Column: Rediscovering the wonder of space


For the Valley News

Published: 03-06-2023 10:00 AM

On Friday, a multinational crew of four astronauts arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) about 250 miles above the surface of the Earth to replace a crew that has manned this orbiting laboratory since Oct. 5.

Because this is the seventh time a team of astronauts has been delivered to the ISS in the past three decades, and because manned space flights seem “ordinary” nowadays, the general public’s awareness of this event seems to be low.

As one who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, space travel still amazes me. I have vivid memories of the Sputnik launch and getting the message that more students needed to study science and math to make sure our country kept up with the Russians. I remember gathering around large TV sets in the auditoriums of our elementary schools and secondary school science classes to watch the space launches as the U.S. progressed from satellites to manned flights.

I also recall holding my oldest daughter on my lap when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon at the end of the 1960s, appreciating the technology and expertise involved in the construction of the rockets, aware of the colossal risks involved in the flight and inspired by the astronauts’ bravery.

The Apollo launch united our country in a fashion that hasn’t occurred since, and the pictures of Earth beamed into our living rooms from space — showing blue oceans, green lands and no borders — reinforced the notion that we lived in a beautiful global village.

The last time I observed a space flight was 37 years ago when Christa McAuliffe’s rocket exploded one minute and 13 seconds into the space flight that was to carry her into space. At that time, I was school superintendent in Exeter, N.H. The daughter who sat on my lap to watch the moonwalk as an infant was enrolled in the high school there, and walking through the school the morning of the launch the excitement was palpable.

After the spacecraft exploded, though, somber silence enveloped the halls and classrooms. It felt as if excitement about space travel among students died at the same time.

My interest in space travel was rekindled a few months ago when I attended a memorial service for a true and lifelong friend, Jim Hoburg. Jim and I were in the same fraternity in college in Philadelphia and kept in touch over the decades that followed. An avid hiker, he climbed all the 4,000-footers at least twice and met the love of his life, Peggy, on the Pacific Crest Trail. Together, they raised two boys, one of whom, Woody, became an astronaut. At Jim’s memorial service, when I saw Woody for the first time in at least 20 years, I learned that he was to pilot the Dragon spacecraft that would transport the four astronauts to the International Space Station.

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When I returned home, I signed up to view the launch online. A few weeks ago, a member of Woody’s support team invited me to join a Facebook group that tracks the preparation undertaken by the quartet of astronauts headed for the space station. Their mission is incredible: they are flying thousands of miles to link up with the orbiting satellite; replacing their crew after cross-over training; performing scores of scientific experiments, some of this requiring walks in space; and returning when the next shuttle team replaces them at a date to be determined in the autumn.

NASA’s webpage describes some of the far-reaching tangible results of the ISS. Over the course of its life, engineers have designed and tested increasingly sophisticated hardware that enables each successive crew manning the lab to do more research and have greater confidence in the results. The data collected in these experiments provide novel insights that cannot be obtained on Earth, giving us a better understanding of our universe. Some of the new technology developed in the ISS include medical advancements that improve our lives here on Earth from neonatal care to robotic surgery and medical research that provides a more detailed understanding of the complex structures of proteins involved in disease, leading to new medical treatments and a greater understanding of many illnesses. The ISS scientists also serve as subjects of experiments, and researchers try to help humans adapt psychologically to working in orbit and being in confined spaces for extended time, adaptations that will be essential if we hope to travel farther into space.

The ISS also provides economic benefits. The station serves as a business incubator, sharing findings and ideas with the emerging space travel markets. The research NASA performs helps private sector entrepreneurs drive down the cost of accessing space and facilitates new telecommunication and observation services from flocks of small satellites in low-Earth orbit. When Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk launch their rockets into space, they are doing so thanks to the research performed earlier by NASA.

The ISS’s most profound contribution to our planet, though, is less tangible. When he pilots the Dragon spacecraft to the ISS and works on experiments there, Woody Hoburg’s crewmates for the next several months will be fellow American Stephen Bowen, United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan AlNeyadi, and Russian cosmonaut Andrei Fedyaev. These astronauts on board the ISS will be supported by an array of scientists and researchers representing more than 100 countries. The space station crew also hopes to spark the imaginations of the world’s next generation of scientists and engineers by connecting with millions of schoolchildren through amateur radio contacts, live video downlinks, and recorded science demonstrations. Teachers can connect their classrooms with the orbiting laboratory through story-time readings recorded in orbit, detailed science lesson plans, citizen science opportunities and even future in-flight student-developed experiments.

In the end, the most amazing element of the ISS expedition is not technological; its geopolitical. When the scientists work collaboratively on the ISS experiments, they will not be US or Russian or UAE experiments: they will be science experiments. And science knows no political boundaries.