Category Archives: Space

The year 34 AE (After Evoloterra)

Five hundred million years ago, the moon summoned life out of its first home, the sea, and led it onto the empty land. For as it drew the tides across the barren continents of primeval earth, their daily rhythm exposed to sun and air the creatures of the shallows. Most perished ? but some adapted to the new and hostile environment. The conquest of the land had begun.

We shall never know when this happened, on the shores of what vanished sea. There were no eyes or cameras present to record so obscure, so inconspicuous an event. Now, the moon calls again ? and this time life responds with a roar that shakes earth and sky.

When the Saturn V soars spaceward on nearly four thousand tons of thrust, it signifies more than a triumph of technology. It opens the next chapter of evolution.

No wonder that the drama of a launch engages our emotions so deeply. The rising rocket appeals to instincts older than reason; the gulf it bridges is not only that between world and world ? but the deeper chasm between heart and brain.

— Sir Arthur C. Clarke (L’Envoi)

Remember, and celebrate.

[Update at 3:05 PM PDT]

There’s more at Winds of Change, including Jews in space…

Millionaires Queuing Up For A Ride To Space

The competition to ride into space, as well as to provide rides, is heating up. According the linked article, Space Adventures had a little soire in London to show off potential services to well-heeled clients, and it does indeed look as though (assuming that NASA gets the Shuttle flying again), there will be a purely commercial space tourism mission coming up. And also according to the article, Richard Branson would like to lose his space Virginity.

There’s also a continued shift in perception underway:

…not everyone with an interest in British space exploration was excited about the prospect of the UK’s first space tourist. Professor Colin Pillinger, the Open University scientist leading the Beagle 2 project to Mars, was among them.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Professor Pillinger. “I doubt very much whether Nasa will let people just drop into the International Space Station for a cup of tea.

This kind of snooty dismissal is not atypical of responses from space science types. But what’s different is the next quote from him, which shows that at last, he and his colleagues may be starting to get it. I should also note that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, because in fact NASA has done just that, twice.

“The only possible benefit I can see from all this is that if more people are going into space, rockets will become cheaper for the rest of us.”

Exactly. That’s the point.

And that should be benefit enough for you, if not for those of us who want to go, so maybe you’ll at least stop poo-pooing it?

History Repeats

I know very little about what happened (even less than many of you, probably), because I just got up and heard the news. I got a phone call this morning from a friend on the east coast.

Like Challenger, this was not a survivable accident. There is no escape system in the Shuttle, for sound engineering reasons.

First my condolences to the friends and family of the crew, and to the nation of Israel, which has suffered so much during the past few years. It has to be a tremendous blow.

I hate to talk about good news/bad news in a situation like this, but let’s just say that it could have been worse.

In the “it could have been worse” category, of all the vehicles to use, Columbia was the least valuable, because it was the oldest in the fleet, and the heaviest. For this reason, it was rarely used for ISS missions, because its payload capability was much less (which is why it was being used for this non-ISS mission).

Also, at least the mission was completed before it happened.

Because it was the oldest bird, if it happened as a result of a simple structural failure (e.g., keel or spar), that would have been the most likely vehicle to which it would occur. On the other hand, that would only explain it if it were a consequence of age. If it’s cycle fatigue, I’d have to go look it up, but I don’t know if Columbia had more flights under its belt than the rest of the fleet.

WARNING: RAMPANT SPECULATION AHEAD

Here are the possibilities off the top of my head.

Terrorism: possible, but unlikely. If it were, it was a result of sabatoge–not being shot down. It would be difficult for us to take out such a target under those conditions (though the missile defense system under test could probably do it). No one else has such a capability, as far as I know. If it were sabatoge, it could have been something done to the vehicle before it left the ground, either a pressure-sensitive detonation (e.g., something that arms itself when it goes into vacuum, and then goes off when it senses atmospheric pressure again). This seems too sophisticated for Al Qaeda. It could also be simply sawing through the wing spar before the flight, because most of the stress on that member occurs during entry.

Failure of TPS: It could be that it lost some tiles during ascent–sometimes ice falls off the ET during launch, and it could have taken some out in a critical area, perhaps along the leading edge of the wings. Since this flight didn’t go to ISS, no one would have necessarily seen the damage from outside the Shuttle. This would result in burnthrough of a wing, which would quickly propagate through and then tear it off, after which the vehicle would break up from aerodynamic pressure.

I just heard the CNN announcer say that the airframe was “certified” for a hundred missions. Certification is not really the right word. “Designed to meet the requirement of” would be more accurate. Certification would imply that we had sufficient experience with such things to know that it was really capable of that, and we simply don’t.

Next theory, as I already mentioned would be structural failure due to age or cycles. I think that the primary structure is aluminum (though the spar and keel may be titanium–I don’t recall for sure). I wouldn’t think that this is a likely failure, but it’s certainly possible.

The last one I can think of (other than alien attack), would be a loss of the attitude control system (either the flight computers, or an RCS valve stuck open, or an actuator problem on a control surface) which would result in a bad orientation, which again could cause aerodynamic breakup.

OK, one more. Somehow the hypergolics in the OMS/RCS system mixed and caused an explosion.

All of these seem unlikely, but it’s probably one of them.

What does it mean for the program?

Like Challenger, it was not just a crew that “looked like America” (two women, one african american) but it also had the Israeli astronaut on board, which will have some resonance with the war.

Instead of happening just before the State of the Union, it occured three days after. It also occured two days before NASA’s budget plans were to be announced, including a replacement, or at least backup, for the Shuttle.

The fleet will certainly be grounded until they determine what happened, just as occurred in the Challenger situation. Hopefully it won’t be for almost three years. If it is, the ISS is in big trouble, and it means more money off to Russia to keep the station alive with Protons and Soyuz. The current crew can get back in the Soyuz that’s up there now. They will either do that, or stay up longer, and be resupplied by the Russians.

The entire NASA budget is now in a cocked hat, because we don’t know what the implications are until we know what happened. But it could mean an acceleration of the Orbital Space Plane program (I sincerely hope not, because I believe that this is entirely the wrong direction for the nation, and in fact a step backwards). What I hope that it means is an opportunity for some new and innovative ideas–not techically, but programmatically.

Once again, it demonstrates the fragility of our space transportation infrastructure, and the continuing folly of relying on a single means of getting people into space, and doing it so seldom. Until we increase our activity levels by orders of magnitude, we will continue to operate every flight as an experiment, and we will continue to spend hundreds of millions per flight, and we will continue to find it difficult to justify what we’re doing. We need to open up our thinking to radically new ways, both technically and institutionally, of approaching this new frontier.

Anyway, it’s a good opportunity to sit back and take stock of why the hell we have a manned space program, what we’re trying to accomplish, and what’s the best way to accomplish it, something that we haven’t done in forty years. For that reason, while the loss of the crew and their scientific results is indeed a tragedy, some good may ultimately come out of it.

I’m driving back down to LA today, but I’ll have some more thoughts this evening or tomorrow, particularly as more details emerge.

[Quick update before I leave, about 9:25 AM]

Someone in the comments section asks if the vehicle will be replaced. No, that’s not really possible-much of the tooling to build it is gone. It would cost many billions, and take years, and it’s not really needed at the current paltry flight rate. Assuming that they have confidence to fly again after they determine the cause, they’ll continue to operate with the three-vehicle fleet, until we come up with a more rational way of getting people into space, whatever that turns out to be. Unfortunately, because it’s a government program, I fear that the replacement(s) won’t necessarily be more rational…

[One more update at 9:49 AM PST]

Dale Amon has posted on this as well. To correct a couple of statements regarding me, however–I’m arriving in LA tonite–I’m leaving San Bruno this morning, and driving down.

And I never worked on the Shuttle directly. I worked for Rockwell, but in Downey, not Palmdale, and on advanced programs and Shuttle evolution, but not on the main Shuttle program itself.

[OK, one one more before hitting the road, at 10 AM]

Donald Sensing says in the comments:

I have read and respected this blog as long as I’ve been blogging. But today, Rand, I am sorry to say you blew it: “. . . but let’s just say that it could have been worse” and etc.

I just don’t give care about all that. This kind of “analysis” is not relevant at this point. It doesn’t matter. This is a human tragedy in which seven brave men and women violently died.

The social context of these deaths, and the publicly spectacular manner of their deaths, raise the tragedy beyond the personal to a different level. This sad event is a “meta-event,” whose significance is not quantitative (seven dead) but qualitative, striking close to the core of certain aspects of the American national identity. So it does not matter that Columbia was the oldest, or that its mission was completed (and the mission’s cost money wasn’t wasted) and all the rest. At least, it does not matter now, and it may not ever matter, even to NASA. The human scale of the tragedy far outweighs the technical scale.

Donald, thanks for the comments, but with all due respect, I disagree, and that kind of attitude is exactly why the manned space program has been such a disaster for so long. As long as we elevate the humans over the hardware, and emotions over rational discussion, we will never make significant progress in this frontier.

People die on frontiers, (and even in non-frontiers–more died in traffic accidents in the past twenty-four hours than have died in space since we first started going there) and if we can’t accept that, then we have no damned business being there.

I’ll expand on that in a post later this weekend. In fact, it may be the subject of a (perhaps coldhearted, to some) Fox column.

Look Ma, No Pilot!

[Warning, long space policy post]

That seems to be NASA’s current attitude, and just one more reason that the Space Launch Initiative program should be hauled up to the top of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Cape and hurled off the roof.

They’re proposing (as was the case with X-33) that the new launch system be designed to be flown unpiloted, and have a separate, separable crew module when it has to carry people.

This notion of manned vs. unmanned launchers contains many myths. Even people who are supposedly expert often don’t quite understand the issues involved.

One of those myths goes back to the Challenger disaster. Prior to it, Shuttle had been taking up commercial satellite payloads, as part of NASA’s efforts to get the flight rate up, and thus reduce their per-flight costs. This had the incidental effect of severely damaging, and in fact almost destroying, the nascent commercial launch industry at the time, since the private developers were competing with a government-subsidized system.

After the Challenger disaster, an edict was laid down that Shuttle would no longer fly commercial payloads. As is usually the case when the government does the right thing (banning commercial payloads which were injuring the commercial launch industry), it was for entirely the wrong reason. The rationale was, instead, that “never again should our brave astronauts risk their lives doing things for which they’re not required” (launching satellites).

The thinking here is that since commercial satellites can be launched on unmanned launchers, they should be launched on unmanned launchers. Never mind the fact that Shuttle launches are rarely single purpose, or that the costs may be lower (though in fact they weren’t really–only the price was). At the heart of this thinking, of course, is the notion that spaceflight is dangerous, and intrinsically so. So since any human spaceflight is risky, we should restrict it to those purposes for which it is required that humans be aboard.

This would be a reasonable enough position, if it were true that a) spaceflight is inherently dangerous and that b) having humans aboard doesn’t increase the probability of a successful mission.

Now for Shuttle, both of those assumptions may be valid, though for assumption (b) there were a number of cases in which crew checkout of the satellites prior to deployment might have been the difference between success and failure, even more so if the mission were designed with this capability in mind.

But there’s no reason to think that it will be true for any future space transport.

Despite this, as always, the generals are fighting the last war, and NASA thinks that one of the problems with the Shuttle was that it was designed to fly crew on every flight, and are thus incorporating that “lesson” into the SLI program–by designing it to be capable of unmanned operation.

There is another factor that drives this decision. It’s called “man rating.” This is a concept that everyone who is familiar with space programs thinks they understand, and that very few, in fact, do. The myth here is that vehicles designed to carry people are intrinsically more expensive to design, build and operate, because they are “man rated.” Now in the case of the next-generation Shuttle envisioned by NASA, even without a crew, the vehicle will still have to be “man rated,” because it’s meant to carry passengers in a separate module in the payload bay, so they won’t get the cost savings that conventional thinking would indicate by not “man rating” it.

But the very notion that a space transport, even one that carries pilots and passengers must be “man rated”, or that it will cost more than one that doesn’t carry crew or passengers, is yet another myth.

To understand why, it’s necessary to understand what man rating really means, and why it’s therefore inapplicable to the new launch systems envisioned. And in fact, here’s a shocking bit of news, to people who don’t fully understand the concept–the Shuttle is not man rated.

A couple of years ago, I posted the following contribution (with some minor edits) to an FAQ over on sci.space.policy, which set off a rousing two-hundred-plus post thread/debate, but not one that ultimately changed my basic thesis.

Q: What is man rating, and what are its implications for the cost of designing, manufacturing, and operating a launch vehicle?

A: Man rating is a process by which design and operations of an expendable launch vehicle are analyzed and, if necessary, changed to reduce the chances of injuring or killing any person who might use it for transportation, relative to its design and operations prior to such analysis and modification.

It evolved as a practice in the 1960s, when, in our hurry to get to the Moon, we used existing ballistic missiles as the basis for our launch systems, rather than develop new space transportation systems from scratch (the Saturn was an exception to this).

The premise was that because these systems were designed to be used only once, and would be used en masse and redundantly (to lob warheads at folks to kill them and break their stuff), their individual reliability was sacrificed to a degree, in the interests of globally minimizing the overall cost. The reliability of the individual launch systems that resulted from this philosophy was deemed unsatisfactory for putting people on top of them (even for the early astronauts, who were test pilots at Muroc and Pax River, and riding on top of a tested guided missile was probably the safest thing that they’d ever done in their interesting careers).

Without getting into detail, it involved improving the reliability of the missile by using higher-quality components, adding in redundancy and testing in critical subsystems, getting lots of signatures, and ensuring that there were ways for the astronaut to semi-safely abort from a launch gone bad (in the words of Mitchell Burnside-Clapp, President of Pioneer Rocketplane–“attempted suicide to avoid certain death”).

What does it not mean? It does not mean having systems/subsystems that permit people to be carried on board, such as cockpits, and life support. A man-rated Titan remains man-rated without the Gemini capsule that goes on top of it.

It also does not mean federal certification of a vehicle to allow it to legally carry passengers, which is more about testing and paperwork than about vehicle design per se.

This tradition continued into the development of the Shuttle in terms of design philosophy, though because large portions of the system were reusable, it started to lose some of its meaning.

The Orbiter itself is fully reusable (albeit with high maintenance costs–some would characterize it as “rebuildable” rather than reusable). And in fact, I am going to surprise (some) people here and say something good about the Shuttle, or, at least about the Orbiter.

It is a damned reliable vehicle.

It has never had or caused a catastophic failure. It has rarely caused a mission failure, most of which are caused by failures of the payloads themselves. In fact, perhaps someone can correct me, but I cannot think of a single instance in which a mission failed because of an Orbiter system/subsystem (other than vague recollections of some being somewhat shortened due to fuel cell or APU or similar problems). The one case where we had an on-board propulsion problem was caused by a faulty sensor, and the vehicle still made orbit.

The single event where we lost an Orbiter was due not to the Orbiter, but to one of the semi-reusable ballistic missiles that we had attached to it. Thus, I don’t count it against Orbiter reliability.

In that spate of delays where the system was shut down in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s for hydrogen leaks, this was again a feature of the fact that we were crossfeeding from an expendable system–it had little or nothing to do with the Orbiter design per se.

Shuttle should thus give us great confidence that fully-reusable space transports can indeed be quite reliable. In fact, based on its performance to date, it should be clear that reliability is not the issue for a reusable launch system, as long as we have adequate performance margins. The only issue is cost of operations and turnaround, which cannot be addressed with the existing Orbiter–they will require a clean-sheet design.

For all this reliability, each Orbiter cost on the order of two billion dollars, and now would require several years of time to replace (with additional billions for reclimbing the learning curve and retooling). We only have four of them, and they are *all* needed to keep to scheduled plans.

Now for a thought experiment for those who are worried about “man rating” space transports. Ignoring the crew module (which as I said, is not relevant to whether or not the Shuttle is “man rated”), I challenge anyone to tell me how the Orbiter would be designed or manufactured differently, in terms of reliability or capability to deliver payloads, if it didn’t carry crew on board.

[End Usenet excerpt]

My point is that a reusable vehicle represents a significant asset in itself, and that it has to be reliable, regardless of whether it has a crew, and regardless of the value of its payload, even human payloads.

Now, as I said, this is a secondary issue in the case of the intended output of the SLI program, because it’s meant to be a Shuttle replacement, and must of necessity be capable of carrying people.

But I will argue that, for a space transport, a piloted vehicle will be lower cost, and more reliable, than an unpiloted one. Were it otherwise, Fedex would automate their aircraft and remove the crew.

There are a couple reasons for this. When things go bad, there are some situations in which having a pilot on board will allow the vehicle to be saved. It’s often argued that this could be done remotely, but there’s nothing like being on the scene, and feeling what’s happening, to control a vehicle. Also, a remotely-piloted vehicle is vulnerable to a communications loss in a way that a piloted vehicle is not.

But the most important reason is that the ability to get FAA approval for flights of such a vehicle will go much more smoothly if the flight testing, and flight operations, are performed in a regime with which the regulators are familiar–i.e., piloted aircraft.

There were two potential development paths for space transportation. One was to take existing aircraft, put rocket engines on them, and gradually expand their performance envelope to the point at which they were capable of routinely flying into space. This was, in fact the evolutionary path that we were on in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

However, in our rush to beat the Soviets to the Moon, we short circuited this path, and in fact, cut it off altogether with the end of the X-15 program. Instead, we put men on top of munitions, because they were available, we knew how to build them, and we could do it quickly. As a result, all government-funded launch vehicle development (including Shuttle), has been right down the groove worn originally by Apollo and the early military and NASA unmanned space programs, and we seem to have trouble getting out of it.

The next generation of launch vehicles will arise from the first evolutionary path, which is being picked up again by companies like XCOR, and Pioneer Rocketplane, and some of the X-Prize contenders. NASA and its conventional contractors are institutionally incapable of following such a path–there’s far too much bureaucratic inertia, and this bizarre notion of building an unpiloted reusable vehicle is just more evidence of that.

Cancer On The Universe Response

My, I seem to have hit some nerves in my Fox News piece today (it’s simply a repeat of the post a few posts down, about how we’re supposedly too sinful to go into space).

Here are a couple of the emails that I’ve received:

In response to your response to Lori M’s letter, your missing the point and your way of thinking is part of the problem not the cure.

?If I have to explain you wouldn’t understand.? AND I wouldn’t waste my time trying.

Well, that’s certainly a persuasive and compelling argument. Now I know I’m wrong for sure…

Holy cow. I started reading your article (Foxnews.com) and your ridicule of Lori M. disgusted me so much, I had to stop. You article did not appear to be one of informing your readers the importance of space travel or the benefits of exploration in general. Instead, your article appeared to be a disgruntled writer that had the forum in which he could bash someone. It seemed rather personal to me.

Personal? I don’t even know her. I was attacking her attitude, not her person.

Sarcastic and rather childish. “Newsflash Lori”, what was THAT? Why not put her email address in the article along with her phone number and address and ask your readers to send her some hate mail and prank phone calls?

Because that would be wrong, and you would no doubt have castigated me severely for it (not to mention that Fox would, appropriately, have never published it if I had). But I find it bizarre that you seem to be taking me to task for something that I didn’t do.

You came across very much as an ass.

Well, that’s obviously a subjective thing. Like the above emailer, you come across to me as someone who doesn’t actually have any valid arguments about what I wrote, and are thus reduced to spurious charges of childishness, and insults.

I’ll keep this thread going as I get other emails today. As I said, I think I really hit a nerve.

[Update at 9:53 AM PDT]

Just got a follow up from the first emailer above:

If we spent a fraction of the time, effort and money that is spent on the space program developing our own energy sources in this country we wouldn?t have to kiss middle eastern ass and could avoid most of the mess we find ourselves in today. Duh.

I suspect that this person hasn’t got clue one about how much we spend on either. Duh, himself.

[Update at 10:19 AM PDT]

I got a more reasoned response from Christopher Watkins:

How could you not even wish to take into account any sense of responsibility or concern for our effect on environments when discussing the possible populating of other planets?

I don’t believe that I ever expressed that view.

It frightens me how easily you can dismiss the idea that human beings should be concerned with damage they cause to the place they live.

I didn’t dismiss that idea. In fact, what I dismissed was the notion that we are incapable of doing that. I, unlike Lori M., believe that we are capable, and that we should, and will be concerned.

Are you of the school of thought that proposes a “slash and burn” and careless disregard for our environments because we can always move onto to a new one?

No.

I would certainly not say the space travel is “not ethical”, but I would say that it could lead to such a huge step in our future that it is of the utmost importance to evaluate all aspects, included ethical and moral theories. If we were ever required to relocate to another planet I would hope the people in charge are not driven by reckless abandon and careless expansion as you suggest. Interest how you describe someone discussing integrity, ethics and responsibility as “meek”.

She wasn’t discussing any of those things. She was simply accusing all humanity of lacking them, and therefore being unworthy to leave the planet. I vehemently disagree.

[Update at 11:41 AM PDT]

A Tom Dunn writes:

You take yourself and the human race way to seriously. I’m sure that most concientous survivors would gladly exchange their existence for a more responsible breed of human.

I’d argue with this, if I could figure out what it means. Or then again, maybe I wouldn’t. It depends on what it means.

[Update at 12:19 PM PDT]

Greg Fuller throws out yet another strawman:

How many people do you know that like starlings? How about house sparrows?

Coyotes? Crows? Hyenas? How about cockroaches? I just think it is interesting that men most despise those species that are successful in spite of us and because of their tenacity and adaptability, are most like us. All the creatures of the world aside from us are perfectly justified in seeing us as a cancer on the earth.

I doubt if they see us as anything at all. And I certainly don’t view them that way.

I don’t fully agree with the e-mail quoted in this article but as humans we should at least have a little empathy for our fellow earthlings.

Who said we shouldn’t? Who are you arguing with?

[Update at 1:34 PM PDT]

Thomas Hawthorne writes:

It’s amazing how egotistical humans are. For a people who want to put 77,00 tons of nuclear wastes into a big mountain in Nevada, to think that we have the ego to travel into the unknown just blows me away.

Ummmm…OK. I don’t see the logical connection, but go on…

Humans can’t get even get along with their own fellow humans because they look “different”. How can travel into the unknown RAND?

Again, there is some logic missing here. The conclusion doesn’t in any way follow from the premise. The fact that some people can’t get along with other people does not prevent yet other people from exploring the unknown. There has been prejudice for centuries, but somehow, we managed to explore the entire planet, and send people to the Moon.

You know I had a discussion with a friend of mine about possibly discovering other intelligent life on other planets. And I asked what him what if this “being” was blob of nothingness, would we consider it an “intelligent” life form? He said no. He said because they would not be similar to us. It’s amazing how egotistical humans are……

Ummm, yes. You already said that. I’m having trouble getting your point, though.

People like you would land on a planet, declare it as you own, set up a republican party, and give tax breaks to all the rich aliens………..

Apparently you know nothing about “people like me.”

I’m sorry folks. I’ve gotten a lot of supportive emails, but I really wanted to focus on the opposition. I’ve put up everything that I’ve received that’s negative–I’m not holding back some plethora of intelligent criticism. This really does seem to be the best they can do.

[Update on Saturday night, the 27th of April, at 11PM PDT]

I’m back from Phoenix, and I see there’s quite the fray in the comments section.

I got one more gem of an email from a Bill Feeney (I’ve slightly redacted it–this is, after all a semi-family blog, at least if you’re the Addams Family):

Good god I haven’t seen, read or heard anything this inane in quite awhile. Here’s a newsflash, Rand, from you column you appear to be a small minded limp d**k with a severe short man complex. Do you get paid? Your writing has not logical flow. You sound like a four year old fighting in the playground. Please tell me how I can get my own bulls**t column at Fox.

The posts where people criticize my writing amidst spelling errors, punctuation lacks, insults, profanities and inanities, are always my favorites…

A Cancer On The Face Of The Universe

Humankind is a pestilence–an unhealthy malignant growth, ravaging and destroying everything that it touches. For the sake of the rest of the universe, we must confine the vile infection to the single planet that it now inhabits.

That’s the attitude of surprisingly many people (though not of your humble weblogger).

I got an email this week from one of them–a “Lori M.”:

Forget “practical and affordable”- space travel is not ethical. Let’s face it: We cause problems here and we would just take them somewhere else.

Humankind consistently demonstrates a strong lack of the integrity for such a venture. History foreshadows the cyclical injustices of the past played out anew on some poor, unsuspecting ecosystem. Space travel/colonization would be irresponsible and sadly consistent with the thinking that got us to the state of informed depravity we are in now.

I’m not saying we should trash space travel- just table it until human societies show more promise. We do best to spend more time and effort developing character before technology.

“Space travel is not ethical.”

My, my, where to begin?

I don’t know where my correspondent was when she sent me the email, but I’ll bet it wasn’t the African savannah. I wonder if she thinks that the human race had the “integrity” to leave that place where we evolved and expand into what is now Europe? Or that those who had spread further east, into Siberia, should have had second thoughts before crossing the Aleutian land bridge and thus despoiling the Americas?

Is she of the school of thought that those descendants of the Africans, having developed the technologies of sail and navigation, should have then stayed in Europe, until they had attained some kind of societal perfection, by her (no doubt lofty) standards? Well, perhaps she is, though, of course, had they done so, she probably wouldn’t be here to so helpfully (if not specifically) point out to us our myriad failings. And wouldn’t that have been a tragedy?

Human beings “cause problems here…”

Indeed we do. Of course we cause lots of other things as well.

We often cause solutions to those same problems.

We also cause scientific theories. And symphonies, and majestic works of art, and gardens, and laughter, and joy. But apparently she would insist that all non-terrestrial existence remain empty of these things, because we’re too “depraved” and insufficiently “ethical” (by whatever unexplained standards of ethics she uses). To paraphrase the kid in West Side Story, as he told Officer Krupke, she wants to “make the universe deprived on account of we’re depraved.”

And she’s concerned that we will attack some “unsuspecting ecosystem.” Here’s a newsflash, Lori–not only are ecosystems off the earth “unsuspecting”–they’re non-existent, as far as we know. There is no solid evidence for life in the universe anywhere other than on our planet (which isn’t to say with any certainty, of course, that it doesn’t exist).

If this remains the case, our role in expanding into the universe will not be to ravage ecosystems, but to create them. We can, and will, make our dead solar system flower, filling it with life (and not just human life), and love, and beauty, and laughter.

And unfortunately, because we’re human, we will indeed take along many of the uglier things that our emailer deplores. But we will do it regardless, and we won’t wait to develop the “character” that she demands–to do so would, I suspect, postpone the next step of our evolution forever. Because I suspect that that’s how long it will be before the “Lori M”s of the world finds our flawed race up to their hypercritical and unrealistic muster.

Fortunately, the decision will not be hers. She is welcome to stay behind. As the old tee-shirt says, the meek will inherit the earth–the rest of us will go to the stars, and do so with a clear conscience.

More Cosmic Billiards Commentary

As he promised, Brink Lindsey has come quickly up to speed on the asteroid question. It’s a good survey of the problem with some good recommendations, and I appreciate his commendation of my knowledge, but there are many who both follow this issue, and are more knowledgeable about it than me. I’ve just been fortunate enough to have a venue (here and Fox News) to sound the trumpet. Now that Brink has taken up the cudgel, we can make some serious public-policy progress.

(And I don’t know whether or not I’m smarter than Jay Manifold or not, but again I appreciate the thought and I doubt that I know more about this particular issue than he does.)

He makes one other point.

One final thought: I think it’s interesting that the enviro’s haven’t gotten hold of this issue. They’re suckers for apocalyptic scenarios, and asteroid or comet impacts offer real and plausible threats of ecological catastrophe. So why aren’t the greens all over this? Their apathy would seem to be solid evidence for the proposition that the environmental movement is often motivated more by hostility to technology and markets than by love of nature. Because here’s a threat to nature that can’t be laid at the doorstep of capitalism, and that can only be addressed by more technology. As apocalypses go, this one’s no fun at all.

Well, actually, it’s not really a threat to nature, since it is nature. If you’re a Deep Eke, there’s no problem with a natural event wiping out species wholesale, befouling the air and water, devastating vast expanses of the planet–that’s, after all, by definition, natural.

It’s only evil, and a thing to be battled, when we do it.

Never mind that we’re a part of nature ourselves…

Fox News Column Up

My Fox News column is up. The summary on the headline page is a little misleading–it says that “Landing on Mars should not be the priority of the United States’ space program.”

One can infer that from the piece (which is essentially the same as the one a few posts down), but it wasn’t the main point. My main points are that we aren’t going to, and shouldn’t, repeat Apollo, and that the Kennedy-as-space-visionary myth is not only something that’s not going to be repeated, but never really happened the first time.

Only One Day Left For Tickets

I’d like to take another little war break here, for a post on loftier and more inspiring subjects.

I know that I’m often (but justifiably) hard on NASA and the ISS, but watching the orbital construction going on right now is pretty damned cool. It’s like when I was a kid and was fascinated by the bull dozers, but much better. It almost makes me feel like I’m living in the twenty-first century, even without the flying cars.

I don’t have NASA TV, but those who do can probably see it non-stop for the next few hours. Fox is cutting to shots of it occasionally. The video isn’t great–it’s a little grainy–but you can clearly see the swirling blue ocean and clouds slowly scrolling past the station on the earth over three hundred miles below.

How anyone can think that there’s no market for views and experiences like that is totally beyond me.

Anyway, for those who want to get down and pa-tay to celebrate space, the Yuri’s night party is tomorrow night. The flagship party is at the Air Museum at the Santa Monica airport, and they’ll be linked by video with the other parties, and the space station. I just got this press release:

Yuri?s Night: The World Space Party, rocking the world on April 12, reached its goal of 100 parties today by blasting into orbit. The 99th and 100th Yuri?s Night parties take the form of video messages from the International Space Station (ISS) and the US Space Shuttle.

The greetings transform Yuri?s Night from a planetary celebration of space to one that has taken its first steps into the solar system.

?I just wanted to tape a short greeting to all of those of you who are attending Yuri?s Night,? said astronaut Jim Newman, speaking 360 miles above the Earth?s surface onboard Shuttle Mission STS-109. ?There are really no boundaries visible from space,? Newman continued, ?and I just wanted to leave you with this short message, celebrating the accomplishments of humans in space, and hoping for a better future for humans on Earth.?

Newman?s message will join a special greeting from the Expedition Four ISS Crew of Yury Onufrienok, Daniel Bursch and Carl Walz, that will be broadcast worldwide on April 12.

Both videos will be the centerpiece of Yuri?s Night parties around the world. The dual recordings hold particular significance for Yuri?s Night, as April 12 is not only the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin?s historic first spaceflight, but also the anniversary of the first launch of the Space Shuttle.

The Space Station greeting was recorded at the Russian Mission Control Center in Korolyov, Russia, and made possible by the support of the Youth Space Center, Bauman Moscow State Technical University (BMSTU). Victoria Mayorova, Youth Space Center Director, Yulia Stetskyuk, BMSTU student, and Julia Tizard, a student at Manchester University, joined forces to bring the World Space Party into orbit.

?Yuri?s Night unites humanity in a peaceful celebration of space,? said Tizard. ?Since humanity is now in orbit, it only makes sense to celebrate Yuri?s Night there as well.?