Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Professor wants to renew quest for space exploration

Fifty years of space exploration is just the beginning, the way University of Denver Astronomy Professor Robert Stencel sees things.

Stencel, officiating at an Oct. 4 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the world’s first artificial satellite, the Russian-built Sputnik, urged those in attendance to help re-energize the thirst for knowledge and quest for the stars.

On Oct. 4, 1957, news that Russian scientists had successfully put a beeping ball of metal high above the U.S. thrust America into the space race. Three months later, American scientists put their own satellite, Explorer, into orbit. And 12 years after that, Neil Armstrong took man’s first steps on the surface of the moon.

Stencel, speaking to a crowd of star gazers assembled at DU’s historic Chamberlin Observatory, said mankind needs another spark, something to push the world into greater exploration.

“Space travel, space flight, can actually work for the public good,” he said. “And if we take it to a true international level, everyone can benefit.

“The real question is, are we keeping up with what we need to be doing?” Stencel asked. “Is math and science literacy staying up to where we need to be?”

Space exploration and the scientific efforts behind it led to a massive bump in global technology, Stencel said. Discoveries in the space race led to telecommunication satellites, cell phones, miniaturized computers, better weather predictions, an understanding of global air and ocean currents and even Velcro, Stencel said.

DU Sturm College of Law Professor Ved Nanda, an expert in globalization, told the crowd that satellite photos of the world helped people understand that artificial political boundaries between countries don’t really exist on the earth’s surface. We are all citizens of the same world, he said, adding that further exploration will bring people closer together.

“We need to work together, we need to cooperate,” Nanda said. “We need to work to find answers to all of earth’s problems.”

Before the crowd broke up to take turns viewing today’s orbiting satellites through the observatory’s massive telescope, Stencel gave visitors something to think about. Astronomers, he said, have identified a huge asteroid expected to pass between the earth and the moon in about 30 years. Gravitational pull could snare that giant chunk of rock and eventually bring it down to earth, creating an explosion that could wipe out an entire state.

It’s up to the emerging generation of future scientists to figure out how to protect the planet from such dangers. Scientists have considered whether such an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. Stencel noted that dinosaurs didn’t have any options, but humankind does.

“What will it take?” Stencel asked. “Does it take a Sputnik-style challenge to wake us up?”

Comments are closed.