Space Exploration Comes down to Earth

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Between 1996 and 2011, Mike Massimino fulfilled his childhood dream of being an astronaut. Like many of his generation, his dream began with the moon landing in 1969. That “One small step for man . . . ” is a deeply embedded memory to those who witnessed it. And for those of us now 50-somethings, as for Massimino, that early encounter with space exploration and technology became an unfinished canvas, full of potential, calling out for completion.

In Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, Massimino writes of that pivotal moment. “On that night I said to myself, Nothing else matters. This is it. This is who I want to be.” He continues, “Being an astronaut wasn’t just the coolest thing ever, it was the most important thing you could choose to do with your life. From that moment on, I became obsessed with space in the way that only a young boy can become obsessed.”

The “Unlikely” of its title is the theme of Massimino’s autobiography. This is an against-the-odds story. “A lot of people, when they meet me [and he is ubiquitous across YouTube and has a large following on Twitter], can’t believe I’ve been to space. They say I look like a guy who’d be working at a deli in Brooklyn, handing out cold cuts.”

And so he does. Massimino is personable, down-to-earth and—by all accounts—generous and true; the best everyman one imagines. He is Old World. His grandparents were immigrants from Italy, his father a farmer turned New York Fire Department inspector. From the blue-collar Franklin Square area of the Bronx, to Columbia University, jobs at Sperry and IBM, and finally to MIT for a PhD in mechanical engineering, Massimino achieved far above his expectations. How did he do it? Mostly in spite of himself, he says.

“There were times I felt completely overwhelmed,” he writes. “Going to space had been my dream for so long, sometimes I felt like it might still be a dream. . . . It’s called imposter syndrome, the fear that people are going to figure out that you don’t belong, that you don’t know what you’re doing.”

The motivation to keep going, he shows time and again, came from the encouragement of others. Family, neighbors, teammates, fellow students, professional colleagues and mentors: they all had a role in propelling him forward. His message from cover to cover is simple: if you are surrounded with good people, the sky is literally the limit. Just as Proverbs 18:24 suggests, “Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family” (The Message Bible).

It was that kind of relationship he had seen between his father and the first responders of the fire department; among his teammates when participating in sports and—especially—in the movies he was drawn to that featured astronauts. “The more and more astronauts I met, the more I realized that they were my favorite people of all time,” he writes. “I’d had this fantasy of what astronauts would be like from watching The Right Stuff, the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose. And it turned out that was the reality; if anything, reality exceeded my expectations, and every time I drove in to the Johnson Space Center [in Houston] I had a voice in the back of my head telling me: This is it. I want to be a part of this. I want this more than anything.”

Bounding hurdle after hurdle and getting up after each fall or setback was possible, he says, because others believed in him. “If you work hard and get help from good friends, together you can overcome almost any challenge, no matter how great,” Massimino writes. “And as I pursued my dream, long after I became an astronaut and even when I was floating by myself 350 miles above the Earth, it was a lesson I would return to again and again and again.”

After being accepted into NASA’s astronaut academy, Massimino trained for six years before his first flight in 2002. This was STS-109, the fourth Hubble telescope repair mission. Seven years later, following the crash of Columbia and the reworking of the shuttle system to improve safety, he flew again on the final visit to Hubble in 2009 on STS-125. In an interview with Massimino following that mission, I commented on the camaraderie that was so evident among the team of astronauts. He explained, “When you’re doing something important that’s hard and has a danger element involved, it really requires people to cooperate and to pull together. Your individualism has to move aside, because you know that’s necessary to succeed.”

Massimino retired from NASA in 2014 and now teaches at his alma mater Columbia. He is back down to earth for good. Even so, he writes, we are all spacemen. “The Earth is a spaceship, and we’re all space travelers.” Likewise, a lesson he takes from the Columbia losses also applies to each of us: “You only have one life,” writes Massimino. “You have to spend it doing something that matters.”

Dan Cloer

 

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Tags: space exploration, science and religion, science and the bible, technology

Science and Religion: Super-Earths, Mega-Earths, and Answers from a Mega-Book

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In July 2015, NASA announced that their Kepler space telescope had found a super-Earth—one of the most earth-like planets ever found. Known as an exoplanet because it’s outside our solar system, Kepler-452b, orbits a live star about 1,400 light years from us that is similar in size and brightness to our own sun. Of particular importance is the fact that this planet is within the special habitable zone of its star, an orbital region where it is possible for water to remain in a liquid state. Earlier in the year, the Kepler mission reached a milestone of more than 1,000 exoplanets discovered since its 2009 launch. Exoplanets can be detected by using powerful telescopes to observe various effects a planet has on its host star. Programs similar to the Kepler mission include the European Southern Observatory and its HARPS spectrograph, the UK’s SuperWASP, and University of California Observatories’ Automated Planet Finder (APF). These along with other efforts have added to the total of nearly 2,000 confirmed exoplanet discoveries since 1992.

Many of these exoplanets are super-Earths like Kepler-452b. A planet is generally considered a super-Earth when it has a mass between that of our own planet Earth and about 10 Earth masses. It was originally theorized that a planet with a mass greater than 10 times the mass of Earth would have to be a gas giant like Neptune or Jupiter. However, that idea was called into question earlier in 2015 with the discovery of evidence that Kepler-10c—an exoplanet with a mass 17 times that of Earth—was likely composed of solid rock. Although it is roughly equal to Neptune’s mass, Kepler-10c is only a little more than twice the diameter of Earth. A new name was coined for this much larger rocky planetary configuration, a “mega-Earth.”

Further study of super-Earths and the larger mega-Earths is considered the best opportunity for finding planets in other solar systems with the potential to sustain life. They are easier to detect due to their larger size in relation to Earth, but not so large that they fall into the massive gas giant category. Astronomers, Astrophysicists, and Cosmologists hope that the discoveries of super-Earths or even mega-Earths within habitable zones of their stars will lead to the discovery of planets that support life outside our own solar system.

The search for these potentially life-sustaining exoplanets is ramping up. A partnership that includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (SAO) and NASA are planning to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in 2017 with the expectation of cataloguing 3,000 exoplanets. About 500 of these are likely to be super-Earths. In 2018 NASA together with the European Space Agency (ESA), and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are planning to launch the multi-billion dollar James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with advanced spectroscopy equipment intended to study multiple facets of the universe. Functioning as an observatory available to thousands of scientists worldwide, the JWST is projected to collect detailed information about the atmospheres of super-Earths.

Much of this incredible scientific effort is directed at answering some fundamental questions: What is the origin of life in the universe? How did the earth and its inhabitants come to be in the state that we find it in now? Is there anyone like us outside the bounds of our solar system?

Numerous programs that support the search for exoplanets believe that the answers to these questions can be found by looking to the stars. For example, Harvard University’s Origins of Life Initiative website makes the following statements—“We seek to understand how the initial conditions on planets, including our own Earth and planets around other stars, dictated the origins of life . . .” and “it will eventually be possible to study the atmospheres of far distant planets for signs of life, including planets that might be Earth twins.” As another example, the mission of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) is to “explore, understand, and explain the nature of life in the universe.” The SETI website explains their outreach programs—“share the excitement of searching for life in the universe with people of all ages. Many folk are curious about our place in the universe: are we alone in the vast ocean of stars and galaxies?”

By continuing to search the stars for exoplanets, super-Earths and mega-Earths we are sure to discover many incredible and awe-inspiring things. But for questions about the origin of life, human existence, and the purpose of the earth and beyond, we can look to a source much closer that is readily available to all of us. That source of vast knowledge is the Bible.

Consider a couple of passages from this mega-book:

“This is what the Lord says—the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands? It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts” (Isaiah 45:11–12, New International Version).

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands;” (Psalm 8:3–6a NIV).

Perhaps we have been using this mega-book and our interstellar observations at cross purposes. “Both sets of eyes, the revelation of Scripture as well as the tools of observation, are concerned with the same universe,” says Vision’s Dan Cloer in “Let There Be Dark.” Yet, one of them is often left out of the equation. How might considering these two sources of information together rather than separately alter one’s perspective—and one’s life, by extension?

T. Brandon Sexton

 

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Tags: science and religion, space exploration, science and the bible