Back when the US space program was new, it was considered practically a patriotic duty for Americans to be glued to their TV sets anytime a launch was happening at Cape Canaveral. Counting backwards from 10 in unison with millions of others was a ritual guaranteed to stir one’s nationalistic fervor. The Russians may have gotten the first man into space, but we were going to get the first man on the Moon, or die trying. Some did die; but JFK’s dream came true.
While not everyone believed that pouring billions of tax dollars into building rocket ships should have been a higher priority than feeding the hungry or housing the homeless, in general the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was a feel-good government program that enjoyed broad popular support. The possibility of space travel inspired many a bright youngster to pursue careers in the hard sciences. And it’s undeniable that the tinkering that made those rocket ships possible also sparked the development of computing and communications technologies that have since become essential parts of our lives.
In this political moment, however, science has become suspect in certain circles. The appointment of non-scientists to head up science-intensive government agencies over the past year-and-a-half has raised more than a few eyebrows. NASA, the agency that operates our weather satellites, isn’t allowed to report data related to climate change on its website anymore. If you want the kind of non-fossil-fuel-industry-friendly information that you used to be able to get from these agencies for free, you have to go to one of those maverick “alt.gov” groups of identity-shrouded government employees like Rogue NASA.
US Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) isn’t thrilled about this state of affairs. On July 3, he paid a visit to the Walkway Over the Hudson for a science-positive press announcement, joined by Ulster County executive Mike Hein, City of Poughkeepsie mayor Rob Rolison, Walkway executive director Elizabeth Waldstein-Hart and Mike Oates, chairman of the Walkway board and president of the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation. Schumer praised Walkway’s ongoing efforts to inspire students of all ages to become part of the next generation of world-class American scientists through its Starwalk and Moonwalk series of guided nighttime talks and sky observations. Then he upped the ante, challenging NASA to send an actual astronaut ASAP to participate in one of these public events.
“Providing our students with all the tools necessary to learn about and become interested in scientific research and the environment has always been a top priority of mine, which is why I am calling on NASA to help the Walkway Over the Hudson continue their great work in inspiring our next generation of scientists right here in the Hudson Valley,” said Schumer.
And it worked — Tuesday afternoon, according to Schumer’s office, NASA said it would send an astronaut to the September 7 Starwalk event.
The theme for the first Starwalk, scheduled to begin at 8:30 p.m. this Sunday, July 15, is “When the Moon Meets Venus.” While this event is open and free to the public, advance registration is requested. Register online at http://bit.ly/woth-starwalk to receive a glow-in-the-dark wristband (while supplies last).
The Walkway’s hours of operation end at sunset most days, listed as 8:30 p.m. at this time of year. However, special exceptions are made to enable visitors to enjoy the view from the bridge at nighttime. The Moonwalk series has been offered on a monthly basis, weather permitting, for several years now — usually when the Moon is close to full. Local astronomy groups typically bring sky-viewing equipment to these well-attended public events, which sometimes include lectures by the likes of Ulster Publishing’s own sky guru, Bob Berman. The Starwalk series, slated to launch this Sunday evening is an expansion of this programming, with support provided by the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association, SUNY New Paltz, Vassar College, the Poughkeepsie Public Library District and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Oates said.
According to Waldstein-Hart, “Starwalks are scheduled around unique occurrences in the celestial calendar, with innovative stations to offer guests an opportunity to meet people with similar interests and experience the Walkway in a new way.” Astronomy enthusiasts and educators from area colleges and organizations will be stationed along the Walkway to engage attendees on a variety of topics. Themes may include: Introductions to the night sky; observing the cosmos with telescopes and the naked eye; viewing a solar system model; nighttime photography tips; interdisciplinary science trivia and presentations; sky art; plus readings, stories, food and more. Schumer noted that these events can only be enhanced by NASA participation — especially by that of an astronaut, since they are widely respected and admired for both their scientific knowledge and their life achievements.