I’m pissed off at NASA.
Yes. I felt exceptionally let down after their horribly anticlimactic LCROSS impact earlier this month. One 5AM retweet still reverberates in my mind: “Only NASA could make blowing up the moon boring”.
But I’m not pissed off about that. Novelist and scholar Issac Asimov once appropriately quipped “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny …’”.
The fact that the impact’s plume was less than expected yields new insight and discussion. Why didn’t this behave the way we expected it to behave? What didn’t we account for? Do we need to modify our models? Or is it Neptune’s fault?
The reason I’m actually pissed off is that I believe NASA is failing (or at least slipping in their attempts) to inspire and ignite the dwindling scientific interest of our youth. And as Fountains of Wayne struggled to repeat their success of “Stacy’s Mom”, NASA too has struggled to surpass its Moon landing.
In 5th grade, I went to my friend Carl Fristad’s space-themed birthday party. After watching “Apollo 13” and once it was dark enough, Carl’s dad brought out a telescope so we could catch a glimpse of Jupiter and see some craters on the Moon. This was one of my first space-related “gee whiz” moments and I’ll never forget it.
These moments are rare. And LCROSS could have been one of these moments for many children.
I have to say, the best part of getting up at 4AM and driving to the Northrop Grumman parking lot wasn’t seeing the hundreds of engineers and reporters gazing upwards toward the Moon and huddling around the projected NASA TV feed. It was seeing the handfuls of kids, excited to see a space show. There’s definitely an audience for science, but as I saw that morning, their interests have to be carefully maintained. Disappointing moments like the LCROSS impact can truly have a negative effect.
“Where’s the explosion, Dad?”
“Uh, I don’t know. Guess we couldn’t see it.”
“Sorry kido. That happens sometimes.”
“What’s liberal arts?”
It’s been said that the most important piece of equipment on the Apollo 11 mission was the black and white TV camera. NASA understood the implications of the mission – the pictures were worth more than the data. I’m by no means the first person to say this, but NASA needs another Moon landing moment, some scientific feat well beyond that amazing benchmark.
To many scientists, journalists, and American presidents, putting a human on Mars seems like the next logical step. But it’s not. And I think it’s a poor decision.
From an engineering perspective, long-term human spaceflight is a headache. Sustained living in a hostile environment over a relatively long distance is expensive and dangerous. And the payoff is limited, both scientifically and in terms of PR rewards. Sending a human over a rover, satellite, or probe has little if any advantage. Anything a human can do aboard a spacecraft or on extraterrestrial soil can be done by a balding nerd with thick glasses in Houston at a control deck.
The only real benefit is the aforementioned public relations boost. But I submit that even this isn’t the slam-dunk NASA is looking for.
Now I’m not aware of an actual study, but given the horrible state of scientific understanding in this country, I would predict that a surprisingly high percentage of Americans think we’ve already put a human on Mars. And given the saturation of science-fiction TV and movies flooding and deluding our perspective of reality, I don’t think the public would be all that impressed with a Mars walk. Sure it’ll be a monumental feat of engineering, but it’s something we’ve all seen before. It’s the same trick, but a different deck of cards.
They need something new. And thankfully, NASA has a unique opportunity at its door. And it’s one that I truly hope they take advantage of.
In 2029 and 2036, the asteroid Apophis will closely approach Earth. Although the predicted chance of Earth impact is 1 in 250,000, you’d better believe the squeamish will be moving their Christmas lights out of their Y2K shelters. While most talk these days revolve around observation, deflection and destruction missions, I’m hoping to see some asteroid mining!
From what I can gather, the actual composition of Apophis isn’t currently known, so I’m hesitant to throw numbers around. But for the curious, here’s a vaguely related statistic: “an M-type asteroid with a mean diameter of 1 km could contain two billion metric tons of iron-nickel ore, which is two to three times the annual production for 2004.” Apophis’ spectral type is not known, and its size is less than half of this, so it’s difficult to say how “valuable” it is. But it screams for investigation.
I like the idea of catching Apophis. Using clever orbital maneuvers and gravity tethering, we could put Apophis in orbit around Earth like our Moon, keeping it as a proverbial ice-machine to Earth’s Motel 6. This could mean a new era of non-scientific space missions. Asteroid Harvesting – I can see the Discovery Channel show already. Like the Alaskan king crab grounds, NASA and the US would have a valuable asset to fish.
Or, less likely but with better pictures, they could even perform a controlled Earth impact! Here me out. Breaking a small piece, slowing it down, and carefully directing it to a point in the Pacific, we wouldn’t need to park the entire asteroid. Although I can already hear Bill O’Riley screaming at his guest: “Scientists can’t predict the damn weather! What makes them think they can predict where a damn space rock is going to hit?!”
Ignoring the potentially trillions of dollars of raw material to be gained (if you can), the achievement of such a mission would be absolutely incredible. Not only did we detect a foreign object in our solar system, but we analyzed it, deemed it nonhazardous, intercepted it, and harvested its resources.
Imagine pointing up to the sky with your child or grandchild, and spotting a familiar small bright light slowly moving across the dark backdrop.
“See that, kido? That was an asteroid that came near Earth a while ago. Some scientists and engineers sent up machines and actually CAUGHT it! It’s kinda like the Moon, circling around the planet. Now we fly up there in spaceships and dig out metals and stuff to build our houses, cars, and Xboxes on Earth!”
Mars: out! Asteroids: in!