The Final Frontier

Chaos in Print

I still want to travel into space. Is that a childish dream? I guess this all really started in the eighth grade. That’s when the Canadian Space Agency ran an ad in every major newspaper in the country, announcing that they were looking for new astronauts. I mean, how cool is that? There it was, a classified ad: “Wanted: astronauts. Send resume to….” As an impressionable 13-year old who was deep into Star Trek, I was inspired. But I was in junior high. I grew up, no more ads were run, and I saw there was more to Earth than what lay above. But the dream still kind of lingers.

And it’s kind of returning. Space is big in the news again. We’ve got the two Mars rovers exploring the Red Planet. They’re looking to be fully operational again. That sure seemed tragic a few weeks ago, when things looked hopeless for the rover named Spirit. They think the problem is fixed now. At least, it sounded like a simple problem. Turns out that Spirit was taking so many pictures of the Martian surface that it overloaded its memory. So, NASA got into Spirit’s memory and started deleting everything that was unnecessary. Essentially, it was the same problem that we all have when our computers start running slow and Windows tells us we have no room. What’s the first thing we do? Empty the Recycle Bin.

Yup, the two Mars rovers. Spirit and Opportunity. They’re on opposite sides of Mars. Spirit landed in what looks like a rocky plain, with lots of rocks for Spirit to cut into and see what they’re made of. Opportunity landed in a dusty area, which looks like it may have once been an ocean bed. The wind has exposed several rocky outcroppings near Opportunity’s landing site, so it gets to drill into the Martian bedrock. And there’s private backing.

I was reading about this. The designers of the Mars rovers actually signed a merchandising deal with…Lego. Lego’s going to producing a little Lego version of the Mars rovers. Plus, on the Spirit rover is a DVD containing over 5 million images of Lego men, and it’s affixed to the rover by three Lego bricks. Plus, let’s not forget the original Mars rover from 1997. The Pathfinder lander and the Sojourner rover were Micro-Machined. NASA merchandise. What a concept.

Of course, with all this attention focused on Mars and space, and it’s an election year, what better election promise to make than more space stuff? That’s what George W. has done. He wants humans back on the moon by 2015, with the plan being to build a lunar base as a staging ground for a future possible mission to Mars. This means things like hurrying up and finishing the Space Station and getting the shuttles flying again, or replacing them.

Let’s face it, the shuttles are in need of replacing. When the Columbia disaster occurred a year ago, I remember reading this frightening statistic in Time magazine. The shuttles were designed in the 1960s and optimized for 1970s technology. When you look at it in that timeline, the shuttles are over 40 years old. Plus, they were built on the unrealistic expectation that they’d be flying once a week. Once a year is more like it. In the 1990s, a plan was in the works to develop a shuttle replacement, but the plan was abandoned when it was determined that a shuttle successor wasn’t needed yet; the old ones were still good enough. Part of the reason, of course, is that shuttle maintenance is a very juicy contract for the aerospace industry. Thing is, though, Columbia proved that a shuttle successor is still a necessity, and the shuttle successor program has been replaced as part of W.’s initiative.

Also part of the new space initiative is the early retirement of the Hubble telescope. Now that has been one of NASA’s success stories for the past decade. Originally scheduled to be launched in the late 1980s, Hubble was postponed because of the Challenger disaster. Finally launched in 1990, it produced spectacular photographs of distant galactic objects…that were out of focus. There was an engineering error and the telescope’s mirror was the wrong size. That lead to a spectacular mission in 1994 (or 1992, I’m not too sure) to repair the telescope. The repair plan was simple: install corrective lenses in the Hubble. In short, they put glasses on it. Now that they were in focus, the pictures were even more spectacular. Early retirement shouldn’t be that big a deal. Hubble is nearing the end of its operational lifetime, anyway.

Of course, what would be a worthy successor to Hubble would be if they could build a full-blown observatory on the Moon. And that’s one of the new initiatives: begin building a Moon base. Surely an observatory would be part of it. That’s going to be cool, though. Think about it. The Moon…colonized! In my lifetime! Actually, I remember reading about this. It was originally hoped that the Apollo program would continue throughout the 1970s and that the first lunar base would have built around 1982. But, of course, once the USA beat the Russians, people really didn’t see the point of doing anything more on the Moon. And that sucks, because there’s still a lot that can be learned from lunar exploration. But now, ol’ George W. Bush has made it a priority.

And that, despite how cool I think all this is, is making me suspicious.

But still, I’m still that 13-year old boy who saw an ad in the newspaper for astronauts. I don’t know. I guess it could still happen. I mean, I’m being told that I’m just right for broadcast news. In the recent war in Iraq, the USA had their “embedded reporters” with military units. Why not an embedded reporter with NASA? Someone who could be sent up to the Moon to cover the construction of the Moon base? That…could be me! It’s good to have a dream, no matter how childish.

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