KNOX – A fire-in-the-sky reminder from Elon Musk to look up now and again
A FIERY LIGHT shot across our sky Thursday night, a mysterious celestial display that lit up Victoria like a bike-lane debate.
Fortunately, I was able to sacrifice a goat, so it went away. You’re welcome.
No, it appears that what we saw, not only on the south Island but elsewhere in B.C., Washington and Oregon, too, was debris from the second stage of one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets burning up as it hit the atmosphere.
The rocket had carried 60 satellites aloft March 4, the latest mission in Musk’s Starlink project, in which he plans to deploy thousands of satellites to provide broadband internet service on Earth. Or something like that.
Honestly, it’s hard for some of us — those who pay attention to space only when Chris Hadfield grabs his floating guitar, or Tom Hanks says “Houston, we have a problem” — to wrap our heads around what’s going on.
Even Sidney’s Chris Gainor — space-exploration historian, past-president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, the author of a handful of books on aeronautics and space, and now editor of Quest: The History of Space Flight Quarterly — acknowledges having a hard time keeping up.
Back in 1984, when astronaut Marc Garneau (now our foreign affairs minister) became the first Canadian in space, there were just two ways of reaching the stars: aboard a Soviet craft or NASA’s space shuttle. When the shuttle retired a decade ago, that left the Russians as the only ride.
These days, Gainor says, you can’t tell the players without a program. The private sector is playing a growing role, with space tourism not far away at all. “We’re kind of moving into an era where it’s not the government doing everything.”
SpaceX now contracts with NASA to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. When the next Canadian goes up for a long-duration space station flight, something that is expected to happen a few years from now, he or she will be carried up aboard either one of SpaceX’s Dragon 2 spacecraft or a Boeing Starliner.
Also in the cards for Canada: a role in NASA’s Artemis (as in the sister of Apollo) program, which aims to put people on the moon for the first time since 1972. The stated goal is to do so in 2024 (though Gainor says that target now seems in doubt) with the crew including the first woman to walk in the lunar dust.
Prior to that landing will be a round-the-moon flight whose crew will feature a Canadian, presumably chosen from among the four people who currently comprise the Canadian astronaut corps. (That quartet includes the last Canadian in space, David Saint-Jacques, whose 204-day mission ended in 2019, but who this year put his astronaut career on hold so that he could help fight COVID as a physician.)
The presence of the Canadian astronaut, the first non-American on a moon mission, is seen as a reward for another Canadian contribution to the Artemis program: the Lunar Gateway, a small space station that will operate in lunar orbit, will employ the robotic Canadarm3.
“It’s kind of exciting,” Gainor says.
Yes, it is, in a way that most of us only glimpse now and then. For many, the last time we really got fired up was when Hadfield, the former Royal Roads Military College cadet, caught our imagination in 2013. (Busy as he was up there, he also proved a good son-in-law, phoning his mother-in-law, Saanich’s Gwen Walter, from space both on New Year’s Day and on her birthday.)
Seems like yesterday, but it was eight years ago. Time flies. Gainor notes that April 12 will mark both the 60th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human in space, and the 40th anniversary of the space shuttle’s first flight. Look at how much has changed since then.
Every once in a while, we need something to explode above our heads to draw our eyes to the heavens, to remind us of what’s going on up there.
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