Friday, January 09, 2004

Even with the problems announced today with "Spirit" (see AP news: Problems delay rover's trek, January 9, 2004) I find it rational and intelligent to continue the program and advance to a manned program in the near future. Neh sayers are harking back to the luddites of the past, who felt any progress was evil, indeed, to some, it meant participating in an evil Babylon. Today in The Melbourne Age an op/ed piece by Ann Applebaum of The Washington Post entitled Mars: meaninglessstep for man, giant waste for mankind and in The Australian today is another op/ed with a contrary view by Set Shostak of the SETI Institute entitled "Life on Mars is a siren song in the human drive to know". With President Bush making an announcement on the 9th US time, it appears the debate about manned space exploration is on the way

For years I have watched as the US put up a mighty effort to get a man on the moon, and then, after a few flights, nothing. It came to an end and the bean counters began to cut costs and re prioritise programs out of existence. The only nation that can do such a thing is the USA. I would rather see its economy being driven by an advanced space program than by the military industrial complex that appears to be running things now. The cost in lives is often put up as a reason we are unprepared or shouldn't go forward, Whereas many like me, see the sacrifice of such gallant men and women as a spur to achieve what they had achieved, step beyond our world. This gravity well should not keep us here, we can, have and shall move beyond it, not as a select few, but as a major expedition and migration sometime in the future. Mars is the next step after the Moon, a logical step and one we can learn a lot from as we move ever closer (metaphorically speaking) to it. Other nations should take part on agreat co-operative venture, that will unite our world more than any battle in the middle-east.

Secondly the great technical advancements required wil flow through to the ordinary citiznes over a short period of time like the efficient insulation developed for the space program became the thin walls of our refrigerators that sit in our kitchens. I'm sure there are many others that escape my memory at this time. Further, learning to build reliable space transportation systems and manage them safely will benefit a wide range of technically advanced production programs. One thing that comes to my mind right now, is the Columbia and Challenger disasters. NASA has probably learnt many things from the reviews, but one that I believe is essential is, "listen to the engineers", they know the machine and what it can and can't do. So, if an engineer is not comfortable with a launch or de-orbit burn, listen guys!!!

Some reading:

Mars: meaningless step for man, giant waste for mankind

January 9, 2004 Only robots, not humans, should explore space - if it has to be explored at all, writes Anne Applebaum. The first colour pictures from the NASA space probe expedition to Mars have now been published. They look like - well, they look like pictures of a lifeless, distant planet. They show blank, empty landscapes. They show craters and boulders; red sand. Death Valley, the most desolate of American deserts, at least contains strange cacti, vicious scorpions, the odd oasis. Mars has far less than that. Not only does the planet have no life, it has no air, no water, no warmth. The temperature on the Martian surface hardly rises much above minus 18 degrees, and can drop more than 100 degrees below that. Mars, as a certain pop star once put it, is not the kind of place to raise your kids. Nor is it the kind of place anybody is ever going to visit, as some of the NASA scientists know perfectly well. Even leaving aside the cold, the lack of atmosphere and the absence of water, there is the deadly radiation. If the average person on Earth absorbs about 350 millirems of radiation every year, an astronaut travelling to Mars would absorb about 130,000 millirems of a particularly virulent form of radiation that would probably destroy every cell in his body. "Space is not Star Trek, " said one NASA scientist, "but the public certainly doesn't understand that." No, the public does not understand that. And no, not all scientists, or all politicians, are trying terribly hard to explain it either. Too often, rational descriptions of the inhuman, even anti-human living conditions in space give way to public hints that more manned space travel is just around the corner; that a manned Mars mission is next; that there is some grand philosophical reason to keep sending human beings away from the only planet where human life is possible. One actual Star Trek actor, Robert Picardo, the ship's holographic doctor, enthused this week that "we really should have a timetable to send a man to Mars . . . Mars should be part of our travel plans." Naive, perhaps, but fundamentally not much different from President George Bush's grandiloquent words after the Columbia disaster: "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on." Mars, as a certain pop star once put it, is not the kind of place to raise your kids. But why should it go on? Or, at least, why should the human travel part of it go on? Crowded out of the news this week was the small fact that the troubled international space station, which is itself accessible only by the troubled space shuttle, has sprung a leak. Also somehow played down is the fact that the search for "life" on Mars - proof, as the enthusiasts have it, that we are "not alone" in the universe - is not a search for sentient beings but rather a search for evidence that billions of years ago there might possibly have been a few microbes. It is hard to see how that sort of information is going to heal our cosmic loneliness, let alone lead to the construction of condo units on Mars. None of which is to say that it is not interesting or important for NASA to send robotic probes to other planets. It is interesting in the way that the exploration of the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is interesting, or important in the way that the study of obscure dead languages is important. Like space exploration, these are inspiring human pursuits. Like space exploration, they nevertheless have very few practical applications. But space exploration is not treated the way other purely academic pursuits are treated. For one, the scientists doing it have perverse incentives. Their most dangerous missions - the ones involving human beings - produce the fewest research results, yet receive the most attention, applause and funding. Their most productive missions - the ones involving robots - inspire interest largely because the public illogically believes they will lead to more manned space travel. Worse, there is always the risk that yet another politician will seize on the idea of "sending a man to Mars," or "building a permanent manned station on the moon" as a way of sounding far-sighted or futuristic or even patriotic. President Bush is allegedly considering a new expansion of manned space travel. The Chinese are embarking on their own manned space program, since sending a man to the moon is de rigueur for would-be superpowers. The result, inevitably, will be billions of misspent dollars, more lethal crashes - and a lot more misguided rhetoric about the "inspiration of discovery," as if discoveries can only be made with human hands. - Washington Post This story was found at:

Seth Shostak: Life on Mars is a siren song in the human drive to know

09 Jan 04 The Australian (op/ed) One hundred and seventy million kilometres away, the mechanical innards of NASA's Spirit rover have begun to hum in the brittle cold of the Martian air. The rover is a synthetic geologist on wheels, small enough to fit in your kitchen, and the entire world is relieved to learn that it has managed to elude the silent death that has claimed so many of our envoys to the Red Planet. For Americans, the boost to NASA's confidence, badly eroded by the loss of shuttle Columbia, is surely a good thing. If Spirit and its sister rover, Opportunity, perform well, the Bush administration may support a major new space initiative, perhaps a return to the moon or a human expedition to Mars. In my opinion, those would also be good things. But such judgments, coming from a scientist, may seem obvious and self-serving. The American taxpayers will rightfully ask why it's important to shell out $US800 million ($1.043 billion) to send a pair of cybernetic skateboards to another world. One answer is to cite the widespread interest in, and global value of, science. For two centuries, Mars has beguiled us with its Earth-like appearance. Venus is closer, but Mars is charismatic; it is sufficiently similar to our own planet to warrant the hope that it once spawned life. And the possibility of discovering life beyond Earth is a siren song to anyone with curiosity, even if, as is surely the case for Mars, that life is no more sophisticated than bread yeast. NASA's approach to learning whether microbes ever populated the Red Planet is to look for signs of ancient lakes, rivers, or oceans. Spirit will explore a flat-bottomed crater that may once have held a body of water nearly the size of Spencer Gulf. Its mission is to find evidence for this erstwhile lake by examining the rocks littering the crater floor. If Spirit discovers that water once ebbed and flowed on Mars, the next question is: how long did it do so? Long enough to germinate life? NASA will send a string of robot explorers to address this question and to ultimately seek out microscopic Martians. The carrot that hangs before us is deliciously seductive: if another world -- the next world out from the Sun -- is proved to have supported life, that would imply that the cosmos is drenched with living things. We could conclude that planets with life are as common as phone poles. That's the science, and it's exciting. But science is no more than curiosity imbued with logic. Surely, in a world awash in political upheaval, epidemics, and poverty, curiosity is a dispensable luxury. It's not. Curiosity is hard-wired into our behaviour because it has survival value. For 300 millennia, it has driven us to exploration and understanding. The former has encouraged the discovery of new resources, and the latter allows us a comfortable life in a pitiless world. Humans display many behaviours that separate us from the beasts. Art, music, poetry -- the list is easily formulated. Curiosity, neither incidental nor trivial, is on that list. In simpler times, it drove our ancestors to wander across the mountains and, on occasion, to find a valley that was better than where they started. Today, scientific curiosity turns up answers to questions that previous generations could barely ask. The Spirit rover is a small actor in a long play with a large cast. It is aptly named, for it represents not only the best of our enterprises, but an essential quality of our being. Spirit is mechanical in construction only. It is quintessentially human. Seth Shostak is senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, in Mountain View, California

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