Commentary Magazine


Topic: space

A Dot of Light Grows Bright

The end of an era is fast approaching. This Tuesday, the New Horizons space craft will fly by the Pluto system, coming as close as 7500 miles to the surface of the frozen dwarf planet. With its success (and all seems well, despite a technical glitch last week that was soon analyzed and corrected), all of the major bodies of the solar system we grew up with will have been explored close up by space craft.  Even if it should fail at the last minute, New Horizons has already given us images of Pluto that are an order of magnitude better than anything we had before. Read More

The end of an era is fast approaching. This Tuesday, the New Horizons space craft will fly by the Pluto system, coming as close as 7500 miles to the surface of the frozen dwarf planet. With its success (and all seems well, despite a technical glitch last week that was soon analyzed and corrected), all of the major bodies of the solar system we grew up with will have been explored close up by space craft.  Even if it should fail at the last minute, New Horizons has already given us images of Pluto that are an order of magnitude better than anything we had before.

Pluto was discovered by the 24-year-old Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. To find it, he used an apparatus that seems, today, to be almost medieval: a blink comparator. Using two images of the same bit of space, the machine would mechanically shift quickly back and forth from one to the other. Anything that had moved from one image to the other would show up immediately. On February 18, 1930, he compared two photographs that had been taken on January 23rd and 29th of that year.  A dot of light moved between the two images. As soon as the sighting was confirmed, Lowell Observatory announced the discovery, on March 13, 1930. Curiously, the news only made page 14 of the New York Times.

But other than its orbit and orbital speed, almost nothing was known about Pluto. It was little more than a 14th-magnitude dot of light. It was simply assumed to be a planet. Only when telescopes radically improved in the last few decades was more learned about it. It is only about two-thirds the size of earth’s moon, with a sixth of its mass. Unencumbered by a space suit, a human being could easily high jump twenty feet or more. It is now known to have five moons. If previous space probes are any indication, Pluto and its moons will turn out to be a cornucopia of the unexpected. It will be an exciting 18 months as New Horizons slowly transmits the data back to earth.

Clyde Tombaugh, who died at the age of 90 in 1997, lived long enough to enjoy the great leaps of knowledge about other members of the solar system that we gained from such missions as Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo. He did not live to see New Horizons take off in 2006, but aboard that craft are some of his ashes, now three billion miles from where he first glimpsed that moving dot of light.

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Space Ship Launch Opens New Vistas

It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of what Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation did a few days ago when it launched a space ship that docked with the international space station. It is as significant, in its way, as the first commercial airline flight in the U.S. which was undertaken in 1914 by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Air Boat Line. It heralds the moment when space flight is moving out of the domain of government and into the private sector, potentially opening vast new vistas of travel.

There are, to be sure, significant differences between the history of flight inside the Earth’s atmosphere and outside of it. The former was, from the start, a private undertaking launched not by the Theodore Roosevelt administration but by the Wright Brothers, a pair of bicycle mechanics. The latter was, famously, a NASA mission undertaken beginning in 1958 by an Eisenhower administration eager to match Soviet achievements in space. But aviation, too, received a significant boost from the government–aircraft design took a major leap forward because of the efforts of various air forces to build more efficient aircraft in World War I and thereafter, commercial airlines developed either under state ownership (as in Europe with the forerunners of British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, etc.) or with major state subsidies (as was the case in the U.S. where the Postal Service paid airlines to carry the mail).

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It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of what Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation did a few days ago when it launched a space ship that docked with the international space station. It is as significant, in its way, as the first commercial airline flight in the U.S. which was undertaken in 1914 by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Air Boat Line. It heralds the moment when space flight is moving out of the domain of government and into the private sector, potentially opening vast new vistas of travel.

There are, to be sure, significant differences between the history of flight inside the Earth’s atmosphere and outside of it. The former was, from the start, a private undertaking launched not by the Theodore Roosevelt administration but by the Wright Brothers, a pair of bicycle mechanics. The latter was, famously, a NASA mission undertaken beginning in 1958 by an Eisenhower administration eager to match Soviet achievements in space. But aviation, too, received a significant boost from the government–aircraft design took a major leap forward because of the efforts of various air forces to build more efficient aircraft in World War I and thereafter, commercial airlines developed either under state ownership (as in Europe with the forerunners of British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, etc.) or with major state subsidies (as was the case in the U.S. where the Postal Service paid airlines to carry the mail).

After decades of government monopolization it appears that space flight is moving in the same direction as aviation, with NASA switching increasingly from an agency that does spacecraft design and launching in-house to one that provides subsidies to private companies such as a SpaceX to do the job themselves. To be sure, the U.S. military must and will remain a major player in space which has become vital for running communications and surveillance networks and could even be used to orbit strike platforms in the future. But the civilian role in space appears to be increasingly a joint venture between government and industry–and that is likely to prove a greater success in the long run than the exclusively NASA path which reached a dead end with the grounding of the last space shuttle last year.

It is good to see the rude energies of the private sector finally being directed beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. With passenger flights to space looming, the future of space travel looks bright for the first time since the launch of the initial space shuttle in 1982.

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