It’s been a great week for spaceheads. So much so that my own long-dormant flame was rekindled. I watched the moon landings excitedly as a kid, and remember how cool Apollo-Soyuz was as well. The early phases of the space shuttle program also captivated. I remember exactly where I was when I simultaneously first heard about and saw footage of the Challenger disaster. But aside from keeping track to make sure the next couple of launches went off alright, I kind of lost interest after that. The shuttle was cool and all, but in the end it seemed more like a ‘Futurama’-style space trucking service than high science.
And then came Curiosity. The idea of sending a 1 ton, nuclear-powered robot across 365 million miles of space successfully was cool enough. But when I really got hooked was the first time I saw the landing explained. In order to slow from 13,000 mph to 0 mph in the span of 7 min, a combination of the biggest parachute ever (which slowed it to 200 mph), retro-rockets, an automated crane/hoist type thing (which lowered the rover to the surface while the delivery vehicle hovered), and essentially an ejector which cut the delivery vehicle free from the rover itself, were used. It’s really best to just watch it, the highest-tech Rube Goldberg machine ever.
No sooner had Curiosity touched down safely than word of strange new transmissions from Voyager emerged. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were research satellites launched by NASA in 1977(!). The fact that anything built in 1977 is still functioning well enough to be transmitting useful information across roughly 10 BILLION miles is testament enough to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory science that went into its creation. Even more exciting, however, are the prospects for what it will continue to send. You see, Voyager 1 is about to enter interstellar space, the space that lies entirely beyond the reach and influence of our sun. As it approaches this boundary never before recorded experiences involving cosmic rays and magnetic fields are being logged, and the true unknown still lies ahead!
You don’t have to look outside the solar system, however, to see the practical benefits of all this activity. The knowledge we gain in these endeavors will eventually allow us to leave this planet (which we will have to do). Even closer to the here and now, the act of conducting research of this scale invigorates the human spirit, allows us to believe that we can solve complex problems, and most practically of all focuses the mind on achievement, while simultaneously developing technologies which can be reapplied on terra firma.
Those who believe that NASA, the JPL, and all the other researchers who participate in their efforts are a waste of resources are wrong. Moreover, these people deserve the lazy, ill-tempered, video game-addled, socially inept humans they seem bent on creating. Ignorance is praised as a virtue, science derided, and to be a “know-nothing” accepted as a badge of honor. “Why learn about anything,” they’ll ask non-rhetorically, “we’ve got everything we need right here.” “Foreigners are bad. Anything not like us is bad. And as long as we teach the children thusly everything will turn out alright.”
What a crock of shit. Talk about dampening the human spirit! Well not me brother. I’m going to continue to aim high, knowing that doing so will itself enrich my life beyond anything else I can do…well, except for loving, but that’s a topic for a different screed.
The truth, both good and bad, lies in action.
Phew…OK, sermon over, there’s also been some good humor surrounding Curiosity in particular: