Tag Archives: NASA

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.