Dick Gordon, American astronaut, RIP

Another American hero is gone, the likes of which I despair of seeing in the rest of my lifetime.

Dick Gordon

Richard “Dick” Gordon, an Apollo-era NASA astronaut who became the fourth American to walk in space and one of 24 humans to fly to the moon, died on Monday, November6 at the age of 88.

The command module pilot had a lonely job on moon missions: He stayed in the CM while the two other astronauts descended to and walked on the moon.

Whenever the spacecraft orbited around the far side while astronauts were on the surface, the CMP would become, for a few minutes, the most cut-off, loneliest human being in the universe.

It might not have been as glamorous as walking on the moon, but it was heroism nonetheless.

During turbulent times, America was once able to soar to the moon, if ever so briefly. Now, we can’t seem to gather the courage, will, and ability to compromise to fix health care, tackle gun deaths and help those in poverty, the way other countries with fewer resources have done.

I miss America.

Cassini will meet its doom in Saturn’s atmosphere

By any definition, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been a massive success. The 20-year-old planetary probe has studied Saturn, its moon system, and its rings, since 2004. The mission was originally slated to last only four years, but it’s been extended twice, and the damn thing is still going.

Cassini is finally running out of gas, and it will meet its doom in Saturn’s atmosphere in September of 2017. But before then, it may uncover a few more mysteries.

A couple of weeks ago Cassini began a series of maneuvers that will take it very close to Saturn’s outer rings, just barely grazing them to take measurements of their densities and that of some of Saturn’s moons.

But next April, Cassini will go where no spacecraft has gone before — in between the planet and its inner rings. There, it may solve a big mystery: the mass of Saturn.

Scientists have known the mass of Saturn and its rings, but Cassini will solve the mystery of the mass of the rings themselves and that of Saturn minus the rings. Here’s what Cassini’s daredevil orbit will look like from its point of view:


Then, in September, Cassini’s final suicide mission will end in the planet’s atmosphere, once again going where no space probe has gone before. On its way down, it will take readings and attempt to send them back to earth. However, NASA scientists caution that the spacecraft’s thrusters weren’t designed for that maneuver, so it’s unclear if any data will get back to us.

But we’ve already received a treasure trove of information: We’ve seen Saturn’s hexagon-shaped south pole up close:


Cassini also found evidence of an underground ocean on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s many moons. We learned how new moons could form out of Saturn’s rings. Cassini found surprisingly Earth-like geographic features on Titan, including great lakes of liquid natural gas that outweigh all the oil and gas reserves here at home.

The probe has lasted far longer than scientists and JPL mission specialists had expected, but these final maneuvers may end it before its suicide plunge into Saturn. Rocks and debris from near the rings may destroy the craft or damage it enough to disable its ability to gather information or send it back to Earth.

But even if that happens, we’ve learned a few lifetimes’ worth of lessons from the ringed planet and its moons. Here’s hoping that humankind one day gets to see them with its own eyes.

Mars: Kicking the can down the road

We always seem to be about 20 years from going to Mars.

While President Obama recently set our sights on the red planet by the 2030s, an actual program and the money for it still aren’t there.

One of the definitive memories from my early childhood is of laying on the living room floor in front of the TV, watching Neil and Buzz set foot on the Moon. Even then, I worshiped astronauts and the space program.

As I watched successive moon landings and space missions, there was talk of what was next: space stations, moon bases, and sending people to Mars. Optimistically, we dreamed that the arc of our reach into space was going to continue on an unbroken line upward. But politics and money soon got in the way. Our national will to conquer the solar system abated once we beat the Russians to the lunar surface. Our political ego turned out to be more important than exploration.

I had always assumed I would see an astronaut walking on Mars in my lifetime. Now, I’m not so sure.

I’m not the only one who feels a little discouraged. Leroy Chiao, an astronaut, writes in an op-ed on Space.com that “an actual Mars program is missing; while it is true that NASA has received small increases in its budget and technological progress is being made, the funding and political resource commitments do not match the goal of landing humans on Mars in the 2030s.”

I want to see people walking on the next planet out. What’s more, I would like the first ones to be Americans. Our nation has proven it has the drive, the ambition, and the know-how. All we need is the will.

That will must come from the next presidential administration and Congress if it’s going to happen in my lifetime.


NASA’s “Mars Explorers Wanted” poster series celebrates the agency’s latest effort to prepare for a journey to Mars. Credit: NASA


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