For centuries, I think most people thought Earth was alone in the universe, at least when it came to planets. It was inevitable that people would decide that they wanted to know more about the numerous stars, the moon, and the sun. Once the telescope was invented, with the earliest workings towards the design of the refracting telescope being made by German-Dutch lensmaker Hans Lippershey in 1608, people, or at least a few people, were able to see the things that really existed beyond Earth’s atmosphere. I can only imagine the shock as the first viewing proclaimed, quite loudly, that we were not alone in the universe…not even in the realm of planets, not to mention galaxies.
Thinking about the vastness of the universe has a tendency to make you feel very small, and I don’t suppose many people in the 1600s were very comfortable with that. These days the thought of the other planets in our galaxy doesn’t really bother us, and in fact it seems completely normal to us. As my husband, Bob and I have been going on our nightly walks, I have been watching the movement of several planets…namely Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Just the thought of these huge, star-like celestial bodies, at least to the naked eye, makes me think about how amazing God’s creation is. I have been able to picture in my mind, how these planets look in the universe, and now, the idea that they are stars seems absurd. Of course, my own “revelation” of that fact came centuries after the great men of science figured that fact out, and of course, that “revelation”didn’t creep into my mind today, but was rather taught to me over the years of my schooling. Still, sometimes while you know something is a fact, the enormity of it takes much longer to fully register in your head. That is the way i feel about it,after a fashion anyway…as if suddenly, I can almost see the planets with the naked eye.
It makes me wonder how the various scientists, who discovered each of the planets in our galaxy, felt the first time the telescope found a planet, especially a new one…or shall I say, one that was never discovered before that moment. With that thought running around in my head, I learned that on September 23, 1846, German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle discovers the planet Neptune at the Berlin Observatory. We all now know Neptune as the eight planet in our solar system, and because it was the eighth, it was further out in space than the seven that were discovered before it. I can only imagine the excitement he felt in that moment. He was looking upon something no other human being had seen before. I don’t know if he had any concept of how big the planet was in comparison to Earth, but we now know that Neptune is the eighth and farthest known planet from the Sun in the Solar System, because Pluto was later found and then after years as a planet, discounted as a planet and named a dwarf planet. In the Solar System Neptune is the fourth-largest planet by diameter, the third-most-massive planet, and the densest giant planet. Neptune is 17 times the mass of Earth. At that size, I would say that Neptune’s discovery was by no means a small thing.
It is so easy to focus on our own little planet, or our own little space, but the reality is that outside of our atmosphere, there is a huge space that makes us look like a speck of dust…if that. In centuries past, people could see the sun and the stars, and I suppose they considered the fact that there might be something else out there, but since they really had no way of viewing it better than using the naked eye, they just thought that it was what it was…somewhat like a curtain with holes poked into it, and they really didn’t ever expect to see anything more. Still, somewhere along the way, someone thought it might be possible to see further into the sky that just the few stars that were visible. Inventions came about to aid the people in seeing into the great beyond.
One man who had a vision to be able to see what was out there, was Edwin Hubble. Edwin wanted to learn about space from the time he was a young boy. He said, “I knew that even if I were second or third rate, it was astronomy that mattered.” He knew that he simply couldn’t do anything else. That kind of determination makes a person great, and he was determined. Hubble’s work was something his father didn’t understand, and didn’t want him to do, in fact making him promise to be a lawyer. Hubble tried, but his heart just wasn’t in it. He also worked as a teacher of Spanish, Physics, Mathematics, and coached basketball. His popularity as a teacher is recorded in the school yearbook dedicated to him: “To our beloved teacher of Spanish and Physics, who has been a loyal friend to us in our senior year, ever willing to cheer and help us both in school and on the field, we, the class of 1914, lovingly dedicate this book.”
While Edwin Hubble’s father may have thought his son had made a terrible mistake, and that he was even one can short of a six-pack, Edwin Hubble knew that there was more to see out there, and he simply couldn’t sit idly by and miss God’s big show. In October 1923 he spotted what he first thought was a nova star flaring up dramatically in the M31 “nebula” in the constellation of Andromeda. After careful examination of photographic plates of the same area taken previously by other astronomers, including his greatest scientific rival, Harlow Shapley, who thought that the Milky Way was the end of the universe, he realized that it was a Cepheid star. On December 29, 1924, all of his hard work came to fruition, when he made another startling find…all galaxies seemed to be receding from us with velocities that increased in proportion to their distance from us…a relationship now known as Hubble’s Law. On this day, December 30, 1924, Edward Hubble was finally able to make the announcement that would make his a household name…that the universe was not static, but ever expanding and that there were many other galaxies out there.
When my great aunt, Bertha Schumacher Hallgren passed way in 1984, much had changed in our world, in comparison to the world she found herself in as a young girl. To me, one of the most significant changes would have been in the area of flight…regular flight or space flight. Bertha was a very curious girl. She thought about things, and thought things through. That is the reason that she included facts of the times in her journal. I do wish she had published her works, because I think they would have been of great interest to a lot of people, even if they weren’t written about their family. The first flight took place when Bertha was just a young girl of four years, so she grew up knowing that flight was possible, but there is no indication in her writings, that she ever flew on a plane. The space program began in 1961, so she saw space flight too, and I’m quite certain that she really thought that was an amazing feat, but it did not make it into her writings either. Perhaps, by that time in her life, she thought that there just wouldn’t be much interest in her writings, aside from possibly her sister, Mina Spare’s daughter, Pauline, and later maybe her grandchildren, who were given a copy of the journal, thereby preserving this amazing book, whether accidental or not.
By the time Bertha passed away in 1984, she had seen the first Space Shuttle launch that took place on April 12, 1981. I have to think that she must have been very much amazed that a plane could fly into space, and return to earth again with the ability to land using its own power, to land not by dropping in the ocean, as had always been the case, but rather by landing on a runway, just like a regular plane. Unfortunately, the placement of the Hubble Space Telescope came to pass just six years after Bertha’s passing, on this day, April 25, 1990. I find that particularly sad, because I think she would have loved that. I can picture her watching the news on television just to catch a glimpse of the space that surrounds our own galaxy. And I can picture her look of wonder as she thought about this amazing world of change that we live in. It was a place that always fascinated her, and I know that it did until the day she died.
The year was 1959, and things were changing rapidly in the world of flight. Airplanes had been around, and actually flying since the December 17, 1903 flight of the Kitty Hawk by the Wright brothers. Air travel, while not as common as it is today, was fairly common. Now, it was time for the next step. We had looked through telescopes, found the planets, their moons, and other suns. We discovered galaxies beyond our own, and then, someone…somewhere, decided that it was time for mankind to go out there and have a look for ourselves.
By late 1958 plans were well underway to take that first step. Seven men were picked, and on this day April 9, 1959 NASA announced that they had decided on the first seven astronauts, who would take that very first space flight. The men were dubbed The Mercury Seven, but were also called the Original Seven or Astronaut Group 1. The men were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. They piloted the manned spaceflights of the Mercury program from May 1961 to May 1963. They weren’t the first men in space, but they were the first from the United States. The first human to journey into outer space, was Yuri Gagarin, when his Vostok spacecraft completed an orbit of the Earth on 12 April 1961. Alan Shepard became the first American in space when the Freedom 7 spacecraft blasted off from Florida on May 5, 1961, just under a month after the Russian flight. Ten years later, Shepard would fly again to become the fifth man to walk on the moon…and the first one to play golf there.
Most of these seven men went on to fly in many successful missions, with Gus Grissom being the only one to die young and on duty with NASA, in the Apollo 1 fire. Members of the group flew on all classes of NASA manned orbital spacecraft of the 20th century…Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. John Glenn, the oldest, is the only one who is still living. He went on to become a United States senator, and flew on the Shuttle 36 years later to become the oldest person to fly in space. The others all survived past retirement from service. These men played a key part in the world as we know it today, because space travel has played a key part in many of our modern medicines and scientific research. And it all began on this day in 1959.