Wednesday, July 26, 2006

One of these days . . . to the moon?

[Contrary to what it may seem, this isn’t actually an anti-Israeli blog.]

Writing shortly after the 36th anniversary of the moon landing by Apollo 12 on July 20th 1969, I'd like to say how happy I am that the space shuttle Discovery and its crew got back safe-and-sound and in one piece last Monday. And I'm delighted that my dire predictions of doom went unfounded. Knowing the history of the shuttle and the obvious dangers of manned space travel, I don't think it so far fetched to have been worried that something might go wrong. NASA administrator Michael Griffin was taking a calculated risk by sending the old rust bucket back into space. Because, keep in the mind, every time the shuttle blasts off it does so with a 1 in 50 chance of blowing up.

John M. Logsdon, the Director of the Space Policy Institute at Georgetown University and a member of the Columbia investigation is quoted in a NYT article saying the successful shuttle mission "shows that with appropriate care and vigilance, the odds of operating the shuttle with acceptable risks are good." However, Roger Pielke Jr., Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, points out in the same article that, "if the reliability of the shuttle is 99 percent, as the NASA has suggested, then there is a significant possibility there will be another lost shuttle before NASA completes the program."

So, as I say, although I'm glad that everything went according to schedule and the mission was completed. But I'm still puzzled as to why we're risking lives and spending so much time, money and effort to keep this space fossil flying. My question remains; what was accomplished on this mission that furthers our knowledge of space travel? Instead of exploring the mysteries of galaxies being born or examining far away solar systems, the shuttle's crew spent most of their very expensive time taking hundreds of high resolution photos of the shuttle. Nasa has spent zillions on adding new cameras and monitoring equipment to watch for flying bits of insulation and not too surprisingly they soon found the ever irksome gap-fillers dangling. This caused some consternation, but later it turned out to be nothing.

Sure they did a few space walks, but only to test something called "carbon-carbon" (brought to you by the department of redundancy department) a new method to keep the wings from falling off. Now what in the hell, you may ask, is "carbon carbon? The AP reports that carbon carbon is a "peanut butter-like repair goo," designed by the best minds our country has to offer, to spread on the skin of the shuttle to prevent it from suffering the fate of the Columbia.

AP: "The test produced many bubbles that could allow killer heat to penetrate [the shuttle] on reentry. This time, initial results showed some bubbles formed but did not join to become big, dangerous ones. [astronauts Piers Sellers and Michael Fossum] spread a thin layer of the mixture, then kept flipping it. At first, the astronauts said bubbles kept forming, but they were able to keep then to a minimum.:

Boy, you really have to watch out for those big dangerous bubbles. In the process of doing these very important experiments Sellers lost the space spatula he was using to spread the space peanut-butter and it went floating off into the void. The AP reported that "military monitors of space debris were notified of the new hazard to track." I hope they don't miss that big asteroid that's headed our way while they're focused on the spatula.

While I was reading about the spatula and the gap fillers I was thinking what a contrast this was to the grand visions Nasa had for the post Apollo future. Back in 1969 they were thinking that by now we'd already be on Mars. Andrew Chaikin in his excellent book "A Man on the Moon" writes that when Nixon got into office he commissioned the Space Task Group to come up with a plan for the post Apollo era. Nasa administrator Tom Paine wanted to follow through with Kennedy's notions of the United States becoming a spacefaring nation. Apollo had given us the means to go to other plants, so all we needed to do was take advantage of that technology.

Chaikin writes: "The task group's timetable called for a twelve-man space station and a reusable space shuttle as early as 1975, depending on funding. By 1980 the station would have gone to a fifty-man space base; five years later there would be a hundred men in orbit. Meanwhile, there would be a base in lunar orbit by 1976, with a base on the lunar surface two years later. Then, as early as 1981, the first manned expedition to Mars would depart earth orbit." [page 232]

We went to the moon in a space ship built with duct tape and bailing wire, with computers that were made of wires with little indentations that denoted 1 and 0; and we did it in less than 10 years having started from scratch. 30 years later we're worrying about birds pooping on our space ships waiting to take off, while the Chinese are way closer to putting a man on the moon than we are; never mind W.'s plans for going to Mars!

At the same time Fossum and Sellers were splattering each other with carbon carbon, a businessman was launching his own inflatable space ship, the Genesis. Robert Bigelow plans to build an orbital outpost made of sections of inflatable segments strung together to make a space hotel or even a sports arena. This is the kind of imagination and moxy we need to regain our position as the premier spacefaring nation in the world.

We either have to get serious about building a space ship that won't blow up every 50 times it goes up and come up with a coherent plan to go to another planet, or we need to drop the idea of manned space missions entirely and put our money and scientific genius into exploring the universe with cheap but effective craft like the Mars rovers. It's not like money grows on trees and W. has already broke the bank with his perfect little war in Iraq, so we have to make a choice. Otherwise, we're just going to wind up watching the rest of the world pass us by in scientific breakthroughs while we debate whether the Bible should be taught in science class.

The NYT reported on Saturday that Nasa bigwigs pulled a switcheroo back in February that changed the organization's mission statement. Since 2002 the statement read: "To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers . . . as only Nasa can." Now, they've eliminated the 'understand and protect our home planet' part and replaced those words with: "To pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research." David E. Seitz, a spokesman for Nasa, says this was done to focus the agency’s attention on W.'s plans for manned missions to the Moon and Mars.

Of course, the real reason is that W. doesn't want to understand and protect our home planet because that might mean doing something about global warming. This all goes back to Nasa scientist John Hansen, who I've written about before, who has been causing a stir about climate change for a very long time. To W. & co. he's a pain in the ass they want silenced. A while back the administration placed one of their political commissars, George Deutsch, in the Nasa press department to make sure these egg-head scientists weren't peeing on W.'s parade. [NYT]

The fact that Hansen kept citing the 'understand and protect our home planet' part of the mission statement as a rationale for Nasa doing something about climate change has caused some people to think this is the reason behind the change in the mission statement. David Seitz says it's all "pure coincidence." Yeah, I believe that, don't you?


Blogger Heresiarch said...

Bigelow's achievement is impressive, but the real stakes are much higher in space. How High?

9:31 PM  

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