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Celebrating America, on this July 4thBy Daniel Johnson, Associate Editor, Salem-News.com
If, as an American, you feel a bit puffed up on this July 4, you have some justification.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - When I told a friend that I was going to write a piece describing what I admire about America, his cynical response was straightforward: That will probably be the easiest piece you’ll ever do. Just send in a blank sheet of paper.
On the contrary, I believe that America, as a nation, has made a contribution to the advancement of humanity that will go down in history as one of man’s most singular achievements: The Space Program. When considered in the centuries ahead, I believe it will rank along with fire and the wheel. So if, as an American, you feel a bit puffed up on this July 4, you have some justification.
Americans weren’t the first into space—the Russians were—but the lead they had did not last long. Within five years—particularly after President Kennedy’s declaration of putting a man on the moon within the decade—America began to pull steadily ahead.
My own fascination with space began early in junior high school. I followed the launchings of Explorer 1 and those that followed. When I went out under the stars at night, I was always excited to unexpectedly see the ECHO satellites moving across the sky. I subscribed to one of the first magazines, Space World, around 1960 and still had, until recent years, a copy of the first issue. (It disappeared in one of my moves. I corresponded with someone about it a few years ago, and if I still had it, it would now be worth big money—$25 or $30.)
I followed the space program through the 1960s, beginning with the Mercury Program and the culmination of the moon landing in July 1969. It was Americans who first stood on extra-terrestrial soil. No citizens of any other nation have visited the moon.
There is now an International Space Station with people living in it (on it?), orbiting over our heads that would not exist were it not for the major contribution of the United States.
About two weeks apart in the summer of 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 were launched to explore, not only the solar system, but to go into interstellar space and report from great distances. On February 14, 1990, Voyager 1 took the first snapshot of our solar system from the outside.
Voyager 1 is now the farthest human-made object from the earth—about 116 Astronomical Units from the sun. An AU is the mean distance from the sun to the earth—about 150 million kms or 93 million miles—which puts Voyager 1 about 17.4 billion kms distant. At the speed of light (same as radio transmission speed) messages from Voyager 1 take just over 16 hours. This compares to the nearest star Proxima Centauri which is 4.2 light years away.
But the space program is not just about running around the solar system taking breathtaking, yet scientifically important, photos. There are two Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, on Mars. Both were launched in 2003 and became active in 2004. Contact with Spirit was lost in March 2010, but Opportunity has been chugging along for seven years, sending incredible scientific data back. Amazingly, they were originally designed to run for about three months.
Mostly American spacecraft, flybys taking pictures have gone by every planet except Pluto. But the New Horizons flyby (launched January 19, 2006) is en route and expected to go by Pluto on or about July 14, 2015.
Last, but not definitely not least, is the Shuttle Program which is about to end. There were 133 successful launches (one failure—Challenger (1986), and one failed re-entry—Columbia (2003)) with a last Shuttle mission scheduled—Atlantis for July 8.
This does not even bring into account the Hubble Space Telescope, another major American achievement. It was launched into orbit by the Space Shuttle (1990) and has been upgraded and serviced by the Shuttle since. Here Hubble floats free, after the final fix by astronauts from STS-125 (Atlantis, May, 2009)
A thousand years from now, the Greeks will still be remembered for their founding of politics and philosophy; the Americans will be remembered for opening the door to the universe.
Some interesting links
At each of these sites, are additional links to other space-program related sites.
Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which is why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class — a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue. From 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman, Canada’s top business writer (notably on a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting. He gave up journalism in the early 1980s because he had no interest in being a hack writer for the mainstream media and became a software developer and programmer. He retired from computers last year and is now back to doing what he loves — writing and trying to make the world a better place
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