Monday, July 20, 2009

Money for the Soul

According to the United States Federal government, the Gross Domestic Product of the United States for 2005, for instance, was a bit over twelve trillion dollars. The Federal government will spend nearly two and a half trillion, or about twenty percent of that.

What did the government spend money on? Nearly $402 billion was spent on defense, and $28 billion on Homeland Security. $510 billion went for Social Security, $290 billion to Medicair and $180 billion to Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. $57 billion was spent by the Department of Education. The Department of Health and Human Services spent more than $68 billion. Almost $30 billion was spent for Veterans Affairs. The Justice Department spent about $19 billion dollars.

Each year, according to Worldwatch Institute, Americans and Europeans spend about $15 billion a year just on cosmetics. They also spend nearly $17 billion a year on pet food. Going to the movies? Americans drop about $10 billion annually.
All this may help put something in perspective. I run across people who believe that the money spent by NASA is a complete waste. “Why spend billions going to the Moon and Mars when we have poor people that need our help?”

Do you know how much the U.S. government will actually spend on NASA in 2009? About $16 billion, which is a billion less than what Americans will spend on pet food. NASA’s piece of the federal pie is actually less than one percent of the Federal budget. Already, more than thirty percent of the US budget is devoted to caring for the poor and suffering.

Let’s put all this in a way that might be easier to comprehend. If your annual income is $36 thousand, then one percent of your annual budget works out to three hundred sixty dollars: about thirty bucks a month.

What a spendthrift you are if you spend that going out to dinner and a movie each month! Why aren’t you donating that windfall to the poor!

Incidentally, if we add up the money that the US population spends on just video games and movies combined, it adds up to about what’s being expended by the space program each year. The sixteen billion dollars that NASA will spend in 2009 works out to about 64 dollars a year for each person in the United States. Only $5.34 per month.

So ask yourself: do you think that trips to Mars are worth $5.34 a month? How much do you spend each month for your cable or satellite TV? How about for cookies?
And remember, it’s thanks to that NASA budget that you have that TV signal beaming into your house while you munch on those cookies. How about the other stuff that the space program has given you in your daily life that you take for granted, like accurate forecasting of hurricanes, instantaneous communication, and the navigation by the Global Positioning Satellite system that guides planes, ships, and smart bombs? Then there are the medical advances we could discuss, like MRIs and medical monitoring, all thanks to that $5.34 a month.

But even if there were no practical benefits, I think going to Mars is worth at least $5.34 a month. There is, after all, more to life than just the practical. It isn’t all just about giving money to the poor. If we do not leave ourselves room for art, for music, for scholarship, and for all the rest that inspires, then haven’t we become even poorer than the poorest outcast? Would the critics of the space program suggest no money be devoted to art, to movie making, to music and books, until we take care of all those who are hurting? Do we cast stones at writers who spend all that time creating novels when they could be devoting their days to volunteering in a homeless shelter?

Those who think the space program is a waste of money haven’t thought things through very well. This isn’t an either/or situation. Those who decry money spent on space are spouting clich├ęs that may sound compassionate, but in the final analysis are just silly or worse. They rob us of our souls. When the philanthropist Ruth Lilly in 2002 gave approximately $100 million to the Modern Poetry Association, which publishes Poetry Magazine, most people thought it wonderful. But some critics complained that the money “could have been given to the poor.” Of course, Judas voiced a similar complaint when a young woman poured expensive perfume over Jesus.
Frankly, I worry about people who think giving money for poetry a waste, just as I worry about those so earthbound they never bother to look up and wonder about the stars.

Why Space?

Stephen Weinberg, a Nobel winning physicist, is reported to have stated that “the whole manned spaceflight program, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value. Human beings don't serve any useful function in space.” Although he is a brilliant physicist, his statement, if accurately reported, is remarkably ignorant regarding the scientific contributions of human space travel. Over seven hundred pounds of rocks brought from the moon, among other bits of science that came from the manned missions to the lunar surface, doubtless contributed something to science. The Hubble Space Telescope has had some scientific value, I think most people would agree. But if it weren’t for people in space, there would be no Hubble Space Telescope. People carried it into orbit aboard a space shuttle and have repeatedly had to fly up to repair and refurbish it. The Hubble wouldn’t have been launched, and it would have broken down and burned up in the atmosphere years ago, if it weren’t for the manned space program.

So an obvious value of the space program over the last fifty years is the science that has been produced, both by human crewed vehicles and the many robotic space probes that have flown. But a question many others still have is this: has the space program benefited ordinary people who aren’t interested in science? Has all that money poured into the cosmos done any earthly good?

Certainly. There are many things that we use every day that wouldn’t exist apart from space (and I’m not talking about Tang and Velcro): communication satellites that transmit telephone, radio, and television signals instantly to any part of the world. Military reconnaissance satellites mean that our enemies can run but they can’t hide. Weather satellites allow us to see storms approaching, so that hurricanes don’t hit without warning. Other satellites allow the creation of maps of incredible accuracy, show us resources like oil, gas, and minerals, monitor arable land, pay attention to the ozone layer and any number of other environmental details. Global positioning satellites help guide aircraft, ships and truckers, as well as hikers and commuters. Satellite radio beams commercial free music and entertainment to our cars and homes. Satellite TV is ubiquitous and popular—and even if you have cable TV, your cable company depends on satellite transmissions to get all those channels to you. Then there are the spin-off technologies, ranging from modern electronics, computers to photo enhancement technology.

Then there are the intangibles that we have gotten from space: the wonder of seeing the earth from the moon; the impact those views have had on how people perceive of themselves in the universe. The desire for conservation and responsible use of the environment has been influenced by seeing the world as a tiny, fragile object in an otherwise very hostile universe. Then there’s the joy of exploration, scientific discoveries and data.

It is, of course, impossible to predict what the space program may still bring us in the future, since it is impossible to predict the future with any degree of accuracy. But given the benefits the first fifty years have given us, is it unrealistic to imagine that the future will also bring us tangible benefits from space as well?

Robert Heinlein wrote, “It’s not good for the human race to keep all its eggs in one basket.” Stephen Hawking, the noted physicist, echoes this sentiment, arguing that human colonization of other worlds is important to insure the survival of the human race.

There are potential economic benefits: raw materials, trade (once colonies are established), energy (power satellites, Helium 3). What is the gross domestic product of planet Earth? What possible benefits could we see having another world, with its own economy? Can we predict the future gross domestic product of other worlds? What will mining the asteroid belt do to the economy? What shortages can be relieved or eliminated all together?

The Gross Domestic Product of the United States according to the CIA World Factbook for 2004 was 11.8 trillion dollars. Of that, about 16 billion was spent by the U.S. government on the space program. That amounts to 0.14 per cent of the GDP spent on space. By contrast, that means 99.86 per cent of the GDP was spent on other stuff. For those who complain that we should focus our attention on the poor or whatever their favorite concern might be, I would suggest that indeed our focus is on the poor and all those other things. Let’s put it another way. 54 dollars of your taxes that you paid this year went to the space program. Chances are you spent that much going out to dinner just once.

Since NASA began in 1958, the United States has spent, based on the current value of the dollar, 419 billion dollars on space. In contrast, just in the year 2007 alone, the United States will spend 456 billion dollars on the war in Iraq—enough to fund NASA at it’s current annual budget of 17.3 billion dollars for the next 26 years. The total United States government budget for 2007 was 2.8 trillion dollars. Of that, 586.1 billion went to Social Security. 394.5 billion for Medicare. 367 billion for unemployment and welfare. 276.4 billion for Medicaid and other health related benefits.

Weinberg, and those like him, have an opinion. But, as Douglas Adams, the author of the humorous science fiction novel Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe wrote, “All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”

40 Years Ago

Forty years ago today I was in Ohio. In a bit more than a month, I was going to be going to junior high for the first time. And my dad would be leaving to go to Viet Nam for the second time (he was career Air Force). On the night of July 20, 1969 we all gathered around the television and watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step out of the lunar module to walk around on the moon. For my parents, the thing that amazed them most about the event was the fact that we were watching it happen on live TV--that NASA could actually broadcast the signal all the way back from the moon. Recall that it had only been seven years previously that the first relay style communications satellite had gone into orbit. Before that, it hadn't even been possible to get live TV signals from Europe. Only seven years later, we were seeing live TV from the moon!

John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the earth in 1962. Seven years later, Americans were walking on the moon. That was 40 years ago. The last time Americans--or anyone--strolled on the moon was December, 1972. Nearly thirty-six years ago. In that time, we've sent probes to all the planets in the solar system. Three satellites and two rovers are currently at Mars. Casinni circles Saturn. MESSENGER is nearing orbit of Mercury. A European satellite orbits Venus. And thirteen people are now aboard the International Space Station, the largest space craft ever obrited, with an internal volume equal to a large four bedroom house.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Shuttle Docks with the International Space Station

Space Shuttle Endeavour docked today with the International Space Station. For about the next two weeks, the station will be host to 13 people, a new record for the number of people on one spacecraft.

MSNBC has a much speeded up video of the docking today:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Restored HD Versions of Live TV From First Moon Landing

The images beamed live from the moon on July 20, 1969 that we saw on TV were rather poor quality because the video was incompatible with broadcast equipment of the time. So they aimed a TV camera at the monitor and broadcast that. Ugh. Then the original tapes were mislaid for the last 40 years or so. NASA has been looking for them for a few years now and recently found them. You can now see what the broadcast video would have looked like had broadcast technology been up for the task back in 1969. Of course, it's still black and white and still not anywhere close to the quality we can get with modern cameras. But its a heck of a lot better than what we've seen up til now.

Go to NASA.gov.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Video of Space Shuttle Endeavour Launch

Here's video of today's Space Shuttle Endeavour launch:

Shuttle Endeavour Finally Launches

The Space Shuttle Endeavour took off today at 3:03 PM Pacific Time and is safely in orbit. The weather was finally good enough. There are 7 astronauts onboard the shuttle and 6 on the International Space Station. So that ties the record number of human beings that were in orbit at the same time (previous times that there were 13 people in space were 1995, 1997 and March 26, 2009, when there were 3 aboard a Soyuz, 3 on a space station and 7 on the shuttle). So this is the first time there have been 13 in space aboard only two spaceships. After the shuttle docks with the ISS in three days, that will set a new record for the greatest number of people aboard a single space vehicle, when all 13 people will be in the International Space Station at the same time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Video of Falcon 1 Flight 5 Launch

Here is the video of Falcon 1's launch on Monday, July 13, 2009:

Monday, July 13, 2009

SpaceX Successfully Launches Falcon 1 to Orbit

For the second time in a row, SpaceX has successfully launched a Falcon 1 into orbit. This rocket carried a satellite from a paying customer: Malaysia.

Meanwhile, the Space Shuttle Endeavour was delayed once again by weather. NASA has rescheduled for launch on Wednesday about 3:00 PM Pacific Time. Weather is still predicted to be only about 60 percent favorable. If they don't launch on Wednesday, they'll probably stand down until July 26, in order to allow a Progress Cargo Ship, previously scheduled, to resupply the International Space Station.

SpaceX Update

SpaceX is now estimating a launch time of 7:30 PM Pacific Time for the launch of their Falcon 1 rocket.

Falcon 1 is a two stage, liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) powered launch vehicle. It is entirely privately funded. This will be the fifth launch of a Falcon 1. The first three launches failed to achieve orbit. The previous launch, their fourth, was their first successful launch to orbit.

Falcon 9, a larger version of this rocket, is a human-rated rocket designed to ferry the Dragon spaceship, which can carry up to seven people, to low earth orbit. SpaceX was granted a 1.6 billion dollar contract from NASA to ferry cargo to the International Space Station using a cargo version of the Dragon. The first launch of a Falcon 9 is scheduled for later this year.

Weather Scrubs Shuttle Launch Again

No Shuttle launch today. Weather once again did not cooperate. So they will probably try again on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Next Launch of SpaceX Falcon 1

The five hour launch window for the next launch of the SpaceX Falcon 1 opens at 4:00 PM Pacific Time today, Monday, July 13, 2009--four minutes after the Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to lauch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Falcon 1 will be launching from Omelek Island, a seven-acre strip of land at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The launch pad is part of the U.S. Army's Reagan Test Site.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Try, Try Again on Monday

The Shuttle will try to launch again on Monday, July 13, 2009 at 3:51 PM Pacific Time. Once again they scrubbed the launch due to weather concerns.

Shuttled Scheduled to Launch Sunday

Space Shuttle Endeavour is set to launch today, Sunday July 12, 2009, at 4:13 PM Pacific time. Weather has a seventy percent chance of cooperating.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Shuttle Delayed

No Shuttle launch today (Saturday, July 11, 2009). Lightning.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Shuttle Scheduled For Launch on Saturday

Assuming the weather co-operates, the Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to take off at 4:39 Pacific time on Saturday, July 11, 2009. There's only a 40 percent chance of the weather being good enough, however.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Interplanetary Internet Online

Well, barely. The first node has been set up on the International Space Station. It was actually first tested in November, 2008 when computers on Earth and NASA's Epoxi spacecraft simulated the transmission of data from Mars to Earth. Rachel Courtland at Wired.com has more information on how it works and what the future holds.