top of page

 Peter Takes on History 

August 23, 2023

NASA's Energizer Bunnies

OK, on to “This day in history” and I’ll tell you now, I’m going to make you all feel insignificant. Let’s begin with a grain of sand; a pretty big one. Diameter, roughly the thickness of a dime. If the earth is that grain of sand, the moon would be a little less than an inch and a half away.
Our sun would be about 50 feet away.
Pluto, the most distant planet in our solar system, would be a little more than a third of a mile from our little grain of sand.
Way, way beyond Pluto there’s a point in space where the solar winds shift. It’s a marker that says, “You’re leaving interplanetary space, and entering interstellar space. Thanks for visiting.”
In our grain of sand analogy, that’s about six miles up the highway from here.
In real life that’s 11.3 billion miles from earth.
So, remember our two identical twins? Voyager 1 and Voyager 2? Voyager 2 was launched on August 20th, 1977, Voyager 1 two weeks later. Those crazy kids passed the 11.3 billion mile marker in 2012.
They’ve had quite a trip. They’ve observed Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune close-up. They’ve observed 48 of their moons, seen volcanoes and geysers, sling-shotted through Saturn’s rings and 46 years later both probes are still operational: 12.4 billion miles from home, pedal to the metal, cruising away at 35,000 miles per hour! And scientists calculate that they’ve got a few more years of life in them!
So, what a shame when a couple of weeks ago, NASA messed up and lost one.
On July 21st of this year, Mission Control sent Voyager 2 a bad instruction proving even rocket scientists can get it wrong. And what’s worse, NASA had noticed an error in the code, corrected it but accidentally sent the uncorrected code.
So, Voyager 2 got the bad code and said, “Oh, okay, if you say so,” and turned its dish away from earth! Just two degrees but, at 12.4 billion miles, that’s a substantial distance. So, next time the poor little thing was supposed to phone home - no signal. NASA freaks out. They decide the only thing left to do is shout, as loudly as possible, “Can you hear me now?”
On the morning of August 2, 2023 they sent the highest-power signal they could from NASA’s transmitter in Canberra, Australia. It took 37 hours (because 12.4 billion miles is a long darned way, even at the speed of light) but they heard Voyager’s voice say “Yeah, what?”
So, cheers all around, Voyager 2 is back on track.
And I bet the mission specialists will be a little more careful next time.
But think about it. 46 years in space! 12.4 billion miles away. Is it just me or does it seem like NASA missions typically last way longer than planned? In 2004 we sent Rovers Spirit and Opportunity to Mars on a 90 day mission. Spirit kept sending back pics for 10 years. Opportunity 15 years! The Curiosity Rover landed on Mars August 6th, 2012. Well it’s 2023 and Curiosity is still roving! That’s 11 years. In 11 years I’ve owned three refrigerators! I guess, other than the occasional clerical error, space agencies know how to build some pretty robust machines!
Well, imagine my surprise when the rose colored glasses were ripped from my face and the truth revealed. Turns out we earthlings have attempted 47 missions to Mars, starting with the space-race crazed Russians in 1960. 1960! Just three years after Sputnik they launched a probe toward Mars. It failed. Of 47 shots at Mars, 28 have failed! For a variety of reasons. It’s a long way. They run out of gas. Some minute component doesn’t like the dead cold of space and quits. NASA will tell you, landing anything softly on a faraway planet is crazy difficult. So many things can go wrong. We lost the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999 because somebody screwed up some metric conversions.
The international numbers on other missions haven’t been any better. Of 40 missions to Venus, 18 failed. There have been more than 50, count ‘em, 50 failed moon missions. There was one two days ago.
On August 21, 2023 Russia announced that their Luna-25 spacecraft, their first moon shot in 47 years “ceased to exist.” Apparently a catastrophic disassembly on the lunar surface.
For the first time since I’ve been writing these history pieces, my choice for “This Day in History” is today. Today, August 23, 2023 there will be another attempt to land a spacecraft on the moon. The Indian Space agency hopes its Chandrayaan 3 spacecraft will make a soft lunar landing this evening between 5:30P and 6:30P. And, what a world, you can watch it live on the website of the Indian Space Agency:
You gotta love us earthlings, right? Though some of our efforts to reach out are just crappy refrigerators, we keep trying. Go India!

More stories ...

bottom of page