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Tomorrow

Ever since I was a boy and my father introduced me to science fiction in general and Robert A. Heinlein in particular, I’ve been hooked on the future. Futuristic cityscapes with fantastic architecture, amazing mass transit and flying cars (goddamit, where are the flying cars they promised us?!) never fail to catch my attention. Star Trek and Star Wars became my fascination; the fiction of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven, Spider Robinson  and Joe Haldeman  became an escape from the doldrums of my high school years.

I dreamt of travelling to worlds both strange and fascinating aboard starships gleaming and beautiful, reflecting the glow of nebulae from their chrome hulls. I imagined what alien races would look like; would they resemble life on earth – reptilian, insectoid or even humanoid? Or would they look like something completely strange to us, shapes and sizes that even Lovecraft couldn’t imagine?

That continued as a young man and in a large extent right up to today. I still carry an affection for even badly made science fiction movies and get excited for films with even a hint of a sci-fi element to them. Even if it’s just a few years in the future, the advent of new technology is exciting. It is this feeling of a brave new world that has moved my support of the space program.

There are plenty of Proxmire sorts who think that NASA is an enormous boondoggle, a waste of money that can be put to better use solving earthly problems (you want to solve earthly problems? eliminate the freaking tax breaks for the rich – that will contribute far more to the bottom line than eliminating NASA ever would). I find that thinking incredibly short-sighted.

For one thing, the space program of the 60s has contributed so many industries to our economy that you could say that it paid for itself many times over. No, I’m not talking Tang and Velcro. I’m talking personal computers. Yup, computers used to fill entire rooms. NASA had to find a way to fit one in a vehicle not quite the size of a jumpy castle for kids parties. This spurred development in semi-conductors which would lead to new kinds of processors which form the heart of our modern PCs.

The cell phone industry wouldn’t be around without the space program. The satellites that orbit the planet which power the GPS devices that are commonly in use now are almost all launched by NASA. Those satellites were developed in part so that NASA could communicate with the astronauts who were on lunar missions.

Medical research has also benefitted from NASA. The artificial heart pump developed by Dr. Michael deBakey was inspired by the design of the space shuttle fuel pump.  Designs of space suits meant to be used in high heat situations are now being used to help burn victims.

There have been other, subtle benefits of the space program as well. Protocols developed by NASA to protect the astronauts from food poisoning on their long extra-terrestrial voyages are now in use by the FDA, leading to a significant drop in salmonella cases since those safety protocols were put in place. Restoration of 19th century paintings damaged in a church fire as well as an Andy Warhol painting vandalized in a Pittsburgh museum that were not restorable by conventional means were saved using technology developed by NASA to test materials for satellites that might otherwise be gradually eroded by high-atmosphere oxygen molecules that erode materials in spacecraft and satellites.

NASA has also found ways to utilize Teflon in space suits which have now been used in roofing for buildings and stadiums all over the United States. There are also parachutes that have been developed for NASA that are now in use in commercial and private small planes that have been credited with saving more than 200 lives.

But put that aside. As Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson commented on the Real Time with Bill Maher program earlier this year, the space program helped create an atmosphere of innovation that pervaded our culture for more than twenty years after the last Apollo mission. It was an atmosphere that encouraged innovation, of different disciplines working together to solve problems that led both directly and indirectly to new products, new industries and a robust economy.

As the space program has been marginalized over the past few decades once the moon landing was achieved, people have seen it as a relic, a government institution that has outlived its usefulness. After all, what has it accomplished since 1969 other than being a colossal waste of money and time? And in these days of economic stress, is there really a need to send up glorified city buses up to the International Space Station which in itself seems nothing more than a destination for Russian billionaires to live out their Buck Rogers fantasies.

The space program is much more than that. It provides innovation and it provides inspiration. Both are in short supply in our culture these days. I can understand the complaints against NASA. Truly, I can. I realize that there are plenty of things that need attention and funding right here on Earth. NASA is in the tomorrow business. The data that the Curiosity rover transmits today may not bear any fruit for months, years, even decades – but the sky crane that dropped it onto the Martian surface may pay dividends not only for future space exploration but here on earth as well.

There will always be problems on earth. Eradicating hunger, homelessness and hatred are going to take more than a budget and a plan and quite frankly, chances are that we aren’t going to ever eliminate the last of those. You can’t legislate smart and you can’t legislate thought. People will be idiots and bigots and there’s not much you can do to change that. Well, there is – you need to make education a good thing. A desirable thing. You have to put money into the school system and in paying the teachers properly. You need to emphasize science as a means of effecting change and technological improvement. You need to give kids dreams and goals; show them that hard work and tolerance for all cultures, creeds and beliefs is preferable to fear, mistrust and hatred. But that doesn’t seem to be in our DNA these days in terms of educational goals.

But what you can change is tomorrow. You can invest in tomorrow by aiming high now. Is there a reason to go to Mars? Hell yes! There are reasons to create habitations in space. There are reasons to send probes to the planets. It’s not just so eggheads can get work; it’s so that our fundamental understanding of how things work becomes more accurate. What does that do for us? Not just satisfying intellectual curiosity – it helps us understand the things that may threaten our species and how to prepare for them, be they asteroids from deep space or bursts of radiation from the sun that might irradiate the planet and wipe out all life on this very fragile rock. It also helps us discover new ways of looking at things – not the least of which is ourselves and our place in the universe. Is that practical? No. But it IS necessary.

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Defending the President

Taking potshots at the president is as American as fast food franchising. Regardless of the party of the Commander-in-Chief, whoever is in office can be assured that those on the opposite side of the aisle are going to find fault with whatever he does, no matter how beneficial it may be. The only exception is in cases of national tragedy, when solidarity is the word of the day – and the politically astute thing to do.

After all, the office of President is fundamentally a political office, although in many ways, it is becoming more and more of a business than an office. Think about it; another way of referring to the president is as the Chief Executive. In every way, the president is the CEO of America, Incorporated.

I am all for criticizing the actions and policies of the president; in fact, it is one of the basic rights of this country, one which separates us from a lot of other countries on this rock where criticism of the person in charge can land you in a very nasty prison cell for a very long time. Here, that kind of thing can get you a talk show on Fox News.

As far as our sitting president is concerned, I am not fully satisfied with the job he’s done. I truly believe that he has compromised too much and tried to win friends on both sides of the aisle. He’s bent over backwards to try to give concessions to the conservatives, who have responded basically by blockading all of the legislation he wants enacted.

The president’s job is not to please the other side of the fence; his job is to get things done, to make the country a better place for its citizens. How he goes about doing that as well as his definition of a better place has more to do with his political philosophy – that’s what we vote on. It’s also what we expect him to act on once he gets elected, and my main criticism of President Obama is that he hasn’t gotten the job done on really anything; yes, some groundbreaking legislation has been passed but the reality is that the healthcare plan he put in is a mishmash of compromise and concession that pleases nobody fully, although it is better than nothing. I didn’t vote for him to give us better than nothing.

Likewise, the economy remains in shambles. His jobs bill has helped but he obviously has a long ways to go; people are still hurting. The economy needs stimulation, and the best way to do that is to promote new technologies. Alternative renewable fuel sources and environmentally friendly products would seem to be the way to go right now; incentive programs for businesses and universities to research and develop these things should be a major priority.

I do like some of the things he has done; I believe ending the combat mission in Iraq is the right thing to do at this time. We have been there long enough and further military presence there seems to me to be non-productive. It is time for the Iraqi government to stand on its own two feet and begin the business of being their own country; not that we shouldn’t render them the assistance they need in terms of resources or manpower to restore their infrastructure, but I think that the Iraqis need to be on their own to develop their nation the way they see fit. It’s like a teenager having their parents looking over their shoulder; they act differently when we’re around than they do on their own.

I also agree that the commercialization of space should be the way to go rather than funneling everything through NASA. NASA should be all about exploration and science; getting business up there will further stimulate the economy and give us new products, new technologies and most importantly, new jobs. I’m hoping within the next quarter century we’ll start seeing significant commercial presence in space, from manufacturing facilities to research and development labs to hotels for tourists.

So I guess it’s fair to say that my opinion of President Obama’s performance so far is mixed at best. However, I must say that my blood boils when I read posts from people talking about him being a Muslim as if that should disqualify him from the presidency. That kind of thing is just American ignorance. Folks, let’s get one thing straight – the people who want to tear this country down are the entire Islamic faith, just a few hotheaded extremists. There are plenty of Muslims on this planet who are believers in peace and prosperity for all. Not everyone who believes in the Koran wants to put women behind veils and party like it’s 999.

There are people who talk about the deficit like it is entirely the doing of Barack Obama. Once again, these are people who apparently slept through the Bush presidency (the second one). George W. Bush had a major surplus when he came into office; when he left we were nearly $6 trillion in debt according to the Office of Management and Budget. Ahhh, some conservative political pundits might say, but in Obama’s first year of office alone the debt soared to $7.5 trillion and is expect to near $10 trillion this year.

Let’s understand a few things about that debt. One of the biggest contributory factors to the debt was the war in Iraq. It was the largest single expenditure that the government was making. Let’s not even get into the spurious reasons that we got into that war in the first place, the phantom WMD and the excuse for Big Oil to raise their prices through the roof; that was a war that Obama opposed and that Bush initiated. That aspect of the debt is all Bush’s, even that which was spent during the Obama presidency. Many of the bail-out programs that also contributed significantly to the debt were initiated by the Bush presidency as well.

Of course, Obama could have acted earlier to stymie both of those hemorrhagic costs, but he didn’t and so spending went through the roof. Now, he has a healthcare system which is due to take effect in 2014 that will be a major expense; however, I put it to you that I’d rather spend money saving lives rather than taking them. I’m kind of funny that way though.

Some people are downright psychotic when it comes to Obama, on both sides of the fence; Obamanauts who think he can do no wrong, and their opposition who think he can do no right. The truth is somewhere in the middle; he has done some good things, some not so good things but in the end I tend to support his viewpoints more than I did Bush’s which I thought were ruinous to the economy and tarnished our image around the world. Can we ever take the moral high ground again after we willfully tortured prisoners from Iraq? That didn’t happen under Obama’s watch, my friends.

There is certainly some who are judging the current President based on the color of his skin. I don’t think disagreeing with President Obama makes you a racist; however, it can also be said that some of those who disagree with the President are racists. In fact, there is no doubt about it; the vitriol of the hatred directed at him indicates to me that these people are the same sorts who in years past would have worn a hood and burned crosses. Maybe some of them still do.

But I wouldn’t tar everyone with that same brush. Some Obama-haters do so because they really think his policies are ruining this country and turning us into a socialist state. Frankly, I think that after years of rampant capitalism to the point of abusiveness, we could use a little socialism to balance out the big business gone wild kind of atmosphere we have now. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the individual citizen who needs protection from the excesses of corporate greed that helped start the economic meltdown in the first place. My problem with Obama is I’m not sure he’s been the protector of the citizen I would like him to be; big business needs to be reined in and regulated since they have proven beyond any doubt that they cannot regulate themselves, and the President hasn’t shown any signs that he’s willing to do that. If he doesn’t, conditions will pretty much continue the way they are indefinitely.

To think that Obama is in some sort of conspiracy to destroy America is absolutely ludicrous and absurd. There is absolutely no evidence of that other than the sorry manufactured factoids that rightist bloggers and pundits have formulated, scare tactics to alarm those who are looking for an excuse to find fault. I wonder if we had elected a white president with the exact same policies would we be hearing the same types of things. Probably to an extent we would – as I said, taking shots at the President is an American tradition, but I bet that there would be no Hitler comparisons on billboards if he were white. That’s just disrespectful, not just to the man but to the office. At least let’s agree that if you don’t like the man, you respect the office and act accordingly.

Space Case

Space, the final frontier. Ever since I heard actor William Shatner intone those words at the beginning of Star Trek (and probably for a little while before), I’ve always been fascinated by space exploration. In the 21st century, there are fewer and fewer horizons to explore on this planet; we have satellite mapped nearly every inch on it and it is possible to see on Google Earth nearly every place on Earth.

We are just making our first tentative steps into a much larger universe, exploring the planets of our own solar system with robotic probes and looking at our skies with much more sophisticated telescopes and space telescopes. We have detected the presence of extrasolar planets, some of which might even be earth-like.

It is in our nature to explore. We have a curiosity within us, as a species, to want to know what lies beyond what we can see. We want to experience new things, see sights that aren’t in our own community. I experienced some of that directly standing on the Great Wall of China earlier this year and at the Grand Canyon a few years ago. I hope to experience something similar when I travel to Stonehenge, the African veldt, Kuala Lampur’s twin towers or Paris’ Eiffel Tower someday.

I can only imagine what it would feel like to stand on a different planet. I probably won’t ever feel that directly; lunar colonization is 50-100 years away, as is human exploration of Mars. Still, what a thrill it would be to stand before Olympic Mons, even in an environmental suit. How beautiful to see the rings of Saturn from a spacecraft, or stand on an entirely new planet without a space suit, seeing sights we can’t even imagine.

The more we learn about our Universe, the more amazing a place it becomes. There is so much more diversity to it than we thought possible – and yet we have yet to find any signs of life besides our own at least as yet. However, given the enormous size of the universe, the odds of us being the only intelligent life out there are astronomical; it is far more likely that the universe is teeming with life, some of which is, like us, intelligent or at least what passes for it.

Of course, living in Central Florida, you almost have to be a space program booster. I live 45 minutes away from Kennedy Space Center and have visited there several times. I’ve seen space shuttles lifting off for orbit. I also understand how important the space program is to our region economically, which hopefully will continue even after the space shuttle program is retired.

There are many who believe that the space program is an enormous waste of time and resources. These sorts are often called “Proxmires” by those who support the exploration of space, named after the Wisconsin senator who opposed NASA and its goals back in the 60s and 70s. Why spend all that money just to put a couple of guys on the moon, he thundered, when we have plenty of problems here that could use some terrestrial solutions and would benefit from that kind of funding.

That’s remarkably short-sighted. Development of the Apollo program led directly to the establishment of the home computer industry; in the last 20 years that has been one of the leading economic drivers for our country, employing millions of workers and generating trillions of dollars in revenue. In addition to computers, we have launched satellites that allowed the establishment of GPS systems and cellular phones, both of which industries employ a lot of people as well. The technology we continue to develop for the space program helps us develop entire new industries with the potential of employing millions of Americans and generating untold dollars in revenue.

Also, we must look to the future of our own planet. Resources will become a real issue in the next 40 years; we are using finite resources at a terrifying rate. Not just petroleum, but minerals, metals and rocks. We will one day have to get these resources elsewhere; recycling will help us to a certain extent, but sooner or later we will have to find them on other planets or in the asteroid belt. Space mining will inevitably become a growth industry in the next 50 years.

Space also gives us the opportunity to move industries that damage the environment of Earth into space, where the by-products can be stored or eliminated without further harming our own planet. Who knows, maybe all our trash will one day be sent out on enormous barges into the sun, to burn up in the atmosphere of a gas giant or even out into deep space to float for eternity.

We are beginning to develop certain bio-technologies that will benefit from a zero-gravity environment. When a commercial space station is finally built (and I guarantee you that one day it will), we will see pharmaceutical advances that were developed in Zero-G that will revolutionize medicine. We will also see certain manufacturing go into orbital space stations or to the moon since a zero-G or low-G environment will provide efficiency benefits for certain kinds of delicate work.

Space is symbolic of limitless opportunities, both economically but also from a scientific standpoint. The more we learn about the cosmos, the more we learn about our place in them. We are, after all, as Carl Sagan informed us on his landmark PBS series “Cosmos” that we are all made of star-stuff. The same elements that make up the stars are also within our own bodies. It is therefore no wonder we yearn to learn more about them.

 

It is in our own best interest to encourage further exploration and colonization in space. It is important that we expand our presence in outer space – Robert Heinlein, the noted science fiction writer, once wrote that the earth is far too fragile a basket to put all our eggs into, after all and he’s quite correct. Colonies of humans on other worlds will possibly ensure the continuation of the species should something happen to our world.

There are tangible reasons to let your congressmen know you support NASA (or for you non-American readers, your own national or regional space organizations, such as the European Space Agency or the Chinese Space Agency) and would like to not only see them funded to reach their goals but to see those goals expanded. The more ambitious the space program, the greater the benefits we will reap from it.

It is one thing to be a starry-eyed space fanatic who thinks that NASA should be working on light sabers and warp drives. It is quite another to be a realist who understands that the future of our economies – of our very species – depends on reaching out into outer space and seeing what’s there, and how we might benefit from it. Perhaps we will learn from our mistakes here on Earth and exploit judiciously, although I find that to be somewhat unlikely given our penchant for short-sighted greed. However, it is certain that without the technologies we develop as part of the space program, without the resources that we will one day need to tap that are beyond our own planet, we will surely wither away as a species. The future is out there – it’s just up to us to manifest the will to seize it.