The Space Race of the past launched astronomy’s future in Tucson


Arizona Sonora News

On July 20, 1969, 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Little did NASA scientists realize at the time, but their historical feat had just inspired a new generation of scientists.

Ali Bramson, graduate student in the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory works atop the Holuhraun lava flow in Iceland in Aug. 2015. She's part of the next generation of space scientists to enter the field. (Photo by Mikayla Mace / Arizona Sonora News)
Ali Bramson, graduate student in the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory works atop the Holuhraun lava flow in Iceland in Aug. 2015. She’s part of the next generation of space scientists to enter the field. (Photo by Mikayla Mace / Arizona Sonora News)

Those children of the space race are today’s established researchers and professors, and many of them are here at the University of Arizona.

On the other hand, today’s graduate students, the next batch of space scientists, have never experienced the national enthusiasm of the space program first-hand. Instead, they’ve seen the Shuttle program canceled, funding cuts to NASA, and private companies take over cargo deliveries to the International Space Station.

Ultimately, their motivations for becoming astronomers, and their plans for the future of astronomy, differ from their predecessors. Instead of wanting to strap themselves to a rocket and blast off, they consider talk of human missions to Mars as unrealistic, given current priorities. And they see exploratory probes into space, as well and the next era of extremely large telescopes on earth as the waves of the future.

The impact of Apollo

Growing up with the Apollo missions helped Tim Swindle, director and department head of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL), realize that he wanted to study space science in college.

“One of my first memories was my kindergarten teacher coming in and saying that Alan Shepard had been launched into space,” Swindle said.

Don McCarthy, astronomer at The University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, always knew he wanted to be an astronaut since idolizing them as a child. He even made it to the final round of the astronaut selection process. “I like to say they chose Sally Ride instead of me,” he said.

When he was young, he would watch satellites and comets streak across the night sky from the balcony of his house. His parents pitched in money for a telescope and took him to a meeting of the Minneapolis astronomy club.

“So all those things they encouraged me with but it was the space program fundamentally that did it,” McCarthy said. “I am in the only generation that has seen every single rocket mission to anywhere in the solar system. It’s unbelievable. So I wanted to be part of that.”

Many of today’s graduate students, such as Jennifer Kadowaki and Michael Hammer, both graduate students at Steward Observatory, never wanted to be astronauts. Ali Bramson, graduate student in LPL, wanted to be an astronaut until high school, when she realized it was often a more militarily driven track.

Instead, what primarily motivated these students was the awe of the universe and using science to understand it. “Actually going to space would be great, but it wasn’t the primary objective,” Bramson said.

Kadowaki didn’t have the stereotypical telescope experience as a kid and started her degree in chemistry before switching to physics. “I was a closet astrophysicist,” she said, until she came here for graduate school. Space captured her imagination, even without NASA’s nationalistic ambition.

“Everything we’re made of either came from the Big Bang or was produced in stars, and I found that extremely fascinating,” she said. “Everything we’re interacting with is part of space. It’s part of the universe.” She never wanted to blast out into the universe. Instead, she’s bringing the universe to her.

Ticket to Mars? Human exploration post-Apollo.

These differences in experience also have ramifications for the future of astronomy. Older generations stress the importance of getting to Mars. Tim Swindle believes we’re going to colonize Mars, if not in the near future, then eventually. “We’re in trouble if we don’t,” he said, in reference to the promulgation of the human species.

“I thought we were going to go in the 80s,” McCarthy said. “Apparently the public was interested in being first, but once we were first, continued and methodical exploration stopped.”

It’s not that the younger generation is complacent. They would like to see humans on Mars and beyond, but they realize that it’s just not realistic right now. NASA’s goal is to get humans to an asteroid by 2025, and into Martian orbit by the mid-2030s. But to do that, NASA will need the some sense of urgency similar to what it had during the Cold War. Or, it might need to team up with private companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Musk has the drive and is developing the resources to get us there, but his planned timeline to Mars is much shorter, and he wants to colonize it.

Bramson stresses that NASA’s plan of “Going to Mars could be realistic if the government wanted to make it happen, but it just seems like such a big feat… that we would need to get behind it as a country to make this goal a priority, especially if we want it to happen within a decade or two. Otherwise it’s going to be small, very slow, incremental progress and a lot of talk.”

She sees value in sending probes in order to do more science. Sending people to Mars is even more expensive and dangerous than past pace missions. They all agree.

The future of astronomy in Tucson and the universe

So even though human exploration isn’t what it was during the Apollo era, new sub-fields in astronomy are just opening up. Recent advances in technology are allowing astronomers to start uncovering more about dark matter and energy, gravitational waves and exoplanets.

And no matter which generation you ask, Tucson will still be at the forefront of astronomy for many decades. The UA’s biggest strength? It’s a triple threat in the astronomy world—excelling in observation, theory/modeling, and instrumentation. Its world-class observatories are scheduled for research for years in advance; the University of Arizona’s LPL is leading the OSIRIS-Rex mission to Bennu, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is run on of the fifth floor of Steward Observatory. The Mirror Lab, under the university’s football field slowly churns out mirrors for the largest telescopes in the world, and the best and brightest modelers and theorists call Tucson their home.

Download high resolution images here.

mikayla-maceMikayla Mace has a bachelor’s in neuroscience, a minor in astronomy and is working on her master’s in journalism, so she can be a science writer and illustrator some day. Mikayla is from Tucson, and likes to read, paint, learn different instruments and play soccer in her free time.


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