August 10, 2012
What can I say about NASA's latest awesome venture to Mars? We've got some freakin' smart people at NASA, and the reality of what they do is astounding.
I greatly thank the people at NASA for developing a simulation "game" for Xbox 360's Kinect that allows you to control the Mars Science Laboratory -- better known as Curiosity -- on its "Seven Minutes of Hell" descent to the Mars surface. It's a free download for the Xbox 360 and is a neat, simple application that lets you guide the capsule through the top of descent, coordinate the separation of the heat shield and finally guide the rover onto the surface using jets.
As news stories popped up everywhere about this, the game allowed me to understand the process much better. We take for granted the thick atmosphere above Earth that has made re-entry for capsules and orbiters easy compared to other bodies. Once we protect the craft from the friction and heat of re-entry, we can use drag to slow a capsule down with parachutes or flight dynamics to land a shuttle like a glider.
Elsewhere, rockets are required. The Moon has no atmosphere, which required the Apollo landers to use rockets in their descent. Mars has some atmosphere, but nowhere near as thick as Earth's. So even with the giant parachute attached to Curiosity, it was pretty much a one-ton brick. Previous smaller landers had gotten by with a big balloon enclosure to protect them as they landed, similar to an egg basket you may have designed in school. But with a one-ton nuclear-powered rover, this wasn't an option.
Enter seven minutes of hell.
After this much-celebrated landing earlier in the week, I have seen a couple of stories asking whether this will renew interest in our space program. It has been mostly out of the headlines for the past year for actual missions. The Enterprise and Discovery orbiters have made headlines -- and great photographs -- on their way to museums. SpaceX's rocket made great headlines as well, but not for a new accomplishment. It was the first private rocket to rendezvous with the International Space Station. While very important, NASA's shuttle orbiters and other capsules had done this many times over the past decade.
I'm reading Neil deGrasse Tyson's latest book, "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier." He does a great job of informing you about all the challenges -- whether they are scientific or political -- to our exploration of space. One of the best quotes I have encountered deals with our short-sightedness on funding of NASA:
"Today, cross-pollination between science and society comes about when you have ample funding for ambitious long-term projects. America has profited immensely from a generation of scientists and engineers who, instead of becoming lawyers or investment bankers, responded to a challenging vision posed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy."
He then mentions that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, two pioneers of personal computing, were in their early teens when men first landed on the Moon. They were part of a generation inspired by those great leaps for mankind.
NASA has been doing quite well since the moon landing, but it has certainly not topped that achievement. Nobody has even been back to the Moon since 1972 -- not Americans, not anybody. We've been stuck in Earth orbit for the past four decades, mainly because, as Tyson argues, we didn't have some overriding military reason for exploring space. He's right, and it's almost sickening how so much of our great technology has been developed because we were trying to figure out better ways to kill each other.
The rocket was developed to deploy bombs over long distances. The German V-2 was a Nazi tool in World War II. The Space Race of the 1960s was an extension of the Cold War. GPS satellites came from use by the military. The Internet started out as a Department of Defense project.
I had a friend on Facebook ask why we were spending so much money to send the Curiosity rover to Mars. It cost $2.5 billion to send a one-ton craft millions of miles to another planet and land it without damage. This craft will do some experiments and studies on our neighbor planet and could help us understand the history of both Mars and Earth.
In other words, it cost the same as 3 1/2 days of the Iraq War.
I have written before about the need for our brains to continually evolve on how we spend money. We still have this primal urge to figure out better ways to blow people up instead of figuring out how to avert death. Lessons learned from the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope led to new developments in detection of breast cancer through mammograms. Other developments thanks to NASA have included battery-powered electronics and the miniaturization of electronics.
As we come up on another presidential election and many big budget decisions, I ask you to think about this. Imagine if we took the $600 billion or so we spent on the Department of Defense, cut $100 billion by doing things like closing some of our overseas bases, and use maybe $50 billion of that to add to NASA's funding. Right now NASA gets about $19 billion. That would put it about at the level of Apollo-era funding.
I'm not smart enough to make the big decisions of NASA projects. But I know that I want us to be discovering more about space. Thanks to space exploration we can now detect many potentially dangerous comets and meteors in the solar system. "Armageddon" was full of scientific murder, but numerous impactors have hit this planet before and wiped out tons of species. The Moon itself is likely the result of a Mars-sized object that whacked Earth billions of years ago.
I personally don't want humanity to have the fate of dinosaurs because we are too busy killing each other to figure out how to save each other. Let's make missions like Curiosity more commonplace and not stop exploring because we're too short-sighted to see the benefits of more scientists and engineers in our country.
Michael Buckelew is a contributing writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post.