Wednesday, December 24, 2014

It's Christmas Eve, babe...

... and as we all know, there is really only one place to be.

It has been a big year for the Blog family, and despite a lot of unpleasant news around the world, I feel like 2014 is ending on a good note. So, yeah: Happy Christmas (or whatever holiday you may celebrate), wherever you are. May your cars be big as bars, and your rivers be gold.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

To the stars, through a̶d̶v̶e̶r̶s̶i̶t̶y̶ budget cuts

A few hours from now, NASA is about to send a brand-new manned spacecraft called Orion into orbit. It's the first time this has happened since 1981, when NASA did this:

I remember watching this with my parents, excited but not fully realizing what a big deal it was (more specifically, I remember holding a plastic model with the vertical stabilizer broken off, sitting on the edge of my parents' bed in front of the TV). I was too young to feel nervous for the two guys strapped into Columbia's cockpit or to feel like there was even any chance of failure. The whole experience got me hooked on space, rockets, and space rockets--much in the same way, I'm sure, that others were mesmerized by Apollo 11.

Over the years, Space Shuttle launches became almost routine, but its first flight was a big moment for NASA. It was, essentially, a brand-new concept. And it was, literally, a manned test flight of a vehicle's maiden trip into space, something the organization had never done before and has never done since.

Indeed, Orion will carry all kinds of things--including a rubber ducky from Sesame Street and a T. rex fossil--but no astronauts. It will blast into high Earth orbit, circle the planet a couple of times, and splash down. The whole exercise will only last a few hours, but it's a huge deal because it marks the first tiny steps of much longer journeys. NASA has its sights set on a manned asteroid landing, and of course eventually Mars.

Neat, right? Everyone these days is focused on space as a source of resources, and that's important. It would be nice to be able to build things without destroying our planet looking for the raw materials. But it's much more important for us as a species to keep exploring, keep looking for questions to answer. Some of what we find might be practically useful, like new technology or materials. Other stuff might be bigger picture, like discovering extraterrestrial organisms. But regardless, it's not healthy for humans to just look around at where we are, shrug, and say, "eh--good enough."

(Orion is also a nice distraction from the awfulness of Ferguson, New York and Cleveland. And I don't just mean the killings or grand jury decisions--the way some have responded to the protests is beyond disheartening.)

So here's to a successful test flight. I hope by the time astronauts are using the craft, perhaps five years from now, Earth will be a better place than it is now, and we'll be well on our way to a new chapter of space exploration... and the Littlest Blog will get to watch astronauts walking on Mars.