Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Friday, January 20, 2006

Very Deep and Very Fast

Just after noon yesterday, the air around the space center was thick with tension. Most of those standing around had seen hundreds of launches. But this one was different in many ways. It was the first spacecraft outbound to the outer regions of the solar system. It was the be the fastest vehicle ever launched by human kind. It was to be our one chance in our lifetimes to go deep – way deep.

While we waited, I reflected on the Cassini spacecraft – the city bus sized satellite now orbiting the Saturnian system. It was also very far away – but it was only a mere 900,000,000 miles out. The satellite that sat so near to us out on launch complex 41 was about to sail outward to its objective nearly four times further.

Adding to the dense fog of tension, the window was short to make this launch and get the data back in our lifetimes. If anything major went wrong, it is possible that we could miss out on this treasure of information that many of us would never see.

Then there was the weather. We had already scrubbed on Tuesday for winds and on Wednesday to a power glitch. And on Thursday – the cloud deck was marginal and clouds were toying with the controller's limits. They kept slipping the count five minutes, then twenty, then half an hour. But then at 2:00 the moment finally came.

I stood outside in a crowded parking lot as the Atlas V and its precious cargo streaked up over the palm tree tops. I was talking to my wife on the cell phone with my left hand and operating my camera with my right. The picture show in yesterday's blog was the result. Less than an hour later, the craft had departed its parking orbit and was speeding away from the sun and the inner planets as the fastest human built craft ever flown. In just over a year it will, God willing, round Jupiter on its way far beyond even the gas giants.

I turned on the evening national news to watch the launch re-runs. During the entire broadcast, not a single word was spoken about one of the most astonishing accomplishments of mankind. The disgust I felt nearly overshadowed the jubilation I had stored up about the mission. Then I remembered: the so called “national news” is actually in flat-line mode and has been for years - as was proven by their choice of "the most essentially important news" they selected for the people on January 19th. As the major news outlets die their brain-dead tawdry deaths, there is now the freedom of the Internet - the only real source of news now available. Then I had to ask myself why I even bothered to waste my time in the first place?

But as I laid my head down to sleep last night, I had to smile despite everything else. The little human-made craft had just streaked away past the moon and it was sailing away very, very fast. There were at least a few of us left who knew and really cared. After that, I slept like a baby.