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Voyages of Discovery
Editor's Note: This is the eighth in a series of
essays on exploration by Steven J. Dick.
the core of the Age of Space are the voyages themselves, and not by accident
have spacecraft been named Mariner, Voyager, Viking, Ulysses, Challenger,
Endeavor and Magellan, hearkening back to a long tradition of exploration and
discovery. Journeys during the Age of Space have ranged from the vicinity of
Earth itself to the edge of the solar system and beyond.
Earth orbit have a special meaning of their own. Aside from the fact that
climbing the Earth's gravitational well put one "half way to anywhere in the solar system" (as science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once put it), humans or
robots placed in Earth orbit saw the planet anew, whether for reconnaissance,
monitoring weather and climate, imaging Earth resources, or providing a means of
navigation and communication. Earth orbit also provided a microgravity
environment for experiments, both on the Shuttle and on space stations. Taken
together, and perhaps most importantly, all these endeavors provided a new
perspective on the home planet. Although still "hugging the coastline" in terms
of the analogous maritime history, these endeavors were nonetheless voyages of
Image left: Image of the
Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300 - taken by the Hubble
Important as low Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit
are for utilitarian applications, philosophical perspective, and way station
status, it is the voyages beyond the Earth that captured the public imagination,
particularly those involving humans. Above all are the epic manned voyages of
the United States that resulted in 12 humans walking on the Moon, a feat that
500 years from now will be viewed in the same way as we now look back on the Age
Who can forget the feeling when Armstrong and Aldrin
touched down on the Moon in July, 1969, with seconds of fuel to spare? Or the
harrowing experiences of the ill-fated Apollo 13? Even now, reading one of the
classic accounts like Andrew Chaikin's A Man on the Moon, or viewing its
visual HBO counterpart "From the Earth to the Moon," brings a feeling of "did we
really do that?," and the question "could we do it again?"
voyage, or set of voyages, does not make an Age, and the jury is still out on
whether our descendants 20 generations from now will view Apollo as a unique set
of bold achievements or the beginnings of an era of human space exploration. As
I have said in previous essays, it is a choice that we must make as a society,
not an assured destiny.
The achievements of Apollo culminated in 1972,
and since then only our robotic surrogates have left the vicinity of the Earth.
But they have done a magnificent job in our stead. The Luna, Ranger, Surveyor
and Lunar Orbiter spacecraft were the prelude to the manned Moon landings. After
a long gap in lunar exploration, Clementine and Lunar Prospector once again
picked up the trail. Beginning in the 1960s the Mariner spacecraft took us to
Mercury, Venus and Mars, revealing cratered surfaces and, in the case of Mars,
ancient riverbeds and much else.
The exploration of those inner planets
has been continued to this day by the likes of Pioneer Venus, Magellan, Venera,
Viking, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, and Pathfinder. And the Mars
Exploration Rovers are still roaming the surface of the red planet.
what Carl Sagan and others have called the Golden Age of Exploration, in the
1970s and 1980s the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft took us to Jupiter, Saturn,
and, in the case of Voyager 2, all the way to Uranus and Neptune at the edge of
the solar system. Galileo revisited Jupiter and its retinue of moons in the
1990s, and Cassini is now exploring Saturn, with its satellite spacecraft
Huygens having landed on the huge Saturnian moon Titan.
Moreover, the Voyager spacecraft, with
their engraved greetings from Earth, are traveling beyond the solar system on
the way to the stars. Other spacecraft have visited comets (Giotto), orbited and
even landed on an asteroid (NEAR Shoemaker), and visited the Sun (Ulysses and
|"Who can forget the feeling when Armstrong and Aldrin
touched down on the Moon in July, 1969, with seconds of fuel to spare?"
Meanwhile, space telescopes in earth orbit or its vicinity have in
a sense taken us vicariously on voyages beyond the solar system. Those sensors
that have pointed upward rather than downward; space telescopes such as Hubble,
Spitzer, Compton and Chandra have probed the depths of the universe, produced
stunning images, and revealed our place in the history of cosmic evolution.
Two spacecraft, COBE and WMAP, have studied the details of the
background radiation remaining from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, and
detected the seeds from which galaxies grew. As we once mapped the Earth in the
wake of the Age of Discovery, we are now mapping the heavens, both in space and
William Burrows, Exploring Space: Voyages in the
Solar System and Beyond (Random House: New York, 1990).
Chaikin, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (Viking
Penguin: New York, 1994).
Robert S. Kraemer, Beyond the Moon: A Golden
Age of Planetary Exploration, 1971-1978 (Smithsonian Institution Press:
Washington, D.C., 2000).
Pamela Mack, Viewing the Earth: The Social
Construction of the Landsat System (MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass.:
Bruce Murray, Journey into Space: The First Three Decades of
Space Exploration (W.W. Norton: New York, 1989).