NASA has inspired the minds of people all throughout our country for 54 years. From the Moon to Mars, and even to the outer reaches of our Solar System, NASA has developed technologies that expand far beyond space flight. Instead of cutting NASA’s budget, we should be growing it. Compared to other federal agencies, NASA receives a microscopic amount of money.
In the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “We stopped dreaming.” We need to start dreaming again, and that starts with funding NASA adequately. By investing in NASA, we are investing in the U.S. economy.
Happy Father’s day from CWL:‘NASA Tribute to Carl’ByDorion Sagan
My father’s work made science cool. He showed that it was good to be smart, to be open to wonder but also critical, both of superstition and political authority. The universe was our home. Space exploration and evolution were part of a story based on evidence that belonged to all humanity, not a religious or political elite looking out for their own interests. He criticized Congress (most of whom are lawyers) for not knowing science, and he empowered the public by revealing the multicultural truth of our belonging to a cosmos that was beautiful, understandable, and open to human discovery. He showed not only that science belonged to everybody, but that a scientifically educated public was necessary for the health of society. In short he used television to democratize the advances of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Cosmos was one of the most watched TV programs in history, and it wasn’t drama or sports but the story of who, what, why, when, and where we are. Rather than being local or international news, it was cosmic news: a taking-stock and popularization of where we are in our voyage of self-discovery of the cosmos from which we have evolved. Although Jacob Bronowski had preceded and paved the way for my father in his TV series The Ascent of Man, and David Attenborough had expanded the form in his nature series, my father inaugurated and embodied the idea of exciting television that was about the beauty and truth of our place in a universe that is far bigger than humanity. He showed science as both an intellectual adventure and a spiritual experience. As the Protestants dispensed with priests to show that the individual could have a personal relationship with God, so my father showed that anybody on the planet, employing the nondenominational method of science, could have a personal understanding of the cosmos—a kind of God (the God of Einstein and Spinoza) but one that was open to rational and mathematical inquiry.
Cosmos may be dated in terms of production value and special effects, and certain scientific and philosophical aspects of it could be tweaked, but its spirit remains timeless. Because of the backsliding in science education, in some ways it is more relevant than when it appeared. The emphasis on evolutionary biology, scientific history, critical thinking, free inquiry and the role of evidence in the growth of humanity’s understanding in a universe that dwarfs us and in which we are not masters but an immature life form—these continue to be crucial themes.
My father was unparalleled in his ability to convey the essence of science in poetic language. He was pleasant to look at, hypnotic to listen to, and the conviction and enthusiasm of his presentations—which took the form of a moral imperative for us to know ourselves—were infectious. I miss him; the world misses him. He was not just a good popularizer, but a man in love with the truth. He was not afraid of the powers that be or, if he was, he had the courage to face them in the name of a cosmic human heritage that transcended class, sex, and racial-cultural differences. He oversaw a leap from an age of science fiction to an age of scientific reality, where we really did go to the moon and beyond. He was asked to lend his image to advertising campaigns—but he steadfastly refused. Although he was famous, he was motivated to educate and empower through science, not to cash in or compromise. Here he differs from the many celebrities and sports stars who do not think twice about attaching their name to a product to make money.
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Audacious— that’s how I describe the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory radio telescope. For me, it was just hard to believe what I was seeing. I just returned from my first Planetary Society-sponsored trip to Puerto Rico and this historic, remarkable, big idea of a machine.
If you’re not familiar with this observatory, it was featured in the movie Contact. It’s ideally suited for receiving signals from deep space and even for transmitting our signals out into the void. It was designed to explore the cosmos and our own ionosphere. Conceived in 1958, built by 1963, it’s been upgraded and refined in the decades since.
The premise of the bit (as we say in comedy writing) was to build a telescope so big that it could and can detect electromagnetic signals at astonishingly low energy levels. These would be signals emanating from high in our own atmosphere as well as from fantastic astronomical distances. The reflector of this machine is too big to move. It fills a whole valley– an ancient sinkhole actually, a bowl created by the collapsed roof of an ancient underground limestone cave. The valley has been fitted with a reflective section of a sphere 1000 feet (305 meters) across that’s round to within plus-or-minus 1.5 millimeters (1/16th of an inch). It’s got 38,778 panels of perforated aluminum sheet, each very much resembling the metal screen in your microwave oven door. The whole installation is amazing in its construction. But for me, the more amazing aspect of the machine is the conception, the idea that humans could build such a thing— and have it work.
The receivers above the reflector are suspended on an almost crazy system of wire ropes (the engineer’s term for steel cables) and pulleys. The receiving and broadcasting antennae for this thing are enormous. They appear to be suited for some Jolly Silver Giant, were he to exist, who loved radio astronomy (?!). You’ve probably seen radar dishes and TV receiver antennas that have a curved shape called a parabola. It’s the shape that you get when you draw a curve that’s equally distant from a flat plate and a point above it or near it. With parabolic antennae, the incoming rays of light or radio waves bounce to that point; we call it the focus. At Arecibo, with a sphere for a reflector, rather than focusing to a point, shape focuses to a line. So, the antenna is a stick… 25 meters long. Also there at Arecibo, there’s a second system of scoop shapes that form a detector big enough for a family of four to camp out in comfortably. It’s crazy.
This machine not only receives deep space waves; it can create them. In a separate building, we have a microwave-making klystron, a cavity that can store microwaves just long enough for them to build up, to constructively interfere with themselves. The energy goes flying out of the klystron at the speed of light. High above the big dish are two other klystrons in tandem. They’re just like the one in your microwave oven; only these reckon their power in Megawatts. Radar signals can travel to 100-kilometer-diameter asteroids, millions of kilometers away, and record surface features just a few meters across— all in less than a second. When investigating Saturn, the astronomers have to plan for the Earth rotating as they wait the hour and a half for the electromagnetic waves to make the trip there and back. Instead of regular wires, microwaves have to travel in hollow conductors, often made of very pure metals. By long tradition, we call them “wave-guides.” The microwave signals at Arecibo travel through 1600 feet of perfectly machined square wave-guide tubing. The hollow guide’s joints and interfaces transmit microwaves, like in your oven, only these go into deep space with barely 3% of loss.
The whole machine with its accompanying instruments and its dedicated staff is audacious. It’s the work of a citizenry dedicated to exploration and learning more of our place in space. It is the product of the best use of our intellect and treasure. If you have a chance, consider a trip there sometime. O there are many worlds out there. To learn about them, try a trip around ours.
“The cosmos was originally all hydrogen and helium. Heavier elements were made in red giants, and in supernovas, and then blown off to space, where they were available for subsequent generations of stars and planets. Our Sun is probably a third-generation star. Except for hydrogen and helium, every atom in the Sun and the Earth was synthesized in other stars. The silicon in the rocks, the oxygen in the air, the carbon in our DNA, the gold in our banks, the uranium in our arsenals were all made thousands of light years away and billions of years ago. Our planet, our society, and we ourselves are built of star stuff.”