October 12, 2013 – 7:05 PM. The night sky is clear in Seattle as I walk up a hill in the Magnolia part of town. A bright half moon is in the sky. Sunset was 40 minutes earlier and while the sky fell into darkness I could see several airplanes making their way to and from the local airports. Coming out of the Southwest sky I spotted a bright object moving toward the Northeast, bright enough to be Venus but moving like a plane. For many years I have looked for satellites at night as they travel around the earth and this was probably another. Its brightness hinted it might be the International Space Station. Easy to see with the naked eye, sometimes even in daylight, you can see its detail with only a pair of binoculars. Fifteen seconds later my iPhone SkyView app confirmed my hunch and my eyes followed the ISS with 6 people aboard for the remaining minute of visibility.
The Soviet Union launched and successfully put Sputnik into orbit 56 years ago this month, eight months before I was born. For 22 days it broadcast a radio signal until the batteries ran out and continued to orbit Earth until January 4, 1958. What a thrill it must have been to see the first satellite in the night sky as it raced around our planet every 92 minutes.
Since Sputnik about 500 people have been in space. Some went as far as the moon. We are still exploring. Try this one on for size, last Thursday on October 9, 2013 the spacecraft Juno returned to earth two years after its launch in 2011. It had gone to deep space and did not return to earth to come home but to get a gravity assist to continue its journey to Planet Jupiter. It came back to earth because we did not have any rocket engines powerful enough to get Juno to Jupiter directly. What imagination. The Earth gravity assist will increase the speed of Juno by16,330 miles per hour. The mission end in October 2017 after 33 orbits of Jupiter, falling into the planet as planned. It takes a bit of imagination sometimes to accomplish cool things.
As a young person I followed the space program from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo and stayed awake late into the night at a New Hampshire summer camp to see the first television pictures from the moon. 8 months earlier on a clear Christmas Eve night, my family driving from New York City to Toronto, heard the voices of Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders read a passage from Genesis while their capsule orbited the moon. All I could do was to look into the black sky and wonder. I was 10.
Nine years after going to the moon two spacecraft were launched, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They went into space to explore a lot of stuff and they are still tripping out there and Voyager 1 has entered interstellar space (deep space) beyond the influence of our Sun and our Solar System. 36 years later Voyager 1 & 2 still send us data.
We have sent spacecraft to Mars on August 6, 2012 after an 8 month trip Curiosity rover landed on the surface. This 9′ by 9′ (approximately) is roaming around the surface doing a lot of heavy work for us. Oh we’ve been firing stuff at Mars since the 1960’s and while there have been many failures we keep trying and some missions succeed. Satellites have been sent to orbit Mars and make a map for us and learn more about the physical characteristics of the planet. In addition to Curiosity other man made probes have made it to the Martian surface. Pretty cool.
Mercury? Yep, we’ve sent stuff there. Venus? There too. We’ve been a lot of places and perhaps in 40,000 years Voyager 1 will get within 2 Light Years of the star we call Gliese 445.
Ever since the late 1950’s the human race has been sending stuff and people into space. We’ve been very busy. My children are now all in their 20’s. For a large majority of their days since their first breath humans in spacecrafts have been circling the earth and looking down on our little blue planet.
I think about those 6 people now in the International Space Station (Oleg Kotov, Mike Hopkins, Sergey Ryazanskiy, Fyodor, Yurchikhin, Karen Nyberg, Luca Parmitano). As I write this they are below the horizon to the Southwest and will not be visible tonight here in Seattle as they travel through space at 17,000 miles per hour. But I know where they are and I think of them. And I think of Galileo. Could he ever have imagined all that I have seen. What a time to be alive!! Perhaps that’s what made me stop and watch the ICC cross the sky, to think of my life, the places humanity has been in space and to show respect for the explorers above me.
I am a child of the Space Age.
Thank you for reading!