Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Reflections for a New Year

The triumphs of space travel can often be overshadowed by its tragedies. In a week that should be the celebration of some of the greatest feats of exploration, a dark cloud hangs over NASA. The future of the agency and the next generation of spaceflight have come under serious scrutiny. In addition the team investigating the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 released their report yesterday detailing the final moments of its crew. It's a tragic reminder that there will always be risk associated with space travel.

But this week also marks the anniversaries of two tremendous milestones for NASA. Forty years ago one of its most successful and uplifting missions to the moon concluded, while five years ago its most triumphant mission to explore Mars began. Looking back on these accomplishments can be a real inspiration for the future.

Five years ago on January 3rd, the first of two robots, Spirit, landed on the surface of Mars. Twenty-one days later, its twin Opportunity, touched down on another side of the planet. Each about the size of a small refrigerator, the two rovers immediately set about exploring the local regions of Mars looking for any potential signs of water. Their six wheeled chassis proved adept at maneuvering around the planet's rocky surface. Very quickly they started turning up evidence of Mars's watery past in soil samples, mineral deposits and rock formations.

What makes the rovers so incredible is even after five years on the planet, they're still going strong and making new discoveries. Not bad for a couple of machines only designed to last three months. In that time the two rovers traveled more than 21 km over the surface of the planet, climbing a mountain and descending into several craters in the process. Together they've beamed back over a quarter million pictures and over 36 gigabytes of raw information about environmental conditions. The two rovers have just survived the planet's winter, and NASA's team hope to keep using them throughout the next Martian year.

This past week also marked the fortieth anniversary of one of the most memorable and daring manned missions in the history of the space program. In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first human beings to orbit the moon. The mission successfully demonstrated the new Saturn V rocket could deliver people to lunar orbit, paving the way for Neil Armstrong's moonwalk the following year. Just as importantly, the Space Agency was able to overcome the Apollo 1 tragedy the year before and continue towards its goal of landing a man on the moon.

The symbolism of the mission helped close out a difficult year on an upbeat note. Events such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, riots at the Democratic National Convention and the continuing Vietnam War had pushed the country nearly to the breaking point. Apollo 8 became the year's last act and had a tremendous impact back on Earth. On Christmas Eve the crew read selections from the Book of Genesis in an appeal to world peace. They also brought back the famous photograph of Earth rising over the barren lunar landscape. For the first time around the world, people could see in living color the pale blue dot of our home planet, in all its fragility. It soon became one of the most reproduced images in history because of its poignancy.

After his return to Earth, mission commander Frank Borman received a telegram with a simple message for his crew. It read, "To the crew of Apollo 8. Thank you. You saved 1968."

This past year has been far from easy for either NASA or the nation as a whole. Looking back though, it's clear that the determination to explore and the hope for greater discoveries in the years to come have always been a tremendous source of inspiration.

Happy New Year to all.

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