NASA marks 55 years, feats still dazzling
By Amanda Jermyn

Since its inception in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, commonly known as NASA, has been dazzling us with its technological and scientific feats in air and space exploration. NASA has launched over 100 manned space flights, including the Apollo space program that landed humans on the Moon. It is the largest contributor to the International Space Station, ferrying astronauts and supplies there until 2011 via its Space Shuttle program. It was NASA that gave us the Hubble Space Telescope and its spectacular photographs of our exotic universe. Without NASA we wouldn’t be following the exploits of the Mars Rovers, including the most recent, Curiosity, currently logging up evidence for an environment on Mars where microbial life could survive.

Every year when Federal Budget discussions roll around there are grumblings of discontent over the amount allocated to NASA. At first glance, NASA’s current budget of $17.7 billion seems rather high, but bear in mind that this is less than half a percent of the current $3.8 trillion US Federal Budget. This means that the average US taxpayer contributes $11 per year to NASA, while contributing $465 to national defense. We spend twice NASA’s budget on foreign aid, and slightly less on NASA than we do maintaining foreign embassies. NASA’s budget gets distributed among its many divisions such as Planetary Science, Astrophysics, Solar Physics, Aeronautics Research, Space Technology, Commercial Spaceflight, Education, the future James Webb Space Telescope and many more.

Each year NASA’s operating budget is threatened with budget cuts, yet each year, it is being asked to do more for the same amount or less. NASA is now single-handedly responsible for providing space-based weather monitoring services to the US. In addition, Congress and our President have committed NASA to undertake climate, deforestation and ocean current studies around the world.

NASA has filed over 6,300 patents over its 55-year history. It is also responsible for many discoveries and inventions in fields other than space exploration. These spin-offs of its primary research include the development of infrared ear thermometers, scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses, cordless tools and water filters. Software developed to sharpen images on the Hubble Space Telescope led to enhanced imaging in digital mammograms, improving the chances of detecting breast cancers. At the Stanford Research Institute, Doug Engelbart invented the computer mouse with a grant from NASA. Using technology first developed to monitor the health of astronauts, health care workers can now monitor many patients at once. Using expertise learned as an electronics engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Adam Kissiah, with no medical training, developed the cochlear implant that has brought the miracle of hearing to the deaf. As a child in Pakistan, Dr. Rafat Ansari decided to become a scientist after seeing people walk on the moon. As a NASA researcher studying small particles suspended in liquids he realized his work could help detect cataracts, the degenerative eye disease affecting his father. Today the instrument he developed is being adapted to detect other eye diseases, diabetes and possibly Alzheimer’s.

So here’s to 55 years of extraordinary discoveries by the intrepid scientists, engineers, astronauts and visionaries of NASA! To quote Leonard Nimoy, as Mr. Spock in Star Trek, “Live long and prosper!”

Join the Springfield Stars Club on Tuesday, October 22nd at 7.30pm at the Springfield Science Museum for a talk by Richard Sanderson on “The Integration of the Maksutov Telescope Design into the Realm of Amateur Telescope Making.” Sanderson is curator of physical science at the Springfield Science Museum and manages the museum’s Seymour Planetarium and Observatory. He is also an astronomy writer and co-author of the 2006 book, “Illustrated Timeline of the Universe.” Sanderson is a past president of the Springfield Stars Club and its current treasurer. Refreshments will be served, and the public is welcome free of charge.

Also, on Friday, November 1st, the Stars Club and the Springfield Science Museum will host “Stars over Springfield,” an astronomy adventure for the whole family. Richard Sanderson will speak on “Comets and Meteors, with an update on Comet ISON.” A fee of $3 for adults and $2 for children under 18 will be charged.