Then last week Cassini came to our attention—not Oleg, but a space probe so named that has been waltzing through cosmos since its launch in 1997, hardly missing a beat. And like a breathless tourist, since 2004 Cassini has been going 'round and 'round Saturn, taking pictures and collecting information about its sixty moons, its rings, and the huge planet itself. It even took a picture of the Earth, which from that distance looks like a pinhole in the vast blackness of space.
|Meditate on this: The tiny dot on top of the arrow is the Earth,|
as photographed by Cassini as it circled Saturn, at a distance of
just nine hundred million miles. (NASA)
In 2005 a smaller probe spun off Cassini and as it parachuted gently on the surface of Titan, another moon, shot an astonishing video of its descent.
While Cassini was silently cruising across space, back home our attention was eclipsed by events each one more debilitating than the next: the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the tragedy of 9/11, the catastrophic, trillion-dollar wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—still going on—and the financial crisis of 2008. And since November, countless prime-time hours of TV and newspaper column-inches have been devoted to the Mad Tweeter.
I wish more, far more, of that time money and energy could have been invested in science and science education on Earth, and further exploration of the heavens. The Cassini probe is just the latest in a series of dazzling accomplishments by a space program that rightly ought to make every American proud.
Cassini's journey of just under nine hundred million miles is scheduled to end sometime in September but not because of any mechanical failures. Cassini is about the size of a school bus and weighed sixteen thousand pounds at launch, fully loaded with fuel. By now it's just running out of fuel.
I don't pretend to understand even a fraction of how Cassini sends high-definition photos back to Earth, or how its minders kept the tiny probe on track through a vast, dark space filled with planets, meteors, rocks and what-have-you's.
|An early vision of space explor-|
ation. (Courtesy Cuban Space
A Cuban moon launch never got off the ground in part because I don't have much of mind for mathematics and also because of the seeming impossibility of the undertaking. To break free from earth's gravity an object needs to achieve an "escape velocity" of about twenty-five thousand miles per hour.
But that would require an enormous amount of fuel, whose own weight would require even more fuel, making the whole thing impossible, at least to my thirteen-year-old mind.
Clearly, the folks at NASA figured out this riddle long ago, as Cassini demonstrated, and the United States' brilliant accomplishments in space enthrall me still, fifty-six years later.