Man must rise above the Earth
– to the top of the atmosphere and beyond –
for only thus will he fully understand
the world in which he lives.
THE GREAT COSMIC QUILT
In 1729, Isaac Newton theorized that if a cannon ball could be shot into space with just the right amount of force, it would travel all the way around the planet, falling to the power of gravity just enough to create a trajectory that matched the circumference of its orbit around Earth. Not fast enough to escape Earth’s gravity, and not slow enough to return home. In 1957, Soviet Russia launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made object to orbit Earth. This event, which obviously alarmed the U.S. and led inexorably to the space race, did not need to prove that Newton was right. His ideas were already accepted. Sputnik did something far more profound: it established that orbit could be achieved by humans. And that changed everything.
Now there are well over 1,000 functioning satellites in various orbits around the Earth. Many of these improve our lives in ways that we take for granted. Some arguably represent a threat. All of them (excluding “space junk”) have one thing in common: they provide or disseminate information, much of which we would not otherwise acquire. Our understanding of the Earth, of space, and, in many cases, of what other nations are up to, has grown exponentially since Sputnik. A map of the orbits of all of Earth’s man-made satellites resembles a cosmic quilt. It covers the whole of humanity without regard for who we are individually, and it unites us in real time in a fashion not even Socrates could have imagined. He might wonder, though, if he were here to witness the dawn of this new age, if our pursuit of wisdom can keep pace with our acquisition of knowledge. Both will be necessary if we are going to realize his dream of fully understanding the world in which we live.
This Tuesday, (September 20th) at the Teton County Library Auditorium at 6:00 pm GJH member and retired aerospace engineer Brent Schaffer will explain how satellites are made, how they are placed in the desired orbit, and what it all means to earth science. This is going to be a a fascinating and eye-opening lecture.