Viewport: Galileo’s Legacy
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, August 2009
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the August 2009 issue of Air & Space.
People on Earth have been peering at the sun, moon, planets, and stars since before recorded time. But only in the last 400 years have we exploited the ability to see other planets as worlds, all very different, yet far more like Earth in substance and form than had been believed before they were seen through a telescope. It’s not a stretch to claim that when we first started using telescopes as an aid to vision, not only did distant objects become closer, but Earth became part of a whole new physical universe.
This year is the 400th anniversary of the first time someone, an Italian mathematician known as Galileo, used a telescope to view the heavens. We are able to mark the occasion because he wrote down his observations, sketched detailed visual impressions, and, most important, took the effort to spread what he saw far and wide in provocative, engaging, and convincing published works. Accordingly, the world body of astronomers, the International Astronomical Union, proposed that this year be celebrated as the International Year of Astronomy, or the IYA, a designation endorsed by the United Nations and by more than 100 countries.
The central elements of Galileo’s efforts—exploration, discovery, and education—all factor in to the anniversary, and are reflected in the mission of the Smithsonian and its National Air and Space Museum. We have dedicated all of our 2009 astronomy outreach activities to the themes of the IYA. The year’s space lectures have all taken on IYA themes, and we have been expanding our exhibits and offering Family Day themes on astronomy and the IYA. Most exciting, we are now building the first observatory on the National Mall for free daily public viewing. With a full-time staff of two astronomy educators and a growing force of interns, volunteers, and explainers, the experimental Public Observatory Project—POP, as we call it—will offer visitors the chance to view the sun, moon, and the brighter planets during daylight hours, weather permitting.
Although the observatory will bristle with modern electronic means of enhancing what is out there, and it will be connected to a worldwide network of observatories viewing the heavens during the IYA, the special treat is the chance to peer through the eyepiece of a professional 16-inch telescope, borrowed from Harvard University. Anyone who walks in will be treated to the chance to collect some personal photons from the depths of space, whether they have been reflected off the moon (travel time 1.5 seconds), radiated by the sun (8 minutes), reflected from planets (minutes to hours), or emitted from stars (years, centuries, millennia). The POP will be a center of inspiration and educational adventure and a starting point for our millions of visitors, who will be given a chance to better appreciate where we are and how we fit in this vast universe we inhabit.