On September 27, 2015 I was sitting in a lawn chair in the street in front of my house admiring the moon in full eclipse.
The neighbors who had wandered over for looks through my spotting scope as the moon began its trek into the shadow of the earth, had lost interest and gone back into their homes. Alone with my thoughts and the grandeur of the moon, I began pondering the advances in our knowledge of outer space during my lifetime.
I think that my early interest in outer space must have been encouraged by my Dad, a civil engineer. I remember a trip to the Palomar Observatory near San Diego where we had the opportunity to see the newly dedicated Hale Telescope,
as well as frequent visits to the planetarium at Griffith Park Observatory to watch constellations come alive as they were projected on the ceiling of the theater.
While I don’t remember being impacted in 1947 when a rancher in Roswell, New Mexico discovered unidentified debris on his property, the controversy about whether it was the crashed remains of a flying saucer or a weather balloon not only stimulated stories of extraterrestrial beings and UFO reports, but also drove the desire to reach and explore Mars.
In the early 1950’s when I was in junior high, the idea of traveling to the moon, let alone Mars, was a pipe dream. Scientific knowledge at that time concluded it would be impossible for someone to travel to the moon and return within a lifetime.
In 1956, my sister Chris received a second place ribbon for her 7th grade science project that calculated how long it would take an airplane traveling 900 mph to reach various planets.
On October 4, 1957, the impossible became possible when Russia launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit around the earth. It traveled over 18,000 mph – 20 times faster than general science knowledge imagined twelve months earlier when Chris did her science project!
It was the dawn of the space age – and the space race. The United States launched its own satellite, Explorer I, on January 31, 1958 and created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) six months later.
During the summer of 1960 while spending an August weekend in Laguna Beach, CA with college friends, we were amazed to see a satellite inching across the sky as we sat in the amphitheater watching the Pageant of the Masters. It could have been the Explorer I, the United States first weather satellite, that was still in orbit, or perhaps the newly launched Sputnik 5.
The following spring, both Russia, and then the United States, put astronauts into space. While President Kennedy challenged the country on May 25, 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, it still seemed impossible. I missed the drama of watching the television coverage of John Glenn orbiting into space in February, 1962 while I was spending my junior year of college in Hong Kong and didn’t have access to television. A week after I graduated from college in 1963, a woman astronaut from Russia was the first woman to circle the earth.
At the same time that NASA was working on its mission to reach the moon, it also developed its Mars mission. In 1965, three months after we were thrilled to learn that a Russian astronaut had walked in space, and one month after a U.S. astronaut had completed this feat, a satellite transmitted the first pictures of Mars. At the same time, my husband John and I were watching the popular TV show, “My Favorite Martian.”
Looking back, it is hard to know where comic book authors and movie producers got the idea that Martians had antenna or skeleton-like heads.
In December 1968 the United States launched Apollo 8, the first crewed spacecraft to successfully orbit the Moon and return to Earth. On Christmas Eve the crew was able to photograph the earth and transmit it back in a live broadcast. I still remember the newscast when the crew members took turns reading from the book of Genesis during their transmission.
On July 29, 1969 John and I were able to leave work early to be home for a historic event. That afternoon he and I, our two-year old son BJ, and my mother-in-law sat transfixed in front of our small black and white TV screen as Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin became the first men to step foot on the moon. I still get goose bumps remembering how we watched anxiously as the television cameras focused on the banks of NASA scientists in Houston describing the ascent, and then the astronauts’ voices announced their arrival by saying: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” The trip had taken only 10 days!
We held our breaths, and even normally active BJ was mesmerized, while the image switched to show the exterior of the space ship as the door opened and Neil Armstrong descended the ladder and placed his foot on the surface of the moon.
As he put his other foot down, he exclaimed “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” How thrilling it was to have witnessed that moment.
In addition to subsequent trips to explore the moon and continuing satellite images of Mars, satellites began transmitting images of other planets – Jupiter and its moons (1979), Saturn (1979 – 81), Venus (1990) and since then each planet has been visited with a probe. Scientific teams spending time doing experiments at the International Space Station now seems routine. Each of these visits makes me think of Chris’s 7th grade science project and how visits to these planets now has been realized.
In June 1983 I cheered when Sally Ride made history as the first American woman to be part of a space voyage. She became a symbol of promise to young women interested in science. About this period of time I began to notice women sitting at consoles as part of the Houston team.
It has only been in the past few years that I have taken an interest in viewing eclipses of the moon and sun. It was not very rewarding to look at an eclipse through a pin hole that reflected the shadow on the sidewalk or similar surface. It seemed as though most lunar events happened in the middle of the night.
In May 2012 I gathered in a park with family and friends for a picnic and solar eclipse viewing party. My friend Barbara Hussey, an astronomy buff, knew several months in advance when the eclipse would occur and had ordered special glasses that allowed us to actually look at the sun – an amazing experience.
The recent lunar eclipse was scheduled for just past sunset on a clear and balmy evening.
In August 2017 I flew to Portland, OR to view the total eclipse of the sun with my friend Carole from the top floor dining room of her retirement complex. When I realized that there would not be another total solar eclipse in North America until 2024, I decided it would be important to travel to see it.
Mars continues to be the next frontier. Scientists want to determine whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms, or is it possible that there are or were extraterrestrial beings.
Not too long ago after I visited the Griffith Park Observatory in May 2013 with BJ, Cori and Lilli,
we watched video clips of the moon landing. Then Lilli, who had recently turned six, wanted to watch video clips of the Curiosity Rover that was entering its second year exploring Mars. It was thrilling to me that she knew about it and wanted to learn more.
2015 marks 50 years of NASA’s Mars Mission. While I probably won’t be around to witness a manned landing on Mars during the 2030’s, it will be a space milestone that Lilli will get to witness.
Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, believes that commercial space travel will be possible and conceptualized Spaceport America, located in southern New Mexico. The Governor and State Legislature also believe in the concept and authorize funding for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) the state agency charged with the responsibility to design, develop, construct, operate, and oversee the successful development of Spaceport America.
While who knows what will be in store for the future space exploration and travel, I feel privileged to have lived through a period of time when our knowledge went from exploring space being impossible to space probes having visited every planet in our solar system.