Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Size and Space

I was a young lad at the dawn of the Space Age. I watched early science fiction television shows like "Men into Space" (and had my Colonel McCauley space helmet in the closet alongside my Davy Crockett coonskin cap and my Foreign Legion kepi) and followed the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. My uncle Joe, Dad's brother, worked as an engineer at NASA and sent me all sorts of things from Cape Canaveral (later Cape Kennedy, then back to Cape Canaveral). I wrote letters to all the Mercury astronauts (except - petulantly - to Gus Grissom, whose Mercury spacecraft "Liberty Bell 7" sank in the ocean after landing*). In my collection of letters is a note I got back from a young Mercury astronaut named John Glenn, who returned the photo I'd sent him with the comment that "I'm sure there are a lot of pretty girls out there who would like your picture more than I would."

When men first walked on the moon, I was camping in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Colorado, and didn't learn that the mission had succeeded until we came down out of the mountains a few days later. I chewed my nails with the rest of America when a critically damaged Apollo 13 limped back to earth, mourned with the rest of America when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during its flight, gasped at the wonderful pictures of Jupiter and Saturn taken by the Voyager spacecraft, wondered at the marvelous photos returned by the Hubble Space Telescope, and cheered when NASA threaded the eye of a needle billions of miles away, sending the New Horizons craft past Pluto with a degree of accuracy nothing less than astonishing.

I love the space program, and the way it fuels our imagination and our desire to do great things.

But it also makes me feel small and humble in consideration of what it means in terms of our place in the universe.

I told you all of the above so that I could call your attention to this fascinating article published last week in the Vox online magazine: 11 Images That Capture the Incredible Vastness of Space. I won't share all the images with you, but these are some of the ones I found especially thought-provoking:

The first one reminds us that our sun is "incomprehensibly huge" ... as this image suggests:

But even as the sun may be "incomprehensibly huge," it's the merest pipsqueak in comparison to other gargantuan stars we have discovered, as shown in this comparison chart ...

This picture shows how Saturn would look from earth if it were as far away as the moon ...

And remember that comet where the Philae probe landed last year? This shows you how big it is in relation to the city of Los Angeles ...

It took the New Horizons spacecraft nine years to reach Pluto, more than 4 1/2 billion miles away. The nearest star to us is Proxima Centauri, so far away that we have to use light-years, the distance light travels in one year, to express its mind-boggling remoteness ... Proxima Centauri is 4.24 light years away. And the most distant object yet seen by humans - with the assistance of powerful telescopes, is 13.1 billion light years away.

The realm of science fiction gives us warp drive (from "Star Trek"), hyperdrive (from the "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" series), "jump drives," "light speed," and other literary and cinematic dodges** that allow man to conquer the inconceivable vastness of space. But none of those are likely to arrive in our lifetimes, and so we will remain here on our infinitesimal blue speck in the endless span of eternity, using our telescopes and our unmanned spacecraft and our imaginations to consider what ... and who ... might be out there beyond our vision.

I don't know about you, but it makes me feel pretty humble***.

Have a good day here on our rapidly changing pale blue dot. More thoughts tomorrow.


* I felt bad about that after Grissom was killed in 1967 in a tragic fire during a pre-launch test for their planned Apollo mission, along with astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee. 

** We won't mention the "ludicrous speed" attained by the evil Dark Helmet in Mel Brooks' film, "Spaceballs."

*** And if you need another dose of humility, check out the classic 1977 short film "Powers of Ten."


eViL pOp TaRt said...

People are so often caught up in the dailyness of their lives that it is good to have the corrective of contemplating space. For many of us, we have our well-lit cities that keep us from seeing the stars. It is good sometimes and see the stars, how many of them and let our imagination work. Wonder what's on them, do they have planets, do they have creatures? And do they wonder about our small planet?

Gonzo Dave said...

Excellent commentary this morning! I'm off in a couple of weeks to the Green River in Utah, where I will be humbled by the (full-moon-lit, unfortunately, but that's beautiful too) starry, starry sky.

Big Sky Heidi said...

I love the Space Program too! Visiting the NASA Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville is such a delight!

Linda Kay said...

Those of us who can remember the first of our space trips (and Russia's) have enjoyed the excitement you shared today in your post. And that Pluto accomplishment was beyond all imagination we might have had.

Mike said...

I've given up trying to see meteor showers here in the city. Boy scout camping trips used to provide the best view of the sky.

Grand Crapaud said...

A comet will bring me out away from town to see it.

allenwoodhaven said...

Very interesting! Perspective is needed almost all of the time, but this kind of scale should make us humble. Does for me.

I was at Lake Tahoe National Park when man landed on the moon. We saw this grainy image on a little b&w tv as we saw the moon high in the sky. I'll never forget what that was like.