Friday, July 15, 2011

The end of the space age?

Much has been written recently about the impending end of the United States' ability to send astronauts into orbit. And I have to admit, I have some mixed feelings. This video from the perspective of the rocket boosters that the Space Shuttle jettisoned on its way into orbit really demonstrates how impressive manned space flight really is. Minute 2:35 is particularly cool:

With the retirement of the last Space Shuttle, American Astronauts will now fly on Russian vehicles into orbit and to the International Space Station. I don't know about you, but if I was an Astronaut I wouldn't be too excited to go from the cushy Space Shuttle to this:

I am sad to live in a United States that no longer values space exploration. I understand that in these difficult economic times, it is hard to value space exploration over health care. But this is a false choice that our elected leaders in Washington DC have forced us into making. We are sacrificing the long term future of our civilization by willfully ignoring the wonders of even our own tiny solar system.

There is a liquid water ocean under miles of Ice on Jupiter's moon Europa. Saturn's moon of Titan has a liquid hydrocarbon ocean and Enceladus spews liquid water into space. There are tantalizing signs of past life on Mars. There is water on the Moon. And there are untold deposits of rare and valuable minerals in the asteroid belt. We are only beginning to understand the wonders that are on our cosmological doorstep.

And yet we withdraw.

Where is our passion to understand the universe? Where is our drive to better ourselves and our species? Why can't we see how important grand endeavors are to our national and global psyches?

I love science fiction because it gives me some hope for the future of the human race. I know it may be hard to justify in the short term world of continuing resolutions and quarterly profits, but the true value of programs like NASA far exceed their costs on the government ledger.

Shows like Star Trek The Next Generation are more to me than just great entertainment. TNG represents the absolute best case scenario for the next 400 years. We don't blow our selves up, we put an end to war and poverty and treat all people and aliens for that matter, as equals. Oh yeah, and you don't have to work if you don't want to because we have nearly unlimited energy sources and the ability to replicate matter at will. What is not to like?

I also love novels like Kim Stanley Robinson's fantastic series Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. However this series paints a much more realistic vision of our future including powerful transnational corporations that replace the nation and state start the process of terraforming Mars.

So maybe I shouldn't fret too much about the end of publicly funded human space flight. Besides we are still kicking ass when it comes to robotic missions. For instance as I write, the successful robotic ion drive powered space probe Dawn is arriving to begin its study of the massive asteroid Vesta before heading on to the dwarf planet Ceres.

For those of you who haven't read The Red Mars series, I won't ruin the story by saying what I think about how the hypothetical colonization of Mars turns out. Lets just say, I hope we can get our act together and achieve what the human race is destined to accomplish. The colonization and exploration of space.

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