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AstroDad reflects on history’s mysteries in space

(November 20, 2012) There is a rich history of astronomy in America, although much more contemporary than, say, the ancient Persian and Chinese practitioners of this field. Known as “astrologers” in ancient times, these (almost exclusively) men frequently held seats of great power in dynastic and even feudal governments.

Since America has only been a nation state for 236 years – less time than many surviving telescopes have been around – our nation’s astronomy history is much briefer than global history of this important science. A small subset of astronomy in America can be found right here in Texas, although much less significant than that of the rest of the nation.

It was my deep and abiding honor to serve in our nation’s Capitol as a military officer working for the world’s top satellite surveillance organization. My daughter asked the other day if next year we will be able to reveal what happened to JFK and I perked up, suddenly realizing it would be 50 years since his assassination.  Some histories can never be told; others have finite time spans as state secrets; while others remain deeply hidden forever. While living in D.C. I had the run of the place, due in large part to my job and access to people, places and things.

The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum remains a national treasure, sporting ancient astronomical and astrological artifacts as well as one of the Great Reflector operated by William Herschel, considered one of the greatest astronomers ever.  Herschel, assisted by his brilliant sister Caroline, accomplished detailed surveys of space, cataloging objects with his speculum “mirror” telescope technology to see things that remain largely invisible to astronomers today.

David Devorkin, curator of the Explore the Universe gallery, shared with me how he and the Museum came by Herschel’s 20-foot telescope built in 1783.  Found in an old barn, this story of recovery, transport (from England to America) and ultimate restoration is a fascinating story.  I’m thankful to know Dave and to have served as a docent to his collection.

From my perspective, even considering my background in  “national security space” matters, it seems that our progress exploring space, especially our ability to voyage beyond our home planet, has not continued to advance steadily.  While telescope technology is growing at an amazing pace, today we almost exclusively rely on the same chemical propulsion concepts that launched the world’s first effective, mass-produced rocket, Werner Von Braun’s V-2. So it is that our rocket propulsion systems, although more efficient, have not evolved since their invention.  If ever humankind expects to journey beyond our home planet, we must develop more advanced propulsion technologies.

When placed in context, most Americans might be challenged to believe that our rocket technology has not evolved much since the Nazis used Von Braun’s rockets as part of their integrated plan to destroy England in WWII. This is a situation in which a working understanding of the facts of history is essential to help one understand the nature of today’s technology.  Facts are very important and it’s unfortunate when individual or organization’s world view goes only as far as their local sphere of life and they refuse to update that viewpoint. Although I have not seen the newly released film, Lincoln, about our 16th President, it’s most likely a safe bet that the historian whose book became the screenplay did not pay much attention to Lincoln’s insomnia.  This fairly well known fact caused President Lincoln to make frequent late night walks down to Foggy Bottom and the US Naval Observatory (another place that I lectured and frequently visited while serving in D.C.). He used to spend time viewing the stars and planets with Asaph Hall using The Great Refractor, at the time the largest telescope in the world.

This massive 26-inch diameter telescope is over a hundred feet long and is housed in the largest elevator in D.C. so the floor can match the telescope’s position. Lincoln signed the back of a note to Hall calling him “his” astronomer. I’ll bet these facts never come out in the movie about his life.  If moviegoers never learn this, they will not be aware of their lack of knowledge, but in the big picture they will know less than the full truth.

Speaking of full truths, here is something for the good reader to consider. The Christian faith explicitly requires its believers to believe in the one and only God.  This God is, ironically depicted as a male who looks suspiciously like the men who set down most of the Christian ideas we study today as a result of the Councils of Nicea (first held in 325 CE). On Earth, we humans don’t have a good track record with accepting other people’s faith beliefs.  Once I asked a very senior government official with a Ph.D. in a technical field, what he thought about people who practice another religion. Without skipping a beat, he said, “they will go to hell.” Now comes the part I want the reader to consider. What if we encounter intelligent life among the 3,103 planets discovered (to date) outside our solar system in a tiny little speck of space the size of a thumbnail held at arm’s length?  The big “what if” question here is what if one of these other species has a view similar to Christianity?

Here in America, roughly 95% of us believe in some sort of a god, while that figure drops to 88% globally according to wiki answers. While this is hardly a definitive source, the point is that most folks (humans) believe in a god.  But what if our god is not the same as “their” god and to make matters worse, what if that other species has the same narrowly focused belief system as Christianity?  Judging from the age of our species and the age of our galaxy, it’s safe to say that we may find another species that is several orders of magnitude (1000’s of years) more advanced than humanity.

So dear reader, consider that history may be much more than that which you are presented and consider that when the major religions on Earth did most of their organizing, no one could even conceive that we might someday encounter another species, not like human beings.

Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall

Our Universe Today is a column written by Blue Ribbon News special contributor, Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall.

Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator.  He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes.  Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at AstroDad.com.

RELATED COLUMNS BY ASTRODAD:

Homage to Neil Armstrong

AstroDad shares insight on Curiosity’s successful Mars landing

Making sense of science: Higgs Boson Explained

How to buy a telescope: Part 1 and Part 2

Earth’s recent asteroid encounter is closest in 200 years

To submit your news and events or a guest column on your area of expertise, email editor@BlueRibbonNews.com.