Sunday, January 28, 2007

Tragedy, Fear, Hope, and SPAAAAACE!!

This weekend is a dark one for space enthusiasts.

It falls amongst the anniversaries of the 3 greatest US space tragedies, The Apollo 1 fire which killed the first 3 Apollo astronauts. The explosion Challenger and all 7 of her crew, which burned itself into the consciousness of millions of school children watching what they thought was to be the first teacher in space, and the disintegration of Columbia which scattered the remains of her international crew across Texas and Arkansas.

Throughout history, explorers charting unexplored territories have failed to come back, exploration is inherently dangerous and Space exploration doubly so, but historically one has seldom had such failures become massive media events (Only Franklin and Scott come to mind) and of course their deaths and those of their crews did not get broadcast live into the homes of people eating breakfast.

There was also seldom a hue and cry to make them die in vain, to run away and give up, as many of those now politically ascendant are so often want to do.
(It has happened of course, the wearieness after so many died trying in vain to save Franklin's party stopped arctic exploration for some years.)

While this is aNOT a uniquely modern problem, It does seem to be a bigger issue today than in times past. Safety obsessed, risk adverse bureaucrats and other nanny staters completely miss the point of those pictures. The optimism and idealism of those crews is plain to see, every one of them saw themselves as opening up a new frontier. The last thing on earth they would have wanted would be to become the instruments of the closing of the heavens to humanity...
...and yet, after each tragedy there were countless visionless twits who sought to end or curtail manned spaceflight as a waste of resources and lives.

Such people have little time for the thoughts of those who volunteer to ride fire into space. Unlike many, the astronaut corps has always been well aware of the risks involved in spaceflight, they train for these hazards constantly and they are fully willing to put their lives on the line for what is a tremendously important undertaking.

After, Apollo 1, Walter Mondale came surprisingly close to ending the Apollo program through parliamentary tactics and populist posturing. Visionless politico that he was, he saw the space program as a waste of lives and, more importantly a waste of capital that he could use for vote buying schemes. The program might have ended there if there hadn't been a lingering of support for what was thought (wrongly)to be a slain president's great wish.

After both the Challenger and Columbia disasters there was a hue and cry to stop sending people and send machines instead. This is sometimes presented simplistically to be university scientists disliking rocket jockeys contrasting themselves to their own nebbishness. While there is certainly something to that, the real reason on the science end was the perception that the human element added unreliability, expense and uncertainty to experiments that might take years to get approval (Rember, most NASA astronauts are now scientists)

As the Brits have learned, this is a false economy. Their space program has floundered without a manned component, whereas in the US, many robotic missions are approved in part because they are sold as supporting future manned efforts.

The response of the President after the Columbia disaster was actually suprisingly good. Although there are certainly criticisms of the architecture and the dinosaur-like NASA bureaucracy, the POTUS made it plain that we would not turn away from space and the increible potential for humanity there.

The Orion Program moves slower than many would like. It is also the sort of top down govt. civil works project that doesn't lend itself to dynamism or flexibility, but that inertia might save it. It is also good to remember that this approach has worked in the past for speciffic ngineering feats with a set goal, the Manhattan Project, Apollo of course, but, perhaps more relevant (given the plans for infrastructure on the moon), the interstate highway system.

Additionally, NASA, (really, for the first time since Kennedy so drastically changed NASAs focus) is actually working WITH rather than against private manned space efforts. The COTS program encourages private sector involvement in things like Space Station resupply and since the big ponderous boosters and Orion primary spaceships are taken up by the traditional MIC contractors this effort is now the purview of innovative and dynamic start-ups.

Again, the most significant and heartening thing is that NASA is not the only game in town in the USA anymore, private enterprise is launching people into space and soon there will be space hotels for them to go to! :) Currently NASA is assisting rather than hindering these efforts. In the past govt. beauraucrats often seemed to use passive-aggressive little bureaucratic machinations to thwart or suffocate private space efforts that werent already in their rolodex of contractors. These are the most important developments. An admittedly clumsy historical analogy would have NASA as Lewis and Clark and these start ups as the settelers with their Conestoga Wagons.

NASA can send people and robots to places not economically viable, and cislunar space can become the stepping stone for humanity to reach the stars.

We are closer to our destiny than we have ever been. Pray those who want to cut and run in all things don't apply their catch all solution to this too...

Anyway, here is a space roundup for this week.

From the Space Review comes this disturbing article on current youth ambivelance...indeed disbelief in the space program.

With no frame of reference, landing astronauts on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth seems like a fantasy. Having learned of the destruction of the shuttle Columbia and the death of its crew upon its re-entry on February 1, 2003, they do not believe America had the technological capability in the 1960s to send astronauts to the Moon and return them safely to Earth.
The cynical respondents believe the video images they see of US astronauts on the Moon are somehow faked, for whatever reason, being ignorant of the geopolitical ramifications of the cold war during the 1960s that drove America to beat the Soviets to the Moon.

Of course, the media doesn't help the public understand technology very much as this astonishing screengrab from CNN reminds us....

Pournelle once wrote that the definition of a Dark Age is not merely forgetting how to do something...but forgetting that your people once COULD do it.

On a more positive note, Tales of the Heliosphere looks at a way to lick this problem,one that I really like, but will likely freak some people out.....of course said people are people who NEED to be freaked out from time to time, but, as many of them are in leadership in the new might be a bit much right now.

E-Dog has video of a Russian sattelite falling to earth in Arizona!

The Space Review has another good set of reasons why the Presidents moon plan is actually a good idea.

...and MSNBC has a post on NASA's moon base plans.

Selenian Boondocks has an analysis of why Bigelow's space hotel will be in the orbit they've chosen.

Taylor Dineman posts on an ASAT system that might not cause a terrible debris issue like the Chicom ASAT test did recently....heh.. a glue gun in space!

Here is an article from last year on new developments in ANTIMATTER ENGINE design! Wow!

NASA chairman Mike Griffin talks space and economics here....and gives more reasons, both acceptable and actual for the continued program here.

One more really important, if old piece from the Space Review. From 2 years ago, comes this article on the potential to mine platinum group metals on the moon. This is incredibly important in that fuel cells all require platinum group metals to work. For those offended by space tourism (and some are) This is another market right there....and it'll save the environment too!

There is much we have to mourn regards our fitfull steps into space over the last 40 or so years. Not just fallen heroes, but squandered oppertunities. But the oppertunities still beckon, and the heroes need not have died in vain. We are close now to opening up a whole new chapter in our with unimaginable potential for real progress.

So dance people! :)

UPDATE: A formatting error made this piece look....really odd. Now fixed....I think.

Also fixed paragraph 8 to make gramatical sense.

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