A Case For Space

So the end is coming. Oh, don’t worry, well, maybe a little. It’s not the end of the world yet, that’s not for another two years, and then seven years after that, and 21 years after that. I’m saying it’s not happening. People have always predicted the end of the world over and over and they have always been wrong.

Anyway, that’s not what I really wanted to talk about. I’m talking about a real end here, the end of space exploration as we know it, the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program.

It was a few years ago I went to the Kennedy Space Center and was awestruck by the site. I originally timed the visit to see a space shuttle launch but it was delayed due to weather, screwing my one and only chance to see a space shuttle launch live and in person. I would have gone again, but that was when I was traumatized by airport security and vowed never to fly again. I don’t know who to blame more for this, NASA, Ouranos (the Greek god of weather), or the TSA.

Anyway, the Space Center itself was incredible, I spent hours admiring the various exhibits, learning about the history of NASA, including the moon landing and how close it came to disaster. They came very close to getting on the moon, but not getting back. My mom, who was with me, got bored very quickly and was asking when we were going to leave. I said never. So in case you’re wondering, yes, I love space! I’m a science nerd what can I say.

So I love space, and I also love that the United States has managed to be at the top of space exploration. They’ve made it to the moon, and hopefully one day, they’ll manage to go back to the moon and do something productive. But they made it there, and that is something to brag about, and something to learn from for the upcoming plans to set up a lunar base.

Of course the Space Shuttle is the reason the US has managed to be the dominant force in modern-day space exploration. They are the only country with a reusable vessel for launching people into low earth orbit, and now it’s gone…why?

Well the shuttle was never meant to last forever, at least I don’t think it was, and upgrading isn’t really a bad thing. Unfortunately the problem isn’t that the shuttle is gone, it’s what’s replacing it.

The Constellation program is, to put it lightly, a joke. Their plan is to replace the reusable space plane, which is one step away from the ideal scenario of a single-stage-to-orbit craft, with a design reminiscent of the Apollo missions. Am I the only one who sees this as a giant step backwards? To make things more asinine, their plan is to have two separate crafts, one for crew, one for cargo…and how does that work? Wouldn’t they need to be at least near each other for one to assemble the other or get it to its destination.

Okay, let’s assume the engineers figured it all out. How to work two separate crafts for crew and cargo. Why does the craft remind anyone of a design that’s 40 or 50 years old!? Does the word innovation mean anything to these people!? Okay, let’s assume it is…innovative that is. Perhaps looks can be deceiving and the minutiae of this design makes it more efficient and more functional. I’m not an engineer or an expert or anything. But my problem is this: The waste. Yes some of it is reusable. But it feels like a big step backwards from mostly reusable, to somewhat reusable.

See that, what lands in the desert is a lot less than what leaves the launch pad. Leaving a lot of debris up there. Why is that a problem? Well if we have enough debris up in low earth orbit, we will eventually find ourselves behind a cloud of debris, and unless you find a way to shield a spacecraft against impact from that stuff, you won’t be leaving this planet, or launching probes or satellites. That includes telecommunications satellites. Very important for the internet to remain international, unless you want to connect the continents with a string across the Pacific. Hell, this has been a problem for a while, and I don’t think we should make it worse.

But at least Constellation is something, and it seems to be more versatile than the old shuttles. However there’s a problem: it isn’t actually happening. As I discovered today, with the help of MovieBob, Constellation has been cancelled, and that was a while ago. HOW DID I NOT KNOW THAT!? I feel like an idiot.

Thankfully this is probably a blessing in disguise. There are a lot more promising vehicles. Like India’s Avatar and Britain’s Skylon. Both completely reusable, single-stage-to-orbit craft. WOOOT! But the cancellation of the Constellation program is just another step in the long line of bullshit decisions by NASA to act stupid.

This little rant of mine will go back to 1986, the year the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated a little over a minute after it’s launch at the Kennedy Space Center. I don’t remember the event specifically because I was in utero at the time. Not long before that fateful day there were plans to expand the Shuttle Program, which included establishing a second launch site on the west coast. Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was preparing for their first launch when Challenger disintegrated. After the Challenger disaster the fleet was grounded and all west coast launches eventually cancelled.

This event was followed by the destruction of the Columbia in 2003, nearly two decades later. Once again, before this tragedy there were plans to expand the program, specifically with a new vehicle, the Orbital Space Plane. The OSP was expected to enter service, well, this year in fact, but once the Columbia burned up, the OSP and eventually the Shuttle Program went with it. You see before the Columbia died, NASA engineers expected the Shuttles to last until the 2030s. Obviously that got kicked in the head when Columbia burned up, because it was the oldest of the four shuttles, and obviously that was why it was destroyed and not because the heat shield was damaged. People, it’s like a classic car, if you take care of it, it can last forever.

You know what pisses me off? The Columbia disaster could have been prevented. I say that because it wasn’t the first time the heat shield of an orbiter was damaged. In 1988 the Atlantis was on a classified mission for the military (specifically deployment of a spy satellite…it’s not classified anymore), when the crew noticed some damage to the heat shield. They took some pictures with the Canadarm and sent it off to mission control. However because the mission was classified, the pictures had to be encrypted and because of that, were likely of poor quality. So mission control thought the damage was just shadows. The crew was pissed and when the craft landed the inspectors noticed there were 700 damaged tiles and one missing tile. The only reason the Atlantis survived was because the missing tile wasn’t in a vulnerable location. Basically they got lucky. The damage to the Atlantis was caused by a piece of foam insulation, the same kind that killed the Columbia. They should have learned how fragile the heat shield was then, instead of 15 years later.

I remember there was an episode of The Cape where this same thing happened. Three tiles on the Shuttle’s heat shield were dislodged. So they sent another shuttle up with supplies for a repair/patch job. The Cape was an old TV show from the mid-90s about NASA’s Space Shuttle Program (fictional, obviously) which I barely paid attention to. I wish I did because it was only on for one season and I don’t know where to find the DVDs. In fact I’m pretty sure there are none. But the TV show was real, and it looks like I found a reference to the episode. I want to see more.

Anyway, what pisses me off the most about both disasters, is how NASA reacted. By going into their shell and scaling back the space program. Not the best way to honor the memory of those astronauts. I mean let’s face it, they knew the risks, they knew they could die, they went out there anyway. I find it a disgrace that we honor their memory by scaling back the program they gave their lives for. If I was one of those dead astronauts, I’d be pissed. This is proof there are no ghosts, because if there were, the NASA Administrators would so have their asses haunted. If it wasn’t for those two disasters, not only would those astronauts still be alive, but we’d have colonies on Mars by now.

Now, thankfully the reason for the cancellation of Constellation was not because an astronaut died, but because of the goddamn recession. At least I think it was.

You know Obama, I used to be on your side, but I never thought a redneck would be more committed to space exploration than a Harvard graduate. It’s actually kind of bewildering.

But since the problem seems to be money, two things, first, why didn’t you look into cutting the military budget? Second, why not ask other countries to give a bigger stake to NASA’s operational budget? It would sure as hell do a lot to stimulate the economy.

Canada could pitch in. We love science…okay, some of us love science. There was once talk of building a launch site on Cape Breton Island for the CSA, and it’s not like we don’t love being independent from the States.

So here’s an idea, let’s team up, build the Pierre Trudeau Space Centre on Cape Breton. Why Trudeau? Because I say so and it’s our soil. Or better yet, instead of Cape Breton, Victoria Island. I’m sure we can annex some property over there. We’ll have NASA contribute funds to the project, as well as Japan, Mexico, and what the hell Australia and New Zealand, and create yet another international space agency, to give the ESA something to be jealous of.

To give us something to do, our first project should be planning both a Lunar base, and a manned Mars mission. Why Mars? Because we’ve been talking about Mars for as long as I can remember. There was a time when 2020 was the expected launch date. Then the Constellation project put that back to 2030. Now I’ll be lucky if it happens in my lifetime. This is not right. Bush committed to a Lunar base and Mars mission and I’m holding the US government to that promise.

It’s pathetic if you ask me. While the US was the first to plant the flag on the moon, it seems China, a communist country I might add, will be the first to establish a permanent base there and make it to Mars. It’s like the Cold War all over again, only this time, the US is losing.

Where’s the nationalist pride proclaiming how we need to beat those damn commies to Mars!? I say this because when they begin asking for volunteers for the first Martian colony, I don’t want to have one of the requirements to be fluency in Mandarin, because I’m having enough trouble learning Japanese.

Of course people will wonder what the point is. Why we need to have space exploration at all, we have so many problems on Earth that we need to deal with first. You see, this is where I have to point out why we need to explore space.

The reason is because it’s the most important endeavour in human history. People think it’s frivolous and without purpose. No, it’s the next step in humanity’s evolution from barnacles on the surface of a rock, to eagles, soaring through the stars.

We cannot stagnate, we must move forward, not for us, but for our children and our grandchildren. The evolution of our society is not something that will not just happen, but something we need to work towards, and as the core principles of natural suggestion suggest: our society must move forward, or it will die.

Well? Did that do it for you? You in? Come on! Let’s go to Mars!

…No? Okay then how’s something a little more pragmatic. We should continue to invest in space travel because we have so many problems on Earth.

What? How does that make sense? It’s not like space can help Earth? Well, actually it can. Let’s start with the science. Experiments in microgravity operate in an environment with the highest control, and has many terrestrial applications. For instance, the fateful final mission of the Columbia, where they were doing many microgravity experiments in cancer research. That’s right, space travel can cure cancer! Could it also cure other illnesses? Possibly, let’s go find out!

Next, there’s more practical solutions. If we colonize Mars, after colonizing the moon as a primer, we can solve our problems of overpopulation and massive starvation. Next year Earth’s population is expected to reach seven billion, and eight billion by 2025. We need to start colonizing Mars so we can counteract overpopulation. We won’t have a population of eight billion if we start siphoning them off to Mars.

I’m not saying we should have forced migration, far from it, but I’m sure millions will volunteer for the first Martian colony. There’s not a doubt in my mind. Plus, if we manage to grow enough food on Mars, we can ship some of it back to Earth to combat starvation. It makes sense to me. However it would make more sense if Greenpeace would just shut the hell up so we can stop the organic bullshit and feed everyone on Earth with food genetically modified to feed more than the four billion we can currently feed using only organic methods…but I digress.

Oh, and there’s also space gardens, we can build space gardens.

Then there’s the least likely, but certainly persuasive argument. If we manage to colonize Mars, there would be no disaster, outside the sun exploding, that could annihilate the human race. Even if Earth were to completely break up, the Martian colonists would still be alive, and they would cry for a while, but carry on in the name of humanity’s survival.

So we need to develop our space program, we need to go to the moon and we need to go to Mars. It’s the most practical thing to do. Plus, maybe one day we’ll finally build a space elevator and a warp drive. Seriously, I want a fucking warp drive.

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