Celebrating NASA Ingenuity

By Robert Koeneman, President and SVP Technology on July 26, 2016
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58-Years of Opening New Frontiers for Humanity

Earlier this month, NASA’s Juno probe sent back its first image of Jupiter. The probe’s goal over the next 18-months will be to sense the planet’s deep interior structure and its chemistry to advance our knowledge of how the solar system’s giant planets formed 4.5 billion years ago. Juno is just the latest in the impressive list of NASA missions that have served to expand, and at times alter, our understanding of our universe. From the Sun to planets, moons, and asteroids, this amazing organization has enabled humanity to reach further than we ever imagined.

NASA was founded by President Dwight Eisenhower and established by an act of Congress on July 29, 1958, to encourage peaceful applications in space science so that we could “understand and protect the home planet.” For the past 58-years, NASA has helped us to achieve such a goal by pushing the frontiers of the possible, thereby, enabling the exploration of our galaxy, the solar system, and the far reaches of space and time.


Fresh from Jupiter: First picture sent by Juno on July 5, 2016.

From Joi Scientific’s headquarters at the Kennedy Space Center Space Life Sciences Lab, we can see one of the launch pads—the “Mile Zero” marker that has witnessed the departure of spacecraft that travel billions of miles from here to better humanity’s understanding of the universe and of our own planet. Given our proximity to history, we wanted to celebrate NASA’s 58th anniversary, and the daring men and women behind it, with a photo journey of some of NASA’s most exciting, and courageous, missions.

New Horizons Brings Pluto Into Focus

Last summer, the world was captivated by the first clear images ever of one of the solar system’s most distant orbs, Pluto. NASA’s New Horizons probe departed Earth on January 19, 2006. It swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007 and conducted a six-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons last summer, after a three-billion-mile trip. The spacecraft is expected to head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine another of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region, located at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.


This image of Pluto, taken by New Horizons as it traveled the dark side of the planet, showed us for the first time that Pluto has an atmosphere.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2: The First Human-made Objects to Leave the Solar System

Nothing we have ever built has traveled as far as the twin Voyager probes. Originally designed to explore the two outer planets of Jupiter and Saturn back in 1977 when they were first launched, their five-year mission extended to more than 12-years, and their two-planet mission became four with additional flybys of our two outermost giant planets, Uranus and Neptune. According to NASA, “Between them, Voyager 1 and 2 would explore all the giant outer planets of our solar system, 48 of their moons, and the unique systems of rings and magnetic fields those planets possess.” These probes sent the first close-up images of Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune, enabling us to discover (amongst many things) that several of their moons have water oceans beneath an icy surface. Voyager 1 still communicates with the Deep Space Network to receive routine commands and return data decades after its missions officially ended, from the unimaginable distances of the solar system’s frontiers. At a distance of 135 AU (2.02×1010 km) from the sun as of June 2016, it is the furthest spacecraft from Earth and the only one in interstellar space.


The launch of Voyager 1 from Kennedy Space Center on September 5, 1977. 

NASA Maintains Constant Human Presence with Mars

NASA has launched 15 successful missions to our closest neighbor, enabling constant human exploration of Mars since the first successful mission of the Mariner 4 spacecraft in 1964. These probes have advanced our understanding of Mars’ atmosphere, surface, sub-surface, present and past geology. Some of these spacecraft orbit the planet, others are static landers, and the rovers range in size from a tiny, toy-like jeep to an SUV. These craft have discovered the presence of water, plenty of it, in Mars’ past. They have also seen recent geological activity that has opened our eyes to the fact that the Red Planet lost its magnetic field at some point in the past and has been losing its atmosphere ever since. These discoveries keep our ancient question about Mars alive: was there ever life there?


Extraterrestrial selfie! The Curiosity rover at work on Mars’s Bagnold Dune Field, on January 19, 2016.

NASA’s Space Shuttle Makes the International Space Station (ISS) Possible

The idea was simple, yet radical: a re-usable spacecraft that could take cargo and up to seven people at a time into space. NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, which ran from 1981 to 2011, included five spacecraft that made 135 missions to space. The Space Shuttle placed the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit and conducted the necessary service and repair missions to keep it running. Most of the modules of the International Space Station (ISS) were also taken to space by NASA shuttles and put together by shuttle astronauts with the help of the craft’s robotic arm. Every day, the ISS conducts experiments in zero-gravity with plants, animals, and minerals. These experiments have been crucial to a broad range of fields that include cancer treatment, new vaccines, new materials, protein manipulation, dark matter, Earth’s climate, and relativity—resulting in over 1,800 spinoff technologies (and counting). According to NASA, “More than 120 technologies developed during its lifetime are continuing to benefit society as commercial products. Among the award-winning spinoffs that have emerged from the Space Shuttle Program are life-saving medical innovations, energy-conserving insulation and design elements, and even protective—and fashionable—eyewear.”


The Space Shuttle Discovery docked to the ISS.

 The Apollo Program: NASA Lands 12 Men on the Moon

It was a feat in history comparable only to the discovery of America. Just 63-years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the moon, which illuminated humanity’s nights for millennia, became a familiar place—thanks to NASA’s founding culture of achieving the impossible. The program underpinned President John F. Kennedy’s national goal of “Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth by the end of the decade.” In fact, a total of nine Apollo missions to the moon occurred between December 1968 and December 1972. Twelve of the Apollo astronauts walked on the moon’s surface while six of them drove Lunar Roving Vehicles on the moon. Three astronauts flew to the moon twice (although none of them landed on the moon more than once). In just eleven years after its founding, the men and women at NASA—from flight controllers and engineers to astronauts—enabled us to “take one giant leap for mankind.”


The Earth view from the Moon. 1970 Lunar rover parked in the background.

NASA’s Earth Sciences Missions Advance Our Understanding of Our Home Planet

For the past 58-years, NASA has also opened new frontiers for science and understanding here on our home planet. The agency has launched dozens of missions that enable us to understand Earth’s climate and weather, the oceans, the footprint of our cities and industry, and even the migration patterns of several land and sea species. One of NASA’s most important initiatives to improve our understanding of the Earth as an integrated system is the Earth Observing System (EOS). NASA describes this system as, “A coordinated series of polar-orbiting and low inclination satellites for long-term global observations of the land surface, biosphere, solid Earth, atmosphere, and oceans.” They refer to the satellites that form part of this mission as the “descendants of satellites first launched over 40-years ago.” The concept of “social sharing” is old news for NASA; since the launch of the mission 15-years ago, it makes the information gathered by these satellites available online to the science research community and the general public alike.


The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite acquired this image of a phytoplankton bloom in the Barents Sea on July 6, 2016.

Happy 58th anniversary NASA! Joi Scientific is grateful for the ingenuity of the NASA team and proud to be located at the epicenter of such monumental exploration and innovation here at Kennedy Space Center.

Pictures by NASA on The Commons [Public domain or No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.


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