Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Ramble on Discovery

Space Shuttle Discovery landed for the last time yesterday.  It will be retired to a museum, an iconic image of folly or progress, depending on which asshole you're evesdropping on when you stand in line to see it.

Photo: John Raoux/Associated Press

This shuttle first launched on August 30, 1984, the day before SBD started college!  That's a long time.

Yawn for some, but not for SBD.  SBD is one of those assholes who sees it as an incredible marker of Man's progress.

As it coasted to a stop under a brilliant noon sun, Discovery had logged some 5,750 orbits covering nearly 150 million miles during 39 flights spanning a full year in space — a record unrivaled in the history of manned rockets.
Teach your kids that.  The attempted and successful routinization of orbital travel and experimentation.  Do not let science fiction diminish the importance and difficulty of real science and engineering and human effort.  Money may say, "Send the robots out there, instead," but it's humans on board that make it relevant and emotional.  It is humans that pursue discovery of the kind that can be touched and seen directly.  Hubble's images are facinating and luscious views of the universe's structures but they are abstract art to most - pure mystery and wonder and absolutely intangible.  They drive the imagination of the science fictionist. Those Martian rovers are incredible little bots which we anthropomorphise because we are jealous of them.  They drive the Martian sands, but it's Man that should be there, leaving his print as a marker forward.  Maybe we'd be further along if government did not insist on a monopoly over space or insist on defining its relevance for us.  It's possible Discovery represents the bureaucratization of human space travel.  A long in the tooth government program satisfied with boring low earth orbit high school science winner experiments; a Jabba the Hut of corpulent government lethargy, mafia contracts, and misappropriation of national resources.  For about the same cost, we could have built a space elevator, and that ain't science fiction.  In any event, the future may lie in bots collecting the data, all to be fed into VR machines, which will bring the experience of space travel without the actual travel and associated bone loss, radiation poisoning and death.  See how easy it is to slip into science fictionism?

The last shuttle mission is to be flown aboard Atlantis, named for the mythical repository of ancient technological prowess destroyed by some wrath of nature or human agency in violation of nature.  Now there's a load of irony for ya.  The shuttles are hard, practical science and engineering just as much as they are of government intrusion and capture of scientific endeavor and risk.  So how to prevent the shuttle from becoming a myth of the utility of off-Earth human endeavor?  Get the fuck out of the way.  Let the entrepreneurs play and scheme.