The Human Future in Space

I saw this CNN headline (Atlantis Slated to be First Shuttle Retired) and felt a twinge of sadness. I still feel that wondrous feeling when I see photos of a shuttle launch, and I can often shake off a bad mood by remembering that there are humans orbiting the planet right now, performing science experiments and (hopefully) having a good time. In space! It’s so cool.

So, it is a little sad to read that

Atlantis will be the first of NASA’s three space shuttles to be retired, most likely in 2008, as the shuttle program winds down in four years

Four years! I guess I knew it couldn’t go on forever, but it seems like such a short time. I did worry, though, about what (if anything) would replace these ships. What would be the future of human presence in space? I navigated to the NASA website and discovered that the future of human space exploration appears very bright indeed.

First, I’ll quote the clarification in the article of the shuttles’ retirement dates:

The $3 billion shuttle [Atlantis] likely will have four or five more flights to the international space station before retirement.

NASA has planned 17 more shuttle flights before the program ends in 2010. The next-generation vehicles are expected to be ready no later than 2014.

Obviously, I hope the flights go well. I was interested to see what was in the pipeline after that, though, so I navigated over to the NASA website and discovered this page, which reads like a Robert Heinlein story:

Before the end of the next decade, NASA astronauts will again explore the surface of the moon. And this time, we’re going to stay, building outposts and paving the way for eventual journeys to Mars and beyond. There are echoes of the iconic images of the past, but it won’t be your grandfather’s moon shot.

How bold! The website is full of renderings of what all the vehicles and bases might look like. It is very, very optimistic, e.g. this description of the program in 2018:

With a minimum of two lunar missions per year, momentum will build quickly toward a permanent outpost. Crews will stay longer and learn to exploit the moon’s resources, while landers make one way trips to deliver cargo. Eventually, the new system could rotate crews to and from a lunar outpost every six months.

How awesome! Finally, things will be like they were in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Except, hold the phone. This amazing set of missions will probably be, you know, expensive. Can we afford it? Is it realistic? This sobering article from the BBC has a few depressing details:

To help pay for 16 shuttle missions to the space station, Nasa plans to divert about $2bn (€1.1bn) from its science programmes and another $1.5bn (€0.9bn) from its new lunar venture between now and 2010.

Atlantis, you traitor! It appears that the space shuttles are taking up all the funding for the lunar base, as well as cutting into research. Which science programs will be cut?

Targeted programmes include the Terrestrial Planet Finder, which aims to locate Earth-like worlds around other stars, and a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, which may harbour a liquid ocean beneath its crust.

Can’t have anyone discovering life out there, can we? Of course not. How fares the lunar lander?

Although Bush called for a return to the Moon as a stepping-stone toward Mars and other Solar System bodies, Nasa’s budget includes funds for just one lunar flight, at a total projected cost of more than $100bn (€60bn).

Just one? I thought we were going to have a permanent base there.

Suffice it to say that the future is up in the air (ha ha), but it can’t hurt to let your representative or senator know how you feel. I know many people think NASA is too expensive, and that we shouldn’t spend such vast amounts of money when many of our citizens live in poverty, and when the world has such needs for assistance. I believe, though, that the exploration of space is one of the only things that can unite the world in a spirit of cooperation, and so I think that a robust space exploration program is one of the best investments we can make.

Certainly better than another war.

A Museum Shows the Way


I visited the American Museum of Natural History today, and, as usual, I was amazed at the depth and breadth of the exhibits there. It being the Sunday of a holiday weekend, the place was full to bursting, especially with children begging for astronaut ice cream or a stuffed Tyrannosaurus Rex. The museum taught me something else as well, though, something that can help us deal with the growing anti-science movement in this country.

You’ll notice a prominent element in that photograph. Above the statue of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse, a triumphant Galapagos Tortoise adorns the DARWIN banner. I have been to see the exhibit about his life, and one of the elements that surprised me had to do with Darwin’s conflicted feelings on religion. Indeed, as I thought about the different exhibits I saw today, a common element emerged that showed an effective way to approach the feeling in this country that science and religion do not mix.

You see, museums have become one of the new fronts in this debate. The growing number of Americans who feel that evolution is not accurate have, apparently, decided that museums are as guilty as science classrooms of teaching immoral, inappropriate things to innocent children.

It is no secret why some people feel this way. They believe that they already know the correct explanation for why things are the way they are, and any evidence to the contrary must be wrong. The creationists Darksyde profiles for us are excellent examples of this effect. Once knowing, for certain, how everything works becomes an important part of your self worth, it becomes difficult to handle new discoveries.

amnh_dinotreeUpstairs in the museum, I noticed this interesting illustration among the exquisitely reconstructed dinosaur skeletons. By Odin’s beard! It’s an evolutionary tree of the descent of the Tetanuran (Three-Fingered Hand) dinosaurs. And, as I verified from the skeleton evidence all around me, it seems awfully clear and valid. It also did not seem immediately threatening to the moral development of the many children around me.

amnh_walrusI visited the Hall of Marine Mammals, where I saw one of my personal favorites. This fellow was staring out at the busy floor, surrounded by a whole bunch of scientifically accurate and thoroughly evolution-drenched material, and everyone seemed to be okay. Indeed, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. I became more and more confused. I didn’t get why people would object to this stuff.

When I went to the Rose Space Center to see the planetarium show, Passport to the Universe, I was impressed by the clarity of the scientific narrative of the film. It takes a journey from Earth all the way out to the scale of the observable universe, which is, as I learned, very, very large. As I have mentioned before, there were many children in the museum, and just so there were many in the theater as well. When the show ended, with a scientifically questionable rapid transit back to earth via black hole, one of the children began to cry. The child was saying how this was scary, and how she didn’t like it, and I realized something.

The anti-science crusaders are like this child. They are scared of things that challenge their understanding of the universe. They cherish the idea that they know the truth about the world, and new discoveries threaten this perception. This is the crux of the issue: we think of science as a pathway to beneficial and wonderful discoveries, but they see it as a dangerous fountain, sometimes producing benefits, but other times producing strange, unorthodox, and threatening ideas.

On the way out of the museum, I thought this over more and more. How can you talk with someone about these matters if they refuse to budge on their core belief? Well, I figured, the same way you would talk to anyone unfamiliar with new and intimidating terrain. Show them the wondrous parts first, and engage their curiousity. It might not work in every case, but I think if more creationists went to museums, and could see how amazing the universe really is, they would get less attached to teaching garbage to our children.

If you believe in god, there is nothing in a museum to take away from his glory in having created it all. I don’t believe in god, and I can still tear up at a view of the virgo supercluster, with a tiny highlighted sphere that shows where I live.