Monday, January 17, 2005

Photos of Titan, Cartoons of Saturn

Like many of us, I've been intrigued these past few days by the photos from Titan, Saturn's largest moon. You can find this photo and many more, here.

Surface of Titan
I think back to when I was a kid, in the days of the Mercury and Gemini missions. Back in those days, I would've taken it for granted that it would one day come to this: photos from Titan. I was fascinated with the space program, and astronomy. I knew the various Mercury and Vostok flights, the names of the astronauts and cosmonauts, how many orbits they'd made, the way some kids know sports statistics. I knew the planets and moons of the solar system, diameter, orbital period, rate of rotation, surface gravity, you name it.

For some reason, I was always especially fascinated by the planet Saturn, and its nine moons. Yes, in those days it was nine moons of Saturn, and I could tell you all about Mimas and Enceladus and Tethys and Dione and Rhea and Titan and Hyperion and Iapetus and Phoebe...

I also used to draw comics. From 1961 through 1964 or thereabouts, I turned out a comic book a month, drawn on 4"x5½" notepads. In my April 1963 issue (I was six years old) I drew a book-length story about the planet Saturn.

Seems the TV science fiction hero Rocky Jones (who I used to watch on TV in syndicated reruns) had flown his rocket ship on a mission to Saturn, and gone missing. Back on Earth, TV is interrupted for this "CBS Speshal" news report:

CBS Speshal
"Rocky Jones has gone to Saturn. But he disapeered!"

Of course, in my comic story I flew to Saturn in my rocket ship, along with a friend of mine, and rescued Rocky Jones. Here are the two rockets returning to Earth:

Return to Earth
However, we were followed to Earth by an alien from Saturn! I think that's a re-entry parachute on top of the alien's ship:

Ship from Saturn
Notice also in the background a six-year-old's rendition of Jupiter and Saturn. Here is the alien from Saturn, visiting on Earth (yes, I knew about the differences in temperature and atmosphere, it was just a cool shot):

Alien from Saturn
And then I had to go in my rocket ship, and use rays to tow the Earth away from Saturn— Earth had been teleported out to Saturn's orbit through a space warp— in a scene which I think I was borrowing from an issue of DC's Mystery in Space comics, where Earth was about to collide with the planet Rann:

Towing Earth
And finally we cut to a cosmic perspective, with the Sun but a point of light amidst a multitude of stars:

Sun among the Stars
There you have it, a six-year-old's view of Saturn, the Universe, and Everything, back in April 1963. A six-year-old who would've been not at all surprised by those photos from Titan the other day.

Odd, back in those days I was almost the only person I knew who was enthusiastic about space exploration and astronomy. I was almost the only person I knew who thought we would one day make it to the moon. I remember a lot of people back then— adults as well as kids— were dismissive, angry, almost venomous about the space program. As if it was threatening to demolish their pre-Copernican geocentric worldview. "Go to the moon? Naw, that's impossible! Foolish to think it could ever happen! Bark! Snarl! Grrowwwrrrr!!!" I haven't run into that kind of rabid anti-space animus in a long, long time. No, we live today in a world where astronauts in orbit and photos from Titan are taken for granted.

Descent to Titan
And we can listen over the Internet to sounds from Titan, descending toward the coast near the island-strewn methane sea.

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