We’re not sure if there’s anyone out there to receive them, but we earthlings have been sending messages into space for 40 years now. We’ve sent radio broadcasts, plaques engraved with pictures, and even a gold-plated record album. So far, we haven’t gotten any return messages, but METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) enthusiasts are still coming up with new ways to tackle the two crucial questions raised by this kind of endeavor: How should we send the message? And what should it say?
The first question is technical, concerning the durability of materials, the means of transmission, and the distances to travel. The second is more complicated and far more interesting. A message like this is also a declaration: “This is what we find important. This is who we are.”
The Earth Tapestry project aims to create a message that represents a shared, global answer to these questions through an online vote. Pairs of landmarks like Red Square, Machu Picchu, the Lascaux Caves, and others around the world (180 total) are presented along with the questions on eight different parameters: Which is more awe-inspiring? Information-rich? Famous? Noble? Ingenious? Delightful? Durable? Irreplaceable?
The plan is to create a laser engraved disc of a map of the earth along with a legend giving coordinates of these places and what we think about them. It will be sent to the moon on an Astrobotic Technology lander next year.
The director of Earth Tapestry, William Alba of Carnegie Mellon University, says the moon, being “the border between the terrestrial and celestial, between us and the rest of the universe” is a good place to put this information capsule. Not only might extra-terrestrial beings discover it, but humans from the future might as well.
There is also an art installation planned. Alba says they “will continue to take votes over the next year and a half. We plan to fill a space with images of the locations so people can get a sense of what’s important to them and people around the world.” Earth Tapestry images will be displayed for durations that accord with their rankings in the voting.
There are many other ways to give a sense of what humans find important, of course, but for Alba, landmarks of the world is a good arena for a trial run, to make “a kind of playground or sandbox to think about what do we think is important about ourselves as human beings and how do we decide that together. Place draws people’s attention to the globe as a whole. They’ll think about where they are and where other people are.”
No matter where private or government space travel may take us in the future, NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) will forever have a place as the first human to ever set foot on solid ground outside of our atmosphere. Taking “one small step” onto the moon on July 20, 1969, he inspired generations of ambitious people to reach for the stars in their own lives. Take a look at some facts about that famous quote, how a door hinge changed his life, and why he once went after Hallmark over a Christmas ornament.
1. HE KNEW HOW TO FLY BEFORE HE GOT A DRIVER’S LICENSE.
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Born August 5, 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong became preoccupied with aviation early on. At around age 6, his father took him on a ride in a Ford Trimotor airplane, one of the most popular airplanes in the world. By age 15, he had accumulated enough flying lessons to command a cockpit, reportedly before he ever earned his driver’s license. During the Korean War, Armstrong flew 78 combat missions before moving on to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA.
2. HIS FAMOUS QUOTE GETS MISINTERPRETED.
When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon, hundreds of millions of television viewers were riveted. Armstrong could be heard saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But that’s not exactly what he said. According to the astronaut, he was fairly sure he stated, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The “a” may have broken up on transmission or it may have been obscured as a result of his speaking patterns. (According to First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, Armstrong said, “I’m not particularly articulate. Perhaps it was a suppressed sound that didn’t get picked up by the voice mike. As I have listened to it, it doesn’t sound like there was time for the word to be there. On the other hand, I think that reasonable people will realize that I didn’t intentionally make an inane statement, and certainly the ‘a’ was intended, because that’s the only way the statement makes any sense. So I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn’t said—although it actually might have been.”) Armstrong claimed the statement was spontaneous, but his brother and others have claimed he had written it down prior to the mission.
3. WE DON’T HAVE A REALLY GOOD PICTURE OF HIM ON THE MOON.
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One of the most celebrated human achievements of the 20th century came at a time when video and still cameras were readily available—yet there are precious few images of Armstrong actually walking on the surface of the moon. (One of the most iconic shots, above, is Aldrin; Armstrong only appears as a reflection in his helmet.) The reason, according to Armstrong, is that he really didn’t care and didn’t think to ask Aldrin to snap some photos. “I don't think Buzz had any reason to take my picture, and it never occurred to me that he should,” Armstrong told his biographer, James R. Hansen. “I have always said that Buzz was the far more photogenic of the crew."
4. A DOOR HINGE MAY HAVE MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE.
Theories abound as to why it was Armstrong and not Buzz Aldrin who first set foot on the moon. (On the Gemini missions, the co-pilot did the spacewalks, while the commander stayed in the craft. For Apollo 11, Armstrong was the commander.) The answer may have been the simple logistics of getting out of their lunar module. The exit had a right hinge that opened inwardly, with the man sitting on the left (Armstrong) having the most unobstructed path to the outside. Aldrin would have essentially had to climb over Armstrong to get out first.
5. HE WAS MORE CONCERNED ABOUT LANDING ON THE MOON THAN HE WAS WALKING ON IT.
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The romantic notion of a human stepping foot on space soil captured imaginations, but for Armstrong, it was getting there in one piece that was the real accomplishment. The lunar module Armstrong controlled had to be brought down on the moon’s surface from 50,000 feet up, avoiding rocks, craters, and other obstacles as it jockeyed into a position for landing. Because there is no air resistance, nothing could slow their descent, and they used thrusters to guide the craft down. That meant there was only enough fuel to attempt it once. The “business” of getting down the ladder was, in Armstrong’s view, less significant.
6. HE WAS CARRYING A BAG WORTH $1.8 MILLION.
When Armstrong surveyed the surface of the moon, he collected a bag of dust for NASA scientists to examine. Apollo moon samples are illegal to buy or sell, but that apparently wasn't the case with the “lunar collection bag” Armstrong used to hold the samples. In 2015, the bag was purchased by Chicago resident Nancy Lee Carlson from a government auction site for $995. But its sale was, apparently, an accident: When Carlson sent the bag to NASA to confirm its authenticity, NASA said it was their property and refused to send it back—so Carlson took the agency to court. A judge ruled it belonged to Carlson, and in 2017, she sold the bag for a whopping $1.8 million at a Sotheby’s auction.
7. HE HAD TO SPEND THREE WEEKS IN QUARANTINE.
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When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins (who remained behind in the command module while the other two touched down on the moon) returned to Earth and were fetched by the USS Hornet, they got a king’s welcome. The only asterisk: They had to bask in their newfound fame from inside a sealed chamber. All three men were quarantined for three weeks in the event they had picked up any strange space virus. When President Richard Nixon visited, he greeted them through the chamber’s glass window.
8. HIS APOLLO SPACE SUIT WAS MADE BY PLAYTEX.
Yes, the undergarment people. In the early 1960s, NASA doled out contract work for their space suits to government suppliers, but it was Playtex (or more properly the International Latex Corporation) and their understanding of fabrics and seams that led to NASA awarding them responsibility for the Apollo mission suits. Their A7L suit was what Armstrong wore to insulate himself against the harsh void of space when he made his famous touchdown. The astronaut called it “reliable” and even “cuddly.”
9. HE BECAME A UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR.
Following his retirement from NASA in 1971, Armstrong was reticent to remain in the public eye. Demands for his time were everywhere, and he had little ambition to become a walking oral history of his singular achievement. Instead, he accepted a job as a professor of engineering at the University of Cincinnati and remained on the faculty for eight years.
10. HE ONCE SUED HALLMARK.
Hallmark was forced to defend itself when Armstrong took issue with the company using his name and likeness without permission for a 1994 Christmas ornament. The bulb depicted Armstrong and came with a sound chip that said phrases like, “The Eagle has landed.” The two parties came to an undisclosed but “substantial” settlement in 1995, which was, according to First Man, donated to Purdue University (minus legal fees).
11. HE ENDORSED CHRYSLERS.
Armstrong’s preference to lead a private life continued over the decades, but he did make one notable exception. For a 1979 Super Bowl commercial spot, Armstrong agreed to appear on camera endorsing Chrysler automobiles. Armstrong said he did it because he wanted the struggling U.S. car maker to improve their sales and continue contributing to the domestic economy. The ads never mentioned Armstrong was an astronaut.
Since NASA’s Kepler spacecraft launched in 2009, the space agency has found and confirmed a whopping 2343 new planets. Of those, 30 are considered to be situated in a “habitable zone,” an area in which a planet’s surface could theoretically contain water.
A new satellite, set to launch today, is expected to find thousands more planets outside of our solar system, known as exoplanets. TESS, short for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is NASA’s latest effort to plumb the depths and darkness of outer space in search of other Earth-like planets—including those that could potentially support life.
TESS is slated to complete a two-year survey of the “solar neighborhood,” a general region which comprises more than 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars. To find these outlier planets, NASA scientists will be keeping an eye out for temporary changes in brightness, which indicate that a planet is blocking its host star.
According to Martin Still, the program scientist working on the TESS mission, the launch comes “with certainty” that TESS will find many nearby exoplanets. "We expect to find a whole range of planet sizes, between planets the size of Mercury or even the Moon—our Moon—to planets the same size as Jupiter and everything in between,” Still said in a NASA interview.
While the Kepler mission was considered a major success, NASA noted that most of the planets it recorded are those that orbit faint, faraway stars, making it difficult to conduct follow-up observations. The stars that TESS plans to survey will be 30 to 100 times brighter than those observed by its predecessor. This allows for newly detected planets and their atmospheres to be characterized more easily.
“Before Kepler launched, we didn't know for sure if Earth-sized planets existed,” Elisa V. Quintana, a NASA astrophysicist, told Reddit. “Kepler was a statistical survey that looked at a small patch of sky for four years and taught us that Earths are everywhere. TESS is building on Kepler in the sense that TESS wants to find more small planets but ones that orbit nearby, bright stars. These types of planets that are close to us are much more easy to study, and we can measure their masses from telescopes here on Earth.”
The most common categories of exoplanets are Earth- and Super Earth–sized masses—the latter of which are larger than Earth but smaller than Uranus and Neptune.
TESS is scheduled to launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 6:32pm EDT today.
For more information about TESS, check out this video from NASA.