Braille Monitor                                                    August/September 2009

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The Journey of Braille: from the Hands of the Creator To Earth Orbit

by Marc Maurer

From the Editor: Late Monday afternoon, July 6, the ninety-eighth anniversary of the birth of Jacobus tenBroek, President Maurer made brief but thoughtful remarks about two seemingly disparate topics: Braille and space travel. This is what he said:

People who are invited to watch a launch of a space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center occupy an observation site three miles from the launch pad. Two of the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollars were scheduled for inclusion in the payload of the shuttle to be launched on May 11, 2009. Launch time might be as early as 2:01 and 56 seconds p.m.

The day before the launch the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted a daylong seminar on aspects of exploration of space, origins of the cosmos, and scientific discoveries made through the use of the Hubble telescope. By focusing the Hubble telescope on the darkest parts of the visible sky, the scientists have discovered thousands of galaxies that have previously been unknown. The characteristics of the light observed by this instrument have permitted cosmologists to look back in time more than twelve billion years to a period near the beginning of time itself. Furthermore, these observations lead to the conclusion not only that the universe is expanding but that the rate of its expansion is accelerating. If the rate of expansion is itself accelerating, there must be a reason. At least part of the explanation lies in another astonishing conclusion that 96 percent of the matter and the energy of the universe is not observable directly but only calculable based upon the influence that it has on the observable segments of the universe. This 96 percent of nonobservable mass and energy is known as dark matter and energy. These are a few of the scientific conclusions discussed during the course of the symposium.

It is said that in about 1890 a physicist made the claim that the important theories of the physical universe had all been discovered and that the only work remaining to be done was to make more accurate measurements. Within a few years, however, Marie Curie had discovered radioactivity, and Albert Einstein had written his special theory of relativity. Now, with the observations from the Hubble telescope, we posit the existence of dark energy and dark matter, and we hear from the scientists who study such things that less than five percent of the universe we know is observable. This description suggests that, despite the astonishing amount we have learned about our universe, an enormous quantity is still to be discovered.

I reflect about this when I think about what has been said about blindness, about blind people, and about our capacity for intellectual effort. Too many people believe that everything worth knowing has already been learned about us, but we know better. We know that our horizons have been artificially restricted, and we postulate that they will be expanding at an accelerating rate to encompass fields of comprehension beyond everybody’s wildest imaginings.

An astronaut came to tell us about the rigors of her training to become a traveler in space. The plan for her initial ascent is that she will travel to the International Space Station sometime in the spring of 2010. This statement is awe-inspiring, and it stimulates contemplation of romantic adventure. However, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger told us that much of her training was hard, grueling work. She was trained to survive in the most hostile environments, and she was put to the most demanding tests. Achievement is frequently composed of the most romantic dreams and very hard work.

The space shuttle itself has three engines. It is launched with the aid of two solid rocket boosters. Officials of the Kennedy Space Center told us that at the time of launch 400,000 gallons of water are pumped onto the launch pad to diminish the noise and shock generated by the launch. Anybody within 800 feet of the launch pad would be killed by the heat. Anybody within 4,000 feet of the launch pad would be killed by sound, they said.

When the time for launch came, we were three miles away. When the shuttle began its climb, we were told that fuel was being consumed at 11,000 pounds per second. By the time we could no longer hear the sound of the shuttle, it had reached a height of several miles, on its way to orbit at 240 miles above the earth.

The Louis Braille commemorative coin—representing knowledge, representing learning, representing the desire to join in the excitement of life—was lifted from the earth on a journey to a place higher than almost anybody has ever been at a speed faster than almost anybody has ever traveled. Braille has shown the way, and some of us will follow. The launch of the Louis Braille coin was astonishing in many ways. We heard the rumble and felt the vibration.  It sounded like this: [What followed was a prolonged, floor-vibrating roar with voices from mission control periodically announcing the progress of the rocket. The experience was thrilling and wholly unexpected.]

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