column: Replacing NASA's Space Pickup

SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK



            It doesn’t get brought up a lot in polite conversation, but many pundits considered the space shuttle a piece of crap.

            A very cool piece of crap, but still.

            It was designed by committee to be a fully reusable spaceship, but it finally emerged only partially reusable, took a tremendous amount of servicing between missions, and was more expensive to use than the one-shot spacecraft it replaced. The ship’s 33,000 fragile heat tiles had to be applied, by hand, individually.

            Sounds like a government operation.

            The shuttle, a pickup truck that trundled small payloads into orbit, was a technically bigger challenge than the Apollo Moon program, which relied on simply throwing away parts after they finished their high stress jobs. As it went through delays and cost overruns, many predicted the shuttle would never make it off the ground.

            I miss it already.

            Oh, don’t get me wrong; we could have done better. Still, despite the limitations and costs, the space shuttle program overall was a success, especially after how fouled up it was at the start. The TV show Mythbusters once demonstrated that – ahem – poop can be polished, and I mean that literally. They needn’t have bothered: The people of NASA proved it figuratively, by taking an embarrassing boondoggle and producing real benefits.

            Of course, it was still a tricked-out pickup. At thirty years old it had to be replaced, just as you would replace any aging, critical equipment. I mean, my iPod Nano carried more computer power than the first shuttle, and all I can do is listen to Neil Diamond songs.

            So we say goodbye to the space shuttle, and a prayer for those who died in the Challenger and Columbia disasters, and then … what?

            Well, we could just not go into space anymore. After all, humanity has never shown any great interest in exploration, knowledge, or scientific advancement. We’re not likely to get any advantage out of new technology or discovery. It’s not like people have ever taken risks in an attempt to turn the great unknown into the known. Right?

            One problem today is that we seem to have lost that sense of exploration, of going forward. When I was a kid we traveled to the Moon. Then, as if the water was just too cold, we pulled the tip of our big toe away from the edge of deep space and settled for making little circles around the planet, instead.

            What’s left to explore? Space, the bottom of the ocean, and the workings of the mind; and the more I find out about how human minds work, the more I want to drown myself in the bottom of the ocean.

            Mankind craves adventure and knowledge, as much as it craves the more base things like food, air, and seeing people make fools of themselves. On a related note, I’m okay with shooting the Kardashians to the Moon, one way ticket.

            Another thing we could do is rely on the Russian space program to get our astronauts into space, where they can be on the International Space Station and … well, that’s about it.

            I’m cool with the ISS; I just think it should be the beginning, rather than the end. I also like the idea of all the countries of the world working together toward exploring space. It could divide the cost, multiply the innovation, and promote that whole peace and understanding thing.

            I also believe in the idea of dismantling our armed forces, under the assumption that other nations will no longer feel threatened and will beat their AK-47’s into plowshares. But that ain’t gonna happen, either. Have you ever tried to plow with an assault rifle?

            The reality is that some nations pursuing space programs still see it as a race for the “high ground”, and look to domination of space as just another form of domination. Others won’t be in it for dominance, but won’t be exactly stable and dependable, either. Best to include them as much as possible, but maintain the ability to go it on our own.

            But go where on our own? The Moon? An Asteroid? Uranus? (Oh, come on, I had to say it. It’s almost tradition, now.)

            The next destination has become, like everything else, a political football. Add to that US finances being the way they are (which is to say, they aren’t), and a reasonable argument could be made for temporarily shutting down the manned space program completely.

            With America broke and bleeding red, there can be no sacred cows – not even my own personal sacred cow, NASA. So, while I want to see a man (or woman – Chloe Kardashian?) on Mars, I believe we should delay that and send our next manned mission to an asteroid.

            First, it might be possible someday to mine asteroids for materials needed on Earth. Salt, oil, non-fructose corn syrup, stuff like that. There’s little in the way of a gravity well on asteroids, so it would be possible to get stuff back at a cost that’s only way too high, rather than insanely high; researching how to do it now might bear fruit later. Assuming we find fruit there.

            Second, Mars and the Moon are highly unlikely to break out of their orbits and slam into Earth, while smaller bodies do it on a regular basis. It’s like I always say: Big dogs look dangerous, but it’s the little ankle biters that will come out of nowhere.

            Figuring out how to change to course of an asteroid in advance might save us from losing, say, Southern California … okay, bad example.

            Third, getting to a small body would be good practice toward our next step. We must go into space, if for no other reason than to escape two year election cycles. I proudly volunteer to go.

            As long as I don’t have to take a Kardashian.