Milestones Of Innovation 10: First Close-Up Of A Planet


Today, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, after more than nine years, 3 billion miles, and a brief view of Jupiter’s moon Io, is scheduled to capture the first close-up pictures from the distant minor planet Pluto and its flock of moons. It’s a fine way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this kind of high-tech virtual visit to other worlds.

On July 14, 1965, a U.S. space probe called Mariner 4 swept from north to south across the planet Mars and sent back to Earth a strip of 22 photos of a surface that didn’t seem to offer much hope of life on the Red Planet. There was no hint then of what numerous later flights revealed: strong signs of water and other life-favoring factors in the past.

The Mariner 4 fly-by carried at least one important lesson about innovation: many new things are little-foreseen byproducts of projects that were started for completely different reasons.

In February 1954, some 11 years before Mariner 4’s visit, a secret American committee headed by John von Neumann (one of the fathers of the computer) and including future MIT President Jerome B. Wiesner, made a momentous recommendation to President Eisenhower. The committee said that the U.S. should go all-out to match an expected maximum Soviet effort to develop intercontinental missiles to carry atomic and hydrogen bombs. And right afterward, another secret committee that Ike asked for, headed by MIT President James R. Killian, spelled out a plan to develop multiple generations of ICBMs by about 1961. Further, the gap would be filled with an array of intermediate-range missiles based on land and sea that could be ready sooner.

And in 1957, as part of a peaceful project to probe the entire earth scientifically, an experimental Soviet ICBM startled humanity by putting a scientific satellite called Sputnik I into orbit. Sputnik’s “beep, beep” signals triggered an immediate contest for prestige between communism and capitalism—and dramatic new missions for ICBMs. There was a frenzied “Space Race” to put up more scientific robots to reach the Moon and the planets, along with satellites for communications, weather observation, navigation, and spying. Less than four years after Sputnik, the U.S. had committed itself to sending human pilots to the Moon and back by the end of 1969.

As a consequence of Cold War competition, humanity was getting its first detailed photographs of Mars, a planet that long had been a favored destination in science fiction, including Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” of the late 1940s. With mistaken sightings of “canals,” Mars had become the source of decades of speculation about whether life could exist on a surface much further from the sun than Earth and bathed in an ultra-thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide.

The photos were tape-recorded aboard Mariner 4 and then transmitted across 134 million miles to big antennas across the Earth. From there, they were sent to be pieced together, pixel by pixel, on screens at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Just to make sure, the whole transmission was repeated.

It was the modest opening of a spectacular era of human discovery, decades in which the people of today became, as the late astronomer and television guru Carl Sagan observed, the first generation to obtain a torrent of facts, not fantasies, about other bodies in our Solar System.

Craft after craft soared up from Earth and reached all the planets, and many of their moons, along with asteroids and comets, gathering not only pictures but much other data about the planets’ chemical makeup, lumpiness, and magnetism. One craft called Voyager flew by Jupiter and Saturn in succession on its way out of the Solar System. A second Voyager went on a Grand Tour to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune and then kept going. Often, the robot explorer craft got there with gravity boosts from swinging by one planet on the way to another. Often they went into orbit for months or years, capturing thousands of images from which detailed maps could be made. Around Jupiter and Saturn, craft called Galileo and Cassini could visit moons again and again and study the planets’ rings of rocks and dust. Cassini even sent down a lander to Saturn’s moon Titan. At Venus, the orbiters carried radars to map an oven-hot surface buried beneath the clouds of a carbon dioxide atmosphere 100 times thicker than Earth’s. At Mars, the orbiters sent down camera-equipped ground stations and even rovers that could roam the surface. At Mercury, Messenger orbited for four years and then, running out of fuel to stabilize its course earlier this year, was sent crashing into the surface.

Other robot observatories, orbiting the earth, added knowledge about the planets. The Hubble Space Telescope, which celebrated its 25th year aloft in June, captured dramatic photos in 1994 of a comet called Shoemaker-Levy smashing into the planet Jupiter.

From all this activity, tapping the Electronic Revolution for more and more sophisticated instruments and data analysis, automated space explorers from several countries not only deepened scientific understanding of our local cosmic neighborhood but also allowed us to live imaginatively in real places throughout our solar system.

[Editor’s Note: This is the tenth of a series of notes about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. You’re invited to suggest other milestones of innovation for the Xconomy Forum. Example: This year will mark the 75th anniversary of the wind-driven collapse of “Galloping Gertie,” the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge.

Further Reading:

Henry S.F. Cooper, ‘A Resonance With Something Alive,’ The New Yorker, June 21, 1976 [Profile of Carl Sagan]

Henry S.F. Cooper, The Search for Life on Mars: Evolution of an Idea, 1980

Henry S.F. Cooper, Imaging Saturn: The Voyager Flights to Saturn, 1983

Henry S.F. Cooper, The Evening Star: Venus Observed, 1993

Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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