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October 18, 2013

PETERS: Space exploration in one lifetime

In 1957, several years before I was born, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik – the first man-made object to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. That simple little satellite captured people’s imagination around the world. We Americans were alarmed that the Soviets had “beat us” to space. Sputnik therefore helped spur both the U.S. space effort and such things as better education for our kids in math and science.

It didn’t take long for us to catch up to the accomplishments of the Soviets. When I was a baby in the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy famously said we should put a man on the moon within the decade. I was in grade school when we met that deadline, landing men on the moon in the summer of 1969. I remember the event, which was televised live.

My family gathered around the TV to listen to Walter Cronkite announce the events of the lunar landing. My father took pictures of the television screen with his 35 mm camera – he deemed the event that important. For the first time in the history of the world, we had put spacecraft and people on the moon, exploring places which had been seen from Earth but never before been visited.

When I was in high school in 1977, a much longer term exploratory effort was launched. Two unmanned space probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, lifted off from Earth in quick succession. The idea behind the Voyager probes was to fly past planets in the middle and outer solar system and keep going into interstellar space.

In case the Voyager probes were ever intercepted by intelligent life outside our solar system, they carried images and recordings which tried to convey the essence of human civilization – at least as we thought of it in the 1970s. It was our effort to communicate with “E.T.,” potentially even millennia after the probes left us.

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Columns
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