No Mars Missions for us!
Any time soon, that is. First we have to survive.
THE FALLING SATELLITE
The New Yorker
Two angry astronauts spoke to Congress today—Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, who had both been on the moon and, respectively, on Apollo 11 and 17.
The reason for their unhappiness wasn’t the satellite that’s falling toward earth, and may hit someone, somewhere, sometime Friday afternoon, or not precisely: Armstrong called the entire state of the American space program “lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable.” He and Cernan had specific complaints about, for example, our current need to hitch rides with the Russians if we want to get to the International Space Station.
But more than that, they seem motivated by a sense of dismay that, having stepped on the moon as relatively young men, by now they weren’t being called to, say, examine blueprints for our first colony on Mars, or somewhere farther. Instead, we seem to where we were around 1979, when we were all looking up and waiting for another satellite—Skylab—to fall.
And what is falling now? It’s called the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, or U.A.R.S.—not as pretty as Skylab. (Are even our spaceship names getting worse?) The BBC described it as an “out-of-control climate satellite.”
(Is it the satellite or the climate that’s out of control? Maybe both.) It’s been out of fuel for six years, although, as it happens, its fuel tanks and batteries are among the parts that might not burn up when it crashes down. NASA first said that it could land anywhere within the band fifty-seven degrees north or south of the equator, which is, inconveniently, where most people live.
It also estimated that the chance of hurting someone was 1 in 3,200, which, as space-disaster odds go, seemed much worse than usual. Since then, NASA has announced that it looks like it won’t hit North America, which somehow makes it even more mortifying: our country’s junked satellite, falling on somebody else’s country. NASA says it will have better information closer to the impact; let’s hope we don’t hurt anyone.
There are bigger questions here, too. What is our commitment not only to a national space program, but to scientific investment of any kind? Does the scorn for government investment mean an out-of-control climate, satellites we don’t mind falling, and that we never will get to Mars?
KEYWORDS NASA; Skylab
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