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Space exploration revisited
(Credits: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

By Ernest Gurulé

Part II of II

Editor’s note: In last week’s story on the New Horizon mission to Pluto, we made reference to ‘man’ and his quest to go higher into the heavens. We should have said ‘humankind,’ which reflects both men and women. Both genders, as has been proven, will be the driving force behind discoveries in space still to be made.”

In just a matter of days, one of the most spectacular celestial events of the fall will take place. As the sun sets in the west on September 27th and the next night, too, we will witness the closest and largest full moon of the year. And it doesn’t stop there.

This year, besides just enjoying fall’s Harvest Moon, Colorado and all of North America get an extra treat. Astronomers say not only will the moon appear about 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter, it will also come with a full lunar eclipse. This fascinating event will also feature a reddish-colored moon, what some have come to call a ‘Blood Moon.’ It will take on this unique shade as a result of light bending through the Earth’s atmosphere.

On these two nights in September, the moon will be about 20,000 miles closer to Earth than it usually is. But even at its closest, we will still not be as close to it as was Jose Hernandez, one of a handful of current and former Latino astronauts and a former crew member of the International Space Station. Hernandez is also the only astronaut whose childhood was spent ‘following the crops.’ He is the son of migrant farmworkers.

It is an overwhelming feeling that you get,” Hernandez said of his experiences in space as he waited recently for his flight in Chicago. But even more overwhelming is thinking of Hernandez as a young boy in places like Stockton, Salinas, Monterrey, all towns that make up California’s ‘salad bowl,’ the place where much of our produce is grown and somehow reaching his dream of flying in space.

If you could travel back in time to the sixties, you could see Hernandez as a young boy, short-handled hoe in hand, toiling under a searing California sun and waiting for the night when he could escape the heat and dream of a different life.

As he looks back today at his time in the astronaut corps, Hernandez knows that his reality actually outdid his dreams. And he remains almost evangelistic about humankind’s need to go higher and set goals that will take future space travelers well beyond his own experiences.

Hernandez is not the kind to set limits on his hopes and dreams and that begins with interplanetary travel. “I want to see travel to places like Mars, the moons of Neptune and Pluto,” he says with a palpable excitement. “I think about colonizing Mars. I want it to be the norm and not the exception.” Hernandez also doesn’t blink an eye when detractors suggest that sending robots and not humans is more practical and cost efficient. But he bristles at the suggestion of others who dare to say that space travel is a whimsical and needless expense.

“I just think people like that are not well informed,” he said. Even today, said Hernandez, people are benefitting by what we have learned in the last fifty years of space exploration. The former campesino-turned-astronaut stands by his every word when he says that every penny spent by the space program is an investment. “We would not be having this conversation on my cell phone without space travel,” said Hernandez. And the list goes on.

While Hernandez has logged time in space, he also has nearly a dozen Latino brethren who are also in special corps, including nine who have flown missions. Franklin Chang-Diaz is the first Latino to serve on a mission and Ellen Ochoa is the first Latino to fly aboard the shuttle and space station. Another Latino to fly in space is Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, a Cuban who flew aboard a Russian space mission.

Investing in space has brought us or helped perfect satellite dishes, medical imaging, medical telescopes, cordless tools, smoke detectors, thermal gloves and boots, aerodynamic wheels, firefighting equipment and suits, fail safe flashlights, invisible braces for teeth, space pens (that write upside down), better baby food and, something Colorado’s skiers will appreciate, ski boots.

Mid-summer’s wildly successful New Horizons mission that flew by and mapped never before seen details of Pluto has also inspired a new excitement in space exploration. For people like Hernandez and the University of Colorado’s Larry Esposito, the success has only deepened the desire to do more and learn more. They are a pair who refuse to live with limitations, no matter how daunting.

“I’m excited about exploring the planets and landing a craft on the surface of Venus,” said Esposito, a professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. “It would be technically challenging,” he said with a chuckle, “but the view would be spectacular.”

People like Esposito and his University of Colorado colleagues have been the genesis of numerous NASA projects, including the overwhelmingly successful New Horizons Pluto mission.

A number of experiments hatched at CU have also been conducted in space by CU graduates. In all, eighteen CU alums have flown on space missions, including Scott Carpenter, one of the original seven astronauts. The University has also lost two astronauts on missions. Kalpana Chawla died in the Columbia disaster and Ellison Onizuka was killed seventy-three seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral in 1986. The late Jack Swigert was a crew member on the nearly disastrous Apollo 13 mission and was a Colorado graduate. He later served in Congress.

Despite dreaming big, Esposito remains a scientist and as such does not allow his imagination to overcome his scientific discipline. He doesn’t dream of grand trips across the Universe. Rather, he is content on setting his sights on the realistic, the doable and the practical. He thinks, for example, that Mars is within our grasp. In fact, he thinks a manned colony on Mars is in our future.

“We know so few details about its surface that we could learn a lot,” he said. But, it was in 2009 that a team of CU researchers discovered definitive evidence of an ancient lake on Mars. They discovered deltas next to this long ago lake. The discovery was epic because deltas on Earth are home to organic carbon and may, perhaps, be indications that life once existed on Mars.
For scientists like Esposito and his CU colleagues, including Drs. Alan Stern and Fran Bagenal, both of whom were essential in the planning and execution of New Horizons, space is not simply a place. It is a key part of our future.

For Hernandez, who experienced spaceflight on two NASA missions, it was a dream he never imagined would be his destiny. “When I flew,” said Hernandez, “I was prepared for the mission. The thing I wasn’t prepared for was the ‘oh, yeah!’ feeling of actually being in space. It is so very humbling to see the earth

He also said, there was a feeling of unimaginable accomplishment as he thought back to the young boy standing in a field and looking up and wondering what it must be like. Pausing for a moment, he summed the experience up simply. “You’re outside of the Earth. It’s just very neat.”





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