On March 20th, NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams reported, “It is believed, though not confirmed, that mankind has sent an object outside our own solar system for the first time.” The next day, USA Today “Science Fair” blog reports “NASA isn’t buying” a new study by Bill Webber of New Mexico State University that claimed the Voyager 1 spacecraft has left the solar system. The research data are still inconclusive, but it seems like Voyager, launched in 1977, is still making discoveries and news. New Mexico State was in the news, and this time it is good news.
Reta Beebe was the first astronomer I met when I started the job I have at NMSU. She is really quite famous, back then I thought she was a very serious yet a kind woman. We only talked for ten minutes, but I could tell. She was mission manager for NASA on the Voyager Program. In the 1970’s, planetary science was gaining momentum because the ability to launch spacecraft like Voyager was reliable enough for NASA to plan multiple long duration missions. A number of things had to come together before we could begin a space program using interplanetary robotic probes like Voyager.
Think about it, Telstar was launched in 1959. It was the size of a basketball. NASA had only recently been established as a civilian agency. Werner Von Braun was the first agency administrator. He’d had enough of war and convinced the President among others, there was enough science to keep a civilian rocket builder busy. One of NASA’s early projects was to launch the Telstar satellite into a low earth orbit from where it sent very faint radio signals back to earth. This was the start of the civilian telecommunications program.
Lots of cutting edge technologies coalesced during this time to allow us to create programs like the Voyager. The transistor replaced the vacuum tube, the maser was able to amplify faint satellite signals, and antennae were able to pick up these very faint signals as early as 1957. But in 1957, no one was thinking of a space program like we have today. The researchers working on signal processing were just breaking ground on better microphones for telephones. In the 1950’s, technologies were moving quickly to create better fidelity over longer distances. The planetary probes required advances catalyzed by the telephone industry.
Consumer technologies created first the maser, then the laser which used light to order electrons to focus into a single frequency. The laser like the transistor initially had little value. Its value was to be realized in the future. Back to Reta. New Mexico State University was also at the cutting edge of distance communication during Reta’s time. Frank Carden introduced me to Reta. It was Dr. Carden, an electrical engineer, who created the first system allowing video signal to be sent back from the moon. Frank told me he went home to watch TV to really see what his system created. He and Reta were friends. Most scientists need an engineer. And boy did we have a team in those two.
As Women’s History Month comes to a close today, I felt it necessary to recognize unique women in our community. Carrie Hamblen always did a study of New Mexico women during Women’s History Month on KRWG. I miss that program, and didn’t even realize it was gone until mid-way through the month. Reta brought wonderful women into the Department of Astronomy. Amy Simon who now works at Goddard Spaceflight Center was one superior example of Reta’s recruitment. Another is Nancy Chanover. Nancy is one of those women who does not have time for small talk. She talks about big ideas. So did Reta. Reta and Nancy often speak in public, as they continuously spread the word about the joys of science as a career. When I hear these women speak there is always a moment that inspires me. Frankly, sometimes only another woman can do that. Women who have achieved great things yet who speak softly – likely it takes the quiet for me to hear.
I found some of Reta’s research papers online http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Reta_Beebe/. She was involved in many more planetary programs and NASA missions, including the Cassini mission. Voyager 1 is still teaching us about our solar system. There is a magnetic boundary layer right at the edge of our solar system that Voyager 1 has uncovered. Congratulations to a great New Mexican woman, salute to you and Voyager 1.