Juno You Can Do It


Fred Haise, providing appropriate background music. Gif via http://nasagifs.tumblr.com/post/69192842404

Remember when going to the moon was as exciting as taking a trip to Pittsburgh? Don’t know if that line from the Apollo 13 movie was actually spoken in real life. It made for a great movie moment though. The actual TV broadcast was not nearly as Hollywood-clever, as you might have guessed.

But in 2016, Space Nerds are still geeking out about Space Things. Juno twitter was amped on Independence Day night when NASA’s Jupiter probe reached orbit of the Red Planet.

Rocket Scientists know how to party, huh?

And I know we’ve been doing this since before I was born. It’s still friggin’ incredible. After a journey that covered five years, the craft reached its destination within one second of its scheduled arrival time.

Five years. One second. You can do the math on margin of error if you want. Suffice it to say that is the functional equivalent of perfect. But wait. There’s more!

It takes 48 minutes for signals to traverse the 365 million (or 601 million) miles between Jupiter and Earth. NASA engineers could not make real-time adjustments as the Juno probe approached Jupiter. The mission depended upon pre-programmed instructions. Autonomous Space Awesomeness, people!

So having caught my breath from the school year, in mid-June I spent about two weeks with my youngest son visiting his grandma out west. Hoover Dam, Nevada mining ghost towns, Money In The Bank, Zion National Park, Universal Studios, the Las Vegas Strip, Blue Man Group, the whole schmeer.

And: Griffith Observatory.

We had part of a day free in Hollywood. Go to the beach? Santa Monica pier? Explore the neighborhood? The options boggle the mind. But given an opportunity to sneak my family off to one of the country’s great urban parks, I took it.

Hollywood Sign
A 20th century American icon, up close and personal. Photo credit: me.

“The story of the Griffith Observatory begins with Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, who donated 3,015 acres of land surrounding the observatory to the City of Los Angeles in December 1896. In his will, Griffith donated funds to build an observatory, exhibit hall, and planetarium on the donated land. His goal was to make astronomy accessible to the public”. (Via Discover Los Angeles).

Public exploration. Hell Yeah. The Colonel, who made his fortune in silver mining and real estate, said, “If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world.” Following in the footsteps of these guys:

The Astronomers Monument, Griffith Observatory
The Astronomers Monument. Photo credit: me.

Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, and some other geniuses. And of course, as the Juno team reminded us, there’s still plenty to learn.

A few years ago I read The New Cool, by Neal Bascomb. It’s the story of a year in the life of a handful of teams competing in the FIRST Robotics competition, featuring “The D’Penguineers”, Team 1717 (since retired) from Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California. I personally have a soft spot for Team 71, but that’s just me.

The thing that hooked me into the book was a tale of the hype video shown at the FIRST competition game reveal, broadcast live by NASA TV from a packed arena in New England to robotics teams around the country. Paraphrased, the video told assembled high school kids and their coaches and mentors of our quest for the moon. John Kennedy stood at a podium and told his audience we would land a man on the moon within 10 years. It was eight years later that Neil Armstrong made his “one small step for (a) man“. Cool enough. But the video went on to point out that the average age of NASA engineers on that July day in 1969 was 26 years old.

That meant that some of those guys (and ladies) were sitting in a high school classroom when Kennedy laid down the challenge. Sitting right where my students sat. Dreaming the same big dreams. Or different big dreams. But, damn: Dream Some Dreams, people. And then: Do Something About It. Here’s FIRST founder Dean Kamen:

“Why do we do FIRST? Because the world’s a mess. Read the news. Look around you. We got lights, clean water, ways to get around. We have hospitals, schools, safe malls. But two-thirds of all people alive today, 4 billion people, live on less than $2 a day. Half of them live on $1 a day. That’s their whole life. We’re the richest in the world, by far. And the world’s a mess. Somebody’s got to fix it. Do you think the people living on a buck a day, who don’t have clean water, schools, technology, education, do you think those people can fix it? No. You have to fix it.” (Via The Big Think).

True then, true now. And it’s a point I’ve made to my students often over the years: You guys are gonna solve this world’s big problems. Maybe even one of you guys sitting in this classroom right now.

Like many small towns (and big cities), my town puts on a 4th of July fireworks display. As Mrs. Dull and I walked the few blocks from our parking spot to the schoolyard where the show would take place, we passed gaggle after gaggle of teenagers, some with heads down, thumbs tapping screens, while others talked summertime and crushes and tans and football conditioning.

My immediate thought: Future students. Future students everywhere. All of them Dreaming Dreams. Big or small. The 4th of July lends itself to sweeping mental images. 240 Years’ worth. Eat your brats and drink your lemonade and enjoy your booms, you can’t help but take a minute, lean back, and think about where we’ve been and where we’re going.

On the undercard to the fireworks show is a community reading of the Declaration Of Independence. Mrs. Dull has had the honor of participating several times since we’ve lived here. It’s a microcosm of our town: WWII vets and elementary school kids, newspaper columnists and moms and non-profit fundraisers and city council members. All gathering to read the words of our Founding Fathers, promulgated in 1776.

Community Reads The Declaration
The Declaration Of Independence, Community Edition. Photo credit: me.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

Talk about dreaming big dreams. The writers of the Declaration knew what they wanted, what this country could be, and made a bold move. They didn’t know the stumbles we’d make along the way, or even the eventual outcome of the Great Experiment. (Remember Benjamin Franklin’s line? “We must hang together or surely we will hang separately.”)

I know they didn’t envision a team of scientists programming a tin can to fly across the vast emptiness of space to the biggest planet in our solar system, turn itself to face the sun, orbit a huge gas ball and record and send back data. Data which has already given us an amazing look at the orbit of Jupiter’s moons.

But thankfully for all of us, they, like my students, took the first step on the journey.

It was a Small Step. And a Giant Leap. Thanks, Founders. My students thank you too.