Posts Tagged ‘NASA’

Cassini Pole

The giant hexagonal storm at Saturn’s north pole, as photographed by Cassini.

I’ve been thinking a lot today about the Cassini probe, and its imminent demise, early tomorrow morning (EDT) as it undertakes a planned suicide dive into the atmosphere of Saturn.

My friend Richard Easther (who is an actual cosmologist rather than an interested dabbler like me) has written a lovely eulogy for the mission, “Set the Controls for the Heart of Saturn,” which in addition to being both informed and evocative naturally gets big bonus points for the Pink Floyd reference.  He articulates many of the emotions I’m feeling: the way this mission evokes a sense of wonder and takes us both back to the days when we were adolescents poring over the latest images in books and magazines from Voyager.

The many retrospectives of Cassini’s discoveries over the last week have also made me realize something else.  The unmanned space exploration program undertaken mainly by NASA/JPL with some help from the ESA and the occasional Russian rocket should be understood categorically as the defining technological achievement of humanity.

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This has absolutely nothing to do with videogames, I swear.

English: Artist rendering of SpaceX Dragon spa...

I’ve found myself thinking a lot lately about the subject of my last post, the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery.  The most obvious reason, of course, is the first successful flight of the SpaceX Dragon, which returned to earth safely after supplying the International Space Station.  Sure, there was something a little odd about watching the footage of that splashdown into the ocean, especially for those of us who developed our early space imaginations during the Apollo era.  It was a little like seeing a cruise ship suddenly replaced by a caravel.  But it was undeniably inspiring.  Even more inspiring is listening to the designers at SpaceX, and even more so the company’s founder Elon Musk (for example, check out this interview on NPR’s Science Friday).  Clearly, this is a man with no shortage of vision.  This isn’t just about launching satellites or supplying space stations in low earth orbit.  He’s thinking about stations on the moon.  About exploring Mars.

Yet, I find myself troubled by the fact that we’ve essentially turned space exploration wholesale over to private enterprise.

To understand why, think about the reasons behind the situation that I described in my last post.  Why is it that we as a collective basically gave up on a commitment to space exploration, to the extent that we even begrudge NASA spending the cost of a Kardashian boob job on anything not connected with Google Maps?  As I indicated, there are a lot of spurious answers –“9/11 Changed everything!” Sit the fuck down, Rudy; or the idea that we should solve earthly problems first.  There are, however, two more credible answers to this.

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Discovery Arrives in Washington DC

On the face of it, this post doesn’t have anything to do with games.  It may, however, have everything to do with games.

Welcome to the Neighborhood
Yesterday, I watched the space shuttle Discovery, atop its modified 747 transport, fly majestically back and forth in the skies above the nation’s capital, on the way to its final resting place in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy facility located near Dulles International Airport.  I’d been excited to see it from the moment I first heard about the planned flyover; so much so that in my eagerness to get to my chosen observation post at Gravelly Point I leaped on my bike and got halfway down the street before realizing I was only wearing one bike glove (and no, it wasn’t a homage to Michael “you want a sweetie, sweetie” Jackson).  Obviously it was a moment of great historical significance and it was an awe-inspiring sight.  It was also one of those “Wow, I’m living in Washington, DC” moments.  As I watched the shuttle, with its gnat-like jet escort arc gracefully through the sky above the Washington monument, the Lincoln memorial, the Jefferson memorial, I was reminded of what I so easily take for granted; that I’m living in the capital of one of the most powerful nations on earth.

But the most powerful emotion I felt was an urge to burst into tears.

Obviously there is a lot of tragic history connected with the shuttle program, but that wasn’t it.  I kept thinking about how this moment might be viewed in years to come.  Future generations will look back on this event and see it as the moment where, in effect, we gave up on the future.

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