Friday, January 29, 2010

dn: End of America's quest for Outer Space

Brian Williams reflects on his disappointment at the State of the Union Address, about the end of the US Space Program.

I have to say, my first reaction is that this makes sense. The ghetto thug worries about walling up his neighborhood, keeping the fuzz and rival gangs out.

When America tried that, after WWI, it was called the Monroe Doctrine. That is, we don't interfere overseas, and other nations won't bother us. This is the flip side of the "appeasement" strategy, which tends to encourage hostile enemies. The US Monroe Doctrine is considered to be a primary factor leading to the loss of US ships (like the passenger liner Lusitania, sunk off the Atlantic Coast by German U-Boats) and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. To be blunt - keeping our interests and troops at home bought us WWII.

Space Race

First, an apology for the "Outer Space" term. That may have been in vogue at one time, but that was before I was aware. Hollywood movies have used the term, and science fiction writers. As far as I know, about the earth the atmosphere - the air - gets very, very thin, to the point that it doesn't act much like air anymore. That is where "Low Earth Orbit" begins. Farther out the speed to remain in orbit will keep you steadily hovering directly above one single spot on earth, about 22,000 miles. We have intelligence and communications satellites there. There is room for a lot of them - an orbit at that height would be about two * pi * 22,000 miles (2 * 3.1415926 * 22,000 = 138,320 miles), all of that orbit at the same height above the earth. And, yes, I know I used an approximately correct value for pi, and for the height of a geocentric orbit.

The moon orbits the earth. The distance varies a little bit, somewhere around 239,000 miles, I think. The United States has sent spaceships to photograph, and astronauts to view, the backside of the moon (since the moon rotates so the same "face" stays turned toward the earth, approximately). There weren't a lot of surprises back there, but it is worth knowing even that much.

The US government, and science fiction writers and economists and cultists and many others have had designs and plans for living and working on the moon. Just one for-instance something killed off all the dinosaurs long ago. A similar catastrophic event may be due - wouldn't it be nice to think your children would outlive - and possibly be ready to assist in recovery - if something like that should happen again?

We used the moon, once, to communicate. I am not sure if we still do it today. One way is to aim a radio signal at the moon. When it hits, part of it will bounce back toward the Earth. You reply the same way. Now, someone else might be able to pick up one or both signals - but never be able to tell where the other sender is. Science experiments have beamed radar and lasers at the moon, garnering information about distances and the nature of the universe.

People have gotten wealthy selling the rocks brought back from the moon. And also rocks said to have come from the moon.

The story goes that high powered radar - the really big ones - kill. Walk in front of one in operation, and it is like being dropped into the center of a huge microwave. So, one day this engineer, working on a smaller radar, walks through the transmitted beam - and notices that the candy bar in his pocket melts right away. Today we call this the microwave.

Vacuum tubes, the ancestors of television CRT picture tubes - remember the ones that were deeper behind than they were wide? - were difficult to make work when things start shaking. The way airplanes, rockets, and space ships do while in the atmosphere, and occasionally even when outside the atmosphere if the rocket motors are pushing hard. So research turned out the transistor. Then the integrated circuit, when the number of transistors, and hand-soldered wires, were too big for the space and weight available. The transistor is directly a child of the space race.

In 1960 there were lots of mechanics to fix cars and farm tractors. Lots of people worked on trains, or farms.

Research to support the space effort showed us how to prepare food better, to freeze dry orange juice (Tang, before they started putting artificial sweetener into it). Many medical problems were discovered and solved in keeping people healthy in space, and in learning to detect when things go wrong. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, if not millions, live longer today because of science discovered in the quest for space.

And America, in 1960, had far fewer PhD and other college degrees per hundred thousand. Severely handicapped Americans, and their families, owe a lot to education and medicine developed to put a man on the moon, and since.

Conceding the space race

What do you call it, when in the face of armed and hostile enemies, you unilaterally throw down your weapons and refuse to defend your home and those that count on you?

That is what B. Hussein Obama is doing. Granted, the US Space Program has been running in place for decades, since Jimmy Carter (who served as an officer in the US Nuclear Navy, and never learned to pronounce nuclear correctly - it is 'nuh-clee-er'm and *not* 'nuh-kyoo-ler') and the mid 1970's. Advances and achievements have been linear and incremental. Congress and Presidents robbed NASA for money for other projects. So, no, there hasn't been a lot to show from space this year, or last year, either.

So - are we ready to build those walls, stop watching and defending against those that preach death of America and Americans or attack Americans abroad? Are we ready to invite WWIII?

Because many Americans will have (some) food to eat this year. A billion people around the world won't have enough food this year. America owes a lot of money to many nations around the world - they will not be impressed that America now says "don't bother us." India, for one example, has more honor students in high school, than America has students.

Are we done?

Are we ready to declare that sending US astronauts, and serving military men(!) at that, to the moon, is all we need to learn about space? That there is nothing for science or industry or psychology or medicine or electronics or physics or agriculture or air conditioning or energy or long-for-goodness'-sake-distance internet operation? That we want to, forever more, buy any useful information to come from the quest for space?

Because India, China, Russia, France and the European Union and others, they aren't backing down. They are pursuing manned space flight as well as automated projects. They are pursuing killer satellites and ways to live between planets and on Mars and the Moon. They are gearing up to mine and exploit asteroids, to set precedent and allegiance of locations off-earth.

As a nation we may have no desire to claim the moon as our own, kill-you-if-you-trespass (or maybe tax you) territory - but are we ready for anyone else to tell us "keep out"?

When the US engaged in the space race, back in the 1960's and 1970', the sheer adventure of the concept drew the best minds from around the globe. "Brain drain" from other nations became a foreign policy issue. Are we ready to watch the best scientists, the most imaginative, the ones most likely to be involved in occupying that "final frontier" - find solace in leaving America for places the thugs aren't walling up the 'hood?

The continued push for manned space flight, for establishing viable colonies in orbit and on the Moon and Mars, mining mineral-rich - and less concern about polluting aquifers and air - asteroids, is not a budget issue.

It is a matter of meeting responsibility. Unlike the coward that takes it on himself to unilaterally disarm in the face of an armed and hostile enemy.

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