Thursday, July 21, 2011

One reason to note July 21

So at 5:57 AM Eastern Time on Thursday, July 21, just one day after the 42nd anniversary of the first Moon landing, the space shuttle Atlantis landed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, bringing an end to the space shuttle program. Without it, the US will have no way of its own to send astronauts into space for at least several years.

It seems particularly correct to note this event about now because just a few days ago I was at a political gathering - maybe some of you were at similar ones; it was one of those events supposedly about "getting input" but really more a way to expand their mailing list - but anyway, I was there and at the meeting the participants were asked to cite a moment they felt proud of their country or community.

For my part, I said I preferred to think of it in terms of hopeful rather than proud and I cited the example of a state legislator in Massachusetts who changed his mind about supporting an amendment to the state constitution designed to overturn the state Supreme Judicial Court decision allowing for same sex marriage on the grounds that in the year since, "nothing happened." Except for those directly affected, i.e., those who could now marry, life went on as before and all the social stresses and upheavals that had been predicted never materialized - in which case, he said, he could find no reason for the amendment. That, I said, made me hopeful because it was a demonstration of the fact that people can change for the better.

The point of raising this here, though, is that another man there spoke of the Moon landing and how he later saw a space suit of the type the astronauts used with a section cut out so you could see the multiple layers that made up the suit, each with its own purpose, each designed by a team to work with the rest. He said he was impressed with the teamwork that took and asked something to the effect of “Why can’t we still do that? Why can't we still cooperate as a nation on a big project like that?”

I didn’t say say this at the time because it wasn't relevant to the meeting, but I thought to myself "NASA still does that - all the time."

We have become rather blase about space travel; it no longer gets the headlines, no longer generates the excitement, it once did. And our whole attitude about NASA and the end of the shuttle program is frankly confused or at least a real mixed bag.

But even without the star-quality treatment space stuff got in the past, NASA has continued to do some really cool, high-level-of-cooperation-required stuff.

- In February 2001, NASA landed a spaceprobe on an asteroid. Yes, landed.
- In 2005, a NASA probe blew away a section of a comet so we could get a better sense of how and of what they - and other things in the Solar System - are constructed.
- In March of this year, another NASA probe went back to same comet to see how it had changed over the intervening years as a result of the 2005 impact.
- In fact, that probe, called Stardust-NEXT, had been launched in 1999 and by January 2006 had flown through the coma of a comet, collected samples, and flown back past Earth, dropping off a payload of those samples as it went by. It was then sent back out to that second encounter with a different comet.
- Just four days ago, a robot spacecraft went into orbit around an asteroid 117 million miles from Earth.
- And NASA is now planning a mission to fly to an asteroid, take samples from it, and bring them back to Earth.
- Two months ago, a NASA Earth-orbiting satellite confirmed a far-reaching prediction of general relativity, that of "frame-dragging," where a spinning body (such as the Earth) actually warps spacetime by "dragging" spacetime around with it.
- Go back in time: Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched in 1977, are now 9 billion miles and 34 years from Earth and they are still producing new data and new discoveries. Just last month, NASA reported that data from the Voyagers shows that the heliosheath, the area where the effect of the solar wind (the stream of particles emitted by the Sun) is being attenuated by interactions with interstellar space, is full of a "froth" of bubbles of magnetic energy - a very unexpected discovery, which is the best kind.

The Hubble Space Telescope, source of all those cool images (and just yesterday, discoverer of a fourth moon around Pluto) - that's NASA. The Chandra X-Ray Observatory - that's NASA. The International Space Station (the ISS) - our part of that, that's NASA.

And tomorrow, NASA is scheduled to announce the landing site for the next Mars rover.

Ah yes, the Mars rovers. On January 4, 2004, the rover named Spirit landed on Mars. It was supposed to operate for 90 days and to travel for up to a kilometer. It ran for more than six years and went nearly 8km; that is, 25 times longer and eight times further than it was originally designed to. In fact, it would have gone longer and further but over a year ago, one of its wheels broke through what looked like a firm crust and the rover got trapped in loose sand. Unable to recharge its solar cells, it fell silent. On May 25, NASA made a final and unsuccessful attempt to contact Spirit.

But that's not really the end of the story, because a few weeks after Spirit landed, its twin rover Opportunity landed on another area of Mars. Now, more than seven years and 30km later, Opportunity is still going strong.

All of this I find exciting and wondrous - because it seems to me that space exploration is one of the purest expressions of what it is to be most human, what is (if you'll pardon the bad grammar) most unique about us: The desire to know. The desire to learn, to understand; the need to have our curiosity satisfied.

And that more than anything is what space exploration is about: knowing, learning, understanding. Knowing what we didn't know before, learning what we hadn't learned before, understanding what we didn't understand before, about time, about space, about how things came to be as they are, about how they will be in the future.

Yes, there have been technological benefits, lots of them - not the least of which is that NASA's need to miniaturize components to save space and weight (and therefore fuel) was a driving force behind the development of integrated circuits. But even without those benefits, the sheer - and I use the word deliberately - glory of knowledge, of learning, would have made it all worthwhile.

But now the space shuttle program, the headliner of US space exploration for the past good number of years, is over. Shut down. Shuttered. For the next several years, the US is going to have to depend on Russian spacecrafts to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS.

Why is this happening? Because Barack Obama wants to impose his vision of space exploration on NASA.

His vision is one in which the space shuttle does not fit, a vision that wants to turn over the sort of missions the shuttles ran to private, profit-driven, corporations. So again, as has happened so many times before, the government (i.e., the public) pays for the research, pays for the development, pays the costs of ironing out all of the inevitable but unexpected kinks, does all the dirty work, and then turns over the whole thing to the same prophets of profit that brag about their derring-do and entrepreneurship and would have us bow down before The Market (pbui).

Now, let's be both clear and fair: Barack Obama is hardly the first president to do this, to want to see his personal vision of space exploration become that of the nation. Indeed, JFK's call to go to the Moon was just that. And Obama does not want to end the space program, he just wants it to focus on what he thinks it should.

But what angers me is that there is no indication that he, anymore than the others before him, went to NASA and talked to the astrophysicists, talked to the astronautical engineers, talked to the astronauts, talked to the people who know what the hell they are talking about, and asked them what they thought was most important, what they thought would be most productive. No, he just wanted his vision, the Big Dream, the Big Picture of "manned" landings on asteroids and then on Mars.

The vision of humans landing on Mars is not, standing alone, objectionable and indeed I have argued that human space flight should remain part of the space program because the idea of people actually going and seeing - even if it is only a select few who are able to physically do that - has a grandeur of its own. But as it stands now, it is a vision that substitutes grandeur for actual learning while making a greater place for the whims of private profit.

And that is why the end of the space shuttle program makes me sad and the day is worth noting.

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