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45 Years Later, The Cosmos Makes a Giant Leap Toward Us…

45 Years ago today we landed on the Moon for the very first time. The Apollo 11 team of Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin took the first “Giant Leap for Mankind” (humankind) putting the first steps of humanity on a world beyond our own; a world characterized in the words of Buzz Aldrin by “Magnificent Desolation.”

There has been a lot of buzz (pun intended) about the 45th anniversary from screenings of the original landing to renewed debates about the moon landing hoax to an AMA by Buzz Aldrin on Reddit which you should check out.  There has also been questions about why we have yet to return.

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That is a good question. At the same time, we need to remember that since the late 60’s we have learned an incredible deal about space as we currently find ourselves in a Golden Age of Astronomy. We launched the Voyager Probes in the late 70’s which have just recently reached the edge of our solar system and crossed into inter-stellar space. The 80’s saw the dawn of the space shuttle program leaving the legacies of the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope. We got MIND BLOWING images in the 90’s from the Sojourner probe, part of the Mars Pathfinder Program when the Internet was first becoming ubiquitous. As a kid growing up in the 90’s where you could actually download images from Mars…amazing. I believe we actually crashed the NASA servers. We have since returned to Mars recently with Curiosity.

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“We’ve Chosen to Not Afford It”

A very cool friend of mine, James Joyce (not to be mistaken for James Joyce the Irish Novelist), sent me a link a while back to an article in Discover Magazine that I just resurrected from my Facebook Inbox. James studies astronomy at the University of Toronto and gets access to much cooler equipment than I do *shakes fist. Anyhow, the post, by “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait, features a panel discussion at The Amazing Meeting  (TAM) in Las Vegas in July of 2011 right around the time that we were filming in Florida for our first round of Chasing Atlantis Footage. The panel is made up of science celebs Bill Nye (The Science Guy), Astronomers Neil Tyson and Pamela Gay, and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss who are all speaking on the future of humanity in space. The video is older now, but I hadn’t seen it yet and it still addresses the current state of affairs of the current space program (with one update below).

Now, we touched on this topic quite substantially with Chasing. Although, probably more on a micro scale. The livelihoods of many of the individuals we spoke to in Titusville was directly connected to our future in space. When we interviewed retired Astronaut, Story Musgrave, he was certainly critical of humanity’s lack of progress into space and the fact that the Space Shuttle had not ushered in a new era of cheap space flight. But one thing was clear, the question of space travel centered around a central point…money. Can we afford to go there?

The Kennedy Space Center is a fascinating place. And I have certainly been fortunate to have had the chance to visit so many times in the past few months with Chasing. But one thing is evident, the visitor center is almost becoming more of a “Good-Ol Days” museum than anything else. The music played is from the 60’s. Videos depict Kennedy with his famous lines ushering in the space race. And we are reminiscent of days when the US was spending 7% of its GDP funding Apollo. I began to wonder, outside of geo-political catalysts such as the Cold War, will there ever be the same impetus on space travel? The answer is unclear, but Neil Tyson did make two points that really stood out in my mind.

1) Governments push frontiers before capitalists do. Why? Because governments can soak the risk. Tyson cites Louis and Clarke, Columbus, Magellan all who traveled on Government funding to explore. Once the frontier was pushed back, companies took advantage of the new opportunities. Private industry is now taking a more direct involvement into space; albeit space tourism for the moment. Perhaps our push to the planets will still require a government directed project. However, Tyson does argue that the patents created by government through NASA are now also being used by private industry to help offset the initial costs. Perhaps this will lead to breakthroughs in future human flights to the planets.

2) Pamela Gay states at one point in the panel discussion that we cannot afford to go back to space. Tyson’s response? “We have chosen not to afford…The bank bailout of 2009 exceeded the 50 year total budget of NASA.” He went onto say that if we “double NASA’s budget” and we could do all the amazing space related endeavours we currently dream to do such as going to Mars, returning to the moon, landing a probe on Europa. (My personal fav would be Europa or Mars. But there is something to be said about putting actual humans into space)

There is an update to this meeting from TAM. There was dismay expressed by the panel of the dismantling of the James Webb Space Telescope. Since this was posted, that program has actually been saved. I am personally very excited about James Webb. The scope will have 17 times the light gathering power of Hubble which already has exceeded our expectations in terms of the window it opened into the Universe. James Webb will be able to resolve distant stars, perhaps help us understand more about dark energy/matter and increase our ability to find other planets. AND, I just discovered that there is a 24 hour live webcam where you can watch the thing being built. Crazyness. (Link below)

We spend far more on the war machine than we do on exploration. And much of our exploration has been, unfortunately, inspired by war and conflict or the desire to conquer. Perhaps the exploration of space is an opportunity to explore for the sake of exploration itself, something that, as Bill Nye says, brings discovery and adventure; something we inherently need as humans.

I’d urge you to check out the original article here:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/10/20/our-future-in-space-panel-at-tam-9/

The video link for the 55 minute panel discussion is here:

http://vimeo.com/30742999

The link to the James Webb Space Telescope Page is here:

http://www.jwst.nasa.gov

-Matthew

Mars 39% Farther Away After New Budget

As an update to the previous blog post on the 12th which talked about potential decreases to the Mars Exploration project, it seems that the predictions about budget cuts to this project have indeed occurred. 

The Article from the BBC explained that NASA’s planetary science budget loses 20% of its current 1.5 Billion. Mars exploration, which is a part of that budget is down 39% of what it was originally.

In the last 12 months, NASA has now lost 5 major projects that were in the works

The Lisa Gravitational Wave Observatory

International X Ray Observatory

Europa-Jupiter System Mission

and two ExoMars projects including the Trace Gas Orbiter for 2016 and ExoMars rover in 2018 to say nothing of a human flight to Mars. 

We also saw the teetering of the James Web Space Telescope (JWST) this past Summer. That project, which is to be an upgrade to the Hubble Space Telescope has been saved in the meantime, but its budget will now restrict other NASA projects as they face a reduced overall budget. 

During the discussion on the JWST, I recall thinking about how we take for granted our Hubble window into the Universe. The incredible vistas of deep space are a relatively recent achievement. Only in the last 20 years has Hubble orbited our planet helping to remind us of our humble place in the Universe; a tiny speck in the grand design. Perspective is important, and if there is anything which has provided us with this universal bird’s eye view, it is the Hubble space telescope. If it were to die without replacement James Webb, we not only loose this perspective, but one of our most advanced research tools. 

For now, it would appear that Webb has been saved, but I think of how much more we could enrich our self-awareness as a society, with these other journey’s that we may no longer be taking. 

To see the original BBC article visit:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17029019