Letters 8-18-2014

The Climate Clarified

Climate change isn’t an easy subject. A class I’m taking compared it to medicine in a way that was helpful for me: Climate scientists are like planetary physicians. Our understanding of medicine is incomplete, but what we know is useful...

Beware Non-Locally Grown

The article “Farm Fresh?” couldn’t be any more true than exactly stated. As an avid shopper at the local farm markets I want to know “exactly” what I am buying, from GMO free to organic or not organic, sprayed or not sprayed and with what...

Media Bias Must End

I wish to thank Joel Weberman for his letter “Seeking Balanced Israel Coverage.” The pro-Palestinian bias includes TV news coverage...

Proud of My President

The world is a mess. According to many conservative voices, it would not be in such a mess if Obama was not the president. I am finally understanding that the problem with our president is that he is too thoughtful, too rational, too realistic, too inclined to see things differently and change his mind, too compassionate to be the leader of a free world...

Home · Articles · News · Other Opinions · What‘s over that...
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What‘s over that hill?

Stephen Tuttle - August 1st, 2011
What’s Over That Hill?
The United States is out of the human space travel business. The recently
landed Endeavor mission was the last of our shuttle flights and we no
longer have any kind of program of our own to transport our astronauts
into space. At the very least, we’re taking a long hiatus.
The next time American men and women go to space it will be as
hitchhikers, bumming a ride on a Russian craft. We’ve become that member
of the carpool who no longer has a car.
Exploring those lights in the night sky has long been a fascination of
human beings. What’s out there, or might be, is part of myth and lore
going back millenia.
The cornerstone on which rocketry and space exploration sits goes all the
way back to the 17th century and Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of gravity and
motion. It just took us three centuries to figure out how to apply them.
Robert Goddard made quantum leaps in theoretical rocketry in the early
part of the 20th century and by World War II Britain, the United States
and Germany were all hell-bent on developing rockets that could be used as
weapons. War is always an excellent incentive for scientific
By the late 1950s, the Germans and British were no longer in the space
race but the late and unlamented Soviet Union and the United States were
locked in battle. The Soviets successfully launched their Sputnik, the
first man-made object to orbit earth while emitting a detectable signal,
and the United States was suffering a succession of spectacular, public
It wasn’t until 1961 when President John Kennedy declared we were going to
the moon that things picked up for us. We were woefully behind the
Soviets, who successfully put the first man into space, the first man into
orbit, the first woman in space, the first space walk and a succession of
other firsts. They even managed to crash a couple of unmanned capsules on
the moon.
We caught up, and more, with the Apollo program. When Neil Armstrong
stepped on the surface of the moon in 1969, we had won the first part of
the space race. Another 11 Americans would leave their footprints on the
dusty lunar surface. The United States was the unquestioned leader in
human space travel.
Many of us assumed this was the beginning of a glorious period of space
exploration, that we would keep going farther and reaching for more. As
President Kennedy said, because it’s the hard thing to do.
We’re not so much into the hard thing, anymore. We can’t even agree on
the easy things.
Which isn’t to suggest we haven’t had some spectacular successes with
unmanned space exploration. Both Voyager and Pioneer satellites wandered
through the solar system and beyond, the Hubble telescope continues to
provide breathtaking photographs of wonders near and very far, we
successfully landed a spacecraft on an asteroid, we put two rovers on Mars
that crept along the surface for months.
Human exploration hasn’t really kept up. Once the moon programs were over
and we moved into the shuttle program, Americans in space didn’t get
beyond the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is another
technological marvel and it is remarkable that it has been continuously
occupied by humans for more than a decade.
But the ISS, depending on it’s orbit, is somewhere between 180 and 280
miles from earth. That’s not very adventuresome at all. It’s as if we
set out from Traverse City to explore the world and decided to stop before
we made it to Chicago. And we now have to catch a ride with someone else
just to get that far.
Aside from the pure science and joy of discovery, the space program has
given us a bounty of practical applications. MRI machines and CAT and PET
scanners, much of nuclear medicine, water purification systems, cordless
tools, hazardous gas sensors, ATM technology and more than 1,600 other
direct spin-offs have resulted in tens of thousands of jobs and trillions
of dollars in economic impact.
The science will be slower, the discoveries fewer and the practical
applications less if we’ve surrendered our leadership in space, including
human space travel.
There is a story, likely apocryphal but nonetheless telling, about one of
the first times we successfully landed a craft on Mars capable of taking
photographs. It was immobile but, still, we had landed on Mars and were
about to receive photographs of the landing site.
The photos came streaming down 95 million miles from the Martian surface
in numerical code. Computers converted the code into pixils of imagery
that appeared on a screen as thin horizontal bands. The scientists at the
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena waited patiently as the narrow bands
stacked one atop another until a photo began to take form.
After many minutes, when the computers had finally completed their
enhancements and corrections, there was, on screen, a picture of the
surface of Mars. A salmon-colored wonderland of rocks and dirt lay in
front of us with a gentle hill on the horizon outlining a pink sky. It
was an astonishing moment in what was a staggering achievement.
The story goes that the silence was broken by someone in the room whose
thirst for discovery was not yet quenched. “I wonder,” he said, “what’s
on the other side of that hill.”
To be sure, we’re capable of creating technological wonders that will show
us what’s over that hill. But if we’ve lost the desire and the will to
see for ourselves then we’ve lost so much more.

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