Voyage to Mars
by George Giles
by George Giles
Flash Gordon was one of my favorite shows as a child (showing my age here). Watching the rocket ships flying through space trailing smoke and pretending not to see the puppeteer's wires as Flash roamed around outer space saving people, doing good things, being an American dammit.
Star Trek was no better — bigger ships, more enemies, but still saving people doing the right thing, having the right stuff. American ingenuity would inevitably have all this technological stuff just around the corner. Democracy would get crammed down the throats of everybody and the galaxy and they would like it!
Eventually I grew up and gave up on the dreams of being a fighter pilot or an astronaut, went to college and got a real job. Not everybody did. Plenty went to graduate school (based on the number of PhD's per year, way too many for way too long) determined to put childhood dreams into practice, but at a price, yours and mine.
NASA is a wonderful government agency (think about that), an agency that actually has some positive results. Robotic spacecraft and satellites work and they can actually be a business (Google maps). Unmanned space flight has real results, is a real business, and they get less than half the budget.
The other half goes to the "manned spaceflight program." The Space Shuttle (Space Transportation System or STS) is a Rube Goldberg device if there ever was one, a classic government make work program. As Doug Bandow once said "You would be hard pressed to find a more expensive way to put payload into orbit."
I am old enough to remember when they STS was proposed in the 70's it would be a freighter into orbit where cost per pound would be "too cheap to measure." Twenty years ago it was about $50,000 per pound, I shudder to think what the real cost actually is behind federal legerdemain. That particular subject is no longer talked about.
The Space Shuttle has been a symbol of national pride. The Russians even designed one that looked a lot like ours, but somewhere along the line they were smart enough not to launch it and scrapped the whole thing. Good for them.
NASA's senior leadership is now about my age, which means they were watching Flash Gordon, or reading Tom Swift books about the same time I was, only they have ascended the heights of the Byzantine ziggurat of national politics to positions where they can take their dreams and make you and I pay for them.
Like most government programs the STS was a disaster, especially if you were a passenger (astronaut) on one of the two that took off but never landed. I still remember Frank Reynolds staring into space in 1986 as Christa MacAuliffe vaporized, asking what happened? Come Frank, are you really that slow? It is really a disaster for the taxpayers as we have pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into this boondoggle.
I have read the Constitution (unlike most of our leaders) and I am pretty sure NASA and Space Flight were not covered. I guess the framers though that such activity (folly) would be a states rights or private individual's thing.
Still the miracle was that all of the STS do not blow up. A rocket is a linear bomb, a controlled explosion. The sad truth about chemical rockets is that if the Earth had 10% more mass we could not get into orbit at all. Just not enough mojo in those covalent bonds!
The STS looks like a Recreational Vehicle being launched into space. Every time I see these "heroes" doing their somersaults in micro-gravity, I cannot help but think about Clark Griswold and Cousin Eddie emptying the chemical toilet in the sewer. We're doing science here dammit get serious. Just how many bees can we launch into orbit and how many nearly spherical latex balloons can we make. "NASA is just workfare for the middle class," one on-site engineer told me.
Once you have been scamming this long, why stop? National pride is at stake. Americans got to the Moon in 1969. Guess what, nothing was going on, just as had been predicted. It was boringly exactly as the non-NASA scientists said it would be, a dead rock with permanent acne scars.
However in order to get to the moon you have to be able to design, develop and deploy systems that will also put thermonuclear payload in Red Square, a nice ancillary benefit.
Mars is the next logical step to the stars, the logical progression in man's desire to explore the universe, so say the tenured bureaucrats. Yes, dear reader, you and I will get to pay for it once more. Failure never deters a bureaucrat: call failure a success and stridently demand money for enhancements.
Mars is a lifeless dead rock, no life possible, as we understand life. Oh but it could have been vigorously say a 100 million years ago when Mars was more earthlike! Whales may also speak French at the bottom of the sea, but I doubt it and trying to find funding to validate this hypothesis may be a little dicey. Go see if the Gates Foundation is willing to pay for it, or better yet get the Wizard of Omaha Warren Buffet.
NASA has wanted to go to Mars for 50 years even though they know, just as we all know, it is a dead rock (1% of the atmosphere of earth, vacuum for all intents and purposes).
Bureaucrats never let the truth interfere with a good story. Beat the drum about how important water is to life for 15 years and then disclose "what a surprise we found water after all, but it's under the rock" now we really need to go to Mars. All that life is hiding.
The difference between going to the moon and going to Mars is the difference between a weekend in the drunk tank and a life sentence, in solitary confinement, in the dark, for the astronauts: weightlessness, bad food, weightless showers, and sensory deprivation, not to mention unshielded cosmic ray exposure. I quote Will Smith "And what's that smell?"
A piece of rock the size of a pebble going 150,000 miles per hour or a rock the size of a car going only 100 miles an hour will turn the whole thing into dust in a few milliseconds. It would be so far away we would never see what happened, the radar would just loose a blip.
Halfway into the mission the comms will go dead, and then the real storytelling will begin. Technologically we are closer to the Stone Age than we are to interstellar travel. It is high time we got real and save the taxpayer from this folly.
Man cannot take the harsh environment of space. We spent 500 million years evolving in this nice cocoon created for us by evolution (notorious slow mover); just because we make movies about going to Mars, does not actually mean that we, as a species, are actually ready. Some astronauts, if not all, will go mad, kill one another, or kill themselves.
Perhaps one of the ten million moving parts let out to the lowest bidder or the Honorable Senator's drinking buddy's brother's firm will fail at just the wrong time, creating a cascade of unintentional consequences leading to another investigational committee of questionable data, lies and a forgone conclusion: Our national pride means we must go back!
Still the NASA hype machine has been cranking for more than a decade about the necessity and the inevitability of a Mars trip, a base and ultimate colonization. Yes dear reader you know who is footing the bill.
It would be easier to cross the Rub Al-Khali desert naked on all fours in the summer time for the traveler, than it would be going to Mars. Maybe we should start that trip with the NASA's top bureaucrat; when he gets to the Persian Gulf from the Horn of Africa, send him back the other way and on arrival we'll talk about that funding. A hundred billion is just the down payment on this fiasco, with minimum payment due eternally after.
When John F. Kennedy declared going to the moon within a decade everybody cheered. It was a fašade, a clever ruse. Russian rockets were launching transistor radios into orbit, beeping at us while our rockets were blowing up on the launch pad for all to see.
Demanding money for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for hydrogen bombs the size of a greyhound bus would have been far too crass for Camelot. Yet the technology is the same, just a new coat of paint and a couple bytes change in the trajectory computer and you have a first strike weapon. A nice ancillary benefit if ever there was one. Remember the immortal words of Wernher Von Braun: "I aim for the stars, but sometimes I hit London."
Space travel is just another excuse for looting the taxpayers, the public fisc, to benefit overpaid and underworked stiffs that do not want to have a real job manufacturing goods or providing a service that someone would voluntarily actually want to buy. To quote Nancy Reagan, "Just Say No."
I worked on-site for years at NASA's "Space Port," which is actually a massive swamp selected to protect the neighbors from the fiery downside of some of this folly. In my 30 years of work in American manufacturing it is the only job site that I have ever been to where "workers," and I use that term loosely, carried pillows in to work.
December 17, 2008
George Giles [send him mail] is an Independent writer in Nashville, TN.
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