Mars has long held a special fascination for humans—in no small measure because of the possibility that life either presently exists or at some time in the past has existed there. In his classic work Cosmos, Carl Sagan asks an important question: “Why Martians?” Why do Earthlings not similarly obsess over “Saturnarians” or “Plutonians?” As a planet resembling our own, Sagan concludes, Mars “has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our earthly hopes and fears.” NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover is scheduled to land on the Red Planet in the early morning hours of August 6, 2012 EDT. Thus, “Why Mars?” is a question that we will seek to answer for visitors to the National Air and Space Museum.
Last week, the Museum recognized the 50th anniversary of Telstar, the first “active” satellite (one that can receive a radio signal from a ground station and then immediately re-transmit it to another) and the first technology of any kind that enabled transatlantic television transmissions. In 1962, both accomplishments generated intense interest, excitement, and commentary.
Well, not exactly, but that is the nickname some have given to the RQ-16 T-Hawk (short for Tarantula Hawk, a wasp that preys on the large spiders). The T-Hawk micro air vehicle (MAV) is a small unmanned aircraft that has been making a name for itself in both military and civilian circles since it was developed by Honeywell International Corporation starting in 2003. Weighing only about 20 pounds, the T-hawk relies on a small gasoline-powered engine (like a lawn-mower) and a ducted fan to allow it to take off and land vertically (like a helicopter), fly up to 46 miles per hour for about 50 minutes, and reach heights of 10,000 feet!
The day is Thursday, February 24, 1949; the pens on the automatic plotting boards at South Station are busy tracking the altitude and course of a rocket, which just moments before had been launched from a site three miles away on the test range of the White Sands Proving Ground.
What's inside a planet? What instruments do scientists use to figure it out? And what clues does a planet's surface give us? On Saturday, April 21, Lisa Walsh and I, scientists from the Museum's Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, invited visitors to the National Air and Space Museum's Explore the Universe Family Day to think about these questions, through two hands-on activities relating to our research into tectonics on Mercury.
Jobs made a donation to the Museum to support the Beyond the Limits Gallery. He also gave us a NeXT workstation, which we promised him we would use to develop a flight simulator for the gallery. But after some efforts, we eventually gave up. I regret we were not able to make his NeXT donation work. The NeXT computer was tricky to work with, but it did have its fans. One researcher at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland got one, and while we were struggling to program ours, he used his to write a program for the Internet that he called the World Wide Web. Maybe you’ve heard of it.
Since Howard McCurdy and I co-authored Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), I have been interested in the possible merger of humans and robots into a single entity to undertake space exploration.
The announcement last year that Bill Moggridge was selected to be the new head of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York gave me pause. In my daily work I tend to stay on a narrow path of aerospace-related topics, but that name sounded familiar. A glance at my bookshelf gave me the answer: before joining the Cooper-Hewitt, Moggridge was a co-founder of the international design firm IDEO, and while there he played a crucial role in the design of the world’s first laptop computer: the GRiD Compass, first marketed in 1982. The unusual capitalization of “GRiD” was a trademark of the company that developed it.