America is reaching for the sun in literal terms, beginning the next chapter in our nation’s historic exploration of outer space. Before the sun came up, the Parker Solar Probe began a monumental journey soaring toward our closest star.
At 3:31 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Aug. 12, gigantic engines on the United Launch Alliance IV Heavy rocket literally lit up the sky as the mission began. NASA’s latest venture is in some respects especially ambitious.
Observers ranging from scientists to lay people have equal opportunity to reflect on the significance of this latest giant leap into space. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump’s promotion of a military force for outer space and other sensational stories are upstaging this truly historic news.
If successful, the Parker mission will travel faster than any space craft ever has. The goal is to fly through the corona, the outer atmosphere of the sun.
The namesake of this mission is University of Chicago astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who predicted in the 1950s that the sun is “outgassing,” meaning sending out a constant intense stream of charged particles, now called “solar wind.” Fellow scientists initially rejected Parker’s hypothesis, sometimes aggressively. However, research and analysis over the past six decades have fully confirmed his insights.
Parker, 91, was present for the launch. The probe carries his picture and a copy of his seminal 1958 paper on the subject.
A memory card on the space probe holds this data along with the names of no less than 1.1 million people who responded to NASA’s show-biz invitation to “kiss the sun.” Among them is William Shatner of “Star Trek.”
Parker had enormous difficulty getting his initial paper on outgassing from the sun published. “The Astrophysical Journal” published the essay after Parker appealed directly to the editor, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a colleague and collaborator at the University of Chicago. The reviewers had found no errors; they just did not like his hypothesis.
During August-December 1962, the Mariner II spacecraft confirmed the existence of solar wind, vindicating Parker’s work. This mission experienced grave technical problems after launch, but controllers on Earth refused to give up. President John F. Kennedy deserves credit for making political as well as financial support for space exploration a national priority.
In January 2004, President George W. Bush reconfirmed the priority of distant space flight, to include a manned mission to Mars. Bush’s low-key announcement contrasts with JFK’s dramatic 1961 public commitment to a manned mission to the moon, reflecting changed times.
There are good reasons for exploration. Global cooperation among rival nations is encouraged. Examples include the 2005 joint Russia-U.S. project in Kazakhstan to launch a satellite. The powerful Soyuz-FG rocket was a product of the old Soviet Union. The two-ton Galaxy 14 satellite was a capitalist tool built by Orbital Satellites Corp. for PanAmSat Holding Corp.
Science often holds an olive branch. During the height of the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower fostered scientific exchange. In the late 1950s, Ike leveraged scientific cooperation during the International Geophysical Year into demilitarization of Antarctica. Eisenhower’s example generally was followed by immediate successor administrations, important given Kennedy’s great emphasis on space. In 1967, the U.S. ratified the Outer Space Treaty, a comprehensive agreement on peaceful uses of space under United Nations authority that remains in effect.
Currently in very practical terms, Sino-American along with Russian-American relations could benefit from cooperation to explore Mars, build on the Parker mission and pursue other ventures. Space cooperation could include the European Union, Brazil, India, Japan, South Korea and others. NASA’s show-biz dimension might even generate White House attention.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”