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Why childhood dreams need giant deep space antenna networks

06 Jan

A month ago I participated in a NASA Social event for the launch of the Orion spacecraft.

I meant to write about it immediately following, but things happened.

I got sick.

Multiple times.

And I found the enthusiasm from my previous NASA Social event, DSN50, surprisingly absent this time around.

Maybe going from walking inside and around a giant radio antenna to watching a projected image from 2am to 6am of what ultimately was a scrubbed launch contributed too.

Although one could argue that it’s hard to get enthused about anything when every time you burp, you taste Amoxicillin.

But I feel like I’ve been derelict in my duty, once getting selected for the Orion event, in not having written a post about my experience. After all, that’s why it’s a NASA Social event.

I’ve started writing a post several times, but each time, I found myself wandering listlessly into a dead-end and stopping.

I didn’t want this post to be about that.

But maybe it just is.

First and foremost, I’m a huge fan of NASA, and space exploration, and Humanity getting off its duff and getting Out There.

And I learned some pretty exciting things about Orion and its launch system that, shame on me, I didn’t know beforehand:

The Space Launch System (SLS), or rockets used to launch it, will get a manned craft deeper into space than we’ve been since the Apollo program. When SLS is ready, the second Orion launch will loop around the moon and back.

The first launch, using a Delta IV Heavy and which I had hoped to witness, got us 3600 miles up. We haven’t done that with a human-rated vehicle since Apollo.

More spectacularly, Orion is our path to Mars.

That’s the long-term goal – getting humans to Mars via Orion and its related systems.

It all sounds awesome.

And then you dig a little.

SLS hasn’t been built yet. Isn’t ready yet.

And the decision to go with SLS, who designs and builds it, where that work is done, was political.

This worries me. Politics has no place in decisions like this, but NASA gets its money from the Federal budget, so the politics are unavoidable.

If you ask me, and yes, I know you didn’t, we need something like the Supreme Court for NASA – Senate-confirmed Presidential lifetime appointments for scientists to run (and control the budget for) NASA.

I know, a pipe dream, but I’d really like to see a human on Mars in my lifetime. Sure, that’s in the current schedule assuming I don’t get hit by a bus or a de-orbited satellite, but do we really think things will stay on track?

Retiring the space shuttle before a replacement was ready doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Look at us now, dependent on Russia to get astronauts to the ISS.

Good thing we’re getting along so well with the Russians these days.

Oh, wait.

Yes, yes, there are also commercial launch options, but they haven’t exactly been having a banner year either (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/spacex-rocket-explodes-during-test-flight-in-texas/).

Plus that’s ultimately being driven by an effort to reduce costs. It feels like a path to NASA giving up its ability to get to low Earth orbit and becoming entirely dependent on outside organizations.

But hey, if it’s cheaper, it’s cheaper, and everyone knows that capitalism should play a prominent role in Humanity’s exploration of space, right?

Sorry, I’m getting a bit cynical here, but only because I truly believe space is our future, and I hate to see it going to the lowest bidder.

When you don’t have the awe-inspiring experience of standing in the shadow of a giant radio telescope, you don’t get distracted from your perhaps unrealistic but still real childhood aspirations and dreams of space:

Moon bases. Colonies on Mars. Men and women exploring Europa, Titan. And, since I was a kid at the time, faster than light travel and whole new worlds to explore.

Instead, for Orion, I got a great promise about what’s coming but isn’t here yet, and a scrubbed launch that left me, ultimately, disappointed.

And tired. Very tired.

Unfortunately, too tired to get up for the second launch attempt, which by all standards, was a complete success.

For me, DSN50 was an example of “Look at what we have and can do” and it was amazing.

A stunning bird-in-the-hand moment for me.

Orion was an example of “Look what we think we’ll be able to do, if politics doesn’t get in the way of the best decisions, and the funding comes through, and we don’t cancel the program as some sort of boondoggle five years from now” and in this era of acrimonious divided government, it left me not hopeful, but wistful.

A “wouldn’t it be nice” sort of feeling.

I can’t help feeling like a kid who knows he isn’t going to get what he asked for when Christmas morning rolls around because he asked for way too much.

And all my childhood dreams and aspirations for space certainly feel like too much right now.

I promise I’ll be unbelievably excited when it actually does happen.

Assuming it does happen, and I’m not so tired I sleep through it.

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Posted by on 6 January 2015 in Science!

 

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