Mary Beth Writes

Len took this photo of the StarLink satellites outside Alamogordo. 

7/27/2023

October 1957: I was a sound asleep little kid when my dad lifted me from my bed to carry me outside. “There’s something I want you kids to see.” My mom and sister and brother were already on the front sidewalk staring upwards. Dad pointed at a small light traveling quickly across the sky. He said it was Sputnik. I was frightened and awed. I didn’t understand but knew it must be important that I look at it this thing he said people could never have seen before in the sky until that very night.

May 2021: Len and I were on vacation in New Mexico. One evening we drove out of Alamogordo to see stars. While we were there, weirdly, we saw a line of Elon Musk’s just-launched StarLinks satellites as they crossed the sky on their way to low orbit.  This was about seven small bright lights in a straight line, silently zipping across the dark sky. I didn’t know what I thought, though I knew this was and would become very important to most of us here on planet earth.

From Len & Wikipedia:

The International Geophysical Year was an international scientific project that lasted from July 1957 to December 1958. Sixty-seven countries participated.

The IGY studied 11 Earth sciences: aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determinations (precision mapping), meteorology, oceanography, seismology, and solar activity.

Both USSR and the US launched earth’s first artificial satellites during this project; Russia launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. Other significant IGY achievements included the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts by US’s satellite Explorer One. There is a high band of charged particles that circle our planet that are caused by solar wind that pours off the sun and sometimes cause auroras. Also, science from IGY observed and defined the mid-ocean ridges, a confirmation of plate-tectonic theory. The post I wrote about Newfoundland’s Tablelands is science rooted in this discovery and mapping.

What's incredible to contemplate now is this. The International Geophysical Year was conceived of in Jim Van Allen’s living room, when some University of Chicago (and others, I assume) scientists were sitting around trying to imagine ways to push scientific discoveries faster and further. There had been years designated to certain kind of science in the past though in some cases the information won was then lost in the destruction and chaos of WWII.

These guys figured out some parameters of what they wanted to know and what institutions they needed to invent as a place where everyone could publish and store their work. They contacted scientists in all those other nations.

This was the middle of the Cold War and yet they invited and welcomed participation from men and women in the USSR and Communist satellite nations.  The only major nation who didn’t join was the People’s Republic of China, who protested the inclusion of Taiwan. 

If there is a 1950’s worth missing – it’s this one.Where scientists were proactive and respected. When they could invent a worldwide effort to push the frontiers of known scientific knowledge. When they didn’t have to fight politicians or cranky self-satisfied people totally uneducated in their areas of expertise.

..

Somewhere along the line we decided capitalism means the people who have the money and want more get to run what’s going to happen next. Our current generation of scientists are worried that myriads (the long-range goal is 42,000) of StarLink satellites are going to collide with satellites now is space for military and scientific reasons. And yet, with money and power, Musk (and others) get to push ahead.

Satellites are on the front lines of this shift of authority from knowledge to power. 

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