Tag Archives: NASA

Trying to make things better

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The Challenger crew: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik (source: NASA)

Thirty years ago today, with millions watching on live TV, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. All seven crew members died.

Something else died too, and I’ll get to that in a moment. First, though, let’s remember those seven who “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” and sought to advance humankind’s understanding of space and technology.

Let’s remember also the seven astronauts who died aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 and the three who died in the Apollo 1 spacecraft in 1967. (In an eerie coincidence, the anniversaries of all three events fall within five days of each other.)

I grew up with the space program in the 1960s. I have an early memory of Alan Shepard becoming the first American to travel into space. (My mother, seated next to me at the TV, said “Pray for him.”) I had chills listening to the Apollo 8 astronauts read from the book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. (I still get chills at the memory.) When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon a few months later, it felt like the future was full of possibility.

New_York_World's_Fair

The New York World’s Fair

In the ’60s the world was a mess, just as it is today. But the mood of the time was that science and technology could solve many of our problems. That they could — no, make that would — make things better for everyone. A succession of World’s Fairs, like the one in New York in 1964-65, gave us a glimpse into a future that looked pretty wonderful.

It was an exciting dream. Continue reading

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Pluto and the art of patience

Last week, after a nine-year journey, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reached its destination and started sending back images and other data about Pluto and its moons. In their news conferences, the NASA scientists are practically giddy with excitement — as well they should be. TheĀ images have been breathtaking.

Pluto as seen by New Horizons

Until very recently we knew this only as a spot of light (source: NASA)

These images are just the first taste of what’s to come, however.

Aimed at earth from 5 billion kilometers away, the signal from New Horizons is understandably weak. The bandwidth for the downlink is so limited (1,000 to 4,000 bits per second – much slower than a 1990s dial-up modem) that it’ll take until the end of 2015 just to get the compressed data. It might take until late 2016 to get all of the data in full resolution.

In other words, we’ll have to be patient. Those of us above a certain age can remember taking pictures on vacation and then waiting several days for the drugstore to develop them. It’s going to be like that with New Horizons.

After all the data arrives, it’ll take a while longer for the scientists to interpret it and develop realistic theories about what’s going on with Pluto and the moons: their composition, geological activity, and so forth.

Until then, we wait. In spite of their excitement, the scientists are cautioning everybody not to jump to conclusions, even though they — as much as anyone — surely understand the temptation to do just that.

As a technical writer I know about the temptation to jump to conclusions.
Continue reading