Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sound Off: Did Science Fiction Just Become Fantasy?

It's been a long while since I've written a Sound Off article, but I have these thoughts boiling just under the surface really need to be voiced.  So pardon my rant.  In advance.  As you know I don't do political commentary on this blog.  Ever.  But this is going to come pretty darn close. 

You've probably read my frequent laments on shutting down our shuttle program, laying off thousands of NASA employees and tossing decades of space savvy know-how to the four winds. What country would be so stupid as to give up their advances in the final frontier? Why would we do this when we have no system to replace the shuttle?  And why retire the shuttle fleet when we currently have American astronauts serving on the ISS (International Space Station) that we presume would like to see their families and homes again someday.

These questions have been pooh-poohed by those in power who sought to kill the shuttle. "Simple solution," they said. "Our astronauts will just hitch rides to and from the ISS with our friends the Russians on one of their Progress spacefreighters until we have a new manned space program back in place, in ohhh, maybe four or five years.  Or maybe a decade if we run into problems re-inventing the wheel.  Or maybe never, if our economy continues this meltdown.  But *shrug* no one really cares about the space program anyway.

Don't we?  Shouldn't we?

Maybe you haven't heard the latest news?

Not a surprise, since most American news networks seem determined to bury it, know...we wouldn't want to make anyone in power look bad for the devastating decisions they've made about our future.

That Russian Progress spacefreighter we were counting on? Yeah. Well, it had an accident. Surprised? Yeah, me too. Surprised and wondering why the news gave more coverage to Somebodyorother's wedding than something as monumental as a catastrophic failure of a spacecraft system we're really counting on. Fortunately, this flight wasn't manned, but Russia wants some time to investigate and re-evaluate after the mishap. Can't really blame them, can we? The USA certainly did the same after the accidents we suffered.

Meanwhile in the meager bits of news we're getting about this situation, the public is being assured the astronauts aboard the ISS have *plenty* of supplies to last them until the next flight which is now delayed until October.  The flight which, incidently, is in question of being launched at all.

I wonder what our astronauts are thinking right now as they look down on the beautiful blue world that is Earth.  Do they wonder if they're going to make it back home again?

I can tell you what I'm thinking from my perspective here, safe and sound on the good, green Earth.  I'm thinking Science Fiction may have just become Fantasy, because I don't have high hopes that after disassembling our current space program that we'll ever get it back as a nation. Gone are those wondrous, heady days of the 1960's when we first met the challenges of space travel, and the 1970's - 2000's when we as a nation, gained cutting-edge knowledge, and expanded our sciences, technologies, and medicines through our space program. And we dared to dream positive dreams about a brave new future. 

We can still dream.  But like the proverbial castle in the air, we've now burned down the foundation we'd made so much progress in building beneath it.

What about commercial space flight? Well, that's the key word, isn't it?  Commercial. While I applaud pioneers like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, I don't see space flight as something that's going to be profit-generating for several generations. I also think they're going to be subjected to the same political whims and budget cuts NASA has suffered. I fear once the novelty wears off, most commercial endeavors are going to go the way of the buffalo. I hope I'm wrong, but that's not what my gut tells me.

Now it's your turn to sound off.  What do you think?


  1. I did hear about the Russian ship, but it wasn't exactly front page news.

    I agree with you completely. The don't give a damn attitude that space flight is somehow a frill is maddening.

    Sure, it's funding blah blah blah, but maybe we could get the big corps to believe there's some unobtainium out there just waiting for us to slaughter an indigenous people to get. Voila! Funding insured if they can make a zillion dollars from it. How off-shore can you get?

  2. A few years ago it would have been unthinkable that we would have allowed the achievement of our national goals and indeed our national security to rest in the hands of another country. Our space program relies on third-rate powers like Russia and India; our finances rely on once-second rate China. No one--of EITHER party--seems to want to look beyond the next election. I fear the space program will not be the only casualty of the new dark age that is coming.

  3. Laurie, I heard something on NPR this morning to the effect that NASA will probably bring whoever is up there now down on the next available Russian flight, and then, well, the station may sit up there empty for a while. There's no longer a back-up system. I've watched the space program since I was a kid in south Florida, and now I live a few miles from the Johnson Space Center. It's hard to believe the short-sightedness of it all.

  4. Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    Marva, I have a feeling you touched on the clincher. Show 'em the dollars and they will go. I can see the resources of the planets being mined with no thought whatsoever for the planet's environment. Of course, at this rate, we'll never get there, so maybe it's a moot point.

    Donna, I agree. If you don't believe in the superiority of our craft, read OFF THE PLANET by a former astronaut. Definitely an eye-opener and head- shaker. You get a real sense of what an incredible machine the shuttle is...was.

    Kay, one of the astronauts was just interviewed and he echoed your thoughts. The entire space program was build on redundancies and backup systems. There was always another way to get things done, another avenue to fall back on. No longer so. I have to quote Ellen Ripley here. "Did IQs suddenly drop while I was away?"

    We've come so far and to allow ourselves to backslide like this is tragic. We'll never regain the knowledge and know-how of the more than a thousand NASA workers and contractors who were collectively given their pink slips.

    And why give up a system that's working? Yes, there have been accidents, but space is a high risk venture and some failure is inevitable. But each time the shuttle was improved to make it safer. Why not just build new shuttles to replace the fleet? I'm sure going to a new and untried system isn't going to eliminate further accidents. Quite the opposite.

    This decision makes about as much sense as being the lead bike in the Tour de France and deciding to stop midway to redesign our cycle.


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