History, History Column

To Infinity and Beyond

To Infinity and Beyond

By Sarah Becker ©2018

What is it about outer space, space flight that captures the American fancy?  Who does not remember the 1986 Challenger STS-51-L disaster?  Or the 2003 Columbia STS-107 shuttle tragedy?  All who perished journeyed so we could share the joy of scientific discovery.  

Whether the subject is President Trump’s proposed Space Force, a sixth military branch; the Civil War, reconnaissance balloons and President Lincoln’s 1861 civilian balloon corps; the Wright Brothers’ flights including their 1909 test flight from Fort Myer to Alexandria’s Shuter’s Hill; Charles Lindbergh’s 1923 non-stop trans-Atlantic flight; the Amelia Earhart story, or the International Space Station the country is fascinated.  We now celebrate the 60th anniversary of America’s space program.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a World War II Allied Commander familiar with German rocketry, signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law in 1958.  The Act “provided for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere.”  Policy was “devoted to peaceful purposes,” contributing to “the expansion of human knowledge [and] the improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles.”

“With the same spirit of innovation and grit of those early days of space flight, we now move out on an exciting path forward where we will develop the capabilities to take humans to even more destinations in the solar system,” former NASA Administrator and astronaut Charles Bolden, Jr. said.  “With our support and assistance, commercial companies will expand access to that rarified area Alan Shepard first trod, allowing NASA to focus on those bigger, more challenging destinations and to enable our science missions to peer farther and farther beyond our solar system.”  Mission destinations include the Moon, asteroids, Lagrange points, the moons of Mars, and Mars itself.   

  America’s space program began in earnest on April 12, 1961, when 27 year-old Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the Columbus of the Cosmos—became the first man into space.  Twenty-three days later, on May 5, 1961, U.S. Mercury astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. spent 15 minutes navigating sub-orbital earth.  An elite group of former military test pilots, the Mercury-seven, grew the space program and in 1962 Mercury astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr. became the first American to orbit earth.

“Without risks, there’s no new knowledge, no discovery, no bold adventure,” June Scobee Rodgers founder of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education said.  The Center’s headquarters was once located in Alexandria.

Rodgers then-husband, Flight Commander Dick Scobee, died in the 1986 Challenger STS-51-L calamity.  His Challenger shuttle exploded on lift-off, killing the seven-member crew within 73 seconds.  June Scobee Rodgers responded by building a nationwide network of Challenger Centers for Space Science Education.  The Centers are a living memorial to the crew of the First Teacher in Space Mission.  Rendezvous with a Comet is part of the Center’s science curriculum.

  The comet offers excellent study opportunities: acids and bases, latitude and longitude, and chromatography.  To the naked eye, a comet looks like a milky-white streamer.  It consists of loosely packed stony material, dust and frozen gases.  Thousands of comets have been observed over time, but fewer than 200 comets return regularly to the Sun.

English astronomer Edmond Halley first observed his comet in 1682.  He calculated that the comet had an elliptical orbit and correctly predicted its return in 1758.  Halley’s Comet appears approximately every 75-76 years and measures 5×5 by 9.3 miles.  Its last visible orbit was February 9, 1986.   Scobee’s Challenger crew was to collect information on the Comet’s passing.

At the Challenger Center for Space Science Education children, 10-years and older, push the boundaries of science in an exhilarating display of youthful teamwork.  Teamwork is the secret of the astronauts’ trade.  The Challenger Center offers children the chance to develop their much needed math, science and communication skills.  So do the memories of the Mercury and Apollo astronauts; also astronauts like Sally Ride (1983), Christa McAuliffe (1986) and Peggy Whitson.  Whitson is not only the longest serving American in space, but also the first female to command the International Space Station (2008).

   “NASA now fosters a growing commercial space transportation industry [like Elon Musk’s cargo, crew now robot carrying Space X] that will allow us to start work on heavy-lift architecture to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit,” Bolden noted.  Endeavour Commander Mark Kelly’s space vehicle, a shuttle vehicle which last touched down in 2011 is currently a California museum piece.

  The Alexandria Philosophical Society, created in 1832 in William Stabler’s Fairfax Street drugstore, was formed in the pursuit of useful scientific knowledge.  “At a meeting of several persons, at the store of, William Stabler, convened for the purpose of forming a Society for improvement of philosophical and other subjects, a constitution, to that end, was adopted.”  Members Benjamin Hallowell, Thomas W. Smith & William Stabler were tasked with procuring “a pluviometer for the use of the Society” and ascertaining “a proper place & time for making barometrical & thermometrical observations.”

“We are supposed to have passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet last night but there was nothing to indicate it,” an E.S. Leadbeater & Sons, Inc. employee [Stabler’s successor] wrote on May 19, 1910.  “The comet thus far has been dim, small and rather disappointing.”  Science is never disappointing!  Or so I thought.

  In 2015 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment [PISA] ranked the United States 15 year-olds 25th in science.  The science average was 29, the number of countries analyzed 70.  Singapore placed 1st; Finland 5th, China 10th, United Kingdom 15th, and Belgium 20th.  The United States ranked 41st in math, behind Russia.      

   “…’tis to close application and constant perseverance, men of letters and science are indebted for their knowledge and usefulness; and you are now at that period of life…when these are to be acquired, or lost forever,” George Washington told step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis in 1796.  “But as you are well acquainted with my sentiments on this subject…I shall only add one sentiment…Let no bad example…have an improper influence upon your conduct.….”

George Washington, a member of Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society, understood the value of science.  Do you?  “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of Science and Literature,” President Washington said in his First Annual Address to Congress.

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessoning mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening mine,” former President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1813.  “That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe…seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space.…”

Discovery: The act or instance of obtaining knowledge; the third of five NASA space shuttles operating between 1984 and 2011.  Max Faget conceived and created the first space capsule, Mercury, from which the designs for the Gemini capsule, Apollo command and service modules were derived.  [Patent No. 3,702,688]

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. 

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