Friday, December 30, 2011

Reason #100: NASA

At 4:21 PM EST on New Year's Eve, NASA's GRAIL-A probe will enter into orbit around the moon after a commute of more than three months. About a day later, another probe, cleverly named GRAIL-B, will begin its own orbit nearby. Both probes will then be gradually maneuvered and sped up until they are evenly circling the moon's poles about every two hours.

As the probes methodically pass over every bit of the moon's surface, their speeds will fluctuate constantly as a natural effect of the moon's variable gravity field (caused by craters, mountains, etc). These fluctuations will themselves lead to fluctuations in the distance between the two probes. And kind of like a pair of 3D glasses, it is this distance, after all that has been accomplished, that NASA will be measuring in order to create a precise map of the moon's entire gravity field, telling us all sorts of stuff about its composition both on and below the surface. This entire project will have been carried off at a cost of $496 million, or less than two days in Afghanistan.

This would be enough, I think, to serve as today's reason all on its own. But since it's Space Friday (which I'm now comfortable declaring to be an Official Thing), and my 100th entry, I think I should go on a little.

You see, yesterday it was announced that China has its own plans to go to the moon by the end of the decade. But not like the GRAIL probes - we're talking boots on ground.

I've never been the type to value or devalue human accomplishments based solely on their nation of origin, so this is great news purely on its own merit and I'm happy to promote it as such. But even from a jingoistic, pro-NASA standpoint, this is wonderful, because if America really wants to be seen as a superpower again, nothing would get our asses in gear like another space race.

Our problem lately, after all, isn't one of not seeming powerful enough. Nothing says power like around one thousand military bases on foreign soil. What makes a true superpower, to me, isn't military strength, or even general influence - it's leadership. What made the 50's and 60's America's "Golden Age" wasn't everybody being afraid of us, it was everybody wanting to be us.

Military dominance comes at a financial cost greater than even our loftiest ambitions for space travel--as I'm always quick to point out by comparing how much NASA missions cost compared to Afghanistan--and comes with no added inspirational value, at least not for the rest of the world. But when we got to the moon first, it was an accomplishment for all of mankind, and all of mankind saw it as such.

Again, I have no great personal need for America to be #1 at everything, and indeed, even something as comparably mundane as the GRAIL mission can play a role in educating and inspiring young people to get into science and math, but imagine what an entire new generation of space nerds could grow up to do with everything that we've accomplished already. Better yet - imagine what the current generation of Chinese children will in fact grow up to do because of their government's current plans. And think about, if China's "beating" us already, how much worse it will be when their boom generation of scientists, engineers, and astronomers goes up against another American generation of...what? Mortgage brokers?

In a broader sense, this kind of thing is what the federal government is for - what this blog is really about; the things that people can't do on their own, but that they should feel privileged to buy into. Who else is going to build the bridges, roads, and dams? Who's going to provide for the elderly (or anyone, for that matter) when they can no longer provide for themselves?

Anybody in America is free to buy a shotgun and a deadbolt, and look out for nothing but their own. But are we great because of that, or because we're more than that?

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