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A Window Into the Beginning of Time 

The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. 

― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Turn off the lights, step outside, and look up at the night sky any evening over the next few weeks, and there’s a good chance of seeing a shooting star. The Perseid meteor shower occurs every summer, peaking around August 12, as Earth moves through the debris field left behind by the comet 109P/Swift Tuttle. Each meteor is a tiny fragment of star stuff—dust and ice from the beginning of our solar system, kindled to brilliance as it skims through Earth’s atmosphere. 

Looking at the sky this summer comes with the breathtaking knowledge that we now know there are ten times more galaxies in the early universe than we knew about just last month. We have waded out further into the cosmic ocean than we have ever gone before. This is an important moment in history, one of the rare ones that offer hope instead of despair. The world was dazzled by the beauty of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, but these remarkable images inspired more than awe: they are already generating an entirely new understanding of our universe. 

In the spirit of our 2022 theme of “changemakers,” we’ll be taking a deeper look at this astonishing telescope in this issue of TNT, including its philosophical implications, and some of the revelations it is already providing for researchers all over the world. We are also looking back at the significant but problematic role our local mountains have played in the space race, in the development of the technology that has helped make marvels like the Webb Space Telescope possible, and expand our knowledge not only of space but of Earth. History changed because of things that happened here. This is knowledge that humans could never obtain without reaching for the stars, but it has come at a high price.

There’s a related aspect to this story in the news this week, too. The Rim of the Valley Corridor Preservation Act is back, and it’s one step closer to being passed into law (we have more details in our Newsbeat section). The plan to add 118,000 acres to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area was just approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It is now headed for a vote in the Senate. The companion bill was approved by the House of Representatives in February.

If this legislation is signed into law, it will protect and preserve more than natural resources and open space. The proposed Rim of the Valley Corridor encompasses many of the places where space history has been made in this area—from Malibu, where the laser, the atomic clock and satellite communications were developed at Hughes Research Laboratory, and TRW tested satellites in Solstice Canyon; to the land surrounding the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, where all of the rockets from Mercury 1 to the Space Shuttle program were tested, and even part of the mountains around JPL in Pasadena, where cutting-edge space science continues to make history. All of these places will potentially be located within the boundaries of the newly expanded National Recreation Area.

Several previous attempts to pass the Rim Act have failed, but the odds are better this time, although the window of opportunity is small. If the Act becomes law it will probably mean a new name for the newly expanded park. Those of us who frequently write about the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area would be glad if it was shorter. A name drawn from the Chumash, Tongva, or Tataviam people who have lived here for thousands of years would be appropriate, something that acknowledges the role our mountains have played in space exploration would be nice, too, and would be a pleasant change from parks named for soon-forgotten politicians.

There’s already a move to rename part of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory “’Alałpay,” a Chumash word meaning “the place of the astronomer.” It’s an acknowledgment of the ancient Chumash skywatchers who constructed astronomical alignments at the site, and the rocket tests that helped send humans into space in the 20th century. 

History is important. It’s the one thing we absolutely must carry with us as we travel into the future: a future in a universe that continues to expand, a future that doesn’t have to be dark or terrible, as long as we learn from the past.

Stay safe, be well. Take time to look at the stars.

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