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Amazing times we live in…

While waiting to see the new “raw” Cassini images of Saturn’s moon Mimas this morning, it hit me, like a slap across the face, just how amazing the times we live in are…

As a member of the popular Unmannedspaceflight.com forum I frequently read posts from people moaning about how long they’re having to wait for images to come back from CASSINI, or LRO, or the Mars rovers, and it makes me laugh, it really does, because compared to how things were back in the “Voyager” days of the 70s and 80s, space enthusiasts like me are spoiled absolutely ROTTEN nowadays! The kids who are “into space” today don’t know they’re born!

I vividly remember how frustrating it was waiting to see the images when Voyager 2 flew past each of the giant planets during their Grand Tour. A handful appeared on the TV news on the night of each encounter – the few given to the media by NASA – and the next morning, if we were lucky, a couple more appeared in a daily paper, but seeing any more meant waiting months, and I mean months, for a special issue of “SKY & TELESCOPE”, “ASTRONOMY” or “NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC” to hit the shelves, featuring lots more pictures of the planets and their moons. I still have some of those NAT GEO specials over there, on my bookshelves, which are straining under the weight of all the Mars books crammed into them…

Of course, things changed radically with the rise of the web, and by the time Pathfinder landed on Mars, and Sojourner started to drive across the surface of the red planet, NASA was releasing images freely onto the internet for everyone to see. I wasn’t online then yet, so I had to rely on the generosity of friends who printed out the pictures taken by Sojourner and pushed them through my letterbox while I was at work, but it was still quite magical to see those pictures of Ares Valley’s rocks and boulders and dust dunes just a matter of hours after they were taken on Mars…

Today, things have moved on even more dramatically. Today, when I woke up, I was able to go online and download new images of the surface of Mars, taken by the Mars rovers, even before the kettle had boiled and before my eyes were properly open. And jjust an hour or so ago I sat here, at this very computer, looking at this very screen, and watched wide-eyed as dozens of “new” images of Mimas, Saturn’s famous “Death Star moon”, like this…

…were posted online for the whole world to see, just hours after they were taken way, waaay Out There.

It’s unbelievable, it really is.

But now I don’t even need to be near my computer to do this! Now I can sit in the car, or in a quiet corner of a busy pub, or pause in a shop doorway while out on a trip to Iceland to buy milk and toilet paper, and see new images from space on my phone!

I know many people take this for granted, but I can’t, not just yet, anyway. You see, in my heart I’m still the same frustrated teenager who went into his local – and very tolerant! – newsagents every day (and I do mean EVERY day!) at the start of each month to scan the shelves, without success, then go up to the counter and ask impatiently and forlornly, yet again, “Are any of my magazines in yet?” as I threatened to explode with the anticipation of seeing new images from spaceprobes and telescopes.

And that’s why I don’t allow myself to get frustrated when some images from Saturn, or Mars, or Mercury or Venus or some other planet or moon don’t appear on the net at exactly the time promised. I remember what it was like around my 21st birthday to watch TV news after TV news in the vain hope of seeing just a few more pictures of Uranus as seen through Voyager 2’s eyes, and I remember, with a shudder, what it was like to go into that newsagent’s and be told that he had accidentally sold my reserved copy of the SKY AND TELESCOPE featuring the first images returned by Pathfinder. I eventually found a copy in a shop 30 miles away (as you can see from the picture at the top of this post) but I wouldn’t want to go back to those dark, dark days for anything…

And I tell you what’s even MORE amazing: when I started doing Outreach talks it was back in the Days Of Slides, when Powerpoint hadn’t been thought of and laptops and video projectors were science fiction. If I wanted to show a picture at a talk at a school, or to a Women’s Institute or some other organisation, or at my astronomy society monthly meeting, I had to use my SLR – with its fancy zoom lens – photograph a magazine page, or a paused image on a video tape, onto slide film… post that slide film away and wait a week for it to come back… go through the rattly-rattly box of slides and pick out the best ones… put them into a long slide magazine and then show them with my Jurassic era slide projector, that threatened to jam every fourth or fifth slide… How I shudder at the memory!

Many years ago “doing a school talk” meant lugging a slide projector and a box full of slides, packed into rucksacks, to the school in question and setting everything up on a table in the middle of the room, just waiting for one stupid poor kid to bang into the table and send the hundred slides hissing and skimming across the floor, ruining everything. Now? Now I have a folder full of Powerpoint presentations, which are all updated regularly with new images, and “doing a school talk” means transferring one of those presentations onto a USB stick, putting it in my pocket, going to the school, sliding the stick into the classroom’s PC and showing it on their hi-tech Smartboard. It’s a different world.

AND… most amazing of all… last night one of my colourisations of Spirit stuck at Troy was used on THE SKY AT NIGHT!!!!

🙂 🙂 🙂

6 Responses

  1. Having been in the U.S. for the final Voyager flyby, at Neptune in 1989, I have to disagree with your assessment: At least there the experience was actually way more ‘live’ than Cassini’s Saturn mission is today! For at the JPL (in every room, esp. the cantina) TV monitors showed the raw images from Voyager’s old Vidicon the moment they arrived, and this feed went out on NASA TV and could be watched everywhere, e.g. at big Voyager parties at science centers (oops, centres 🙂 across the nation or on cable TV. And as CNN still had space reporters these days, they often carried the feed too.

    We didn’t get any of that during the Galileo mission (interesting you didn’t mention that) where only selected images were put online with some delay – a huge step backwards, the ‘live’ feeling was gone and so was the emotional ‘impact’ on the masses. Now with Cassini, the raw image pages on the web were an add-on NASA HQ had forced upon the imaging scientists who would have preferred things again the old Galileo way – as one of them told me with some frustration. There was always the fear that someone would ‘steal’ a discovery from them (fortunately in Mars circles the feelings towards the fans were different from the start) …

    In the olden days of Voyager there was one more thing I sorely miss today: In the JPL press room we could mingle with the key Voyager scientists at the very moment the raw close-up images of the weird Neptune moon Triton appeared on the TV screens – and witness their utter disbelief in what they saw and attempts at ‘instant science’ first-hand. Don’t think that what you’re being fed by NASA et al. on the web today – shiny websites and video clips with rock music and all that – is anywhere as ‘real’ as what one could experience decades ago: The space agencies still haven’t found ways to transport that into the 21st century …

    Disclaimer: My fond memories of space science communication in the 1980’s and 1990’s (Pathfinder!) were shaped, of course, by my presence at JPL as one of only 2 or 3 German science writers – at the earlier Voyager flybys I had to run, like you, to the newsstand every day. But wasn’t there some romance even in that – after all you had to struggle to be part of the great adventure!

  2. Not like you to disagree with one of my posts, Dan! 😉 Seriously, you have to remember I’m writing this as a non-scientist living in the UK, so the wonderful experiences you had simply weren’t available to me, or to Brits or any non US citizens. We had no CNN, no rolling news channels, nothing like that. So everything in my post is accurate, from a looking-in-through-the-window-like-Tiny-Tim way.. 😦

  3. Have to agree with the OP too – I’m also based in the UK and aside from the Sky at Night and the occasional news headline there was no practical way to find images from missions back in the 70s/80s other than by waiting months for magazine articles.

    I remember writing to JPL when very young asking if they could send me a few pics – zip code 91102 is forever stuck in my head as a result, from having to memorise the address as read out by Dr Garry Hunt live in a radio program (no “Listen Again” in those days) 🙂

    By contrast, in 1994 I was sat on the end of a 14k4 dialup modem connection with IRC open on the #jupiter channel and ftp sessions active to observatories all over the world pulling down the images of the SL9 impact as soon as they were uploaded.

    With stuff pouring in during that week in July 94 from STSci, Galileo, MSSSO, Calar Alto and the rest I remember thinking at the time “For me, this is what the internet is for”.

    And now my screensaver cycles through the APOD images from the current month. That blows my mind on a regular basis!

  4. Of course the original posting was factually completely correct – and indeed mirrors my own ‘experience’ of U.S. space science in a German village decades ago (until I ‘discovered’ the internet just in time for the Galileo Gaspra encounter and the SL9-vs.-Jupiter show). Still In looking back there was a romance and, yes, adventure in that which is now lost for good – you just had to get creative fighting for the news.

    For example, a telephone(!) service offered by Sky & Tel. since late 1984 brought exclusive news about space to you pretty quickly (if expensively at that time), while the U.S. space program was covered really well by the American Forces Network (FM) radio news: I could follow the investigation of the Challenger accident really well that way. (The phone and radio news were actually how I trained myself to understand American English with low sound quality, no kidding – so in this respect I am truly thankful that there was no WWW at that time.)

    How different were things in the U.S. at that time, though: Even small-town newspapers had science writers, and news especially from the space probes got an ample and high-quality coverage totally unknown in Germany at that time. (Though I felt that U.K. journalists, ‘trained’ by watching Patrick on the telly, did a much better job; well, the grass is always greener on the other side …) Even without direct access to NASA, you could follow events pretty well. Even getting quality images was but not without solution: You bought prints of the latest releases from either a NASA contractor or slides of them from your Regional Planetary Image Facility at home.

    The problem I see now is the deluge of information and hi-res images being available everywhere: You and I and probably all other readers of that blog enjoy it, but for the rest of the world it has just become normality – they get their excitement now out of greater-than-reality movies like Avatar. The raw images IMHO somehow fail to convey the raw excitement of space exploration (in which I include unmanned space probes, d’uh) to the masses in ways that I experienced in the 1980s and 1990s.

    The closest the world (outside of mission control) could get to this in recent years was during the four successful Mars landings (Pathfinder, 2xMER, Phoenix) and the Deep Impact Tempel 1 crash when NASA TV – and CNN-I – dared to convey some of the raw emotions from the people involved. So it can be done and should be done more often and in different settings, like at the consoles of the science people. I leave you with my unusual experience of the Huygens landing on Titan 5 years ago, the only comparable event in ESA’s history – draw your own conclusions …

  5. In the summer of 1976 I went poking around the ARPANet (initial core of the Internet in a grandfather’s axe sort of way) via a 1200 baud dial-up connection and came across some information on how data from the upcoming Viking landers would be disseminated. I commented, to my fellow students, on how great it would be to be able to get the images as the came down. Their responses were rather patronizing in various “so what?”, “space cadet” and “it’ll never happen” sorts of ways so I was rather chuffed to have the first colour panorama from the Pathfinder lander as my screen background within hours of it being taken.

    And yes, I often think of how much technology has moved forwards and how blasé people are about it. I think they simply don’t understand the magnitude of the steps which have happened: that nobody could have built a digital camera, mobile phone, GPS or whatever of the type we’re used to now in the 1960s or 70s for any amount of money. Had NASA needed to compress a 10 megapixel RAW image to JPEG format in a second or so in the spacecraft in order to achieve the lunar landings I don’t think they’d have got it done before the start of 1970.

  6. Well, at least in UK you had The Sky at Night. There was nothing comparable in Italy back then.

    Another vintage source of information about astronomy: the bulletins and journals of astronomical associations and clubs.

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