Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Time For a Change

Here is another NewsBlaze.com article, from last month:

"Back to School: Things to Ask the Teacher".

And this, on the next generation of American space flight:

Will America Really Return to the Moon?

Spaceflight is near and dear to American hearts and minds, since the incredible 60's -- the true decade of change to all of us who lived through it. The civil rights and feminist movements; the sexual revolution; the Beatles, and the flowering of pop music in nearly as many ways as there were performers; the hippie phenomenon and the environmental movement. Michael Jackson got his start then.

That decade fueled the creativity of the four decades that followed, in so many ways. And it saw America march determinedly and with one success after another towards a close encounter of the third kind with our nearest neighbor in space, the Moon. On July 20, 1969 -- before the decade was out, as John F. Kennedy had exhorted the nation to do early in his presidency -- Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon, with his shipmate Buzz Aldrin soon joining him. And the nation, justly impressed by this feat, saw one Apollo mission after another follow, and it seemed the space franchise had been established and we would just keep heading outward into the solar system -- to Mars and beyond -- just as we had headed west a century before.

The adventurous mood of the 60's was fanned and reflected on television in series like "Star Trek", "The Outer Limits", "UFO" and "Space: 1999" (not to mention one of my personal favorites, the classic British marionette series, "Fireball XL-5"), and in theatres by such films as "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Robinson Crusoe on Mars", and "The First Men On the Moon".

And then we stopped. (Cue the sound of crickets in an empty field.) Instead of continued manned exploration of the Moon and beyond, our attention wandered to harsher, real societal concerns, such as the exportation of Mideast terrorism to other countries, as in the kidnapping and killing of the entire Israeli Olympic team in 1972. For many of us, the Vietnam War was a sobering, defining time whose message seemed to be the curtailment of the hopes for peaceful progress engendered in the successes of the 60's.

The warring forces of the last 40 years are still with us, their conflict erupting into violent confrontations in many ways. The Conservative Right versus the Liberal Left, succeeding one another on the national stage like an automated seesaw, back and forth like clockwork, and always strenuously fighting more than building. Jews versus Muslims in the Mideast, the seeming archetype, or backdrop, to so much of the world's ill will, particularly since the 1967 Six Day War. The evolution/creationism/intelligent design debate, about which I have written elsewhere, which has become immune to reason and common sense about a real meaning to life, on science's part.

Now we are planning the next generation of spaceflight, and there are arguments on the direction to follow there too, although they are mild indeed compared to the above-mentioned wars between opposing dogmas. NASA is currently committed to going first to the Moon, while Apollo astronauts favor Mars, a position ably championed also by scientists in the Mars Society. Both sides have their reasons, which pretty much boil down to the progressive hopes and energy of the 60's versus the financial realities of today and the foreseeable future, with further debate thrown in over how much we need to learn from colonization of the Moon, just a quarter million miles away, before we tackle year-long trips in weightless conditions on trips to Mars, which is never closer than 35 million miles away from the Earth. That's like comparing an hour's walk through the mall to a 6-day continuous hike across country. Mars can also get as far away as 248 million miles, the equivalent of a 3-week trek on foot, with no rest stops, in our analogy.

NASA currently envisions seven-day missions to the Moon to begin with, followed by 180-day stays once a lunar outpost is in place. "We're not doing flags and footsteps," NASA planning director John Olson has said. "We're going for a long-term sustained human presence that's affordable and safe and built so that we can use the moon as a stepping stone to Mars and near-Earth asteroids and other exciting locations in the solar system."

A potential manned mission to the Red Planet wouldn't take place until at least 2030, under the current NASA scenario.

Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, argues that "We won the moon race; now it's time for us to live and work on Mars," and warns that NASA's current plan will waste time and money, calling the return to the moon a "glorified rehash of what we did 40 years ago."

Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, agrees, and with respect to the supposed learning curve for travel to Mars, says, "This idea that you have to know how to do it before you can commit yourself to the program is completely false. We didn't know that we could do Lewis and Clark successfully before we set them out" in 1803, to explore the American West.

"NASA was not created to do nostalgia acts. It was created to storm heaven," Zubrin said further. "For NASA to make as its central goal repeating technical accomplishments it did 50 years before is a complete abandonment of its purpose."

Meanwhile, the hard realities of research and development of the next-generation engines that will power our future manned flights are not to be denied their say. An August 27th test-firing of the first-stage Ares rocket engine was scrubbed, due to a faulty valve that allowed fuel to drain away from a critical power unit needed to steer the rocket nozzle.

But, considering what the nation and the world have been through, especially in the last eight years, the strength of the voices calling for Mars exploration now is heartening.

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