Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Space Stuff

Lileks talks about the stars.

Fact: In the middle of a war against medieval-minded foes, we decided that we should also head back into space. We’re not going to close the borders, curl up under the covers. The right hand holds the sword, the left hand holds the sextant. If you’d asked me on 9/12/01 what headline I thought I’d see on 01/14/03, I would have said something depressing like “Seattle relies on Israeli experts for help in nuke damage” or some such apocalyptic concept. Back then it all seemed ready to tumble into the deep black pit. I would have been cheered to learn that attacks on our troops in Iraq were down 22 percent. I would have been gobsmacked to learn we had decided to return to the moon as well. That's the sort of news that transcends today and defines tomorrow.

Real life continues to be some kind of Republican version of The West Wing. Aaron Sorkin, a space enthusiast himself, probably was wishing he was on Bush's staff yesterday. But the real president's speechwriters didn't do too bad a job. Here's the text of President Bush's space speech.

"....much remains for us to explore and to learn. In the past 30 years, no human being has set foot on another world, or ventured farther upward into space than 386 miles -- roughly the distance from Washington, D.C. to Boston, Massachusetts. America has not developed a new vehicle to advance human exploration in space in nearly a quarter century. It is time for America to take the next steps.

Today I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system. We will begin the effort quickly, using existing programs and personnel. We'll make steady progress -- one mission, one voyage, one landing at a time.

...With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond. (Applause.) Robotic missions will serve as trailblazers -- the advanced guard to the unknown. Probes, landers and other vehicles of this kind continue to prove their worth, sending spectacular images and vast amounts of data back to Earth. Yet the human thirst for knowledge ultimately cannot be satisfied by even the most vivid pictures, or the most detailed measurements. We need to see and examine and touch for ourselves. And only human beings are capable of adapting to the inevitable uncertainties posed by space travel.

As our knowledge improves, we'll develop new power generation propulsion, life support, and other systems that can support more distant travels. We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos.

...Mankind is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea. We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives, and lifts our national spirit. So let us continue the journey.

Mentioning The West Wing, of course, leads to some obvious questions about the difference between realistic, pragmatic planning and dramatic, fantasy-based dreams that don't have to be paid for. Well, obviously space will cost. NASA is still a bloated bureaucracy which may drag this down, and the new space program has to get votes not only from this Congress, but from many to come. It has to get bipartisan support. We also need a lot of wisdom and luck.

But the United States and the rest of the world are fully capable of taking up a challenge. We badly need more positive goals than "defend ourselves" and "keep the mall economy going". The space program, assuming we go out there to live, to work, and to stay, will be such a goal.

I really want to write a song about this. Somebody has to. I'm ashamed to say that my compadres are more concerned with ripping on the president than celebrating a little bit of momentum. Right up there with giving Gingrich no support when they for once had a Speaker of the House who supported space and even private space initiatives. Some people can't take being given everything they've always wanted...if it's being offered by the "wrong" person. Bah humbug right back at ye, ye poor bitter Scrooges.


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