Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Space

Mars Phoenix Mission

Tomorrow I’ll be watching two flying objects: the Phoenix Lander, a $420 million dollar spacecraft descending towards the polar plains of Mars, and Michael Fournier, a 64-year-old Frenchman who will be hurtling towards the bucolic pastures of Saskatchewan.

The Phoenix Lander comes equipped with a robotic arm camera, surface stereo imager, and thermal and evolved-gas analyzer. Fournier comes equipped with a space suit lined with wool underwear. If all goes well, both Lander and Fournier will deploy parachutes. The Mars Lander will spend its post-touchdown period testing the Martian soil to see whether water exists near the Martian poles and if it could support life. Fournier will spend his post jump moments speaking to the press and thanking his supporters. Fournier’s jump, if successful, will establish a record for highest human balloon flight and break altitude, speed, and time records for freefall. Not that this makes any difference to Fournier I guess:

“It’s not a question of the world records,” Fournier wrote via e-mail through an interpreter on Friday from his base in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. “What is important are what the results from the jump will bring to the safety of the conquest of space. However, the main question that is being asked today by all scientists is, can a man survive when crossing the sound barrier?”

Whether someone can break the sound barrier without becoming a human flank steak, is, I guess, a question that burns in the mind of Michel Fournier. But it is not “the main question that is being asked today by all scientists.” If Fournier really believes this is about science and not about personal glory, wouldn’t it be simpler (and safer) to send a crash-test dummy up instead? After all we have machines nowadays that measure pressure and temperature and others, called transmitters and receivers, that can relay this sort of information to earth. Maybe this was cutting edge technology back in the age of the V-2, but its pretty routine today. Oh, and no one dies.


Chasing the Moon

Time Magazine writes in a online special report about NASA’s current “Constellation Program,” a plan to send astronauts back to the Moon in preparation for a Mars mission in 2020. One of NASA’s first steps will be to launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in Fall 2008, a craft that will be able to make detailed, wide-ranging surveys of the lunar surface. I wonder how long it will take Google Moon to get hold of these surveys. I admit, the LRO piece of this mission seems very cool, but I still have serious doubts about the broader mission as I have written in an earlier post. The Time report doesn’t talk much about the utility of the mission, or its possible negative impact on space science, but it does talk about the daunting budgetary hurdles NASA faces for the next fifteen years:

It’s unlikely, then, that any future President will make manned lunar exploration a real priority. Which means inadequate funding for NASA and a tough bind for the agency’s administrator, Michael Griffin. “If the President says you’re going to the moon with this amount of money,” says [Astronaut Alan] Bean, now 76 and an artist in Houston, “you’d better say yes, because if you don’t you aren’t going to have a job anymore.” In effect, he says, the space agency must go through the motions of building hardware until the money runs out, knowing it won’t be enough to make it to the moon.

So here’s the question: when the funding does fall short on the Constellation Program at some point over the next decade, what’s Plan B? What will we plan to do with these jacked-up Ares rockets, Orion crew exploration vehicle, etc? And in the interim, how many science projects will be the “fat” that gets trimmed in order to put humans on Mars? Will the expense justify the money spent to send them there? Spirit and Opportunity seem to be doing a terrific job on Mars as we speak, and they don’t require food, water, back pay, or golf clubs.