Sunday, February 02, 2003

If I go to all the sites listed on my blogroll on the left, I find that virtually everyone is between extremely upset and utterly devastated by the loss of the Columbia: Glenn Reynolds, Virginia Postrel, Steven Den Beste, Josh Marshall, Harry Knowles, Brink Lindsey, both the guys at nzpundit, Dale Amon and all the other people over at Samizdata (who hate the idea of taxation and government, but who love a space program just the same, government funded or not), Scott Wickstein, William Gibson, Jay Manifold, Dave Winer, Andrew Dodge, Iain Murray. There are at least two or three others on the blogroll who haven't posted but I would wager feel the same way, and of course if you go to all those blogs and follow the links, you will find thousands more. Some of these people may have found fault with NASA and the way the space program has been run over the last several decades, but the basic message is the same on virtually every blog. We love the space program. We love the idea of manned spaceflight. What happened to the Columbia is terrible. The seven astronauts of Columbia were doing a fine, noble thing. The space program must go on, and we must aim higher and further.

There is another subtext to the posts on pretty much every one of these blogs, which is simply this. I would gladly have got on the Columbia myself . It is actually more than this. It is closer to I would give up everything I have in order to join the astronaut corps, because there is nothing, ever, that I would rather do. I certainly feel this way. The astronauts themselves certainly felt this way. Yesterday, I saw the mother of one of the dead astronauts discussing her son. It was his first spaceflight, and she had spoken to him on the Columbia a couple of days earlier. He had been almost giddy with delight to be up there in orbit. Every dream he ever had had come true. As she said that, there was almost a smile on her face. She was being interviewed on television about the fact that her son had died a few hours earlier, and obviously she was upset, but none the less the fact that he had achieved his greatest dream was something that caused her to smile.

And of course like all the other bloggers, I feel exactly this way myself. My high school years were pretty awful. I went to a bad state school in a coal mining town in Australia. The environment was hostile to anything intellectual, and I committed the sin of being intellectually minded and (much worse) having pride and also some arrogance about this fact. As a result, I spent six years being unendingly tormented and bullied. Not a nice experience. However, as a scientifically minded person I found the space program to be an inspiration. I learned everything I could about the moon missions of the 1960s, and everything that had happened since. I watched shuttle flights on television. I endlessly studied the photographs sent back by planetary probes. (The Voyager mission to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune remains the most extraordinary achievement of NASA and JPL that has occurred in my lifetime. I am rather critical of NASA's direction over the last 25 years, but they did magnificent on that particular mission, and indeed on many other planetary probes). In those days, only 15 years ago, it wasn't generally possible to see the planetary pictures myself until a copy of New Scientist or similar arrived in my local newsagency after coming from England by sea mail . (Things have changed).

At about age 13, I picked up a copy of Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars , which turned me into a big science fiction fan, something I remain to this day. This particular book was a wonderful introduction to the genre, given its inspiring thoughts about mankind's destiny in the universe (and beyond), and its timescales of millions of years. After this, I became a huge science fiction fan, lapping up the works of the golden age: Asimov, Clarke, Weinbaum, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Pohl, Blish, Van Vogt. I was overwhelmed by the sense that the the solar system and the universe was an enormous, exciting place, and that it was the noble and extraordinary destiny of mankind to explore it. NASA had done little (In terms of manned missions, at least) since landing on the moon, but none the less what they were doing was part of this splendid destiny of mankind.

On January 29, 1986, I was woken by my mother, who told me that the space shuttle had exploded. The memory of this is clear in my mind to this day. I sprung out of bed, and turned on the television, and I watched that same shot of Challenger exploding shortly after takeoff, over and over again. It was terrible. I wanted to cry.It was the first day of my final year of high school. I went to school, devastated. When I got to school, there was much shouting and laughing, and discussion of the trivia of what had happened over summer. I felt the need to actually point out that the shuttle had exploded to one person, because everyone seemed so oblivious to this fact. I got a quick "I know" and then a resumption of the frivolousness occurrence. (To this day, I still don't understand this. I do not see very many of these people any more).

After this day, and after the enquiry into the causes of the Challenger explosion, I became more cynical about NASA. Clearly, the idea of the space shuttle, and the idea of a space station, were misguided. What was actually necessary was to figure out what was the best way to get to Mars, and to establish a permanant presence on Mars and perhaps the Moon as well. The US space program was being led by bureacrats and politicians who were not inspired in the way they should have been. Once in a while I read something inspiring, like Robert Zubrin's The Case for Mars , by someone who felt the dream as strongly as I did. I thought, and I still think, that at some point the dream would get back on track. At some point we would once again pursue this cause of so much nobility.

Still, however, manned space flight was a beacon, illustrating where we should go, and I remained extraordinary envious of those people who achieved it. And there remained something attractive and inspiring about the way they achieved it. In recent years, there have been two ways to become an astronaut. One is to generally become an air force or navy pilot, and then to apply to the astronaut program from there. The other is to get a Ph.D , become a research scientist in a field related to space science in some way, and become a mission specialist. The first course was a route for relatively high ocatane jocks, a group I have always been somewhat suspicious of, but who have risen in my appreciation in recent years. The other group were people like me, however. Smart, scientifically minded people. I was never good enough to go there myself, and in my early twenties I sort of lost that kind of dream anyway, but seeing my kind of people achieve the dream I shared was none the less wonderful. Plus there is something extraordinarily generous and egalitarian about the way NASA chooses these astronauts. Yes, they have to be American citizens. But, as far as NASA is concerned, someone naturalised yesterday is just fine. Because of this, quite a few foreigners who have shared the dream have gone to America, become American citizens, become astronauts, and gone into space. People who come to America with ambition and hard work can achieve this most coveted goal, simply through merit. Carl Sculley-Power, an Australian with the same degree as myself (Applied Mathematics honours from Sydney University) did this. Andy Thomas, another Australian, subsequently did the same.People from Britain and other nationalities have done it. Kalpana Chawla of India, who was on the Columbia yesterday, also made it this way. The possibility was actually there if you were good enough.

What do we need to do now? Well, we need to really evaluate what our goals are in space. We need to acknowledge that messing around in earth orbit with a 25 year old, not very reliable space vehicle isn't the way to go. It may be that NASA itself is simply too bureacratic and too set in its ways to achive major goals anymore. If so, this is sad. If it is necessary, reform or abolish NASA and transfer everything to the private sector, but keep the dream of space travel alive.

We live in a world fighting itself. The last 18 months have been the most depressing of my life. Amongst the terrorism and war, we need something to inspire us: something to remind us that there is more to our future than bickering on this one planet. We need a long term goal of colonisation of the solar system. And frankly, as a first step, that means we need to go to Mars. Not just to visit it and then leave, but to establish a permanent settlement there. We have the technology for this. With a really determined effort it probably isn't even all that hard. Devote the amount of money that has been spent on the shuttle and the space station to this, and create a goal so inspiring that our best young engineers will come and work on it, and we will get there, probably in just a few years.

As Dan Hanson was saying yesterday, dedicate a memorial to the seven brave and good people who died yesterday, and the seven who died in Challenger in 1986, and the three who died in Apollo 1 in 1967, and the one who died in Soyuz 1 in 1967, and the three who died in Soyuz 11 in 1971. And have an astronaut place it on the surface of Mars.

I think that is all I have to say about Columbia. May the seven astronauts rest in peace. My condolences to their families. Regular blogging will resume tomorrow.

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