Given the enormous popularity of GPS among civilian users, and the critical applications for the military, it is not surprising that a large body of literature has arisen about the origins of this remarkable technology. The curators of the new Time and Navigation exhibition discuss this history, and we have illustrated it with a few select artifacts, such as the engineering model of the Navy’s NTS-2 satellite, one of the key demonstrators of the technology that led to the deployment of the GPS constellation.
My first word was JET, since we lived near an Air Force base and experienced sonic booms on a regular basis. My fascination with the heavens took off from there. Growing up, my family went camping and backpacking a lot, and one of my clearest memories of that time is looking up at a dark, dark sky and pointing out satellites to each other, those little moving points of light that are sometimes so faint I could only see them in my peripheral vision.
Preparation of the upcoming Time and Navigation exhibition is in full swing, and objects are being installed in cases throughout the gallery. In fact, the gallery became a little more shiny just in time for the holiday season thanks to a delivery from our friends at the Naval Research Laboratory.
On October 24, Stanley, winner of a historic robot race, left its home at the National Museum of American History aboard a flatbed truck and arrived safely at its destination, just seven blocks away. For the foreseeable future, Stanley will be here at the National Air and Space Museum, a centerpiece in the exhibition Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting From Here to There. The irony of the situation escaped no one. Stanley, a driverless vehicle that had navigated 132 miles on its own to win the 2005 Defense Advanced Research Projects Grand Challenge, needed the help of scores of people AND a truck ride to get from there to here.
“Are you sure you want to donate this?” I asked the intern. “This” was a slightly-used Smartphone, in perfect working condition. The intern, Rebecca Bacheller, was, indeed, willing to donate it. She heard that the Time and Navigation team wanted to disassemble one and showcase the current state of geolocation devices, enabled by the Global Positioning System and other advanced electronics. Our plan was to label the phone’s circuits, and show how they correspond to classical methods of navigation that had been practiced for centuries. Becky was excited that she would be credited in the label; she also had another motive: namely a reason to trade up to the newest version of the popular phone.
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.