SP-4312 Dreams, Hopes, Realities

 

Chapter 6:

The Endless Frontier

 


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A cluster of young stars and the glowing nebula around them are about 200,000 light-years from Earth in the Small Magellanic Cloud.

A cluster of young stars and the glowing nebula around them are about 200,000 light-years from Earth in the Small Magellanic Cloud.

 

[165] When the Goddard Space Flight Center opened its doors, we were standing on the brink of a great new adventure - one that would change our lives and vastly expand our understanding of the world and universe in which we live. The journey would not be an easy one. It would involve many thousands of people, in many different locations, and the cooperation of countries around the world. It would require enormous ingenuity, a tremendous investment of time and money, and the sacrifice of human lives. The people who undertook this endeavor had to have the determination to persevere through failure and frustration, the dedication to devote hours, months, and years to a single effort, and the vision to imagine not only creative solutions [166] but the results that would make the effort worthwhile.

Because it was created at the dawn of the space age and has lived through the many changing tides and eras of NASA, Goddard in many ways parallels the history of the U.S. space program itself. It began in a scramble to catch up with the Russians after the launch of Sputnik, pulling scientists and engineers from numerous military and civilian research institutions into a hybrid organization that could master the challenges of space flight and exploration. The effort was funded by a nation suddenly worried about not only its prestige, but its military security. Yet President Eisenhower made it very clear that the exploration of this new territory was to be a civilian effort. Despite the fact that it was the height of the Cold War, NASA and Goddard were formed with the directive that "the activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind."1

The challenges this group of researchers faced were so extensive that even the people who organized NASA initially failed to realize how complex the effort would be. Goddard, it was thought, could manage all the tasks necessary for the scientific and human exploration of space. This notion soon changed, but it left Goddard with a unique legacy of diversity. Goddard remained one of the only places in the world where the entire cycle of a space project could be completed, from theory to launch to final analysis of the data received. The Center has one other distinction within NASA, as well. In an agency dedicated primarily to the engineering challenge of travelling into space, Goddard has remained the only full NASA Center dedicated to science2.

These two distinguishing characteristics of Goddard: its wide diversity of projects and responsibilities, and its role in conducting scientific research, have created unique and impressive strengths within the Center. Goddard's blend of science and engineering has given it the ability to not only conceive of experiments but also to design the technology and equipment necessary to execute those ideas. This in-house satellite building capability, which stressed innovative thinking and design, led to the development of numerous valuable concepts and spacecraft, including the highly successful Explorer series, the concept of modular satellites that could be serviced in space, and the....

 


A technician checks Goddard's Radio Astronomy Explorer satellite prior to its launch on July 4, 1968.

A technician checks Goddard's Radio Astronomy Explorer satellite prior to its launch on July 4, 1968.

 

[167] .....new state-of-the-art Small Explorer class of research satellites. The blend of science and engineering at the same Center also gave Goddard's scientists and engineers the ability to work closely together to design and build a wide variety of complex instruments that made Goddard's scientific achievements possible.

At the same time, Goddard's diversity and wide range of responsibilities have created a unique set of challenges for the Center throughout its history. Scientific research was not the exclusive domain of NASA, which meant that Goddard managers were constantly having to balance not only the conflicting needs and priorities of their own engineers and scientists, but also the work of the Center's own scientists with the needs of a greater, international research community. Goddard's work in the areas of Earth Science and so-called "applications" was sometimes even more complex, because NASA's role in these areas was even more unclear. In addition, no matter how much scientists argue that data is simply data, research on our own planet is often complicated by the inescapable practical ramifications of what that research uncovers.

Yet many of Goddard's challenges simply reflected the larger challenges inherent in this new realm of space exploration. If managing Goddard's many satellite projects was a complex task, it was because space flight itself was an incredibly complex and expensive endeavor that required the cooperation of many people. A small team of design engineers might get a new airplane off the ground, but to get a spacecraft into orbit required the combined efforts of an army of professionals and support staff at NASA Centers, universities, private industry, and in countries around the world. Striking the right balance between the sometimes conflicting needs and priorities of such a diverse group of people and organizations was simply a difficult thing to do.

 

The Evolving Space Age: Goddard's First Forty

 

When Goddard opened its doors, the challenges facing Goddard's scientists and engineers were mostly technical ones. Limited launch vehicle capability meant that satellites had to be extremely small and lightweight. High amounts of data had to be processed and transmitted to the ground with very little power. Launch vehicles themselves were unreliable, causing Goddard to build back-up models for each of its satellites. And all of this was being attempted when computers were in their infancy and reliable telephone service was still questionable with many ground tracking stations.

 


Students prepare a Get Away Special can experiment to be carried in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle.

Students prepare a Get Away Special can experiment to be carried in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle.

 


Explorer 1 took the United States into space for the first time when it was launched successfully on 1 February1958.

Explorer 1 took the United States into space for the first time when it was launched successfully on 1 February1958.

 

Today, technology has advanced beyond anything those pioneers could even have imagined. In some cases, these advances have allowed the design of much larger and more complex satellites. In 1959, the first Explorer satellite carried into orbit by a Jupiter C rocket was a slender cylinder that was about 70 inches long and weighed 22 pounds. In 1991, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory launched by the Space Shuttle was 70 feet long and weighed more than 17 tons. Tracking systems also advanced from many different ground stations around the world [168] to a network of geosynchronous tracking and data relay satellites.

New technology - some of which was developed at Goddard - has also resulted in advancements such as solid state tape recorders and computers that are a fraction of the size and weight of their predecessors and yet hold many times more memory and power. Ironically, these advances have allowed building once again of small, easily launched satellites that are still vastly more capable and can store data reliably enough that it can be retrieved by a simple network of ground stations.

 


The Polar satellite under construction, Polar was one of several satellites included  in the International Terresrtial Program effort to look at Sun-Earth connections.

The Polar satellite under construction, Polar was one of several satellites included in the International Terresrtial Program effort to look at Sun-Earth connections.

 

Advances in computer and spacecraft technology have created a new era in the type and amount of data satellites can gather, as well. From the days when scientists had to decipher simple audio tones from satellites passing overhead, we have satellites sending back breathtaking images of distant galaxies and complex streams of data from the inside of the Sun. The new EOS satellites are scheduled to transmit a mind-boggling terabyte of data every day, creating a whole new challenge in data processing and storage. Once the problem was trying to get enough data. Today the challenge is not to drown in it.

Technology has also improved the usefulness of satellites to the general scientific community. In the early days, the only people who could get useful data from physics or astronomy satellites were the scientists who had designed the instruments. By the mid-1970s, Goddard's engineers were able to build astronomy satellites with "transparent" software that could allow guest observers to use the platforms as easily as a ground telescope, opening up space science to a much broader community of researchers.

These advances in technology have allowed us to vastly expand the horizons of our world. When Goddard was founded, scientists were simply trying to find out what lay beyond our immediate atmosphere. Today, Goddard's satellites have reached back to the dawn of time and have cracked open doors to invisible and distant reaches of the universe, answering some of our most basic questions and uncovering new worlds and phenomena we never even dreamed existed.

We have discovered not only radiation belts and a magnetosphere that surround our planet, but a complex relationship between the Sun and the Earth that begins....

 


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A montage of some fof Goddard's launch vehicles and satellites from the1980s.

A montage of some fof Goddard's launch vehicles and satellites from the1980s.

 

.....with even more complex reactions and events within the Sun itself. We have learned much more about the composition and behavior of comets, leading scientists to wonder whether these cosmic ice balls might be capable of seeding a galaxy with elements necessary for life as we know it.

We have also developed the capability to look at our galaxy and the distant universe in parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that are blocked by the Earth's atmosphere. From this perspective, we have discovered that the universe is a vastly more complex and fascinating place than we ever imagined it was. We have discovered pulsars, quasars, neutron stars and other, more mystifying, phenomena such as gamma ray bursts and black holes. We have found echoes of our genesis in the distant glow of the universe, and evidence of primordial elements from a time when the stars were young. We have even found ourselves witnessing the birth, life, and death of stars in distant galaxies, giving us a window to our own past, present and future.

In the same breath, we have discovered that our view from space has given us an entirely new perspective on our home planet Earth. Our satellites have allowed vastly improved global communications, reliable weather prediction, and monitoring of valuable natural resources. They have also allowed scientists to learn much more about the complex systems [170] that make life possible here on Earth, as well as potential threats to the health of those systems. If global warming, ozone, and El Nino climate patterns are now household terms and concerns, it is in no small part because of satellites Goddard helped put into space and atmospheric models the Center's scientists have developed from those satellites' data.

 


A computer-enhanced image of Hurricane Linda created from GOES satellite data.

A computer-enhanced image of Hurricane Linda created from GOES satellite data.

 

Satellite technology made it possible to turn theories and dreams into science and knowledge, rejuvenating the field of science itself. In the process, it has also created whole new disciplines of scientists. The advent of sounding rocket and satellites created space physicists who could delve into solar physics and "fields and particles" research around Earth and other planets in the solar system. Years later, the results from various Earth-oriented satellites would lead to the creation of climatologists - scientists who combined atmospheric and oceanographic research to look at the inter-related systems that affect global climate changes here on Earth.

 

The New Millenium: Goddard's Next 40

 

Today, Goddard stands at the threshold of a new millenium and a new era of space exploration. The Center has grown and evolved dramatically in its first 40 years, but so has the world. And the challenges faced by those trying to explore the mysteries of that world and the universe beyond it have changed, as well. Once, constraints of technology drove Goddard's scientists and engineers to be extremely creative and innovative in their methods. The need for innovation and flexibility is as great today as it ever was, but the driving force is economic, not technological. In a post-Cold War world of shrinking budgets, scientists and engineers simply need to find ways to do more for less.

The players involved in the exploration of space also have evolved and changed. When Goddard was founded, no one really knew how to build a satellite. [171] Today, industry has matured greatly, making it possible to consider new kinds of relationships and agreements. Indeed, one of the legacies of Goddard's 40 years of effort is the expertise its scientists, engineers, and technicians developed and passed on to the Center's industry partners in their many joint efforts. This shared experience is one of the reasons industry has developed the ability to do some of the tasks once reserved for NASA alone.

At the cutting edge of technology and knowledge, change is the only constant. And as with any other development at Goddard over the past 40 years, the changes the Center faces today are a kind of scientific research in and of themselves. If history is any guide, it will take numerous attempts and adjustments before the correct mix of method and structure is found. It's even possible that, in the ever-changing world of technology and scientific exploration, the "correct" approach or mix may never be achieved. But it was the willingness to try new approaches that allowed Goddard's early employees to overcome the enormous challenges and obstacles they faced in conquering even the basics of space flight. Indeed, many would argue that an openness to new ideas or approaches is critical for any scientific progress to occur at all.

In the 1960s, Goddard's employees were driven by a collective enthusiasm for exploration and a belief that their efforts were going to make a difference not only for science, but for the security and life of American citizens. It is harder to keep....

 


A small part of the Hubble Deep Field South. One of the deepest views of space ever made.

A small part of the Hubble Deep Field South. One of the deepest views of space ever made.

 

.....that level of enthusiasm without the direct external threat the Russians provided. But the need for that innovation and enthusiasm is as great as it ever was.

If we are to continue to explore our own planet and the universe in which we live, we have to keep our spirit of innovation alive and find ways of making the best use of people's talents, time and energy. It is not an easy task. And in some cases, it may be hard to explain the economic value of the effort. But it is our curiosity about the world beyond the horizon that brought us out of the caves and has driven civilization forward ever since. Indeed, our curiosity and thirst for knowledge are part of what make us human. We may not be able to express this fact in dollars and cents on a balance sheet. But we sense almost instinctively that our minds, imaginations, and souls need sustenance every bit as much as our bodies. If we cease our search for new lands and ideas; if we stop trying to expand our minds and inspire our imaginations; we stagnate, and a life force within us begins to die.

 


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As we move into a new millenium, the data satellites generate increase in quality and quantity, generating a need for new data processing and archive centers like this EOSDIS facility at Goddard.

As we move into a new millenium, the data satellites generate increase in quality and quantity, generating a need for new data processing and archive centers like this EOSDIS facility at Goddard.

 

Yet to learn more about the world in which we live and to keep new ideas flowing through our minds, we need people willing to undertake the challenge of stepping into the unknown and exploring a territory that is as demanding and unforgiving as it ever was. For some things have not changed in the past 40 years. Space is still a new and unknown frontier, as full of risk, challenge and frustration as it was the day we began to explore it. And that exploration is still a complex and expensive endeavor that requires the cooperation of many different people, institutions, and countries.

The technical obstacles may not be as great as they once were, but the goalposts have moved. Getting into space is no longer sufficient. The task now is to go further and to do it with fewer resources. To accomplish this task requires people with the the same dedication, enthusiasm and passion that made the first successful satellites possible. And this, more than any other single accomplishment or project, is the legacy of the Goddard Space Flight Center. For 40 years, whether it has been in ramshackle warehouses, the muddy swampland of Beltsville, or the neat buildings that now adorn its sprawling campus, Goddard has been a place of enthusiasm, innovation and dogged determination to develop satellites that could improve our lives and bring the universe within our reach.

The sagas of the Apollo and Space Shuttle astronauts may be better known, but the researchers, administrative support staff and other support personnel at Goddard have experienced their own share of adventure in 40 years of space exploration. The control room at Goddard was every bit as tense as Mission Control at Cape Canaveral or the Johnson Space Center, whether or not any particular spacecraft had people on board. Setting up [173] and maintaining the worldwide network to track satellites and the Apollo missions involved its own unique challenges, from coping with political unrest to making use of makeshift telegraph lines across miles of Australian outback territory.

There were technicians and support personnel who frantically trouble-shot computer tracking systems or pieced together satellites that developed problems shortly before launch. There were engineers who spent sleepless nights coordinating the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope. There were scientists who were willing to devote 10 or 15 years of their career to a single research project, knowing the spacecraft might blow up two minutes after launch. There were disappointments, failures, and even tragedies.

Success came at a price. And the price was dedication. Sometimes, it was simply the refusal to give up, and the willingness to risk failure in the hope of finding out something worthwhile. But for 40 years, it has been this intangible, unquantifiable element of passion and dedication that has enabled Goddard to make the contribution to space science and to American society that it has.

The world is more complex than it once was. And so is the field of space flight. There are new pressures, new constraints, and new relationships. Forty years after its founding, one of Goddard's biggest challenges is still maintaining a balance between project teams and Center-wide cooperation, scientists and engineers, inside and outside communities, industry and government, U.S and international efforts, and the cost, schedule, and reliability of the projects it undertakes. At the same time, it needs to keep the flexibility and willingness to consider new approaches and ideas, the passion for exploration, and the enthusiasm for innovation that made space flight possible in the first place.

Our journeys into space comprise the greatest adventure the human race has ever undertaken. We watched, transfixed, as the Echo satellite moved across the night sky and Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon. We find ourselves moved beyond words by images from the Hubble Space Telescope that make us hear and feel the music of the spheres and the power of cosmos. Each new discovery reminds us once again that the universe is a truly majestic and mysterious realm. Our explorations in space keep the wondering child inside us alive as we take step after step into a magical, technicolor world we only know is far more vast and complex than the land we call home.

And yet, our journeys into space have given us a whole new perspective on the land we call home, as well. From space, we are all residents of a single planet Earth, and we have begun to realize how interconnected we all really are.

The effort that has brought us this perspective has not been an easy one, but no exploration ever is. We have mapped certain portions of this unforgiving cosmic territory and have begun to venture into others. Along the way, we have achieved spectacular [174] successes and endured heart-breaking setbacks. But we are still only scratching the surface of the mysteries that lie in this strange new frontier. There is no single list of questions left to answer about our planet, our solar system or our universe, because the more we learn, the more we realize how much left there is to learn. As we discover answers to one question, we find clues to another we hadn't yet thought to ask.

Over the past 40 years, we have discovered that space is not only a new frontier, but an endless one. And exploring it will continue to be one of our greatest ongoing challenges and adventures - a quest of the mind, the imagination, and the human spirit to improve our lives, preserve our home planet, and expand our understanding of ourselves and the vast, mysterious and powerful universe in which we live.

 


The Hubble Space Telescope opened a window to wonders of the universe that still lie waiting to be discovered and explored. Under the Hubble’s lens, this nearby galaxy shows itself to be comprised of numerous distinctive elements, including clumpy gas clouds, darkened dust lanes, and young luminous central star clusters.

The Hubble Space Telescope opened a window to wonders of the universe that still lie waiting to be discovered and explored. Under the Hubble's lens, this nearby galaxy shows itself to be comprised of numerous distinctive elements, including clumpy gas clouds, darkened dust lanes, and young luminous central star clusters.


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