65 years of NASA an astrophysicist reflects on the agency’s legacy

Sixty-five years ago, in 1958, several government programs that had been pursuing spaceflight combined to form NASA. I was only 3 at the time.

I have been a professor of physics and astronomy for nearly 30 years and I realize that, like countless others who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, NASA missions have had a profound effect on my life and career path. From John Glenn’s first orbital flight to the Hubble Space Telescope, the agency’s legacy has inspired generations of scientists.

First flight into orbit

The date was February 20, 1962. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Ochs, told the class we were going to do something different that day. She went to the blackboard and wrote John Glenn and NASA in large letters.

He asked if any of us knew what those words meant. Neither of us did, so he grabbed a globe and, using a pen with a plastic cap, demonstrated that John Glenn, an astronaut, would soon be launched on a rocket from Florida. When the rocket was high enough, Glenn in the Mercury capsule, the hood would separate from the rocket and go into orbit around the Earth. He proved it by moving the pen cap around the world.

My class then sat down and listened to the historic launch of Friendship 7 carrying Glenn, which was the first US mission to send a man into Earth orbit.

A small funnel-shaped spacecraft in orbit above the Earth
During the Gemini mission, two spacecraft attempted the first space rendezvous. This image, taken from the Gemini 6 vessel, shows the Gemini 7 vessel just 43 feet away.
NASA

There would be three more missions in the single-crew Mercury program, culminating in Gordon Cooper’s Faith 7 mission, which completed 22 Earth orbits. The program demonstrated that NASA could put a manned spacecraft into orbit and return it safely to Earth. After that, NASA was ready to move to a more maneuverable two-person spacecraft.

A spacecraft for two people

In 1965, NASA planned to launch the two-person Gemini spacecraft, and I progressed to fifth grade where my teacher, Ms. Wein, was also a space enthusiast. In December, NASA launched the joint Gemini 6 and 7 missions, and Ms. Wein gave me time off from school to watch TV coverage.

This was the first time two manned spacecraft have performed what’s called a rendezvous maneuver, where they meet in orbit. Orbital maneuvers like this require very precise calculations and a spacecraft in which astronauts can make course changes in orbit, which is what the Gemini capsule was designed for.

A diagram showing the Earth and Moon as circles, with a spaceship's path from Earth, to the Moon, and back to Earth again.
A lunar orbit rendezvous occurs when a smaller lunar lander detaches from a lead spacecraft while in orbit to land on or circle the Moon before returning to the lead vehicle.
NASA, CC BY-ND

Spacecraft Gemini 6A and 7 practiced a rendezvous maneuver in Earth orbit. At the time, I didn’t understand the importance of this mission until Ms. Wein directed me to Volume S of the World Book Encyclopedia. There, under Spaceflight, was a full-page diagram of the lunar orbit rendezvous plan that a NASA engineer, John Houbolt, had developed to get astronauts to the moon and back.

The central feature of the lunar orbit rendezvous was that two spacecraft, the Apollo Command Module and the Lunar Excursion Module, would meet in orbit around the Moon using the same technique demonstrated by the Gemini 6 and 7 missions. The technology of this maneuver, used in the Apollo missions, would later help land Neil Armstrong on the Moon.

On the moon

The Earth, partially covered by darkness, visible from the moon
Earthrise, captured by the Apollo 8 mission, was the first glimpse of Earth from afar.
NASA

In December 1968, when I was in the eighth grade, I watched the Apollo 8 mission orbiting the Earth on TV. It was the first time anyone, US astronaut or Soviet cosmonaut, had left low Earth orbit. This mission gave us Earthrise, the first look at our planet from afar.

The Apollo 11 moon landing occurred in July 1969. I will never forget sitting in my living room as Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Excursion Module onto the lunar surface. With Armstrong’s footsteps, the aspirations of a lost president, thousands of NASA scientists and engineers, and millions of public followers have been fulfilled.

CBS News host Walter Cronkite captured the wonder of the moment as he slowly took off his glasses, rubbed his hands together and exclaimed, boy.

In December 1972, when I was a senior in high school, Gene Cernan became the last person to walk on the Moon during the Apollo 17 mission. Like many of us who watched the Apollo missions, I heard Cernan’s last words from the moon, where he challenged young people to continue what NASA had started.

Inspired by Cernan’s words, I went on to graduate in aerospace engineering and worked on both the re-entry of the Skylab space station and the initial mission planning for the Magellan spacecraft that visited Venus.

At this point, I changed careers, went back to school to study physics and eventually ended up in theoretical astrophysics.

After Apollo

NASA has had a profound influence in the sciences. For one thing, the ability to guide unmanned robotic spacecraft anywhere in the solar system was a byproduct of the technologies needed for manned Apollo missions. Using this technology, NASA has sent probes to every planet and some non-planets in the solar system, revolutionizing scientists’ knowledge of our cosmic backyard.

Perhaps the most ambitious of these is the Mars Perseverance Rover, which searches for chemical evidence of past or present life on Mars. He also collects and drops off samples for a potential return mission to the 1930s.

In terms of pure astronomy, NASA’s space observatories cover the electromagnetic spectrum. The Hubble Space Telescope and its newly launched cousin, the James Webb Space Telescope, have allowed astronomers to get large telescopes above Earth’s optically hazy atmosphere. With these tools we can see almost to the beginning of time, for looking deeper into space also means looking back in time.

The James Webb Space Telescope is revolutionizing our view of the cosmos, there hasn’t been an equal revolution in observational astronomy since Galileo first pointed a telescope at the heavens in 1609.

Two images showing a series of galaxies with small boxes around faint red spots.
Images from the James Webb Space Telescope showing the first galaxies.
NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA), CC BY-SA

Looking forward

What will the future hold for NASA? It is hard to say.

Recently, private enterprise has spearheaded advances in both launch vehicle and satellite design, although NASA will likely continue to play a leading role, not only in spaceflight but also in scientific research.

I hope there are elementary teachers today like Ms. Ochs and Ms. Wein who will nurture the wonder and excitement of spaceflight in their students. But they won’t just have to listen to the radio. They can watch live streams, such as the launches of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy in 2018 and NASA’s Artemis I in November 2022.

NASA’s first 65 years were an incredible record of achievements. When the students I teach today are nearly my age, I wonder what amazing things we can only dream of they will look back on.

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Image Source : theconversation.com

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