A large percentage of Americans have become far too blase or indifferent to America's space program and the tremendous success of the Galileo mission to Jupiter.
It is almost impossible for a nonprofessional to comprehend what NASA engineers and scientists have accomplished with Galileo. Granted, it is too early to know just how successful the mission will be due to the vast distances involved and the time required to retrieve signals sent by Galileo's probe.
Nevertheless, the performance of the Galileo spacecraft, to this time, has been spectacular!
Consider some of the following statistics associated with this effort:
- The project has been 20 years in the planning.
- More than 10,000 scientists have been working on the $1.3 billion effort.
- It has taken six years for Galileo to travel the 2.3 billion miles to Jupiter.
- Signals sent from laboratories in the U.S. released the 746-pound probe from Galileo, which was orbiting 133,000 miles above Jupiter, at just the right instant to allow the probe to enter Jupiter's atmosphere at the precise angle so it would not burn up as it sped toward the planet at 106,000 mph.
- This tiny probe will send signals for about 75 minutes as it is slowed and lowered by a parachute. About 30 minutes after it has sent its last signal, the probe will be vaporized.
However the mission is not over with the destruction of the probe because Galileo will embark on a 22-month flight plan around Jupiter, and three of its moons -- Europa, Gannymede and Callisto. Images from this 2.5-ton orbiting mother ship will be sent back to Earth starting next summer.
Perhaps to those schooled and trained in such efforts, the Galileo project might seem routine, but to the average citizen, this peek at Jupiter and what one scientist described as "a major step closer to the beginning of time" is almost impossible to fathom.
Consider these figures and statistics. A radio telescope tied in with a collection of 27 huge dish antennas near Socorro, N.M., at the aptly named "Very Large Array," tracked the probe during its descent. This is possible because of the massive diameter of the antennas. Locking onto the probe's signals has been compared to locking on to the equivalent of a mere 7-watt signal from the probe more than 500 million miles away.
Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists processed plutonium fuel which was essential to power Galileo's systems and keep its 12 scientific instruments warm in space since its 1989 launch. Other scientists developed "radiation-hardened" computer chips that protect Galileo's electronics from intense radiation in space.
The statistics and almost unreal measurements of distance and speed could go on and on. Almost everything associated with this mission would seem to be ideal material for Ripley's "Believe It Or Not."
There will be some who will claim it has been a waste of money, that the $1.3 billion spent on the Galileo effort could have been far better spent on some social or medical program on Earth. And there are bound to be calls for a major cutback in this country's space program.
The fact is, however, money spent on this massive effort is sure to return many positive dividends for those living on Earth. This mission has opened the door a bit wider for scientists to learn more about space and how those living on planet Earth can best adapt to space.
It's possible there may be disappointing mechanical failures associated with the Galileo mission, but so far it has proven to be a mighty success, and surely has caused millions of Americans to give more thought and attention to space and "what's out there."
In addition, this mission should make Americans proud of the vision, talents and skills of our engineers and scientists who designed this mission, were able to develop the hardware necessary to send Galileo on a six-year, 2.3 billion-mile journey and then drop a probe precisely to impact on Jupiter's equatorial region.
It seems more like a Captain Marvel or Buck Rogers story than a real, honest-to-goodness scientific mission.