Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lost In Space?

News came this week that NASA's Constellation program is being stopped. Constellation was supposed to be the next generation of space shuttles. The current shuttle program is scheduled to end after 3 more flights. After that, NASA will have to rely on Russian rockets to get material and personnel back and forth to the International Space Station. It seems that the trend now is toward unmanned, robotic space missions to the moon, Mars and beyond. Manned missions have become too dangerous and expensive.

Actually, it seems to me that space missions have always been dangerous. A couple of days ago was the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, which very nearly ended in horrendous disaster as a fuel tank exploded on the command module. It was only through the raw, sheer courage and grit of the onboard team and many more support personnel on the ground that the astronauts were safely returned to Earth. You would think that after 40 years of technological improvements it would be less dangerous to go to the moon now. So, what's changed?

Unfortunately, it's the "expensive" part. Things are so much different now. Everything is much more costly, and the recent recession and the dizzying, catastrophic bail-outs have dried up the supply of ready cash. A manned mission to Mars would cost billions. In fact I remember reading a story a while back which suggested the next mission to Mars would be a one-way mission; that is, astronauts would leave Earth and go to Mars without any intention of returning, since it would be impractical to carry enough fuel for the return voyage. As chilling as that is, Mars remains our next frontier, with the moon and all its recently-discovered water deposits a close second.

Robotic probes certainly have done very well in expanding our scientific horizons. The Cassini probe to Saturn has returned many thousands of astounding photographs of the most beautiful planet in the Solar System. The MESSENGER spacecraft has revealed the sun-blasted surface of Mercury in incredible detail. And most exciting is the New Frontiers mission to the vicinity of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon, speeding along at over 70,000 mph and set to reach Pluto in 2015. And who can forget the Hubble Space Telescope, which has revolutionized our view of the universe and consequently, our view of ourselves.

But manned missions to space and to the moon have been such a rallying cause, a way for the entire world to unite and experience the wonder of exploration not as a collection of separate nations but as a species, a race, a planet. People who were alive at the time will always remember when Neil Armstrong took his first step onto the surface of the moon in 1969. Even the normally unflappable Walter Cronkite was clearly overcome with emotion and, for a while, speechless. That only happened to him one other time that I recall - when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The scientific work behind the space effort was directly responsible for hugely important advances in science, engineering, technology and medicine, to name a few fields that have benefitted. Without manned missions we would not have the surreal and amazing picture of space-suited astronauts jauntily hopping across the lunar surface in gravity one-sixth that of Earth, and raising a pole with a slightly-crumpled American flag, as if it were flapping in the breeze. And the famous photograph of the "big blue marble," taken of the planet Earth as it hung motionless in the infinite blackness of space, all flawless and serene and most of all, small and insignificant. It was the perfect picture for the times, and really changed a lot of minds about the fragility of the planet we inhabit and the grave importance of taking care of it. You could argue that the current "green" movement got its start with that famous picture.

I'm sure that future robotic missions will continue to rewrite the pages of science but somehow, there is not the personal impact of following a number of brave men and women as they take tentative, dangerous steps off our planetary cradle and into the cold and the dark of space. Neil Armstrong took a "giant leap" for us, and it seemed as if we were there with him. We don't get that kind of buy-in with a robot. I don't fault Obama for making the tough call - maybe we should blame the greedy dirtbags in Congress and on Wall Street which have brought misery to so many and nearly plunged the entire world into a deadly serious financial depression. But by "oursourcing" our tradition of exploration to machines, we lose a little bit of the best side of humanity. I hope we get back into space again, soon.

In other news, the level of batshit-craziness in the world took a giant leap with the recent pairing of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann in some ridiculous, stupid Tea Party flatulence festival. It's hard to put up with the hokey, phony folksiness of Palin. It's even harder to understand how anyone could take her seriously, being that she is so far beyond idiotic it's not even funny anymore. But Michelle Bachmann is even more profoundly mentally ill than Palin. Bachmann is truly ignorant and a menace to anyone who has the least interest in saving the tradition of meaningful political discourse in this country. Some women think that having these two dimwits on the national stage is somewhat of a triumph for women's rights but ladies, take it from me, it does the worthy cause of women's liberation a grave disservice. It is not an advancement if women set themselves up to be as stupid, venal, obnoxious and vile as men. It is not raising your gender up to new heights - by emulating and imitating all that is petty, ignorant and loathsome about men, you do nothing but lower yourself to their level. And that is not liberation.

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