There was a time when the only interaction the general public had with space exploration was passively via the media. Consequently, many people felt indifferent to space missions as they just didn't connect with them on a personal level.
That was pre-1996, and since then we have had the opportunity to actively participate in the exploration of space by sending our name toward the stars.
Now the names of millions of individuals sit on Mars or cling to an asteroid. And another batch slammed into a comet at over six miles per second. Those are toast.
NASA recently announced another opportunity to fly high. Anyone can get their name aboard the Glory satellite, the first mission dedicated to understanding the effects of particles in the atmosphere and the sun's temper on our climate. Participants will get a printable certificate and have their names recorded on a microchip aboard the spacecraft. The deadline to submit Nov. 1.
How did it all begin?
"The Planetary Society started flying members names as far back as Mars Pathfinder and the failed Mars '96, both launched in 1996," explained Bruce Betts, director of projects at the Planetary Society (TPS). "Name collection started with Cassini when the Planetary Society collected physical signatures and scanned them into electronic form to prepare them for a 1997 launch. It started as a way to let people feel more directly connected to space missions."
With the exception of two unfortunate spacecraft whose cargo of monikers lie at the bottom of the ocean, a total of 14 spacecraft have carried names into space.
Later this year, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is due to carry a microchip containing names submitted by the public using an online form. More than 1 million names were collected (the submission process has ended).
LRO is destined to end its days by crashing into the lunar surface, vaporizing the microchip. But that does not dampen the great spirit of participation invoked by sending your name into space.
"When people send their names on spacecraft, they often feel a greater sense of ownership and of interest in that mission. It inspires kids and adults to participate, even in so simple a way and gets them learning more about space." Betts said.
Not all missions to carry names end their days in such dramatic fashion as LRO. The CD affixed to the New Horizons spacecraft bound for Pluto will accompany the craft as it flies past Pluto and out of our solar system giving those whose names are etched onto the disc an eternal legacy.
"It is a quest for immortality (time capsule concept) for themselves or their family members," Betts told SPACE.com. "It is inspiring to feel that your name is going out to the far reaches of the solar system, it is different, it is easy to participate in, and it makes people feel a part of true exploration."
The disc aboard New Horizons could survive for billions perhaps even trillions of years, so when will it and others scattered about our solar system pass their use by dates?
"Silica glass DVDs like the ones we flew on the Mars Exploration Rovers and the [Mars Phoenix Lander] are extremely durable. Forever is a long time, but we do believe they will last in readable condition for at least many hundreds of years." Betts said.
It goes without saying that Betts' name has been carried into space many times, but one mission in particular is written on his heart: The Phoenix Mars Lander.
"In part because it is the most recent to arrive [on Mars], in part because it includes a library of Martian related literature and art in addition to names. But, I'm awfully fond of the Mars Exploration Rovers and all the other many places our names are headed."
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