Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for July, 2011

The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle

Monday, July 25th, 2011

I get out of my car,
step into the night,
and look up at the sky.
And there’s something
bright, traveling fast.
Look at it go!
Just look at it go!

Kate Bush, Hello Earth

[The haunting a capella chorus comes from a Georgian folk song, Tsin Tskaro (By the Spring)]

I read the various eulogies, qualified and otherwise, on the occasion of the space shuttle’s retirement.  Personally, I do not mourn the shuttle’s extinction, because it never came alive: not as engineering, not as science, not as a vision.

Originally conceived as a reusable vehicle that would lift and land on its own, the shuttle was crippled from the get-go.  Instead of being an asset for space exploration, it became a liability – an expensive and meaningless one, at that.  Its humiliating raison d’ être was to bob in low earth orbit, becoming a toy for millionaire tourists by giving them a few seconds of weightlessness.  The space stations it serviced were harnessed into doing time-filling experiments that did not advance science one iota (with the notable exception of the Hubble), while most of their occupants’ time was spent scraping fungus off walls.  It managed to kill more astronauts than the entire Apollo program.  The expense of the shuttle launches crippled other worthwhile or promising NASA programs, and its timid, pious politics overshadowed any serious advances to crewed space missions.

In the past, I had lively discussions with Robert Zubrin about missions to Mars (and Hellenic mythology… during which I discovered that he, like me, loves the Minoans).  We may have disagreed on approach and details, but on this he and I are in total agreement: NASA has long floated adrift, directionless and purposeless.  Individual NASA subprograms (primarily all the robotic missions), carried on in the agency’s periphery, have been wildly successful.  But the days when launches fired the imagination of future scientists are long gone.

It’s true that the Apollo missions were an expression of dominance, adjuncts to the cold war.  It’s also true that sending a crewed mission to Mars is an incredibly hard undertaking.  However, such an attempt — even if it fails — will address a multitude of issues: it will ask the tough question of how we can engineer sustainable self-enclosed systems (including the biological component, which NASA has swept under the rug as scientifically and politically thorny); it will allow us to definitively decide if Mars ever harbored life; it will once again give NASA – and the increasingly polarized US polity – a focus and a worthwhile purpose.

I’m familiar with all the counterarguments about space exploration in general and crewed missions in particular: these funds could be better used alleviating human misery on earth; private industry will eventually take up the slack; robotic missions are much more efficient; humans will never go into space in their current form, better if we wait for the inevitable uploading come the Singularity.

In reality, funds for space explorations are less than drops in the ocean of national spending and persistent social problems won’t be solved by such measly sums; private industry will never go past low orbit casinos (if that); as I explained elsewhere, we in our present form will never, ever get our brains/minds into silicon containers; and we will run out of resources long before such a technology is even on our event horizon, so waiting for gods… er, AI overlords won’t avail us.

Barring an unambiguous ETI signal, the deepest, best reason for crewed missions is not science. I recognize the dangers of using the term frontier, with all its colonialist, triumphalist baggage. Bravado aside, we will never conquer space. At best, we will traverse it like the Polynesians in their catamarans under the sea of stars. But space exploration — more specifically, a long-term crewed expedition to Mars with the express purpose to unequivocally answer the question of Martian life — will give a legitimate and worthy outlet to our ingenuity, our urge to explore and our desire for knowledge, which is not that high up in the hierarchy of needs nor the monopoly of elites. People know this in their very marrow – and have shown it by thronging around the transmissions of space missions that mattered.

It’s up to NASA to once again try rallying people around a vision that counts.  Freed of the burden of the shuttle, perhaps it can do so, thereby undergoing a literal renaissance.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, September 1962

Images: Pat Rawlings, Beyond; Randy Halverson, Plains Milky Way; European Space Agency, High Aurora.

In the Undertow of the Heat Wave

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

Bull Spec magazine is a massive labor of love and care by editor Sam Montgomery-Blinn.  Issue 6 (Fall 2011) has just come out and in it is a poem of mine, Spacetime Geodesics.  Another one, Night Patrol, will appear in issue 7.

I also had two papers accepted within two months… it’s a good feeling, since I’ve been gathering the data for them over six years, through illness and lab moves and lack of money.  Who knows, their publication might even translate to grant funding!

As mentioned in my previous entry, my Readercon talk took an unexpected direction: it became a discussion of safe exoticism in SF/F.  I intend to post an expanded version of the talk in two parts: the first will focus on science, the second on culture.

By coincidence, yesterday I started reading a perfect example of safe exoticism, Jill Paton Walsh’s YA novel The Emperor’s Winding Sheet.  I say started because I had to stop halfway, something that happens extremely rarely — it was that unbearable. Purporting to tell the end of Byzantium from the POV of an innocent abroad, it’s a lifeless, clunky, contorted mess plastered with undigested descriptions from tourist guides and history textbooks.  The specific topic aside, it’s also awful by-the-numbers fiction: lazy plot devices, wet-cement characters, non-stop clichés.

Since I believe in giving people long ropes, I will read Walsh’s other Hellenic-based novel, Farewell, Great King, though at this point my expectations are, let’s say… modest.

The Hidden Readercon Panel

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

Because of other commitments, I restricted my Readercon activities to three items: a talk at 1 pm on Sunday, which is threatening (promising?) to be something a bit different from what I originally envisioned; a Saturday lunch with Francesca Forrest; and a Saturday dinner at my home.

My guests last year were Joan Slonczewski, Jack McDevitt and Sue Lange and I half-joked I should have registered it as a panel. This year they are Joan Slonczewski, Anil Menon and Alex Jablokov (definitely);  Vandana Singh, Sonya Taaffe and Kay Holt (possibly).

Now if only the weather allows cooking of the ambitious meal the chef envisions…