Thursday, July 06, 2006

Space: Above and Beyond

I was going to post this yesterday, but hadn't finished writing it - so now in all its glory is my controversial space rant (also the post I reference was actually written a week ago, so I'm being rather slow on the uptake in the fast moving world of the blogosphere - can't believe I just used that word!):

This post has nothing to do with the little known space war type sci-fi effort from the producers of the X-files - much under-rated and cancelled criminally early though it was. Instead I'm going to talk about a much debated subject amoung astronomers - whether we should be spending money on (NASA) sending people back to the Moon and on to Mars. I'm just writing this now, because I saw a post about it on cosmicvariance the other day. Many professional astronomers/astrophysicists it seems are the harshest critics of more manned spaceflight, with a proposed return to Mars being subject to lots of ire. There are good reasons for this, and generally the biggest reason is that money spent on manned spaceflight could see them potentially out of a job! This is due to NASA having a limited amount of funding, a large chuck of which has been earmarked by the current US administration for R&D into Moon/Mars missions, meaning other projects for which money had been promised are either scrapped or greatly delayed. These scrapped/delayed missions are ones that many astrophysicists need to continue there research and to get grants for post-graduate students/post-docs. So you can see they wouldn't be pleased about this diversion of monies away from their projects. Indeed one of the missions being held up (at the NASA end rather than the ESA side) by this funding issue is a the space-based gravitational wave mission LISA, so I should myself declare a vested interest.

Having said all that I'm all for manned spaceflight of the going out to Mars variety even though it costs an extraordinary amount of money. A quandary that many astrophysicists who are so opposed to spending money on this rather than their own particular pet project must have is that a lot were probably inspired into their line of work by the thought of space travel. You'll ask many what they wanted to be when they were kids and they'll have said "Astronaut". Also by our very nature, we astrophysisicts are of quite a geeky bent (ok so a bit of a grand generalisation there) and grew up reading/watching far too much sci-fi of a flying through space/visiting other planets/meeting aliens style. This is why we got into the job in the first place people! But, hey, I suppose you have to leave those grand dreams of childhood behind especially when you're job could be on the line. It just annoys me that the very thing that inspired so many, is something that they now turn their backs on.

There are some astrophysicists who think the whole idea of sending people into space is just a big old naive pie in the sky dream (I don't like that type I don't). "We don't need to send people to other planets to do good science, look at what robotic mission's are already doing - it's great stuff" they say. And yes you can do loads of great science with robotic missions, and yes they're cheaper and less risk, but, god, they can be boring! I mean they still quite excite me - I like pictures of Sojourner trundling along the Martian landscape - but to the general public it must seem fairly pish really. I mean you could put a picture of a cute kid's face on a Mars rover and call it little Timmy, but it's not going to evoke an emotional response. What you need is people. People can empathise with people, they can see the endeavour that they've undertaken, the risks, the hardships, all for the sake of exploring something new. And they could do some very good science whilst also being all "Look at me, I'm the first person on Mars. Aren't I great!" - it's not quite Armstrongesque, but you get the picture. And this is the point - people in space inspires others - it creates an interest in space that other things can't achieve. There are some who say that the amazing science achieved (and I agree there's been some pretty ground breaking and Nobel prize winning, down right awesome results) by the HST/Chandra/WMAP/XMM/Spitzer/etc should be enough to inspire interest in astronomy/physics/sciecne in the general public, but is it really? At the moment we have astronauts on the ISS, but it doesn't do it for people as they're not seen as doing anything up there. But if they were striking out across the solar system, that'd be another thing. The public would lap it up, and all things space would see the benefit.

So there are those who don't want to see money wasted on space travel at all and then there are those who still like the thought of people in space, but say "if you could only just wait until after I've got funding for my project, please". It's a case of just put it off for a bit, because obviously in the future there won't be other people equally desperate to get funding for their vital-to-the-understanding-of-the-universe satellite. You can't just keep saying let's put it off for a bit, or it'll never happen.

An even more annoying group of people in the anti-going back to the Moon/Mars group are those who are opposed to it just because it's been proposed by the Bush administration. As Bush is somehow the most evil thing ever - sort of a combination of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Wile. E. Coyote, Blofeld and Darth Vader rolled into one - nothing that comes out from his adminitration can be a good idea. I don't know if putting funding into space travel is some vaste right-wing neocon conspiricy, but to automatically say it's a bad thing cos it's done by Bush just seems rather narrow minded. Well maybe I'll be proved wrong when I find out that the money's actually not for sending people to Mars, but instead for setting up a solar system wide chain of Starbucks, or stealing oil from the Europans, or maybe even just commiting some sort of genocide the way evil types tend to do.

But basically I want a Neil Armstrong-type moment in my lifetime. I'm sick of seeing the footage of him stepping of the lander at Tranquility base and saying his immortal line, but knowing that I was 21 years too late to see it live. Everyone who saw it remembers it and it regularly tops polls of best thing ever done, ever! So I think we deserve another moment like that for ourselves.

Also, I want to go into space goddamnit. Imagine standing on one of Saturn's moons and looking up at Saturn's rings filling half the sky - I'm there!