2012.09.12 Lost in Space with Dan

Written by David Green.

Seattle resident Daniel Green promised his brother he would write a column sometime. He finally came through, although he was somewhat puzzled that he couldn’t make it funny. He said it’s not even Morenci-related until the end, and he urges readers to hold on “until the exciting conclusion.”

By DAN GREEN

Last week I was in a sandwich shop on my lunch break, chatting amiably with a man behind the counter. “I was up late last night,” I told him, “watching the Mars rover landing.” I was referring of course, to what NASA had accomplished the night before—safely landing a car-sized machine on the surface of Mars. This is what he said: “Oh, was that on Art Bell or something?”

In case you don’t know, Art Bell used to run a late-night radio show. Bell’s specialty was UFOs, conspiracy theories, monsters, ghosts, and the like. So I told the sandwich man, “No, this was reality.” He laughed. It scared me a little because I wondered how many other people don’t know what’s going on. I wondered how many know that reality is more exciting than a goofy radio show.  

I think space exploration is exciting and in my opinion, NASA is worth every penny we invest in it. Take a guess at how much of the national budget goes to NASA. Would you guess 10 percent or five percent? The truth is one-half of one percent. That’s what it costs to carry out some of the most bold and heroic science and exploratory missions in human history. 

I hear people ask why we need to spend our money in outer space when we have so many problems on Earth, so let’s put a little more perspective on the dollars. The latest NASA triumph was the Curiosity rover, a one-ton mobile science lab that was gently set down on the floor of a Martian crater in an amazing show of ingenuity. That mission cost around $2.5 billion. Let’s compare and contrast. In the last four years the Department of Defense spent $1.55 billion on military musical bands and performances. Every year Americans spend $22 billion on pizza.

I think we have enough money to cover both NASA and our problems at home. In any case, there’s no point in cutting something that has a big payback. We get a lot from our puny half-percent. For example, NASA research paved the way for the fleet of satellites currently orbiting the earth. If you’ve seen weather images from satellites, satellite TV, or used a GPS system, you can thank NASA for a big assist. 

We also get to learn about our “space neighborhood.” How does weather and climate work on other planets? That could be useful information. Was there ever life on Mars? Are there living microbes under the surface right now? We could learn quite a bit about ourselves by getting some answers.

Don’t forget the asteroids! I’ve heard a saying that asteroids are nature’s way of asking us how we’re coming along on our space program. It’s literally only a matter of time before a huge chunk of rock falls out of the sky and causes devastation. It will happen unless we’re smarter than the dinosaurs. If we learn how to get around in space and manipulate objects, we can eliminate the threat. Otherwise, dinos and people get the same entry in the cosmic history book. “Whacked by an asteroid. The end.”

Another comment I hear is that private companies are going to take over space exploration so we don’t need NASA. Wrong. Private companies will provide a shuttle bus to orbit and back. There’s money to be made doing that. They’re going to provide tourist rides into space. There’s profit there. Companies might mine asteroids if they can make the business model work.

This is great news. However, private enterprise won’t do the major research and development it takes to get probes (or people) onto the surface of Mars, or to the very interesting moons of Jupiter and Saturn. That takes the heavy lifting of a government-funded program. Much later, industry may find a profit motive to go there. Governments do the trailblazing. Take a close look at what NASA just accomplished and tell me that “the gol-durned guberment” can’t get anything done. 

We can be justly proud of our space program, although its budget for planetary missions was cut recently and we’ll see fewer of them as the years go by. If we don’t explore, others will step forward. India, China, Russia, Japan, Iran and the European Space Agency all have ambitious plans. 

Maybe we’re tired of innovation in this area. Maybe we’ll turn off our brains and listen to late night radio shows about UFOs. Maybe it will all work out for the best that way. Personally, I think if we choose to ignore the wonderful and sometimes scary reality of own solar system, we’ll pay a price. 

When I set out to write “By the Way” I didn’t think it would end up sounding like an editorial. That’s just how I feel about this subject. I don’t work in the space and aeronautics industry. I’m just a guy who read all the space and science fiction books in the Morenci library when I was a kid. Space travel was a dream then, but today it’s as real as we want it to be.

  • Front.nok Hok
    GAMES DAY—Finn Molitierno (right) celebrates a goal during a game of Nok Hockey with his sister, Kyla. The two tried out a variety of games Saturday at Stair District Library’s annual International Games Day event. One of the activities featured a sort of scavenger hunt in which participants had to locate facts presented in the Smithsonian Hometown Teams exhibit. The traveling show left Morenci’s library Tuesday, wrapping up a series of programs that began Oct. 2. Additional photos are on page 7.
  • Station.2
    STRANGE STUFF—Morenci Elementary School students learn that blue isn’t really blue when seen through the right color of lens. Volunteer April Pike presents the lesson to students at one of the many stations brought to the school by the COSI science center. The theme of this year’s visit was the solar system.
  • Front.leaves
    MAPLE leaves show their fall colors in a puddle at Morenci’s Riverside Natural Area. “This was a great year for colors,” said local weather watcher George Isobar. Chilly mornings will give way to seasonable fall temperatures for the next two weeks.
  • Front.band
    MORENCI Marching Band member Brittany Dennis keeps the beat Friday during the half-time show of the Morenci/Pittsford football game. Color guard member Jordan Cordts is at the left. The band performed this season under the direction of Doyle Rodenbeck who served as Morenci’s band director in the 1970s. He’s serving as a substitute during a family leave.
  • Front.poles
    MOVING EAST—Utility workers continue their slow progress east along U.S. 20 south of Morenci. New electrical poles are put in place before wiring is moved into place.
  • Front.cowboy
    A PERFORMER named Biligbaatar, a member of the AnDa Union troupe from Inner Mongolia, dances at Stair District Library last week during a visit to the Midwest. The nine-member group blends a variety of traditions from Inner and Outer Mongolia. The music is described as drawing from “all the Mongol tribes that Genghis Khan unified.” The group considers itself music gatherers whose goal is to preserve traditional sounds of Mongolia. Biligbaatar grew up among traditional herders who live in yurts. Additional photos are on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.bear
    HOLDEN HUTCHISON gives a hug to a black bear cub—the product of a taxidermist’s skills—at the Michigan DNR’s Great Youth Jamboree. The event on Sunday marked the fourth year of the Jamboree. Additional photos are on page 12.

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