Today at 8:45 pm EDT (March 18, 2011, 12:45 am UTC), MESSENGER will become the first spacecraft ever to enter Mercury's orbit. With MESSENGER on the last leg of its journey, I’m reminded how long it has taken to get there. I watched the spacecraft launch in the early morning hours of August 3, 2004, almost six and a half years ago. Now after one flyby of Earth, two flybys of Venus, and three flybys of Mercury, the spacecraft will catch up with Mercury again, but this time it will be captured by the planet. You might think as one of our closest neighbors in the Solar System it would take a lot less time to get into Mercury orbit – but because Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, at a distance where the influence of the Sun’s gravity is much greater, it is a challenge to reach and orbit.
July 15-24 marked the 35th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), the famous “Handshake in Space.” ASTP was the first American-Soviet space flight, docking the last American Apollo spacecraft with the then-Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. This joint effort between the two major world players was based on an agreement signed in 1972, and it set a precedent for future joint efforts, such as the Shuttle-Mir Program and the International Space Station.
To get to Antarctica, I first flew on commercial flights from Washington, D.C. to Christchurch, New Zealand. While in Christchurch, I picked up special gear for the cold and harsh conditions in Antarctica from the US Antarctic Program Clothing Distribution Center. Several days later, I boarded a C-17 plane bound for McMurdo Station, Antarctica. In November, the temperatures are still cold enough that the sea ice surrounding McMurdo is used as a runway for aircraft. As I first stepped off the plane in Antarctica onto that expansive sheet of snow-covered ice, I was greeted by a blast of icy air, biting wind, and an amazing view of Mt. Erebus, the southernmost historically active volcano. It was so beautiful, it almost took my breath away!
I first became fascinated with glaciers during two summer seasons in Alaska while working on a cruise ship as a harpist. I would perform in a lounge at the top of the ship surrounded by windows and would watch in awe as we sailed past glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park as I performed.
First of all there is a question of just what to call this device. Is it a “dummy”? That’s what its creators called it sometimes, but that sounds too pejorative and does not give credit to its complexity. Is it a “robot”? That’s what it looks like. Or is it an “android,” defined by the dictionary as “an automaton made to resemble a human being”?
I was struck by the relationship between climate change and spaceflight while rereading lately Jared Diamond’s fascinating 2004 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The broad premise of Diamond’s book is that societies have collapsed many times in the past and that we may understand how and why this occurred.