NYTimes: Trajectories – The Rise in Rockets

五月 11, 2008

Text by JOHN SCHWARTZ
Published: May 11, 2008

TO JUDGE from the news out of NASA these days, you might think we are witnessing the last gasps of the space age. The agency has announced that it will phase out its aging fleet of space shuttles by the year 2010, and the next iteration of the space program, known as Constellation, isn’t likely to be sending people into orbit before 2015. Back in 2004, President Bush exhorted NASA to return humans to the moon (and then continue on to Mars), but precious little has been heard from the White House on the matter since. The American enthusiasm for space travel that accompanied the first footprints on the lunar surface seems less ardent with each year that separates us from that one small step.

Yet human space flight hardly tells the whole story about launching pads and orbits. In addition to NASA’s current robotic missions — including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars landers and the Cassini spacecraft — there is also a large market for sending satellites into space. Between 1998 and 2007, 421 satellites were sent skyward. Government programs, commercial launchings and consumer products tied to satellites make up a $251-billion-a-year industry, according to the Space Foundation, a group that tracks the global space economy. The technologies in orbit serve the needs of television and radio; Internet and telephone service; imaging systems for military and intelligence operations (as well as commercial services like Google Earth); and the global positioning systems that help guide planes, boats and automobiles from Point A to Point B. Last year, according to the consulting firm Futron, about 70 orbital satellites were launched into space: roughly 25 by the United States and 30 by Russia. Of the 41 commercial launchings in 2006, about half belonged to the United States. Periodically, the U.S. military continues to test unarmed missiles that are designed to carry warheads.

The photographer Simon Norfolk has documented a series of military and commercial launchings, as well as the respective launching sites. He observes that rockets are “built on earth and live in the heavens” and in both stages exist largely out of sight (and out of mind). But for 90 seconds, when it is “launched in fire between two worlds,” he says, a rocket becomes a quintessentially observable object, a leaping, shrieking arc of beauty and unnerving fascination — “an explosion,” as he describes it, “that goes in one direction, rather than all directions.” An exhibition of Norfolk’s photos, which have appeared often in these pages in recent years, will take place at the New York Photo Festival, May 14-18.

John Schwartz is a science reporter for The New York Times.

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