Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Hooray for America! (Really!)

During the past months the travails of waking up—our two cats Paco and Fifo agitating for food and our aging joints refusing to move—have been compounded by daily dollops of news about the political mud wrestling in the U.S., delivered to us bedside via our Kindle tablets and internet radio.

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)
Cassini is a joint project of NASA and the European and Italian space agencies, and named after Jean-Domenique Cassini, who in the seventeenth century discovered three of Saturn's still growing litter of moons. My favorite is Pandora,  whose craters, bumps and pockmarks reveal an eventful life in a crowded neighborhood.

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
While growing up in Cuba—hardly a center of space exploration—I somehow became fascinated by space travel after reading Jules Verne and other science fiction. With the encouragement of my dad who had an imaginative—you could say weird—mind of his own, I recall doing some very preliminary sketches and calculations about the logistics of sending a rocket to the moon.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Me too! I was lucky enough to live across from the Johnson Space Center for 17 years and to know many of the astronauts and their families. When I would ask them questions, I could hardly ever understand their answers as they were so technical. Bless those who have minds to come up with those answers!