Tuesday, July 26, 2005

STS 114 @ 10h 31m 53s

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I watch as the seconds, minutes, and hours progress on Space.Com's Digital Mission Clock.

I am reminded of the feeling of dread which overtook me, and the nation, just two years ago. Discovery has launched "cleanly" into space, and is now parked in orbit. All of us can now breathe a collective sigh of relief. Yet lingering doubts remain. Will the shuttle return safely, or will it too burn up in a fiery display streaking across the sky like a meteor? No one, not even the crew, knows for sure.

I recall the first time I heard of the shuttle project, it was the early 1970's. I was discussing, with a friend, the bright future of space exploration which lay ahead. There'd be several more missions to the Moon (some of which were cancelled), followed by the development of a space plane, a space station, a moon base, and the exploration of Mars. All of this exploration, and eventual colonizations would occur within our lifetimes.

We were both Moonstruck. As young children growing up during the height of the cold war, we had been convinced that the United States was not only the greatest military power in the world (we had the A-Bomb first), but that we were the greatest nation in the world as well. As proof, we were the only nation which had landed men on the Moon.

Drummed into our minds was the belief that living in our time, in our place, was the greatest gift anyone could be given. From Tang comercials, to wide eyed parents, and gloating politicians, we were being fed a sense of national pride, and a belief that nothing was out of reach.

Perhaps we'd be living on the Moon by the time we were our parent's age, and perhaps retiring at some spacefaring retirement community on Mars? These lofty ideas were considered as real possibilites in the coming decades. The year 2000 was dangled just out of reach to the children of my generation, as if it were some magical age of incredible possibilities. All of the great problems that would face mankind would surely be solved by then, and mankind would venture boldly into space. That would be our future!

As the decades have past, and reality set in, the dreams for a rapid migration of human beings into space have given way to the sheer complexity, and the cost, of such an undertaking. Perhaps if the Moon had been made of rare gems, and precious metals, we'd have returned and set up base, but it has been decades since anyone has stepped foot on our nearest celestial neighbor. Rock it seems isn't as exciting, and plans for return to the Moon are only that -plans..

The cost versus the benefit of space exploration has always been part of the equation. The U.S. continuallly mired in wars, and social and economic problems, was never ready to fully fund a space program capable of realizing the dreams which were weaved into the collective minds of so many of my generation.

Yet, despite any sense of disillusionment that I may have over the pace of space exploration, I am comforted by the belief in the inevitablility of humanity's step out into space.

The incredible amount of resources available in space is hard to imagine - we will find our way back. Is it still necessary to remind everyone that we can't survive as a species without venturing into space? The probability that a large meteor will once again strike Earth is great, yet unlike the dinosaurs we have the ability to stop such an event - one which would cause the extinction of mankind.

The shuttle has once again thunderously rocketed off the planet using its chemical rockets to break away from Earth's atmosphere, now parked in orbit it must once again maneuver, and descend to Earth as a glider.

Both ascent, and descent carry enormous risk. The shuttle is the most complex machine ever created, and being complex isn't a virtue. The more complex any system is, the more likely that system will fail. Keeping a system both simple, and stupid, is the easiest way to assure the system will be sustainable. The shuttle is long overdue for replacement, with a simpler, less complex design. We have progressed to simplicity.

The next space transportation system should be capable of ferrying people, and materials into space at a low cost, and should be robust enough where everyone isn't holding their breath for its safe launch, and return.

While we are told that such a system is on the horizon, it will take a commitment from the U.S. government, and the people of this nation to maintain funding for NASA at a level which will complete the transition. Most of the vunerabilities we see inherent in the shuttle's design are due to cost cutting during shuttle's design, and implementation.

We need to keep the same budgetary nip, and tuck process from taking place when it comes to the next generation STS.

In the meantime we need to make sure the heat isn't removed from NASA's feet when it comes to keeping the shuttle flying safely. At this point there are only three shuttles left with no means to make more, and the loss of one more shuttle would mean the end of both the shuttle program, and the International Space Station.

Perhaps I'm still under the influence of the promises made so many years ago about that bright future that lies ahead, but in my heart I believe space exploration holds the key to the very survival of mankind.

2 comments:

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

That was refreshing after hearing from so many people who bash the space program as a waste of money. I agree that mankind's pioneering spirit is what will stave off extinction.

JeromeProphet said...

I rewrote the article just a bit. I must admit some nights I come home so tired I don't post what I could have.

Well, I hate to join anyone's bandwagon, but the cost of the Iraq war to me seems obscene.

The money that is being burned on that fiasco is beyond comprehension.

When I see that type of irresponsibility, it makes me cringe, and I see how the cures for cancer, or returning to the Moon in my lifetime will be pushed decades off because of such madness.

email jp

  • jeromeprophet@gmail.com

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