints, laid down five decades ago by the few humans who crossed the gulf. And they will persist for millions of years, untold aeons beyond my life and your life and the times in which we live. If some future traveller should happen upon them, perhaps laying down their own prints alongside, what will they know of the journey that first left the prints there? Will they know of Aldrin’s famous footprint, and cast about debating which one was The Print? Or will they have utterly forgotten us and these days, the remains of Apollo on the Moon just curious forgotten relics of a civilization wiped away by time? What will they remember and know of us?

After 21 hours and 36 minutes on the surface of the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off to rejoin Michael Collins, who had remained in lunar orbit. On their approach to dock with Collins, he snapped this picture of the lunar module over the surface of the Moon, with the Earth in the background sky. Collins famously remarked that this photograph was a picture of every person in the human race, except him. What a stunning observation, a perspective that reflects how small and alone we all can be in the face of the immensity of the Cosmos.

Apollo 11 image of the Earth and Moon behind Lunar Module Eagle, carrying Armstrong and Aldrin back from the lunar surface to command module Columbia. Michael Collins, aboard Columbia, noted that this was a picture of every human being except him. [Image: NASA]

Such images are not confined to cameras held by humans. Over the past six decades, we have hurled many robots into space, mechanical emissaries designed to carry our senses to places we cannot easily visit ourselves. Among that mechanical flotilla are eight explorers sent into the outer reaches of the solar system, to visit the giant, gaseous planets and even tiny Pluto. Among them is an 800 kilogram spider of wires, foil, antennae and cameras called Voyager 1. Today it is still faithfully travelling outward, gently probing the space around it to map out the invisible bubble that defines here, the neighborhood of the Sun, from there, the wildlands of interstellar space.  On 14 February 1990, a little more than nine years after its encounter with the planet Saturn, Voyager 1 was commanded to make one last photographic survey of the neighborhood it came from — a Family Portrait of all the worlds of the Sun.  Turning inward one last time, it snapped off sixty frames. Laid side by side, one over the next, the last pictures from Voyager built a unique and humbling portrait of our homeworlds.

Voyager 1’s family portrait of all the planets of the solar system. [Image: NASA]

Buried on one of these frames is a pale point of light, small and blue, easy to miss in the flared light of the Sun bursting though Voyager’s lens. That’s the Earth, our home in the vastness of the void. That small meager point of light inspired Carl Sagan to write one of the most poignant and eloquent  assessments of human nature ever penned. The “Pale Blue Dot” soliloquy can be found in the book of the same name, but in one of the great magics of the modern age, a recording of Sagan reading it has been found and preserved; it is as moving to listen to as it is to stare at the delicate fleck of light captured by a simple robot from 6 billion kilometers away.

The Pale Blue Dot; an image of Earth from Voyager 1’s “Family Portrait” sequence, and arguably one of the most famous pictures ever taken of Earth, noted for showing the smallness of the Earth in the immensity of the Cosmos. [Image: NASA]

When leafing through stacks of images from the Space Age, I’m struck by one very clear fact: there are no boundaries to the grandeur and ineffable wonder that can be captured on film. Each frame, each snapshot, each pixel, is a gift to future generations, a record of what we attempted, a record of what we aspired to, a record of what we risked during this time in history. On most days achievements like this stand in stark contrast with the lows our civilization has sunk to, and it is difficult to understand how both can be the legacy of the same species.

Some people look at images like these, and are nonplused. For them I weep. I hope they find wonder and awe in some other visions of the world, because the emotions and exhultations that these images evoke hearken to something deep in the soul, something I think we have lost in the modern morass of social media, reality TV, consumerism, and soundbites that claim to capture the quintessence of life. There is something deep and abidingly important in being able to see and experience amazing things and tremendous accomplishments, even in the face of serious and possibly overwhelming challenges to our way of life and our future on this planet. It provides a focal point for our aspirations to be better. It provides a poignant bludgeon of hope for the better selves that we aspire to be.

Other people look at these images, and all they see are dollars spent on endeavours they regard as frivolous. I can’t help but feel agony at such narrow visions of the world. In no small way, today’s world was made by these images. Not the images themselves, of course, but the thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of problem solving, prototyping, invention, innovation, creativity, and imagination required to make every one of these possible. We didn’t strap a gazillion dollars onto the side of Voyager and catapult it into space. We paid an army of engineers and as a result fed their families and sent their kids to school. We created entire new technologies, birthed companies that today make the backbone of the trillion dollar aerospace industry. We inspired a generation of children who wanted to be astronauts, but became enamoured with science and went on to become computer scientists, cancer specialists and brain surgeons, molecular biologists, ecological physicists, and aerospace engineers. I bet if you talk to many of today’s technical professionals, there is a time in their past where they swooned over pictures of the Moon.

The point is pictures are just one small return on each of the investments that were made to send people to the Moon, or to send a robot into the depthless void of space. Maybe you don’t think they’re interesting or the cost was worth it, but consider this: these are pictures we unfailingly recognize and know of — that simple recognizability is an indicator of the intrinsic and often unspoken value we as a society put on these ephemeral moments, captured forever as a frozen memento of places we once visited and knew and experienced.

This is just the beginning

by Shane L. Larson

Each morning, I roll out of bed, dutifully feed the three cats that own me, help my fourth-grader get her backpack put together for the day and put my daily secret note in her lunch, enjoy a few brief moments over morning coffee with my spouse, and then it is off to work.

For my day job, I’m a scientist. My friends and I work in a completely new branch of astronomy called gravitational wave astronomy. Our express goal is to detect a phenomenon that was predicted almost a century ago by Einstein: the undulations and propagating ripples in the fabric of spacetime that signify the dynamic motion of matter in the Cosmos.


Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime; propagating disturbances caused by the dynamical motion of heavy masses, like black holes or neutron stars.

Gravitational waves are expected to be a phenomenal probe of the Cosmos because they are readily generated by objects that are otherwise hard to detect by other means. This includes objects of intense interest to astronomers, like neutron stars, stellar mass black holes, white dwarfs, cosmic strings, and supermassive black holes at the hearts of galaxies. Despite their apparent utility in astronomy, the are exceedingly hard to detect. When Einstein first deduced their existence, he famously showed that the waves were so weak he thought we might never be able to measure them. But as is often the case, the future is full of wonders, and with the advent of the Space Age, people began to question that judgement. Maybe, with some cleverness and awesome technology, we could gaze at the Universe with gravity rather than light.

As with many scientific endeavours, gravitational wave detection is a difficult task because we’ve never built machines to do this before. We are learning how to do everything for the first time. You try things out, making your best guess as to how it is all going to work, but when you finally flick the switch to “on” you can debug your experiment because it is right in front of you.  That’s all well and good when your lab is here on planet Earth, but when you shift your experiments to space, it becomes a bit more difficult.


LISA will be a constellation of 3 spacecraft, 5 million kilometers apart, shining lasers at each other. [Image: Astrium]

Someday we want to build a space observatory for measuring gravitational waves, called LISA — the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. LISA consists of three spacecraft, each about 2 meters in diameter and 50cm deep. They fly in space, 5 million kilometers apart, and shine lasers back and forth between themselves. We time the flight of those lasers (nominally just over 16.6 seconds from one spacecraft to another) and if a gravitational wave blasts through LISA, we see the laser times change.

So how do we go about building new spacecraft for the first time? We take things in stages, just like you and I do when we try to learn something new. When I want to learn to play guitar, I don’t take the stage on Day One with Dr. Brian May; instead I get an old beater guitar out of the basement and I plunk out riffs of “Old Sussanah” until my fingers bleed. Then I work on the guitar solo in “Brighton Rock.”  Building spacecraft is kind of the same thing.


Artists conception of the LISA Pathfinder spacecraft. [Image: European Space Agency]

No space observatory like LISA has ever been built before, so we have to figure out how to do it. How do you build the laser timing system? How do you set up the spacecraft thrusters to respond to external influences like the solar wind? How do you get the whole thing into orbit in one piece, then set it up so it works? How do you control spacecraft temperature to the precision we need?  The best way to answer all of these questions, and to discover all the pitfalls we haven’t imagined, is to build one. This is one of the primary reasons we built a spacecraft called LISA Pathfinder.

LISA Pathfinder is an “almost LISA”. The spacecraft itself is roughly the size and shape of a LISA spacecraft, but it’s guts are slightly different. Deep down inside, it has a linked laser system that is easiest to think of as if it is just an entire LISA arm, shrunk down to fit on a single spacecraft. This is not ideal for doing astrophysical work, but it is perfect for understanding how the spacecraft are going to work in space.


The heart of LISA Pathfinder (the “payload” in spaceflight lingo). A laser system monitors two freely flying “test masses” (2 kg cubes of gold & platinum). [Image: European Space Agency]

Throwing a robot into space is hard. You have to get it to outer space, and get it there in one piece! The usual way you get things into space (so far) is with rockets. Putting aside the fact that they sometimes explode, a rocket ride to space is not the gentlest experience in the world. It’s loud — noise levels in proximity to a typical rocket engine are a million-billion times louder than sound you encounter at home every day. It shakes a LOT — rocket vibrations back and forth across the body of a rocket can be so strong they have led to catastrophic destruction of the rocket itself. The launch forces are enormous — human spaceflight engineers keep launch forces low for crew comfort (the maximum on space shuttle flights was about 3 times Earth gravity), but rockets without human crews regularly reach 5 to 10 times Earth gravity during launch. Add that all together, and the ride to space can be pretty rough. So how do you get a sensitive gravitational wave experiment into space, all in one piece and undamaged, on a rough and tumble rocket ride?

Hucking robots into space is hard, to be sure, but using a robot you threw into space to do science can be even harder. First, everything has to work. When your robot is tens of thousands of kilometers away from the closest space engineer, you can’t tinker with it — there’s no tightening up bolts, no replacing faulty lasers, no kicking stuck gear boxes, nor swapping out new battery packs. Second, the environment of space is harsh — there’s no air, the Sun is constantly blasting and heating one side of your spacecraft while the other side is turned toward the frigid chill darkness of deep space. And all the while, your dedicated space robot is bathing in a constant wash of hard cosmic radiation. Every ultra-sensitive space experiment has to weather through those hardships, while collecting data that would be hard to collect even under controlled laboratory conditions on Earth.

So you take a baby step, and you test everything first on Earth, then in space. This is the purpose of LISA Pathfinder. To teach us how to build a spaceborne gravitational wave detector, then to show we know how to get the thing safely to space, then once we’re in space, we turn it all on to show that we can do the actual experiment we want to do.

VV06 Lisa PathFinder Launch

LISA Pathfinder launch on a Vega rocket (VV06). [Image: European Space Agency]

On December 2, after many years of design and laboratory work, LISA Pathfinder was launched atop a Vega rocket from Kourou Space Center in French Guiana. It has gone through a series of orbital burns that are sending it to a neutral “Lagrange point” between the Earth and Sun, where it will enter a “halo orbit” to test its lasers, thrusters, and spacecraft guidance systems in the very same way that LISA will have to work. So far, the flight has been flawless.


Just a few of the people who worked on LISA Pathfinder, my colleagues Karsten Danzmann (L), Paul McNamara (C), and Stefano Vitale (R). [Image: Paul McNamara]

What constantly amazes me about the people who build these machines is their diligence and tenacious attention to detail. A robot that we huck into space is not just a dumb hunk of metal. It is an amazing complex machine that is capable of thinking and taking care of itself. It conducts experiments that we tell it to do, stores the results of those experiments and faithfully beams the information back to Earth. At the same time, it is surviving one of the most hostile environments known: the vacuum of space. The influence of the Sun produces drastic temperature shifts across your spacecraft. Cosmic radiation is constantly bathing the spacecraft in a wash of seething, energetic particles. And all the while it has to gather and store energy, and all the zillions of parts and components have to work together, flawlessly and seamlessly.

Your car is also an amazingly complex machine. But if some piece of it stops working and leaves you on the side of US Route 50 in Nevada (the Loneliest Highway in America), a passing motorist will still happen along to help you, or you can make a quick call to the motor club to come tow you. There are no such luxuries in the game of space exploration.

awesomeLISAThe scientists and engineers who contemplate these things every day are ingenious and clever. The delivery of LISA Pathfinder was the culmination of a decade long effort by an enormous team of scientists and engineers. And all the while they were designing and building LISA Pathfinder, they were teaching classes, and training new students and young scientists who will go on to do new and awesome things in the future. These are the people who make our modern world go ’round. I have nothing but admiration for my colleagues who have built and flown this marvelous machine.

So, at long last, the beginning has arrived. We are all simultaneously exhilarated, relieved, joyous, and eager for the next bit of news and the latest results to get here. Because this is only the beginning, the culmination of decades of hard work, difficult hardships, and anticipation. The BEST stuff — the detection of gravitational waves from the Cosmos — is yet to come.

Improbable, Awesome Pictures

by Shane L. Larson

10138_504595436278932_866790903_nA friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, was grousing about last month’s enormously successful “Wave at Saturn” campaign.  “WTF? It’s not like Cassini will see any of us in the picture!  People can’t even see Saturn when they’re out waving because the Sun is up!  Why are you going out to wave? You know better!”  Perhaps in a less grumpy-old-man but more conversation-and-education fashion, Sky & Telescope even did a simple analysis to find out if any light from your waving hand actually would have made it onto Cassini’s imaging system (Will Cassini See You?).  I follow this little mathematical exercise perfectly well, and I had made a similar estimate myself.  But I still went outside and waved at Saturn!

waveSaturnI don’t think my friend (or other Grumpy Old Scientists, “GOSes”) understood the point at all, so we had to have a long conversation.  Let’s do the easy one first.  Why did I go out and wave?  Because when I’m a stooped old man who has to have a nurse feed him his Slurpee’s, I didn’t want to look back on my life and regret not going out to wave at Saturn with the rest of humanity. I went out and waved!

Now when I’m 107, I’ll say to my nurse “Did I ever tell you when I was young like you I went out and waved at Saturn?”  He’ll smile at me, pat my arm, and say, “Here Mr. Larson, have another sip of your blue Slurpee.”  I made sure I went and got my certificate from NASA too!  I hope they hang it over my bed in the old folks home. 🙂

My Wave at Saturn certificate.  I waved at Saturn!

My Wave at Saturn certificate. I waved at Saturn!

To address the question of what’s the point, I like to ask a slightly different question: why did people bother to go out and wave at all?  All over the country, people took their kids outside after dinner, or took 15 minutes out of their workday and went out and stood on the sidewalk to wave at a planet 898 million miles away. Why?

Because it is an AWESOME idea.  It sparks a little bit of wonder in the back of your brain to contemplate that the light from every rock, cloud, puddle, car windshield, tree, rooftop, discarded box of macaroni, and waving human hand would travel almost 80 minutes before it arrived at Saturn to be captured by the camera on a robot from another world.  The simple fact that this could even be true should inspire a little bit of pride in every one of us, and make us stand up a little taller.  Only a little more than a century ago, we didn’t even know how to make an airplane fly under its own power.  But today, barely three generations later, our species quite reliably demonstrates the ability to fly beyond the confines of our small world, to send ships sailing the vastness of interplanetary space and send back to us tales of its adventures.

Titan's surface.

Titan’s surface.

Cryovolcanic Enceladus.

Cryovolcanic Enceladus.

That is AWESOME.  Cassini is only the latest is a long series of emissaries that have been exploring the homeworlds of our solar system, and it has sent us enormous numbers of improbable pictures, not the least of which include pictures from the surface of Titan; images of a blue and white wonderland of the enigmatic moon Enceladus, studded with cryovolcanoes; and of course Saturn itself, bejeweled with its mesmerizing ring system.

Saturn from Cassini.

Saturn from Cassini.

Saturn hurricane.

Saturn hurricane.

For thousands of human generations, Saturn was little more than a point of light in the sky. Galileo’s telescope was so crappy he couldn’t even tell Saturn had a ring; “Saturn has ears,” he wrote.  But today, we can build a self-sufficient robot capable of flying high above Saturn, where it can take pictures of a hurricane large enough to cover half of North America, locked onto the north pole of Saturn inside a mysterious six sided cloud formation called “The Hexagon” (you can’t make this stuff up!).

That is AWESOME.  I think all of us know it is awesome too; that’s why a million people went outside and waved at Saturn.  They were waving at Cassini, our little robot friend who tirelessly circles a world that most of us will never see with our own eyes, uncovering its mysteries and teaching us not just about Saturn, but about ourselves.  Deep down, people understand this, and they want to feel connected to it.  That’s why they all tore themselves away from their Excel spreadsheets, paused in their marketing meetings, left three of the tires off and the oil unchanged in the AMC Pacer, and went outside to join their fellow humans in waving.

The crowd at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, waving at Saturn (photo by NASA).

The crowd at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, waving at Saturn (photo by NASA).

People were so engaged with the activity, they took pictures of themselves waving and posted them to twitter, facebook and instagram.  I get the feeling that they didn’t really care whether Cassini got some light from their furiously waving appendages, but their iPhones did, and they basked in the coolness factor as a result.  Yep, for whatever reason, this geeky, crazy idea to participate in something related to science had some serious street cred.  It was an adventure, and they all participated!

I think every one of us who engages in the profession of science should pay attention to that fact, especially all the GOSes (many of whom aren’t all that old, they’ve just become old in their thought patterns — they probably don’t read blogs, so you should spend some time talking them through this!).  People freely engaged in something related to science. People in vast numbers freely engaged in something related to science. They had fun, they probably learned a little bit (like Saturn is up in the sky, even during the daytime), and walked away with a positive and optimistic view of something that isn’t related to reality TV or Hollywood celebrities.

As scientists, we like to bemoan the state of science literacy in the world today, a malaise that is driven by the very vocal anti-science rhetoric that has become inextricably entwined with politics.  There are climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers to be sure, but when I see a million people standing out on a sunny Earth afternoon waving at a camera improbably far away, I have a little hope.

And to top it all off, we’re still getting payback from the event!  NASA released Casssini’s snapshot of us all to great fanfare.  Here it is.

The Earth, seen from Saturn.

The Earth, seen from Saturn.

See that little dot, lost in the blackness below the majestic arc of Saturn’s ring?  That’s us; that’s home.  You’re in that picture, waving. Your mother is in that picture, waving. I’m in that picture, waving.  Every human being, waving or not, is in that picture.  At the moment this picture was snapped, we were all paying attention.  An improbable moment, captured for all time by a little robot with an improbable mission: seek out new things, learn all you can, and return that information to your creators.

That is AWESOME.

Take some time tonight, and before you fold up your laptop, take a moment to sift through some of the pictures from Cassini.  Take a look at the pictures you snapped during Wave at Saturn, and the ones that Cassini sent back, and remember how engaged the world was with this activity.  Improbable pictures, improbable engagement, but a stunning success.

Well played, NASA.  Well played.  Now let’s do it again.

Where Discoveries Happen

by Shane L. Larson

On a cold spring morning in Virginia, the leaden clouds had cleared off leaving the morning skies a clear deep blue that reminded me of being home in the Rockies.  Surrounded by hundreds of bustling Virginians, I emerged from the Ballston Metro station, and walked down the streets of Arlington.  Nestled amongst the glass and brick towers of this modern suburbia is a broad and nondescript building, not unlike many others on nearby blocks.  But this building is different.  On this building, emblazoned in burnished steel letters on the overhang that covers the entrance, are three simple words: National Science Foundation.

It is not one of the hot destinations for visitors to the Washington DC area.  Ten year olds want to visit the Air and Space Museum; a steady stream of people walk reverently past the Constitution and Declaration of Independence at the National Archives; dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum may as well be alive and walking around; and many sit in the National Gallery immersed in their contemplation of the wondrous works of master painters and sculptors.  I suppose even the Woodrow Wilson House must get more visitors than the National Science Foundation.  But I wanted to come here, to stand in front of this building, and bask in the glory.  When I had previously stopped in front of NASA Headquarters to get my picture next to the sign, there were others who had made the same pilgrimage as me.  We helped each other shoot pictures, traded tales of wanting to visit NASA since we were young, and how we always wanted to be astronauts and work on the Hubble Space Telescope.

But today, under the late winter skies of Virginia, few stopped (well, none really) to share the moment with me, and that is a shame. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is responsible for as many wondrous and profound discoveries as our friends at NASA, but their press is lighter and the visibility of the Foundation is much lower, much to my dismay.  For myself as a young scientist, visiting the NSF is like getting to stand on the pitcher’s mound at Dodger Stadium or visiting base camp on Mount Everest.  I suppose to some, however, it is less grandiose: more like visiting the heaviest ball of twine in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin, or like visiting the first Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio.  But the National Science Foundation is a place of wonders –– it embodies, more than any other edifice of our civilization, the defining character of the human species: the desire to know.  The ineffable quality of our psyche, that usually is glibly referred to as “curiosity”, is what the NSF is all about.  The recognition of curiosity as a tool has evolved into a uniquely human endeavour called “science.”

Since its formation in 1950 by an act of Congress, the NSF has become the hub of a large fraction of the research and development efforts of the scientific community in the United States.  The mission statement efficiently captures their mandate from the Congress: “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense.”  As is the case for all of us, we encounter instances in our lives when a few short words cannot always capture the deep meanings that some endeavours hold for us.  Our formal language is inadequate to the burdens of our hearts, and to make up for that, we tell stories.  Let me tell you three stories, vignettes about what the NSF does in the hope of illustrating their mission and the role they play in our society.

The Tale of a Scar.  Some of my close friends have often noticed a one inch scar on the outside orbit of my left eye.  It’s my big movie star scar, though it has not served me as well as Harrison Ford’s chin scar.  In 1982, I was a small and admittedly nerdy young kid. I read books on Einstein, I waited breathlessly for every launch of the space shuttle, and I lived and breathed Star Trek.  I was also bullied.  I received my Indiana Jones scar when an older and much larger student took my prized possession of the day, a collected volume of the novels of H. G. Wells.  When I dared to try and get it back from him, he forcibly threw me across the room into a metal desk chair. The result was 8 stitches, less than a quarter of an inch from my left eye.  It was not the first, nor my last encounter with bullies.  Bullying is a vile and pernicious expression of cowardice that many, unfortunately, view as an unavoidable part of childhood. One of the truths of the modern age is that as our lives become more integrated with technology, old forms of pathological behaviour find new forms of expression, not the least of which is bullying. The advent of social media and the globalization of information in our society has attracted the bullies and expanded the scope of their social terrorism.  Now, your children receive the full brunt of an attack not on the playground, but on their small screens at home while surrounded by family and friends; what was once a fortress of protection has been breached by 3G wireless coverage and cell phones.  Research suggests that in today’s world, 20-40% of all youths are the victims of cyberbullies at least once.  Perhaps more startling, the new ranks of cyberbullies are not confined to our children –– adults have increasingly become victims as well.

As our society evolves, propelled into the future by our ever-changing technology, the NSF is there to understand its impact on our culture.  The psychology, practices, and impact of cyber-bullies on our culture, and the role that the technology plays are well within the purview of the science funded by the Foundation (read the first part of three articles here: http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=121847).  As a scientist, I can sit up a little taller, proud that my profession is trying to do something to make the world a better place. But the person really taking notice is the 12 year old kid still trapped inside of me, hopeful that these scientists can prevent some other hopeful young soul from growing up with a very public scar from the dark shadows of their youth.  Sometimes, the mission of the Foundation is to help us protect ourselves.

Time Capsule in the Ice.  Sometimes, the discoveries of the NSF give us an opportunity to think deeply about our existence on this small world.  One of the last great unexplored areas of this planet are the vast, icy reaches of Antarctica.  Protected by international treaty in 1959, the continent cannot be developed for military or commercial resource purposes.  In the United States, our presence in the frozen reaches of Antarctica is managed by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs (http://www.nsf.gov/dir/index.jsp?org=OPP).  One small part of the Polar Programs is an ongoing effort called ANSMET — the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (http://geology.cwru.edu/~ansmet/).  ANSMET’s mission is to search the icy surface of Antarctica every austral summer for meteorites.  Meteorites are hunks of rock and metal, fallen to the surface of the Earth from outer space.  Buried in the Antarctic ice after making Earth-fall, meteorites are easy to spot when the Sun warms them each summer, melting the ice around them so they are visible on the surface, a bold dark spot in the vast sea of white.  Since the end of the Apollo era, ANSMET is one of the only ongoing scientific efforts that provides direct samples of extraterrestrial materials.  Scientists are deeply interested in meteorites because they are time vaults, sealed capsules that harbor information about the primordial composition of the early solar system and, sometimes, pockets of the early volatiles from when the planets were born.

In 1984, two scant years after I received my scar, a meteorite team was deposited in the Allen Hills region of Antarctica by the NSF Polar Programs.  The first meteorite the team found that season was given the nondescript name ALH84001.  It is an achondrite, or stony meteorite, similar to basalt found on Earth.  It was returned to the United States, where it was archived with all the other meteorite samples, and analyzed for its age, structure, and composition.  We also determined its probable origin –– Mars.

That might have been the end of the story of ALH84001, but in August of 1996, during a routine micrograph scan of thin slices taken from the meteorite, scientists stumbled on a remarkable and tantalizing discovery –– mineralized structures that look, for all the world, like fossilized bacteria. The micrographs from ALH84001 captured the imagination of the world.  It was the first time the human race had ever had to seriously contemplate the possibility that Earth was not the sovereign haven of life in the Cosmos.  It is one thing to think about extraterrestrial life, to debate it in the backyard on a summer evening with a beer in one hand and a bratwurst in the other.  But to be faced with plausible evidence of the prospects gives one pause.  It reminds us that we are small and the Cosmos is vast, and that there is much we have yet to learn.  This is not a demeaning insight, but an uplifting and inspiring recognition that the Cosmos has created beings such as we, who can ponder the questions of our own existence.  Sometimes, the mission of the Foundation is to help us know ourselves and our place in the Cosmos better.

What Einstein Thought was Impossible.  In 1918, Albert Einstein was working with general relativity, which he had written down several years before.  General relativity was a new way to think about gravity that had resolved some old observational problems in astronomy and had suggested that there were new things for astronomers and physicists to think about.  Einstein was interested in how gravity propagated through the Cosmos –– how did it get from one place to another? What happens when the source of gravity, say a  planet or a star, moves?  In 1918 Einstein was trying to answer this question, and he made a remarkable discovery: gravity propagates in waves, just like light.

Like every good scientist, Einstein did his due diligence and immediately calculated what it would take to detect these waves.  Imagine you lay two rocks on the ground, and measure the distance between them.  Gravitational waves stretch and shrink the distance between points in space (your rocks) as they travel by.  The more separated the rocks, the greater the change caused by the gravitational waves.  So how big of a change did Einstein predict these gravitational waves might cause?  If you have one rock here on Earth, and another rock near the Sun, 150 million kilometers away, the gravitational waves will change the distance by less than the width of an atomic nucleus.  Einstein thought that it would be impossible to measure this effect, and promptly moved on to new projects.

But now, fast-forward a century.  We’ve replaced Einstein’s fountain pen with ball point pens, phonographs with iPods, and linked the world with a global network of computers, fiber cables, and satellites.  Today, immersed in technology undreamed of in Einstein’s day, we can seriously contemplate looking for these gravitational waves.  In one of the most awe-inspiring scientific undertakings ever imagined by humans, the National Science Foundation has been building the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory –– LIGO (http://www.ligo.org/).  The premise of LIGO is to replace your rocks with carefully constructed mirrors and to measure the distance by timing how long it takes laser light to fly back and forth between them.  The observatories that house the mirrors and lasers are enormous, 4 kilometer by 4 kilometer L-shaped installations that make the measurement in two perpendicular directions at once.  When they come online sometime after 2015, we will begin our first serious astrophysical reconnaissance of the Cosmos using gravity as our messenger.  We should be able to detect the collisions of neutron stars, the shrunken dead husks of stars collapsed to the size of a small city; we should be able to listen to the siren song of black holes spiraling together to form new, bigger black holes; and maybe, if Nature lets us, we may hear the faint murmur of gravitational waves from the Big Bang, the whispering signature of the creation of the Cosmos.

The scope of LIGO is awe-inspiring, and more than anything else it reminds us that our species is truly limitless.  It reminds us that our ingenuity and curiosity and perseverance can overcome any challenges, that we can tease any secrets from Nature with enough diligence, and that we can indeed solve any problem that was once thought impossible.  Sometimes, the Foundation reminds us that there is nothing we can’t do.

There are many such tales we could tell like these.  Standing there outside the National Science Foundation on that spring morning, I was thinking that despite everything we know, despite everything we can do, the vast majority of the world is still a complete mystery!  The goal of science is to explore those mysteries and to use the answers to improve our lives.  That is the mission of the National Science Foundation.


The NSF uses the tagline, Where discoveries happen.  You can explore the vast mosaic of discoveries made by NSF funded science, and their applications to our world at the NSF Discovery site:  http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/

You can also watch a spectacular array of video summaries at http://science360.gov (also available as an app for your iPad –– Einstein would have loved that!).

An Evanescent Memory of Exploration

by Shane L. Larson

On February 27, 2011, Frank Woodruff Buckles passed away at the age of 110.  Frank was the last surviving American veteran of World War I. The United States was in the war for 19 months.  In that time 116,000 Americans were killed, and more than 204,000 wounded.  In totality, more than 16.5 million people were killed during the four years of the war.  At the time, it was called “The Great War” because until World War II, no one could imagine a more terrible conflict or a more terrible cost in human lives.  With Frank’s passing, the United States’ involvement in the devastating conflict passes from direct experience into memory.  No longer will the Great War be relayed through the eyes of one who saw it; instead, it will be relegated to the history books, and spoken of from the dry voice of history like the War of 1812 and the Spanish American War.

In 1901, the year of Frank’s birth, a young 19 year old named Robert Goddard had started indulging his passion for aerodynamics, a passion that would ultimately lead him into the field of rocketry.  In 1914, the first year of The Great War, Goddard was awarded two of the first patents in rocketry, cementing ideas that would lead to the space age and the human exploration of space.  As a young man, Goddard had been enchanted with the idea that humans might make a journey to space and visit other worlds using rockets. Goddard passed away in 1945 (3 weeks before the end of World War II), before the first rockets ever plied the vacuum of space. But ultimately his dream was realized, and between December of 1968 and December of 1972, nine voyages were made from the Earth to the Moon.  In all, 24 American astronauts made the journey across the gulf of space, and 12 walked on the surface of the Moon as part of Project Apollo.

Today, Project Apollo is 40 years gone, and of those 24 astronauts, 6 have died.  Of all the rest, none is younger than 74.  The only humans ever to leave the Earth and walk the shores of another world are slowly passing away, and soon, the memory of of the voyage to the Moon will also pass into history.  Project Apollo was arguably the greatest technological achievement in human history, an exploratory endeavour to carry humans beyond the confines of Earth that was many decades ahead of its time.  But here we stand today, 40 years hence, with no permanent human presence beyond our small blue marble, and no ambitions to go.  In June of this year, the space shuttle Atlantis will make her final flight, and America’s manned spaceflight technology program will come to an end.

As a society, we have let the wonder of those few evanescent moments of exploration slip away from us.  We have forgotten the grandeur of the Moon’s desolation, and let go of the memory that the exploration of beautiful places is good for the spirit.  Instead, we worry about the costs of projects like Apollo, and have whittled away our investment in exploration into almost nothing.  This deinvestment in exploration has been done with much political posturing and grandiose swaggering in the name of fiscal responsibility, but with a complete and callous disregard for what these programs cost and return to our country.

Project Apollo is often historically depicted as a political action, a demonstration of technological supremacy driven by the Cold War with the Soviet Union that had risen out of the ashes of World War II.  All told, the program employed 400,000 people and the United States invested $25.4 billion in the endeavour, approximately $65 for every man, woman and child currently living in the United States today.  For each of us, the cost of Project Apollo was only 16 cups of Starbuck’s coffee, less than a third the cost of an iPod, less than a monthly satellite TV bill, and only about 1/10th the average yearly cell phone bill of a typical US citizen.  These are easy cost comparisons to make, and probably a bit misleading because let’s face it: most three year olds don’t have cell phone plans, though quite a few watch quite a bit of satellite TV.  The truly misleading part of these cost comparisons is that they only represent the money saved out of pocket, and do not consider the economic returns of the program — when the fiscal axe is dropped on programs like Apollo, the economic returns are usually totally ignored.

Consider the Apollo Lunar Module.  Before Apollo, nothing as complicated as the Lunar Module had ever been constructed, nor had any machine ever been built with such stringent design requirements.  NASA and their industry partners spawned a new technology known as CNC (“computer numerical control”) machining to make the parts for the moonships.  Today, CNC machines are standard pieces in every precision machine shop in America.  Conservative estimates suggest that there are about 75,000 machining firms in the United States, employing more than 200,000 machinists and generating gross revenues in excess of $37 billion per year.  In less than one year, the American economy uses Apollo derived technology to generate enough money to pay for the entire decade long investment in Apollo.

In order to keep the spacecraft warm on the voyage from the Earth to the Moon, NASA had to develop a metal-bonded polyurethane foam insulation.  After the end of Apollo, this same foam was used to insulate the Alaskan Pipeline, keeping the oil temperature high enough that it remains fluid on the long journey from Prudhoe to Valdez.  This has allowed the production and delivery of 16 billion barrels of oil since 1977, with a gross revenue of $710 billion.  In the almost forty years since the end of Apollo, this single piece of technology has returned to the US economy more than 25 times the entire decade long cost of the Apollo program.

These are only two examples out of many technologies that have quietly infiltrated everyday life since the last walkers left the Moon.  The technology derivatives from the space shuttle program are just as numerous and have borne just as much economic benefit.  The ultimate return from America’s space program is probably incalculable, both in terms of dollars and in terms of the less tangible threads of common memory.  It has yet to be understood what the absence of an American manned spaceflight program will do to our future.  Forty thousand generations of our ancestors have led us to this place in history.  We have demonstrated the ability to transcend the limitations of the tools Nature gave us to climb trees and walk the savannah and instead journey beyond the confines of Earth using the foresight and computational power of our brains.  But that same mental tool is squandering all of our long and proud heritage, forgoing the memory of all that could be attained in favor of short term political gains without regard to the wider consequences of those actions.

On the voyage home from the Moon in April of 1972, mission commander John Young remarked, “We have seen more in 10 days that most people would see in 10 lifetimes.”  In the past 10 days, how much of your life has flashed before your eyes?  How deeply has your memory of what you did yesterday changed the world?  As the Apollo astronauts slowly succumb to time’s inevitable march, what becomes of those memories of walking on the Moon?  When the last Apollo astronaut dies, no longer will the voyage from the Earth to the Moon be relayed through the eyes of those who saw it.  Instead, we leave to our children images of the fantastic voyage from the pages of a history book, hoping fervently that their imaginations and creativity will be inspired by the memory of 12 pairs of boots that once walked the surface of another world.