Resting On Our Laurels

20 07 2016

Forty-seven years ago, a small spacecraft from Earth set down on the surface of the moon. There were two humans onboard, with a third remaining in orbit. Everyone on Earth- or at least those who had access to global information- looked up into the sky at that moment in awe. For a brief moment in time, everyone on Earth connected to international news looked skyward and said, “D-a-a-a-a-amn!”

Since that day, almost a half-century ago, ten more humans travelled from Earth to visit our nearest neighbor in space. They conducted some scientific tests and collected a lot of samples.Then, they all came back home. By any standards, the Apollo program was an amazing technical achievement. Never mind the fact that it would never have happened if not for political and military posturing by earth’s two most powerful nations, it was a truly amazing feat of engineering and science.

Since December in 1972, when Apollo-17 departed, no one has gone back.Think on that for a moment: the high-water mark of manned spaceflight ended forty-four years ago.What happened? Why did we stop?

The late Carl Sagan also wondered about this. He wrote an article in 1989 saying, among other things, “The Moon is no longer unattainable. A dozen humans, all Americans, made those odd skipping motions they called ‘moonwalks’ on the crunchy, cratered, ancient gray lava- beginning on that July day in 1969. But since 1972, no one from any nation has ventured there. Indeed, none of us has gone anywhere since the glory days of Apollo except into low Earth orbit- like a toddler who takes a few tentative steps outward and then, breathless, retreats to the safety of his mother’s skirts.

Once upon a time, we soared into the solar system. For a few years. Then we hurried back. Why? What happened?

For one shining moment, humanity looked out at the vastness of space and knew that the stars were in our future. Then we turned our backs on the stars and went home. Despite the fact that semi-literate children in countries without regular electrical service now walk around with pocket radios with more computing power than any of the Apollo spacecraft, we’ve never gone farther than low-Earth orbit.

Apollo cost the US about $25 Billion at the time. Adjusting for inflation, that runs to a bit over $100 Billion today. One hundred billion dollars today is only about 16% of the US Defense budget (roughly $600 Billion), or a hair under 3% of the entire US budget ($3.54 Trillion).

By the way, do you know how much of the current US budget goes to NASA? $18.5 Billion. Basically one half of one percent (0.52%) of the US budget is used to fund NASA. That’s for everything at NASA- toilet paper, administrator salaries, office supplies, and space.

To put all the data into words: NASA has been achieving amazing science and developing mind-blowing technology, putting robot spacecraft into orbit around planets, moons, asteroids, and comets and dropping robot scouts onto the surface of Mars on a budget consisting of the spare change Uncle Sam found under the couch cushions.

Those robots are doing some outstanding work. For some exploration, they’re actually preferable to humans. But the robots just aren’t as adaptable as a Mark One, Mod Zero educated plains ape. For one example, the Opportunity rover has been on Mars since 2004, and has travelled a bit more than 26 miles in those twelve years. On Earth, humans routinely run that distance in a few hours.

Humans are far more versatile and adaptable than our robots. But they require a lot of very heavy equipment and infrastructure to get them to the exploration site and keep them in working order long enough to get some science done. This is a significant downside to manned spaceflight, but something we can fix. It just takes time and effort-which means money.

We are totally getting our money’s worth out of the Space program using robots, but manned spaceflight could be accomplishing so much more. All it takes is money and the will to use it. We have the money. Hell, trim 5% off the military budget and give it to NASA. That’s roughly $30 Billion dollars more for space exploration, and the military obviously doesn’t need it- the US spends more on our military than the next dozen countries combined. Almost forty percent of all military spending on Earth goes to the US military.

Granted that we need our military to be the best in the world, even by American standards this is overkill. Let us put some of that cash to use out in space, instead. Let us also note that I am not NASA’s friend. Too many scientists and engineers are being sidelined by paper-pushers and politically-connected bozos. But they are the best game in town, so we (the US) has to use NASA, or nothing.

It’s been 44 years since the last humans left the moon. We have been resting on our laurels for far too long. Humans from the United States once walked on the moon. Sooner or later, more humans will be exploring and exploiting the solar system. If we don’t get off our collective asses, we can be fairly certain those people exploring and exploiting the system will not be speaking English.


Current status: Pissed off

Current music: The Future Soon by Jonathan Coulton

Fractal Commentary

27 08 2012

I have some bad news for you all- we live in interesting times.  For those of you nodding at your screen and saying, “Duh”, allow me to remind you that the phrase “may you live in interesting times” is a traditional Chinese curse.

Dual Tragedy

Neil Armstrong died this past weekend at the age of 82. Assuming there are some readers of my intermittent tripe who don’t know anything that may have happened before disco, Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the moon. From all accounts, he was generally self-effacing and a genuinely good person, and there are damned few people like that. That makes his death a tragedy- irrespective of his fame. The other tragedy is the fact that America has actively retreated from the literal heights reached by the Apollo program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This is not to say that good science and engineering is no longer being accomplished. ar from it. Curiosity was successfully dropped onto the surface of Mars, the Russians have managed to work past their launch vehicle issues and successfully deliver supplies to the ISS, a private US company managed to do the same thing, the European Space Agency has launched a series of exceptional satellites for peering into the dim past of the Universe, CERN has very probably identified a Higgs particle, etc. The tragic bit is the fact that we are unable to repeat a forty-year-old scientific and engineering achievement today. NASA says we won’t be capable of sending humans back to the moon for at least thirty years. There will almost certainly be Chinese and possibly Russian manned missions to Luna long before Americans can return there.

We could really use a few more humans like Neil Armstrong and his Apollo teammates these days.

Alarums and Excursions

A disgruntled former employee’s poor decision-making skills were widely splashed across the headlines in New York city last week as yet another example of a mass shooting. The usual suspects quickly leaped in to denounce America’s gun culture, lament the senseless tragedy- and coincidentally put forward their own pet theories and solutions to take political advantage of the situation. Almost as horrible as the shooting itself, in my opinion.

Alas for the “American Gun Culture” narrative, it turns out that the Bad Guy only shot one of the victims of the “mass shooting”. The remaining people wounded or killed were all shot by two police officers trying to take down the original gunman. That’s right, two of “New York’s finest” blasted out sixteen rounds at the Bad Guy from about eight feet away and missed more than half their shots. Nine completely innocent bystanders were wounded by the wild shooting- three of them critically. The cops did manage to kill the Bad Guy, if that’s any consolation. It certainly doesn’t make me feel any better about the competence of US police forces in general and NYPD in particular.

Basic firearms safety rules, for those of you who haven’t learned them yet: 1- Always assume any firearm is loaded until you have personally verified it. Even if it is not loaded, treat every firearm as if it was- ALL THE TIME. 2- Never point any firearm at anything you do not wish to immediately shoot. 3- Know your target and what is beyond it. Even if you are Wyatt Earp reborn and never miss, modern firearms are very likely to over-penetrate- especially at the literal spitting distance of most gunfights. Anything on the other side of your target is likely to get shot as well as the target. 4- Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. “Ready to shoot” means that you have a valid target, you have properly aimed at that target, and you know where the bullet will go past (or through) the target once you shoot. Until ALL of these requirements have been met, keep your booger-hook off the bang-switch. These are universal firearms handling rules, but somehow “New York’s finest” managed to forget them. Yes, they were under pretty serious stress, but that would not have been a legal excuse for non-police under identical circumstances. We expect our police to be trained to handle such crises.

For a period of perhaps thirty hours, the usual suspects took to the airwaves and internet to proffer their own politically-derived solutions to the “gun problem”. Far too many of those who try to prevent erosion of the rights of civilian firearm ownership immediately jumped into the fray by claiming that the gunman could have been stopped sooner if only more civilians had been permitted to carry firearms in the historically gun-averse city. I am philosophically opposed to New York’s traditional hostility for civilian firearm ownership, but: (A) I do not live in New York, so it’s not my business; and (B) they’re objectively wrong. Given the notoriously poor marksmanship of the rank-and-file NYPD and their demonstrated equally poor target acquisition skills, I’m reasonably certain that the number of dead and wounded would probably be much higher if civilians on the scene had tried to use their own weapons to stop the original shooter. The NYPD would likely have ventilated half the city trying to put down what they would doubtless see as multiple shooters.

On the other hand, those who are hostile to civilian firearms ownership were ever so quick to put forth a bewildering number of legislative restrictions on civilian rights to keep and bear arms. There were the usual idiotic suggestions that all would-be gun owners be required to undergo rigorous psychiatric screenings, limiting the number of firearms any one person was permitted to own, mandating training and licensing of all gun owners before allowing possession, etc. The typical knee-jerk attempts to keep firearms out of the hands of “undesirables”. The problem is that none of those measures would have prevented the most recent shooting, nor would they have prevented Columbine or Virginia Tech. The people who advocate restricting firearms to police and military personnel are also having trouble with the fact that all but one of the people killed and wounded in New York were shot by the supposedly well-trained police.

Once it became clear that NYPD had caused all but one of the casualties at the Empire State building, the story disappeared rapidly from the headlines.

Zen and the Cartoonist

If you haven’t already found it, please point your web browser to Zen Pencils. The artist takes quotes from literary or otherwise notable public figures and draws inspirational cartoons around those quotes. There are several strips which will probably make you think.

Speaking of Cartoons

I note that Jen Breeden from The Devil’s Panties (one of the webcomics I read regularly) is trying an experiment at getting rid of advertisements. She is basically extorting money from her readers with the threat of allowing the ads to return. All seriousness aside, Jen asks her readers to donate money to defray the site’s operating expenses. As long as the donations exceed the cost of keeping her site running, she keeps the comic ad-free for the next month. Good for her. It seems to have been working so far. Please give her some money if you like her work.

That’s all for now. I shall withdraw until such time as some new public iniquity arises to wake me from my torpor and return to vent my spleen all over the internet. Given that this is an election year, it’s good odds that time might be measured in hours rather than days, but I’ll do my best to resist the temptation to wallow in the politics.

Current status: Annoyed

Current music: Mandelbrot Set by Jonathan Coulton

Yuri’s Night

12 04 2010

Lest we forget, today is April 12- the 49th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s becoming the first human in space.

Please watch and- more importantly- listen to this video. In a very short time, we- as a species- have climbed out of the abyss of ignorance to the point where we can physically leave the planet that gave us birth. Think how much more we could achieve if we were not so Hell-bent on dominating this or that tiny corner of an otherwise unremarkable world orbiting a fairly common star in a relatively unimportant section of a modest galaxy.

We have everything to lose, and the entire universe to gain. All we have to do is raise our eyes from the ground and cast our gaze unto the skies … and wonder.

Current status: Humbled

Current music: Universe Song by Monty Python