SP-466 The Star Splitters


Preview of the cosmos

So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a life-long curiosity
About our place among the infinities
Robert Frost, The Star-Splitter



a black and white drawing of two astromers looking through a telescope


[3] This book is dedicated to people like Brad McLaughlin. Some would even say that it is about people like him, people who have literally burnt the farm down with an expensive space program in order to satisfy a curiosity about our place among the infinities. Although it is true that the multibillion dollar price tag for the space program could have bought a nice farm, even in California, the view that the space program has been a waste is myopic.

It neglects the innumerable spin-offs that have repaid the investment in space technology many times over. Even such esoteric instruments as high energy telescopes have played a role in the development of useful technology: X-ray detectors used to screen luggage at airports, computerized axial tomography (CAT) scanners used in medical examinations, and nondestructive testing whereby turbines of airplane engines can be examined for cracks.

Throughout history, astronomy, the queen of the sciences, though she has had her head in the stars, has always had her feet firmly planted on Earth. From the ancient traders and explorers who used the stars to guide them across unknown waters to the modern entrepreneurs who rely on satellite communication and space age computers, from farmers who planted their crops by the rising of certain stars to agronomers who gather information about crops and weather from satellites, the practical byproducts of astronomy have been many and varied.

Astronomy is a science that stretches. The urge to know, to see even deeper into the ocean of space. stretches our machines to the limit and spurs us on to the development of better, more sensitive, and more sophisticated technology that is inevitably useful on Earth.

It stretches our imagination, too, this reaching out across light years to touch a star, this wondering about how it all began and where it is all going. Ultimately this has to be the true value of astronomy, this effect on the human mind. As Mortimer Adler said, "A mind, once stretched, never returns to its original dimensions."

Robert Frost knew about this aspect of astronomy:


Bradford and I had out the telescope

We spread our two legs as we spread its three.

Pointing our thoughts the way we pointed it

And standing at our leisure till the day broke

Said some of the best things we ever said.


[4] This book is about one of the youngest and most vigorous branches of astronomy, high energy astronomy, and the flights of three High Energy Astronomy Observatories. It is also about the flight of the human spirit about men and women and their marvelous machines, and what they have learned about our place among the infinities.