Monday, October 22, 2018

60 Years in Space: NASA Celebrates First 6 Decades

Though it may have been lost in the shuffle of political debate and controversy these last few weeks, I think it's important to note a major milestone in space exploration history that may have slipped by us:

NASA officially celebrated its 
60th Anniversary on October 1, 2018!

Check out the special Anniversary Logo unveiled by Space.Com on Twitter

On July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed NASA’s founding legislation, the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act. The agency, however, considers October 1, 1958 to be its official birthday, because the agency actually opened for business on this day. Being a former military budget director, I can tell you this is because October 1st is when the new federal fiscal year actually begins and funding becomes available. And opening the doors of such an agency only a little over two months after the legislation authorizing it was approved is nothing short of a herculean feat!
First Space Walk: Photo Credit NASA

But it wouldn't be NASA's last herculean feat. I'll touch on some of those early highlights below.

As an author of Science Fiction Romance, I owe a great debt of gratitude to NASA. The agency continues to push the envelope of the exploration of our own solar system with both manned missions and unmanned probes, and these new discoveries often fuel the fires of our ideas and imagination. I often study these real life missions for inspiration for my novels.

To really appreciate the obstacles NASA faced and overcame in its early years, here are just a few eye-opening accomplishments:
-- On May 5, 1961, Lieutenant Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. of the US Navy was the first American in space in a suborbital Mercury Program flight aboard Freedom 7, but he wasn't the first in space. His historic flight was preceded by a Russian dog, an American chimp and a Russian cosmonaut in an automated craft. NASA was scrambling to catch up, and after several tension-filled delays, Shepard demanded of Mission Control, "Let's light this candle!" They did, and he reached an altitude of 116 miles on a flight that lasted 20 minutes. Over 45 million Americans watched. Shepard's flight answered critical questions about if humans would be able to breathe or swallow and perform basic tasks in space. No one knew the answer until he and NASA proved it could be done.

-- In a speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy set a goal to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. At this point in time, NASA had the sum total of 20 minutes of spaceflight experience! In just eight short years, NASA not only accomplished this impossible dream, but even more monumentally, they did it without a single loss of life in space.

-- After the Mercury Program, NASA forged ahead with the Gemini Program, a mission to build a craft that would put a pair of men in space. But there's a problem. A more powerful rocket is needed to launch a two-man capsule. The Air Force was developing the new Titan missiles but had difficulties adapting missile rockets to the manned Gemini vehicle. The Titans are initially a disaster: One out of every five fails catastrophically. Astronauts watch as the rockets explode again and again, knowing their odds aren't good. Engineers attacked the problems and created safeguards and backup systems to make the rockets safer. Finally, NASA launched two rockets in a row that didn't explode with the unmanned Gemini 1 and Gemini 2 capsules. John Young and Gus Grissom ride the next into space aboard Gemini 3. Their primary goal? Test the brand new rocket and capsule and return...alive. If anything goes seriously wrong with the launch, Young and Grissom will be killed on live television with millions watching. In a moment of optimism, Grissom names the Gemini 3 capsule The Molly Brown after the Broadway hit "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." The Molly Brown is the last NASA vehicle to be named by an astronaut. On March 23, 1965, the launch aboard the converted ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) goes flawlessly. The rocket stages fall away and the Gemini 3 capsule reaches orbit. Grissom and Young become the first Americans to fly together in space. They make three successful orbits of the Earth testing important maneuvers and altitude changes that are essential first steps in reaching the Moon.

-- NASA's next question had to be answered: How will the human body react to free-floating in space traveling at 17,500 in Earth orbit? No one knew. Can a man mentally and physically function in zero gravity? No one knew that either. The astronaut's suit would be the difference between life and death in a place where the temperature can fluctuate from +250 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun to -250 degrees in the shade. The greatest concern of all was the vacuum of outer space. If a suit fails, rips or tears, the differences in pressure will kill an astronaut in seconds when liquids within his body vaporize. The EVA is originally planned for the Gemini 6 mission, but after Russia forges ahead, a decision is made for Gemini 4 to perform the EVA, and Ed White to be the astronaut to perform it. If White's EVA is successful, it will move the space program much closer to its goal of reaching the Moon and help the USA keep up with the Russians. The astronauts train for the EVA in secrecy, often at night and in isolated conditions. Only a handful of people realize what America is about to attempt. NASA announces the first space walk will be part of the mission just a few days before the launch. Many, including some of the astronauts, wonder if NASA is moving too fast and putting the astronauts lives in jeopardy. A problem during the EVA could set back the space program and end all chance at reaching the Moon before 1970. Gemini 4 becomes the longest spaceflight, and the June 3, 1965 EVA the most dangerous venture attempted by the space program, to date. It's a complete success.

-- In just a little over four years later, the first man stepped foot on the Moon--Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969. Between 1968 and 1972, there were nine manned missions to the Moon or Moon orbit conducted by NASA as part of the Apollo program. Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to enter orbit in December 1968, and was followed by Apollo 10 in May 1969. Six missions landed men on the Moon, beginning with Apollo 11. Apollo 13 was intended to land, however it was restricted to a flyby due to an explosion aboard the spacecraft. All nine manned missions returned its astronauts safely back to Earth.

Footprint on the Moon: Photo Credit NASA

It's actually quite difficult to grasp the scope of all that NASA accomplished in those early days of the space program and in the six short decades since, when NASA began to turn its sites to more distant shores.

Pluto and Charon: New Horizons
Mission - Photo credit NASA
We now know more than we could have ever imagined about some of our systems' outlying worlds and our own resident star--the Sun. We've sent multiple rovers to Mars to explore the horizons of what can potentially become humankinds' second planetary residence, and we've sent probes to our other neighbor, the hellish nightmare world called Venus.

We've seen miraculous photos of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus...and even distant Pluto, with images of the far distant dwarf planet so stunning that they took our breath away.

We've explored the 120+ moons of the gas giants and found a high potential that liquid water exists on Europa, Enceladus and Ganymede, as well as the amazing vistas of very Earth-like landscapes that came into sharp focus on the once hazy moon of Saturn called Titan.

The Voyager probes were the first man-made vessels to venture outside of our little neighborhood of planets and into the great unknown of interstellar space. They've been outward bound for more than 40 years now.

Atlantis Lift Off: Photo Credit NASA
And, of course, NASA's remarkable Space Shuttle Program has come and gone in the decades since, but it did so much to enhance our understanding and further scientific and technological advancement. (See NASA Technologies Benefit Our Lives )

I am completely energized by the recent upsurge in interest and attention by the powers-that-be in Washington for our once-withering space program. I consider space exploration to be one of the most important things we can tackle as a species. The advances in science due to NASA and space exploration cover the spectrum in areas that benefit all people--health, medicine, food production, renewable energy, the environment--and include many products we use everyday.

But even with all those benefits, we must always keep in mind that the universe is a very volatile place and having all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, is an invitation to oblivion. I think Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield once summed it up best:

"The dinosaurs are extinct because they didn't have a space programme."

Congratulations, NASA, on six decades of spectacular achievement.

P.S. If you missed Donna Frelick's movie review of First Man (the just released motion picture of Neil Armstrong's historic Moon landing) be sure to check it out just below or by clicking the "First Man" link above.

Have a great week...and keep reaching for those distant stars!

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