Monday, September 18, 2017

Twenty Years

Having anxiously awaited Cassini's last moments for the previous week, I spent last Friday morning glued to the iPad, eavesdropping on the operations room at JPL where the folks who'd been working on the project monitored its End of Mission. As I watched the room erupt in hugs and tears after Cassini's final signal was called, I marveled at the idea of spending twenty years (as some of them had) working on a project that contributed so significantly to the sum of human knowledge. If you missed the live feed, NASA's flickr page features collection of photos that can provide a hint of the moment's emotional power. 

The combined sadness and joy expressed during the television coverage was both moving and enviable to an old space groupie like me. Ending one month shy of the twentieth anniversary of its launch, the project went out quite literally in a blaze of glory--which we'll never see because there wasn't anyone there to shoot the video. After having accomplished far more than anyone had expected when the Cassini-Huygens mission began, many more years will be required to digest all of the data gathered.

From its inception, the mission that took the probe Huygens to Titan in 2004 and enabled Cassini to continue on for several added missions made possible by a good battery and international cooperation presented us with almost incalculable benefits (partially enumerated on the nifty poster included below). But its ending also reminded me that quite a number of things have changed since the 1997 launch.

It's hard to believe that in those twenty years communications technologies have moved us from dialup computer service to wireless, from bulky mobile telephones to smartphones, and from clunky desktop computers to sleek Macs and ever skinnier, ever more powerful laptops and tablets. It was also in 1997 that I purchased my web domain from Network Solutions and developed the first faculty web pages for the use of my students--because The Institution (which had programs in web development, computer graphics, and animation) hadn't yet caught on to the value of online education. But even this cranky old technophobe saw the potential of being able to put instructional materials where they could be easily accessed at any time. And so, "Owldroppings" came into being, and served me well for the remainder of my teaching career. In honor of its twentieth anniversary, in fact, the domain is in the process of being transformed into a more complex version of Owl's Farm, where the Owldroppings materials will be archived and other concerns developed.

As rewarding as my experience with digital enhancements was, the general tenor of higher education had declined so badly by the time I retired that I found myself truly envying the level of accomplishment in evidence at the end of the Cassini mission. How good it must feel to have been a part of such an enormously rewarding experience! The emotions were obviously mixed, but even those members of the team who will themselves soon retire will have all that glory to bask in and all that experience to contribute to yet other endeavors.

So, yeah, I was jealous. But then, one of my former students texted to check up on me, and I invited her and another of those few but significant grads who are both memorable and have kept in touch to come to lunch on Saturday so we could all reconnect. Later, yet another student (who had recently texted to announce her pregnancy) stopped by. We had a lovely afternoon and a romp down Memory Lane (even though not all of those memories were pleasant), and as they were leaving I began to realize that rewarding experiences don't all have to be big, spectacular accomplishments like Cassini.

Seeing these bright, affable, creative young women again, moving toward their own futures (much as my own children have done--taking their own time, but leading rewarding lives), and realizing that I played a small part in how they've turned out, is well worth the effort that went into a teaching career that didn't always seem particularly meaningful.

In the end, my disappointment in not having the proper education to become an astronaut or a rocket scientist can be assuaged by the knowledge that there are some terrific people out there that I would never have met (or children I would never have borne) if I had made it to the space program.

Image credits: One of my favorite of Cassini's gazillion shots of Saturn and its moons (Epimetheus, Rings, and Titan, from April 2006), I pinched this from Wikimedia Commons. Many more can be found through NASA/JPL's pages, including the chart of Cassini's accomplishments (which I originally found in Wikipedia's rather nice article on the mission).