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The people behind Juno

Editor’s note: This column originally published July 14, 2016.

The 24-hour cable news cycle and social media feeds are littered with stories of failed government — United States political turmoil, United Kingdom’s “Brexit,” Saudi Arabia perpetuating and endorsing homophobic and sexist culture, human rights/free speech suppression in China.

Everywhere, people are loosing faith in their governments. But there is always Juno.

I don’t know why our president and congress are not talking more about the successes of NASA. It’s a model for international cooperation through the International Space Station — making huge gains in research and development with space agencies from many world nations talking to one another through science.

NASA has made partnerships with multi-national corporations to cut costs and boost commercial stakes in space exploration. This U.S. government agency successful and seamlessly works with the Russian Space Agency during a time of strained relations between the two countries.

And then there’s Juno.

A solar-powered space craft no larger than a school bus, Juno entered into orbit around Jupiter on July. This is only the second time any Earth space agency has accomplished this, the first being NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the mid-1990s.

Engineers and scientists at NASA pulled off what they’ve characterized as the most difficult maneuver ever attempted by a spacecraft — manned or unmanned. After using the Earth’s rotational velocity to slingshot itself past the asteroid belt, Juno entered the region of space dominated by the gravitational pull and radiation of the “King of Planets.”

The spacecraft had to go into radio silence with Earth as it turned its engine toward Jupiter for a 35 minute burn to slow its approach. Finally, Juno had to pivot once again to point its solar panels toward the Sun and reestablish radio contact with Earth. This was all done relatively blind from NASA’s mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

During the next 20 months Juno will analyze Jupiter’s inner core, answering an old question in planetary science — does our solar system’s largest planet have a solid core? It will test Jupiter’s atmospheric composition for water and heavy elements. Juno’s primary mission is to discover the secrets of Jupiter’s formation, widely thought to be the oldest planet in our solar system. This could give NASA scientist clues about how our planetary system as a whole formed.

But the data must be analyzed by people.

Politics might be broken, but people are not. The government institutions which defend our nation, advance planetary, earth and climate science, build our roads and bridges all have flaws, but there are people behind the efforts — people with personal pride who are all too modest about their completed projects.

We can change the political system, but lets not forget, given the right conditions, people make government work.

Contact Mike Mendenhall at

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