March 2, 2017 11:41AM
By Leigh Tauss
The announcement of the discovery of the seven Trappist-1 planets comes 55 years after astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit earth. Meriden native and Voyager scientist Norman Ness remembers Glenn’s iconic flight and said, despite the great strides made in our understanding of space and celestial bodies, more challenges await as astronomers turn their gaze toward the Trappist-1 system.
“I was very happy that Glenn’s mission was successful ... we were somewhat embarrassed that the Russians beat us into space,” Ness said. The Trappist-1 discovery “is another step to encourage us to continue our research into what the universe is built with and how it’s made up and how it might be, in a sense, able to possibly support life or something like life, but we’re not there yet.”
While the Trappist-1 planets are being researched by Meriden native Sean Carey, who manages NASA’s Spitzer Space Center in California, Ness’s research helped create the technology involved in the Voyager probes, which have since left the solar system and are sending information from about 13 billion miles from earth.
Glenn launched into orbit on February 20, 1962 from Cape Canaveral Florida just before 10 a.m. The mission provided Glenn a spectacular view from the small space capsule, according to reports from a Feb. 20, 1962 article published in the Record-Journal.
“Glancing down at earth at altitudes ranging from 100 to 160 miles, Glenn had a breath-taking, panoramic view stretching 1,800 miles from horizon to horizon,” the article states. “He described the view as ‘tremendous,’ and ‘a beautiful sight.’”
As he circled the globe, Glenn made contact with tracking outposts in Africa, confirming his flight. The mission began smoothly, according to reports, and Glenn had no difficulty performing tasks and making observations during the trip.
“The gravity forces which gripped Glenn on liftoff, making his trim, lean body feel eight times heavier than its normal 165 pounds, vanished suddenly when the capsule entered orbit. Glenn became weightless – the buoyancy that results when a delicate balance is achieved between the outward pull of centrifugal force and the downward pull of the earth’s gravity,” the report states.
After making three complete orbits around the planet, Glenn landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean about five hours after launch.
Ness, 83, graduated from Meriden High School in 1950 and began working at NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center after graduating MIT in 1961, just one year before Glenn’s orbit.
He recalled the excitement buzzing throughout the scientific community at that time.
“Back in the early days, the parking lots were filled with people working seven days a week, 12 hours a day, every day all year,” Ness said. “Nowadays the parking lots are seldom filled. The excitement and the pressure to compete was very great back in the early days.”
While space exploration is no longer viewed with the same competitive edge, the scientific community continues to expand our knowledge of the universe thanks to “staggering” advancements in technology, Carey said.
“NASA continues to advance discovery and our understanding of the universe in the same spirit as Senator Glenn’s historic mission,” Carey said. “Rovers exploring and sampling the geology of Mars, the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the amazingly detailed images of Jupiter from the Juno mission are just some recent highlights of our exploration of our Solar System. Our knowledge of astronomy continues to grow by leaps and bounds.”
Looking to the future, Carey anticipates continued manned missions into space as mankind continues to expand its knowledge of the universe.
“In the next decade, we may understand some planets around other stars better than we understood most planets in our own Solar System at the time of the flight of Friendship 7,” Carey said. “In terms of manned space exploration, we now have a constant presence in orbit with the International Space Station. I am looking forward to our continued manned exploration and think we will see a return to the Moon and then onward to Mars in the not-to-far future.”
Ness said NASA’s next great challenge will be proving if the Trappist-1 planets could possibly support life.
“That would be something to prove and it would be very challenging and of course many other scientists would be questioning the conclusion and what is the evidence that is being put forward. That’s how the scientific community generally operates, if they can reproduce results that have been attained, but surprisingly no one else had discovered it, that reproduction of the experimental results is a kind of test of Mother Nature,” Ness said. “Mother Nature doesn’t fool us, we just aren’t smart enough to unwrap and unravel what is going on.”
Ness now lives in Venice, Florida and said he continues to publish in the scientific community.