A letter on the value of space travel

I've been scrolling through the recent updates on Letters of Note, and I came across this one, from 1970.  It's written by Ernst Stuhlinger, who was at the time the Associate Director for Science at NASA, and responds to a question, from a nun in Zambia.  She asked why we spend billions on space travel when there are children starving on Earth. In his response, he explores through a number of anecdotes the incredible ways in which seemingly useless scientific pursuits can have incredible positive effects for the world.  He talks about the interconnectedness of different areas of human life, the things science has done to help people in the past, and the ways that the space program had already helped people in tangible ways around the world.

But my favorite part is this:

Among all the activities which are directed, controlled, and funded by the American government, the space program is certainly the most visible and probably the most debated activity, although it consumes only 1.6 percent of the total national budget, and 3 per mille (less than one-third of 1 percent) of the gross national product. As a stimulant and catalyst for the development of new technologies, and for research in the basic sciences, it is unparalleled by any other activity. In this respect, we may even say that the space program is taking over a function which for three or four thousand years has been the sad prerogative of wars.

How much human suffering can be avoided if nations, instead of competing with their bomb-dropping fleets of airplanes and rockets, compete with their moon-travelling space ships! This competition is full of promise for brilliant victories, but it leaves no room for the bitter fate of the vanquished, which breeds nothing but revenge and new wars.

(emphasis mine)

I love that bit.  I love thinking of science as not just a means to various ends, but as the end unto itself, driving countries to compete against each other in a civil, mutually beneficial way, creating a necessity that can breed creation without requiring that we kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people.

Also:  knowing it was written in the 70's, by a NASA scientist in the space race, it was fun to read it in that black-and-white TV announcer tone of voice that's in all the historical videos about American history.

WE DID IT -- Curiosity successfully lands on Mars

It was a weird, scary experience, watching the livestream of the NASA control room while Curiosity attempted to land.  They were reassuring.  Pretty much every new development, they said "Which is what we expected," or "Which is normal," which managed to mitigate the tension pretty successfully. Still, it's scary to watch like a hundred scientists -- some of the smartest people in the country -- sitting in a control room, relaying information that's almost ten minutes old, and knowing that, no matter what happens, there's nothing they could do.

I don't think there are very many times in human lives when you get moment-by-moment information about something happening, that's already happened.  It screws with my perception of causality.  Even moreso, this time, because it was the same seven minutes late for everyone. And it was on Twitter.

I imagine I'll be gathering my thoughts about this over the next several days, weeks, maybe years -- it could be a very long time before we have any clue how important this day really is.

DFTBA, Curiosity.  Best wishes.

7 Minutes of Terror this Monday

NASA's latest Mars rover, Curiosity, will be landing on the surface of Mars on Monday, in a mechanically extraordinary event called the Seven Minutes of Terror -- in the seven minutes it takes for the rover to get from the edge of space to the surface of Mars, it has to achieve an extraordinary series of mechanical stunts, including parachutes, thrusters, and a sky crane. That seven minutes is supposed to take place around 1:30am EDT this Monday, so I'm going to be staying up late on Sunday to watch it.  But where I'm going to watch it is difficult to determine.

The Guardian says they're going to be live-blogging it, according to the Washington Post it'll be "Across platforms,"  including Twitter, live-streamed at U-Stream, and playing on the huge TV in Times Square.

I don't know if my post about it will be up quite that early.  NASA's coverage starts at 11:30 Sunday night and ends at 4am, so I'll probably be sleeping in on Monday.

If you've got a job, and can't stay up -- I think you should, anyway.  Just tell your boss you were watching the history of human exploration being written before your eyes, or something.

Seven Minutes of Terror

(via Boing Boing) Scientists: You're Doing It Right.

In CrashCourse, Hank and John like to point out occasionally how terrible scientists and historians are at naming things, making the job of teachers a lot more difficult.  It's just hard to get people interested in a bunch of long series of boring names.

NASA scientists have made a video about the touchdown of Curiosity, the Mars rover currently en route to the planet.  That touchdown is seven minutes long.  It takes 14 minutes for signals to get to earth.   So, they won't know anything until 7 minutes after the entry is over.

They have named that event the Seven Minutes of Terror.

The video is great.  It's packed with information, presented in a highly dramatic fashion.  Watching this video shows how hard-won our knowledge about Mars is going to be. Once you know how hard it is, I imagine you're going to be a lot more interested in what it is we came to know.

The video is embedded, and linked here. Check it out.