Happy 45th Birthday, NASA!

Posted by barb on Oct 1, 2003 in Science Musings |

On October 1, 1958, NASA was created! Yay for me, since they currently employ me.

I’m not going to go through all of NASA’s history , but it seems that lately people can only focus on NASA’s failures. While I don’t want to minimize the fact that at least two of these recent failures (meaning, those that have happened in my lifetime) cost human lives, I do want to point out that NASA has had far more successes than failures.

NASA’s great observatory program has successfully launched four observatories into space that have advanced our knowledge in the regions of gamma-ray, x-ray, visible and infrared astronomy.

  • The first great observatory launched was also the one the public connects with the most: the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), launched in 1990. There were a few problems with Hubble, but even with the warped mirror, HST was sending down images that astronomers could use. Once the optics were fixed, HST’s science output was enormous. Hubble is still operating today, and will hopefully continue for another several years. One of the benefits of HST is that it’s in a low enough orbit that astronauts on the space shuttle can retrieve it for repairs when necessary.
  • The second one launched was the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory (CGRO) in 1991. This is one that the public heard little about. It observed the sky in gamma-rays, and while the pictures and results were not nearly as pretty as Hubble’s, they were the best that had ever been done. CGRO’s instruments advanced gamma-ray astronomy more in it’s nearly 10 years in operation than any other gamma-ray telescope in the 20 years before CGRO>
  • In 1999, NASA launched Chandra , one of the top X-ray observatories so far. Like Hubble, it has produced many pretty pictures, though unfortunately, the public doesn’t seem to connect with them the way they connect to the HST images. (Probably because the human eye can see X-rays, whereas we can pretend that what HST is what we might see if we had really, really good eyes.)
  • Finally, NASA has just recently launched the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTIF). I’ll confess that I don’t know much about SIRTIF, but it launched this past summer, and is currently undergoing it’s 90-day in-orbit checkout period. In a few months we should start seeing cool results.

Those certainly aren’t NASA’s only major achievements over the past few years, but I thought it might be nice to remind everyone that just because the news media prefers to dwell on what’s gone wrong doesn’t mean that NASA isn’t still setting and reaching major goals.

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