Just As I Thought

Time to get myself a telescope

There are two remarkably amazing things about NASA lately: first off, the Stardust mission. Can you imagine the incredible amount of engineering and math that make it possible to launch a probe from Earth, rendezvous with a comet, collect samples, then return to Earth and land it just where they planned? How about the fantastic engineering that put not one, but two robot rovers on Mars, where despite all odds they have exceeded their expected life by more than a year? Perhaps these “cheap” missions are the way things should be done more often at NASA, because their expensive boondoggles like the space shuttle and the space station are pretty much devoid of wonder, excitement, or even real science.
The second thing? NASA shares it all with us. When they get pictures, we get pictures. When they get data, we get data. These days it seems very rare to have a government agency — funded by the American people — that gives their product to those people. With the Bush administration agencies seemingly in the pockets of corporations and sticking it to the very people who fund it, the people they are supposed to serve; this open flow of information from NASA is astonishing and refreshing. And inspiring.

3 comments

  • Well, cheap doesn’t always work. They lost a couple of Mars probes because of stupid blunders that might have been caught if they haven’t cut funding for checking things.

    A lot of the credit goes to JPL, they put together the Mars Rovers. There was a great special on PBS back when they were landing, interviewing the engineers and scientists. The rovers have lasted over 2 years, when their supposed life was 90 days.

    Don’t forget Cassini to Saturn, and there is another Mars orbiter on the way with a much more powerful camera. And today is the paunch of the Pluto probe.

    And the Voyager probes from the 70’s are now beyond the boundaries of our solar system and still sending back data. Assuming Bush doesn’t cut funding.

  • duh… I THOUGHT it was 2 years that the MERs had been roving, but I couldn’t remember. I was reminded because that special was repeated last week, and it was fascinating…
    Yes, there have been blunders — but the successes have outnumbered them and the low cost makes it palatable…

  • Yeah, I used to ride Metrolink with one of the original JPL/Voyager scientists. He was quite old when I met him, but he was still working on Voyager as recently as 2000, albeit part time. Whenever something cool was happening, whether with Voyager or something else, he always had lots of stories to tell.

    As far as cheap versus expensive goes, I think that expensive is important, too. We must understand what it takes to survive in space. Robots are great, but ultimately people must go to space. This requires good and bad experiences, leading to better engineering.

    Space shuttle is dangerous more because of its cavalier operation. (I suspect that ice thing on Columbia would not have happened if they hadn’t stopped PAINTING the outside of the external fuel tank. [The original design called for painting the fuel tank.] Obviously, had they listened to the engineers who said, “Don’t launch,” when things got too cold for Challenger, that rocketship would not have blown up on liftoff.) When I was a kid, I had a neighbor who was a quality control guy for Rockwell. He got me all kinds of good materials about Space Shuttle. He’s old, now, too! Yikes!

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