Sunday, July 13, 2008

Grumpy Old Astonaut

Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible. ~ Rod Serling

Buzz Aldrin has always been a little outspoken. Of course, it doesn't hurt that his quotes are sometimes edited to make them more so (like his mention of a UFO in a recent TV series, which was cut to make it sound like he thought the Apollo 11 command module was being shadowed by little green men). But reading this article, it doesn't sound like anything has been altered. It just sounds like Buzz is off base.

Basically, the second man on the moon complains that the boredom most kids (and, though he doesn't say it, the rest of us) feel about the space program is due to science fiction movies "where they beam people around" making space look easy.

Maybe he's tired of being called "the second man on the moon" or maybe the ice cream was hurting his teeth, but to blame sci-fi for the general any ennui on the part of the younger generation is like blaming "The Natural" for steroid abuse in baseball.

Now I think pretty highly of science fiction. I've also heard more than one scientist and engineer say that he or she was inspired by some sci-fi story or another to pursue his or her field. I went to school with a lot of geeks in the 1960's who were found in works by Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and others goals for which to strive. Sci-fi talked about things like teleportation and faster-than-light space flight. Why not try to find ways to achieve such things?

We all knew about Einstein, so the idea of whizzing between stars did not seem to be an easy thing to achieve, but that didn't stop anyone from dreaming. And no one looked at a movie or at a Star Trek episode and said, "Well, they make it look so easy, there's no way I should imagine doing that."

It's possible that some kids get lazy attitudes about how much real work it takes to get into space, as opposed to the whiz-bang propulsion methods of Star Trek or Star Wars. Assuming there are kids dumb enough to feel that way, we shouldn't be concerned because those are the kids who are going to grow into scientists and engineers.

If there's a problem, it's that it is very hard to get excited about space travel today, as I've written on numerous occasions. I have trouble imagining some kid getting all excited about piloting a garbage-return mission to a space station that isn't doing much of anything.

If there's a problem, it's that kids are hearing that the only way to get into space is to pay a few million bucks to hitch a ride to that boring space station or, worse, to take a suborbital ride to nowhere that's about as exiciting as some amusement park rides. If it weren't for the element of some cheap part or short-cut engineering killing the rider, the park rides would be more exciting altogether.

Kids aren't as dumb as people like to think. They can see the excitement of a Cassini mission or a New Horizons trip to Pluto. They can also see our approach to Mars exploration and question just what NASA is thinking, sending dead-end missions like Phoenix instead of sample-return missions or more exotic rovers.

(Yes, I know those projects are "on the drawing board", but they certainly aren't getting off the board and onto spaceships.)

They can hear pronouncements about going to Mars in 2020 and draw the obvious conclusion that it ain't going to happen since governments would rather spend money on war than on space. More important, they can see that there's no plan or goal with respect to Mars. I mean, go to Mars just to plant a flag? A rover can do that. It's 40 years since we went to the moon, and we still haven't followed up with any kind of colonization or utilization.

If kids are bored with the space program, we shouldn't blame sci-fi movies. We should blame the people in charge of the space program.

And their bosses.

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