Saturday, July 01, 2006

Shuttle gets fueled up for launch


The Space Shuttle Discovery is set to launch later today, assuming they have good weather and the small problems they have remain small. A colleague wrote an interesting description of it this morning … Check out the DarkWorld view of America’s Penis.

Its hard to argue his conclusions … the 70’s mantra of “safe and cheap” certainly rings hollow from the perspective of Challenger and Columbia. The costs of the program (thinking of cost only in $$ terms here) was high before any accidents … the accidents themselves, the investigations, and the procedures necessary to deal with the causes have added layers upon layers of cost multipliers to an already expensive program.

But $$ are only the superficial cost really … the true cost is in lives and hope. Listen to men like John Glenn speak of the space program, men who know something of what they speak, and its clear that the astronauts of his generation expected a different future for NASA in 2006. For the men who pioneered space in Mercury and Apollo capsules, who orbited Earth for the first time, who walked on the moon, 2006 was supposed to be different, I think.

In a recent interview on CNN with Miles O’Brian, Glenn made it clear that 2006 was supposed to have us closer to the moon, closer to space than we were in 1970, and the sad fact is, we are farther away from both. I suppose the good news is that NASA has seen the light … the shuttle fleet has a severely limited lifespan, with only 16 more missions planned through 2010 before mothballing whats left of the fleet.

The problem is, theres a huge question about whats next. There is a program called Constellation that aims to take us back to the moon and on to Mars, but there are still a lot of questions and not much actual hardware for this program .. its good ideas without much implementation, which is pretty much where the Shuttle started in the early 70’s.

There probably isn’t an easy safe alternative … there are fundamental forces involved with hurling people into orbit that mean when things go wrong, LOTS of energy gets released. No matter how you do it, its an inherently dangerous activity. That said, its been clear for awhile that the shuttle program is as high in risk as they come.

The real problem has been political will, and a large part of that is a money issue. No matter how you do it, sending people into space takes a HUGE amount of resources, and the combined talents of thousands of people. Even in the days of Apollo, the costs were high enough to be a significant chunk of the largest economy on Earth. Today, the costs are even higher.

This is one of the first areas where I think humans will benefit from a paradigm shift, from national to global. The ISS is really a first blueprint for a future of international space travel and occupation that will truly pool the resources of entire planet. The beauty of a global approach here is that you have the best of the entire world, picking and choosing the expertise, the locations, and the resources needed from the largest subset possible … ANY national approach will inevitably waste resources in competition.

In the decades and century to come, I am certain that the world will change, and that we will learn to do things differently. the differences between 1906 and 2006 are so profound, its impossible to predict what 2106 might look like, how we might act, what we will be doing. But we CAN say that, as 1906 looks to us today, the technology, the attitudes, the people of today will look naive and out-dated.

I don’t know what the solutions will be, specifically. I am certain they will come from global sources … we are FAR more globally oriented in 2006 than we could even have conceived of in 1906, and the same will be true of 2106. And I am fairly certain that the Apollo and Soyuz programs, and the robotic mapping of our solar system, will be studied in history classes as the Golden Age of space travel, the pioneers who bravely started it all. But while the sacrifice of those who died in the Shuttle program will certaily be remembered, its hard to see the Shuttle program being seen as anything but the Dark Ages of manned space flight.

Good luck to Discovery … I hope this flight goes off safely. I can’t imagine a future where humans aren’t pushing out into space, beyond our planet, and the Shuttle program was certainly a big step in Humanity’s journey to space. Challenger and Columbia will certainly be remembered in 2106, and the sacrifice of those who flew those missions will be remembered. But lets hope that, as a whole, we’ve learned from our mistakes and moved out of the dark ages, into the light.

GodSpeed Discovery …


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