Cassini’s Night

|| I have always been a science, aviation, and spaceflight nerd, and the idea of going to distant worlds remains a wonderful dream. Since the closest we will foreseeably get in my lifetime is our various space agency’s probes, I have always been a fan. So I remember my excitement for the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn very well, even though it was almost 20 years ago! I also distinctly remember the controversy surrounding the use of RTGs (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators) to provide power, since Saturn is too far from the Sun to use solar arrays. (Nerd fact I still remember from Astronomy 101: Saturn is as far away from Jupiter as Jupiter is from the Sun!)

Needless to say the use of Plutonium as a power source, anything radioactive really, caused a lot of issues. There was fear that Cassini would either impact Earth on its flyby or catastrophically fail on launch, causing widespread radiation poisoning. Having grown up in a very liberal community that saw Space Flight as a waste of money better suited to social programs, and anything ending in -ium as evil incarnate, I was particularly interested in the launch so I could prove them wrong. (At the time I was still carrying the arrogance of youth in rebelling against their extremist position, so it was even more important to me.)

When October 15, 1997 (finally) rolled around I eagerly tuned into the NASA station for the launch. It was, as I recall, set to launch around 9 or 10pm Pacific Time which was about my limit for staying up. I remember working the early shift, and already being exhausted, so I was looking forward to turning in as soon as it launched. As I watched the countdown tick ever closer there was a hold to address a minor issue. While the details of that issue have since been lost from my memory, I remember that they didn’t know how long the delay would be.

This was rather disappointing because as much as I would have liked to, I just couldn’t stay up indefinitely. So I turned the TV off, crawled under the covers, and said to myself, “Self, wake me up when it’s about to launch.” And at 1:41 in the am I did wake up, turn on the TV, and find them only a couple minutes from launch! By the time my eyes adjusted to the TV’s light the boosters lit, and it launched without issue. I watched until it was gone to sight and happily went back back to sleep.

I’m still not quite sure how my brain managed it, or if it was just extraordinary coincidence, but I have had a close connection to the Cassini mission every since. Not only have its pictures been amazing, along with the scientific data returned, but landing the Huygens probe on Titan was an amazing feat of engineering. Needless to say I am saddened that its mission is finally coming to an end. I understand why it must, and the importance of not contaminating any of Saturn’s moons, but I am still sad to see it go.

So here is my own little tribute, shamelessly borrowing upon the epitome of villanelles, Dylan Thomas’ Do not go gentle into that good night:

Do not go gentle into starless night,
Old probes shouldn’t burn, but soar at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the flight.

Though wise Engineers may think dark is right,
Because their eyes saw no other world they-
Do not go gentle into starless night.

Good Scientists wave by, crying how bright
Their frail data could shine if you could stay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the flight.

NASA caught and sang of your Saturn flight,
Of icy rings and hex polar storm’s way…
Do not go gentle into starless night.

Grave Exobiologists saw with your sight-
Possibilities for Life(!) on moons far away,
Rage, rage against the dying of the flight.

And you, dear Cassini, at glorious height,
Would your lonely view naught cease I pray.
Do not go gentle into starless night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the flight.

My heartiest of thanks and praise to NASA, ESA, JPL, and everyone who helped make such an audacious mission an overwhelming success. I’ll be watching September 15th too, and will be raising a dram or two of the Good Stuff in your honor.

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