After 17 and a half years — more than three times its original life expectancy — the Ulysses space probe will be shut down. Ulysses, which was a joint effort of NASA and the European Space Agency, has studied the Sun, the solar wind, cosmic rays, sun spots, and other solar activity and has provided unprecedented and interesting data that scientists expect to study for years to come. Power produced by the spacecraft’s generators has declined, and it therefore will receive its shut-down command on July 1. The European Space Agency website has a number of interesting links on Ulysses and its activities.
I love science stories, and it is always exciting to see a scientific effort that pays great dividends and demonstrates the capabilities of our existing space program and the possibilities for future exploration. Ulysses posed huge engineering challenges during its 17-year run, and the project managers and engineers performed masterfully. Among other things, they came up with an inventive solution to a potential freeze-up problem that allowed the spacecraft to continue to provide data for another year longer than expected. The fine work on the Ulysses project hearkens back to the days when NASA, through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, was a “federal agency that could.” Its activities promoted excellence, spurred many technological advancements, and encouraged many young Americans to become excited about science, math, and space exploration. For precisely those reasons, money spent on space exploration is money well spent.