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Is space study worthwhile? Kansans Steve and John Hawley offer their views

University of Kansas professor Steve Hawley sits in front of a projected photo of the Hubble Space Telescope. Hawley, an astronomer and astronaut, made five flights into orbit on the Space Shuttle and was the person who deployed the Hubble into orbit.
University of Kansas professor Steve Hawley sits in front of a projected photo of the Hubble Space Telescope. Hawley, an astronomer and astronaut, made five flights into orbit on the Space Shuttle and was the person who deployed the Hubble into orbit. The Wichita Eagle

Steve and John Hawley are brothers who grew up in Salina, with a few years spent in Maryland. Both studied astronomy in college.

Steve became an astronomer and astronaut. John became a theoretical astrophysicist.

Both say they have spent their lifetimes hearing some people question whether it is worth it to go to space, or to study basic science, or astronomy, or Newtonian mechanics, or black holes in space. How are these subjects practical?

Here is their take on that question:

Steve Hawley

“In the 19th century, some people started looking at the sun and asking how come it didn’t burn itself out. They knew by then that the Earth was old and so was the sun, which they knew then was a burning ball of gas. ‘How come the sun is still shining?’

“You could argue that wondering about that didn’t matter.

“But one thing that led to, after many years, was the idea of fusion. And that led to the atomic age. And again, some might say that is a bad thing – atomic weapons. So again you could ask, ‘Why do this?’

“But what if, someday, maybe 50 years from now, we build on all that knowledge we’ve gathered? And we develop power based on fusion? It might not happen for another 50 years. But if we do that – that will be a good thing.

“And it would all have started with the 19th century, when people looked at the sun and asked questions.”

John Hawley

“Steam engines are a good thing because trains can move a lot of weight around. So let’s say you want to build a steam engine. How do you do that?

“Basic science, on the other hand, starts with a broader question. Isaac Newton pondered the fall of an apple. What significance does that have?

“Later he asked another question: Why do planets move the way they move?

“That led to an understanding of the whole area of Newtonian mechanics. Acceleration. Mass. The laws of motion. All engineering is based on that.

“Human intelligence began to understand the motion of what they saw in the heavens. That led to our understanding of movement of objects on Earth. After that, we could calculate technical problems in detail. What force does a steam engine need to pull a train?”

So let’s say you want to build a steam engine.

“You have two choices: You could build a whole lot of steam engines, and pick which one you think does the job best.

“Or you can study Newtonian mechanics.”

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