Space exploration has certainly changed in the past 60 years. Those of you old enough will remember Alan Shepard rocketing 190 km into space, an unbelievable feat at the time. No sooner had he touched down than John Glenn flew around the world three times in only five hours, making him a hero and his name a household word.
President Kennedy decided, the Americans had to beat the Soviets to the moon, and laid down an ultimatum to ‘get it done!’ We all know, a few years later, on that memorable day in 1969, Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. Surprisingly, it was not made of cheese, after all.
Then came the space shuttles and the space station; but suddenly, NASA, the ever-powerful space agency, began to lag behind. New players were emerging. Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin, to name a few, and were sending private citizens like Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Airlines) into outer space. Where was NASA?
It seems the space agency was shifting its focus from interplanetary travel to scientific exploration. The Hubble telescope fiasco of 1990 taught them a grave lesson.
For those of you who do not recall, the first images from Hubble were blurred. The reason was, the shape of the mirror was out of wack by 2 microns. How much is a micron, you ask. A sheet of paper is about a hundred microns. It took NASA five years to build, what amounts to, a set of eyeglasses for the telescope. Presto, it finally worked.
In 1997, NASA decided to build a bigger and better telescope, the James Webb. Where Hubble was three metres in diameter, Webb would be seven. Hubble is floating around at about 500 km above us, but Webb would be fired a million and a half km high. The plan was to launch it in 2003, but that got bumped to 2007, then to 2013 and so on; but last Christmas, the monster peeping Tom finally made its way into space.
It was quite a challenge, as there was no rocket big enough to handle the job. Instead, NASA folded the telescope into a neat little package, and by manoeuvring 387 actions, it unfolded and was ready to go. The first day on the job, a micro-meteoroid struck it, but not to worry, all was well.
Finally, last week, we saw the first images from the James Webb telescope. It was a stunning view of a galaxy, far, far away. So far, in fact, it took its light 13 billion years to reach us (light travels at 186,000 miles per second). The numbers are hard to fathom, but the science is real.
I wonder if there is a telescope out there spying on us?
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube.