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Cosmic Change

From Early Days Of NASA, To Emergence Of Private Space Companies, How We Access Cosmos Still Evolving


Printed with permission of the Daily News-Record

Posted: June 15, 2012
By Joshua Brown


HARRISONBURG — As long as humans have lived on Earth, they've gazed at the heavens. It's only been in the last century, though, that they've had a chance to explore them.

And while the experience has, until now, been open only to a select few, the recent success of the first commercial re-supply mission to the International Space Station might just open the way for the Average Joe to travel the stars, say area space enthusiasts.

Late last month, SpaceX (or Space Exploration Technologies), became the first private space company to re-supply the ISS, marking a milestone in private space travel.

For Jeff Storey, a biology and physics double major at James Madison University who works for the John C. Wells Planetarium on JMU's campus, the achievement gives him reason to hope that perhaps one day he could escape Earth's atmosphere to tour the heavens.

"It is really exciting because, before this commercial opening, it was an almost unattainable goal to become an astronaut and actually make it into space," said Storey, 26. "You'd have to mind your P's and Q's from middle school on to get into the right school or the right military program or whatever to get into NASA, much less become an astronaut. So, this is pretty exciting."

Dave Pruett, a contractor with NASA off and on beginning in 1976 through 1994, vividly remembers some of the spectacular successes — and failures — in the Space Race.

One thing he noticed over the years is that, after space flight became more familiar to the public, each success became less celebrated. The problem with that, he says, is that each trip to space represents an incredible accomplishment, no matter how well-established such a program had become.

"The public, at some point, began to look at space flight as routine," said Pruett, who, at 63, remembers reading about the Vanguard rocket's explosion as a 9-year-old. "And there is nothing routine in releasing the amount of energy that it takes to put a capsule or a shuttle in orbit, releasing that amount of energy at one time."

Storey echoed the sentiment, noting that "we sort of lost that really competitive urgency and interest we had in the original Space Race."

Now that space exploration has been opened to private industry, though, the pursuit of the almighty dollar may give companies a reason to propel humankind into the cosmos more regularly, re-igniting the desire to adventure farther from our home planet, he said.

"I think it will" spark more interest in space exploration, he said. "I hope it will get the bug into peoples' ears."

Mixed Emotions

For both Storey and Pruett, space exploration's shift to a private industry is a mixed bag: excitement that it will open up new opportunities, but sadness because NASA — such a prominent player in pioneering this type of flight — is focusing on other projects.

And while NASA will continue basic science research and the exploration of deep space, Pruett would like to see more of Earth's other issues solved without abandoning humankind's interest in space.

"I don't feel so strongly about that; that the futurists should not be able to follow their dreams," he said, noting that the first pictures from Apollo 8 changed many people's perspectives in a number of ways. "We need dreamers who are going to push us into the future, but we also need a focus on caring for the problems we have right here. And those are not necessarily incompatible."

"[Seeing those photos from Apollo] completely changed our perceptions of who we are — you don't see any political boundaries from space. You realize that the Earth is very fragile; it's the only Earth we've got and we better take care of it," Pruett said.

Pushing The Boundaries

Caitlin McDermott, an elementary education major who works at the planetarium, said the accomplishment by SpaceX marks an exciting time in human history. But her excitement is also tempered with a little fear and caution.

"I think it's really exciting," she said. "It's kind of scary that space travel is put into the hands of someone other than NASA, but at the same time, I think it opens a lot of doors. NASA can focus on other things while the private sector [takes on more routine missions]."

And, while the accomplishment might have been of particular interest to space enthusiasts, the mission has wider relevance.

"I think it's pretty meaningful for everybody. With the private sector, I guess it could open doors like tourism on a whole new level," she said.

Bill Ingham, a 64-year-old who also remembers watching NASA's public failures and successes, said the space race — particularly the Russian launch of Sputnik — inspired him to finish high school early and indirectly helped him meet his future wife.

In an age when a local weather report is literally at your fingertips via mobile phone apps, he recalled the first time pictures were taken of a weather system from above.

The visual memory I have of early in the space age, in addition to the U.S. failures to launch, was just the crude pictures of the weather system of the TYROS satellite when it was launched," he said. "Nowadays, people are wondering, if they can't get the weather on their smartphones, what's wrong with the world. But just to see a photograph of weather systems from above was a very big deal [then]."

Contact Joshua Brown at 574-6218 or jbrown@dnronline.com