Up and Out

The Moon shots were little more than plays for political power; virtually everyone recognizes this now. The Big Deal was to get there before the "Rooskies" did and, once it had been done, interest fell off sharply. JFK's dream had been realized, and live feeds of astronauts cavorting about on grey soil at 0.14 gee were deemed unimportant enough that, by the early `70s, they were not even carried over network TV; highlights were shown on Your Local News Station at six and eleven.

So, too, with the shuttle. The first few launches were watched by everyone; now there's a sort of ho-hum attitude about the whole thing. In fact, in some circles, the shuttle is a bit of a joke. And why not? Its computer systems are hopelessly archaic, which alone shows how badly it's keeping up with current technology. Its engines have an extremely-short operational life, relatively speaking, and those darn tiles still keep falling off. Hell, the Russians have a permanent manned station in place, and how many people actively think or care about it? This damned thing is the beginning of our reach Outward, and how is NASA helping? With a token rendezvous. Who is superior: NASA with its shuttles, or the Russians with an honest-to-Allah station, even if it is still serviced with "more-primitive" vehicles? "They're" out there longer than "we" are. We need something else, something more, some new blood and new fire in the space program.

Part of this is almost surely to be found in the recent resurgence of interest in unmanned orbital boosters. It is much more feasible economically to insert a satellite on an unmanned rocket than on an expensive "brick with wings". It's safer, too; a mission abort means you lose hardware, not a crew of living humans with families, dreams and loads of guilt for those involved in the failure (not to mention congressional probes, which are usually nearly-pointless and always horribly expensive). An orbital-insertion vehicle being aborted is just not as newsworthy as, say, a Challenger or an Apollo 13, and with good reason: No lives hang in the balance. But there is another potential source for renewed enthusiasm in space and its merits -- student groups like SEDS. Students, for the most part, just don't know why a given thing is "impossible," so they try to do it, whatever it is. No, they may not reach their initial goal; but along the way odds are that they'll find out quite a few interesting things which otherwise would never have been discovered. Look at all the major advances which have happened in science in the last century or so, and you'll see developers who are, for the most part, under thirty years of age. This is not because youth has a special quality that is lost with the aging process per se; rather it is because, as you get older, you might tend to fall into a particular dogmatic groove of thought that precludes inspiration. Strange or different ideas are simply ignored because they don't fit the given thought paradigm.

(Inspiration, by the way, means "breathing in," and relates to religion and the idea that "god" breathes "new life" into you; hence there is a tangential element of irrationality involved in becoming Inspired. Ignore not the lunatic; what he babbles today may be a "fact" that "everyone knows" tomorrow.)

Students are still experimenters, and as such tend to be more prone to Inspiration than others. In science (including computer science! -- a favorite hobby of mine), this translates roughly into the phrase: "Huh! Now why is that happening...?" For writers (yes, another hobby), it's "What would happen if...?" Both phrases, when pursued by the right individuals (that is, those open to Inspiration) have yielded either tremendous advances in science (Einstein was no slouch), tremendous amounts of cash (Gibson is not a bad writer) or both (Hawking).

The new blood that the space program needs is being cultivated now, in groups such as SEDS. Engineers, computer scientists and just plain old SF aficionados have plenty to offer. The SF people provide the visions; the engineers and computer gurus make it happen or, at least, say, "Yeah... that might work... If..."

Far, far away from us, right at this moment, a cloud of dust and gas is beginning to collapse into new solar systems. This is not poetic hyperbole; the process has been photographed by the Hubble Telescope. Someday, perhaps, those systems will sustain life. And someday, perhaps, that life will turn metallic dishes skyward, looking for evidence of other life forms out there. Don't we owe it to them (much less ourselves) to be able to answer?

Don't we owe it to ourselves to see if others have done something similar before us? Shouldn't we try, just on the off chance that Someone Else is trying to reach us, to see if they're there -- or that they ever were there?

Personally I'd feel offended to learn that, even though my species made a vast amount of information available to anyone who sought it, no one ever even tried to look at it.

But there's a more important set of issues. If we stay on this planet alone, we will die in our own pollution. If we stay on this planet, when the Big Rock hits, we will all die, just like the dinosaurs did 65 million years ago. And it will happen eventually, as the S-L 9 impact on Jupiter attests. Or the crater in the Gulf of Mexico, the fossil of the impact that annihilated out saurian predecessors. This planet, with its gravity well, is an impact catastrophe target.

But if we're out there, colonizing the Big Empty, we'll be moving on, as I think we must do (it is the nature of life to spread, move, adapt, grow); and we'll be better-situated to observe that Big Rock before it hits our little planet and renders it sterile. And perhaps to deflect the Big Rock in time. We don't go out there to find glamor. We don't go out there to prove anyone or anything right or wrong. We go out there, ultimately, because the dreamer in each of us has to.

Warren Ockrassa Feature Columnist Extraordinaire