In a rare outbreak of forward-thinking in the federal government, John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has called for defensive planning against the possibility of an asteroid hitting the Earth. In letters to both the House and the Senate, the White House adviser has called for the development of plans for emergency response, and for coordination with other nations, in the event the need arises to deflect an incoming asteroid.
While hardly a new idea—science fiction, astronomy, and space technology types have been calling for this for years—what is new, I suspect, is the idea reaching the point of being taken seriously at the White House level.
(A tip of the hat to Mike Flynn, fellow member of Sigma SF, for pointing out this story.)
New Scientist magazine recently ran a long article called Cosmic Accidents: 10 Lucky Breaks for Humanity. It’s a timeline, starting with the Big Bang, of all the things that had to happen just so, for the universe to develop in a fashion that would allow us to be here.
(Image: NASA/ESA/ESO/Wolfram Freudling et al. (STECF))
It starts with getting the density of the universe just right, and the balance of matter and antimatter just right, and goes all the way up through the dinosaur-killing asteroid making room for us little mammals, and the conditions that may have led to the evolution of language. The whole thing is online here.
But wait—aren’t there supposed to be “no accidents”? Hmm. If questions like that, in the context of issues like this, cause you to twitch one way or another, maybe you should read Beyond God and Atheism: Why I am a ‘Possibilian’ in the same issue of New Scientist. Alas, you must be a subscriber to read the whole article, but the title and opening paragraphs give you a pretty good idea of the content.
Yes, it’s true! (If you forgive my slight poetic license.) High school students from Brookline, Massachusetts shot a terrific video of Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft coming down through the atmosphere and breaking apart in a fiery cascade over the Australian outback. The lucky students were aboard a NASA DC-8 aircraft, monitoring the reentry, which landed a separate reentry vehicle (visible to the right of the breakup in the video), bringing back samples of an asteroid.
I can’t find a way to embed the video (dang!), which might be just as well, considering how my last embedding effort turned out. But watch it here. And read the full story about these high school students who got a surprise trip Downunder in a NASA jet.
I wrote recently about how Falcon 9, a new launcher from SpaceX, was awaiting its first test launch. Well, last Friday it went off beautifully. This is the rocket that’s scheduled to take over the job of carrying cargo (and perhaps eventually people) to the International Space Station after the retirement of the shuttle fleet. This flight carried a dummy Dragon capsule into orbit. The Falcon 9 builds on the model of the Saturn 5 moon rocket, using a cluster of nine engines, and having the ability to achieve orbit even it loses an engine. It’s in the size and power class of the Delta IV and Atlas V launchers that currently serve many launch needs. But the goal of the program is to bring down the cost of launch to orbit.
Here’s a video that pretty much shows the whole flight to orbit in realtime, mostly from an onboard camera. It’s pretty cool. Note that it starts at T minus one minute, so you might want to fast forward at the beginning.
I haven’t written yet about my reaction to the proposed change of course for the U.S. space program. To be honest, the Obama proposal threw me for a loop. In case you just got back from Antarctica and haven’t heard, President Obama’s budget proposal for NASA was a shocker: When the space shuttle is retired at the end of this year, the plan is to turn responsibility for manned launch-to-orbit over to the private sector. They’re working on it, they say they can do it—and cheaper—so let’s turn ’em loose to do it. Buy seats on the Russian Soyuz in the interim. And that multi-billion-dollar Constellation program to send astronauts back to the Moon? Cancel it. It’s over budget and troubled, and was never properly funded to begin with. So what’s NASA’s job, then? Plan for the future; invest in new technologies; go into deep space to visit an asteroid, then aim for Mars—say, by the mid 2030s. Total funding to increase, but get NASA out of the routine business of space transportation. For one good analysis, look at Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait’s comments.
There’s a lot to like in the Obama proposal—though after watching Atlantis launch in person, I’m not sure there’s anything “routine” about launching humans into orbit. Putting that aside, though, what’s good about the plan? Well, long-range planning, with a genuine vision for exploration, is always good. While I believe we have unfinished business on the Moon, visiting an asteroid is also a terrific idea. We might have to move one of those suckers one of these days, to keep it from snuffing us like the dinosaurs; furthermore, we might find ourselves mining the asteroids for metals like nickel and iron, for future space construction. Time to start learning how.
What’s not to like? Well, laying off a highly skilled and experienced workforce, for one thing. Under the Obama proposal, a lot of those people who know how to put things into space will be out of jobs in a year or two—a frightening loss of human infrastructure. Some might find jobs in the private companies like SpaceX, who hope to step into the gap. But many won’t. And what about the astronaut corps? Have we trained them, only to turn them out? Are we abdicating our hard-earned leadership role in space, as Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan think? It could happen. Our astronauts are split on the question. And what about this long-range thinking? That’s okay to talk about today, but what happens when the next administration comes in? Will they want to make their own mark, and change directions yet again? One space expert I talked to said that was his biggest concern. In fact, according to him, the whole reason we don’t already have a replacement for the shuttle is because we keep changing course every four years.
I picked some brains while I was at the Nebulas. One writer I talked to, someone who’s a big space booster, and definitely on the conservative side politically, said, “I don’t much like Obama. But I do think his proposal has a lot of merit.” That took me aback, as did another person on the inside, who said, maybe losing all that experience won’t be all bad. Maybe new blood will be willing to try new ideas.
So what do I think? I’m not sure I have enough information to carve out a position. I’d love to see the shuttle keep flying a little longer, while we design a replacement. But the spare parts lines have already been shut down; the business of retiring the thing is already well underway. To reverse that could cost billions. Am I ready to depend on other countries to supply the space station we’ve built at such a cost? I hate the thought. Can Elon Musk and SpaceX, and similar smaller companies, step into the breach? Maybe. We’ll have a better idea when the Falcon 9 test rocket launches later this year. But what’s Congress going to do? That’s as hard to predict as the weather. Stay tuned. It’s going to be interesting.
SpaceX Falcon 9 static fire on launch pad
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” — Proverbs 29:18
Here’s our view of the space shuttle Atlantis launching last Friday for its last flight, STS-132. The videography might best be described as “earnest” rather than “excellent,” but it’s still a pretty fair approximation of the view we had. Except that everything in real life was brighter, and louder. And five days later, I still tingle when I think about it.
Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off right on schedule this afternoon, in one of the most glorious sights I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. My heart started pounding about at about T minus one minute and counting. Along with the hearts of I don’t know how many thousands of people gathered on the NASA causeway, a few miles from the launch pad, with a gorgeous, clear view across open water. Somewhere around that time it hit me that there were six people inside that thing. I had the video camera running, but my eyes were glued to the binoculars. At T-10, I think we collectively stopped breathing. Then the main engines lit, bright orange for the first few seconds. A few moments later came the white plume from the solid boosters. The light was blazingly intense, far brighter than any video you’ve seen, shockingly bright. Then it lifted from the pad–we were all yelling and applauding, and about that time, the sound of the engines reached us–a deep, crackling rumble–and it rocketed into the sky, the engines lighting up its own contrail. Remembering Challenger, we all breathed a sigh of relief when the solid boosters fell away, just barely visible. When we finally lost sight of the dwindling star, it was hundreds of miles downrange, sixty-something miles in altitude, and (the last I had heard from the loudspeakers) traveling over six thousand miles per hour, well on its way into orbit.
All this took just minutes. And those few minutes were worth the entire trip.
That was about nine hours ago, and I’m still replaying the vision in my head. It was stunning, exhilarating, moving, beautiful. And sad, because we know that the era of the space shuttle is nearing an end.
I’ve got some video footage that I’ll put together when we get home in a few days. Look for it in a future post. In the meantime, we’ll be enjoying the Nebula Awards weekend. And…godspeed, Atlantis!
In a few days, Allysen and I are taking off for a long weekend in Florida, Cocoa Beach to be exact. The Nebula Awards gathering and ceremony are being held just a few miles from the Kennedy Space Center this year, and were cleverly timed to coincide with the scheduled launch of space shuttle Atlantis on her final voyage before retirement. I’m so excited about finally (I hope!) seeing a launch in person, my hands are getting cramps from my crossed fingers! Makes it hard to type, too.
Launches are often delayed for one reason or another, but so far, this one has held firm and the weather outlook is good. Here’s a lovely shot of the nighttime rollout to Launch Pad 39A from spaceflightnow.com.
In other news, life returned to normal after the big water-main break was fixed, in record time. I’m starting to get some traction on the new book again, while also working on an unrelated freelance project, and conducting our latest Advanced Writing Workshop (an offshoot of the Ultimate SF workshop I run with Craig Gardner). Busy, but mostly in a good way.
Everyone help me out, now, and wish, hope, pray, pull every string you’ve got for a successful launch of Atlantis this Friday!
It’s been fascinating to watch the parade of commentary by SF authors on tor.com today, as we communally celebrate the 40th anniversary of our arrival on the Moon. (The servers there were getting pretty maxed out for a while, so loading was slow, but they seem to have it under control now.) My own contribution appeared during the early hours and has scrolled onto the second page by now, but I’m in good company, coming between Joe Haldeman and Charlie Stross. (Here’s a permalink to the Moon Landing Day celebration. More of a directory, though. If you’re reading this on July 20, better to go to the main page.)
At first there was no cool picture to accompany my post, but they’ve now added one, and I’m happy!
It’s been forty years since we went to the Moon! Hard to believe, isn’t it? I was mentioning memories of the lunar landing to some people the other day, and they looked at me like, What is this ancient history of which you speak? This is what I spoke of:
That’s Neil Armstrong, taking one small step for a man (which I watched on live TV, with breath sucked in and a pounding heart); and on the right, Buzz Aldrin getting his chance in the lens. And don’t miss this stunning panorama of the Lunar Module and the surrounding area, taken by Armstrong. (It’s too wide to put on this page.)
Check tor.com throughout the day for commentary from various writers (including me!) on their recollections of the historic event. Adding a somber note to the memory is the passing the other day of Walter Cronkite, with whom I watched much of the manned space program in the early years.
The one thing I never dreamed as I watched the lunar landing and exploration was that we’d go to the Moon and then not go back for at least forty years. I have guarded hope for the future.
“And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod The high untrespassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.” — John Gillespie Magee, Jr