Limitless Grasp

NASA grows up, even in failure


Recently, the United States launched a carbon observatory that fell from the sky, an ice-burned Icarus plunging into the seas of the South Pole. There were no lives lost, but as a lost effort it is worth at least the compassion we would offer that wax-winged Greek whose fatal mistake was flying too close to the sun. Our NASA satellite, rather, flew too close to the earth. Unable to shed its heavy jacket in order to attain orbit after launch, it sank to failure and freezing waters surrounding a poetically apt location for such a fall.

Want a proper sea burial for a major scientific loss? Antarctica is the place, site of the world’s first arms treaty and the only continent where military activity is banned and well-bundled scientists from any country are free to conduct research in peace.

It was certainly not peaceful science that first launched NASA. Our government threw money at space exploration during the Cold War because the Russians launched Sputnik, threatening our sense of superiority. We had to one-up them, and so we did. In 1969 for about $20 billion, we chanted the ultimate “neener-neener” by being the first and ultimately only country to reach the moon. I was a child in awe that summer day, watching on a black-and-white Zenith television. The screens were smaller and reception blurrier then, and my whole family crowded close to the vague and jerky movements of a moon-suited Neil Armstrong, stepping out of his spaceship with a well-rehearsed line, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Was it? The landing was an incredible sight, like the fantasy rides at Disneyland. But the thrill didn’t last. The next day it was back to reality—body counts from Vietnam, and protests against war, poverty and racism down here under the moon.

A mere 40 years later, NASA is making one giant leap I can respect. For under $275 million, it attempted Feb. 24 to launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, a device designed to measure carbon output and intake. The collected data were intended for building climate models. Japan got a satellite into orbit in January, which will also collect CO2 data in a manner different than how NASA’s satellite was designed to collect it. But having both sets of data would have been more valuable. NASA scientists spent eight years building their satellite, and its loss is a setback to climate-change missions that would benefit all countries of the world.


I am sad that our new satellite is sunken instead of orbiting the earth. But even under the seas of Antarctica, that piece of space technology means more to me than Armstrong’s dramatic landing ever did, because it shows how far we have come and tells a very different story about this country’s space-science efforts. In contrast to four decades ago, we seem no longer the maverick space hero in the moon suit conquering a sphere of rocks in a costly show of one-upmanship. I observe now that we contribute as space-science colleagues working with other nations on projects that serve an urgent planetary survival goal.

Now space science is no longer the servant of political whim. Instead, it is, well, universal. On the Jet Propulsion Laboratory blog site, one engineer described his sense of loss at the recent failure. “Knowing that the hardware I helped design and build had been destroyed on impact made the loss real,” Randy Pollack wrote. “I had this vision of the system orbiting the Earth—dead and mute—like a modern-day Flying Dutchman.”

Pollack’s loss is our loss. I hope they build another and launch again. Meanwhile, I’m grateful for NASA’s attempts to forward climate study. The race for the moon was an act of nationalism; the race against time to measure carbon is an effort binding all nations. No single country can triumph against global warming; in the effort to sustain life on earth, we all win and lose together.

Sonoma County Library