Overnight Open Otter Thread | Main | Open Blog
August 22, 2010

Sunday Book Thread: Ad Astra Per Aspera

Among my many other geek-isms, I'm also a space-geek, and have been since I was a kid. One of my earliest memories, in fact, is of sitting on my grandmother's lap watching one of the Apollo moon landings on our old black-and-white television. I grew up taking for granted that I lived in the future, and therefore would have all the cool stuff I saw on the sci-fi shows: domed cities, space-ships, jet-packs, aliens, and moon-bases.

Alas, the reigns of King Richard Nixon the Phlebitten and King James Carter the Ridiculous conspired to kill the spacefaring urge within Americans. In the four decades since the last Apollo mission, we have mostly just been timidly going into low-earth orbit. Our main vehicle was the Space Shuttle, which turned out to be both fabulously expensive and fabulously dangerous to fly -- quite a turnaround from the "cheap, reusable" spacecraft that had been promised. And we put up a space station, with international cooperation and at huge expense, whose main purpose seems to be to give the Space Shuttle something to do.

So: it's been a depressing time for fans of human exploration of space.

But robots...ah, that's a different story! America has led the world in a Golden Age of space exploration with our robotic probes. Our robots -- Explorers, Surveyors, Mariners, Vikings, Pioneers, and Voyagers -- have explored nearly every planet and moon in our solar system (except Pluto, and we have a probe on the way right now to even that distant outpost). Our robot eyes -- Hubble, Chandra, Webb -- have peered deep into the Universe and unlocked many mysteries while uncovering many even deeper ones.

Many years from now when much else about our time is forgotten, we will be remembered for only a few things: the development of computers and the internet, the moon landings, and the deep-space missions of our robotic probes.

So it's nice to see that some other people realize what important milestones our robotic space programs have been. Stephen J. Pyne's Voyager is a nice introduction to the science and politics behind NASA's Voyager program. It's not a book about the mission itself so much as the politics and intrigue leading up to the mission, and it is (perhaps unintentionally) a great argument as to why NASA is such a deeply flawed institution.

Another book -- Eric Chaisson's The Hubble Wars -- is an even better exploration of how Big Science and Big Government produce catastrophe at least as often as success. (Remember Hubble's flawed main mirror? You get the inside story of that collossal fuck-up here. Guess what? The company that made the mirror received a bonus from NASA for their work!)

What came out of my reading of these two books was a vast admiration for what we as Americans have accomplished in the exploration of space, and a vast disappointment that we have not done more. Whatever NASA and the government have achieved in the way of success, they have stood in the way more often than not -- the bureaucracy, lack of foresight, turf-battles, and public-sector waste have led us to the sorry position of being in worse shape space-wise now than we have been at any point since Challenger exploded. We seem to have given up on human exploration of space for all practical purposes, and our planetary successes -- the Mars rovers, the Galileo and Cassini spacecraft -- seem to come at longer, not shorter, intervals.

I came away from my reading wondering: what happened to the future? Did we as a people just decide that space exploration wasn't worth it any more? Was it simply too expensive, too much of an engineering challenge? So much of today's space-exploration ennui seems to stem from a lack of public interest in it -- no one really feels involved in the act of sending a few government employees to an outpost a couple of hundred miles up in the air, there to circle the earth to no apparent purpose except the act itself. And the glories of our civilization, our deep-space robots, are largely unknown by our citizens, the science these robots produce disappearing into journals that few read. We get some pretty pictures once in a while, but no context, no broader purpose.

I don't know. It just depresses me. When I was a kid, I thought I would be living in the future, where the future meant space-travel. It turns out that "the future" is video games, cheap electronics, hi-def television, and omnipresent pornography. Who knew?

digg this
posted by Monty at 09:51 AM

| Access Comments

Recent Comments
Archer: "Al Yankovic is a rock god! There are none better!& ..."

WitchDoktor, back to no one giving a damn.: "It's BananaShitcrazyGuy - - Which reminds me ..."

TheJamesMadison, running from a biplane in a cornfield: "437 Posted by: Tom Servo at July 16, 2020 12:27 PM ..."

tubal: "436 433 I'm trying to decide if being socked by a ..."

Heart of Darkness: "Fen, the problem I have always had with Spong and ..."

FenelonSpoke: "Posted by: Warai-otoko at July 16, 2020 12:29 PM ( ..."

Ghost Of Qassem Soleimani: "Posted by: TheJamesMadison, running from a biplane ..."

Yo!: "Jane says she is done with Sergio ..."

rickb223: "I dunno, this troll is making some good points. I ..."

Guy Mohawk: "[i]probably to temporarily fill a critical/special ..."

Christopher R Taylor: "[i]I think it's R.C. Sproul (Sproil? Sprouil? What ..."

Warai-otoko: "437 433 I'm trying to decide if being socked by a ..."

Recent Entries

Polls! Polls! Polls!
Frequently Asked Questions
The (Almost) Complete Paul Anka Integrity Kick
Top Top Tens
Greatest Hitjobs

The Ace of Spades HQ Sex-for-Money Skankathon
A D&D Guide to the Democratic Candidates
Margaret Cho: Just Not Funny
More Margaret Cho Abuse
Margaret Cho: Still Not Funny
Iraqi Prisoner Claims He Was Raped... By Woman
Wonkette Announces "Morning Zoo" Format
John Kerry's "Plan" Causes Surrender of Moqtada al-Sadr's Militia
World Muslim Leaders Apologize for Nick Berg's Beheading
Michael Moore Goes on Lunchtime Manhattan Death-Spree
Milestone: Oliver Willis Posts 400th "Fake News Article" Referencing Britney Spears
Liberal Economists Rue a "New Decade of Greed"
Artificial Insouciance: Maureen Dowd's Word Processor Revolts Against Her Numbing Imbecility
Intelligence Officials Eye Blogs for Tips
They Done Found Us Out, Cletus: Intrepid Internet Detective Figures Out Our Master Plan
Shock: Josh Marshall Almost Mentions Sarin Discovery in Iraq
Leather-Clad Biker Freaks Terrorize Australian Town
When Clinton Was President, Torture Was Cool
What Wonkette Means When She Explains What Tina Brown Means
Wonkette's Stand-Up Act
Wankette HQ Gay-Rumors Du Jour
Here's What's Bugging Me: Goose and Slider
My Own Micah Wright Style Confession of Dishonesty
Outraged "Conservatives" React to the FMA
An On-Line Impression of Dennis Miller Having Sex with a Kodiak Bear
The Story the Rightwing Media Refuses to Report!
Our Lunch with David "Glengarry Glen Ross" Mamet
The House of Love: Paul Krugman
A Michael Moore Mystery (TM)
The Dowd-O-Matic!
Liberal Consistency and Other Myths
Kepler's Laws of Liberal Media Bias
John Kerry-- The Splunge! Candidate
"Divisive" Politics & "Attacks on Patriotism" (very long)
The Donkey ("The Raven" parody)
Powered by
Movable Type 2.64