Friday, October 19, 2007

Godspeed, Commander Melroy

Tuesday will be the first launch attempt for STS-120, helmed by only the second female commander in shuttle history. She will also be the last, as there are no other Feminine Americans qualified to command the shuttle, and none coming down the pike before the shuttle is retired in 2010.

Commander Melroy's career is especially interesting to me because we share an alma mater. I think it's incredibly cool that we had the same astronomy professor, Dr. Priscilla Benson, though presumably Commander Melroy got more out of the course than I did, seeing as how she has had the chance to experience some of its concepts in their real-life applications.

I know it's kind of cheesy to identify too closely with public figures based on simple demographic facts like gender, but I do think it's cool for little girls to get to see a shuttle commander with a ponytail. None of the first batch of female astronauts were qualified to be pilots because the military still didn't allow women to fly. But Commander Melroy was a navy test pilot, no less, the old-school Right-Stuff route to getting to fly NASA's spacecraft.

She says that her goal is to be the next astronaut to set foot on the moon. I hope she does; it will be an even bigger feather in our alma mater's cap than getting the 44th presidency of the United States.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sputnik anniversary: Ahmadinejad's Mars Ambitions

Fifty years ago today, the first artificial satellite was launched. You could look at this and remark upon how much we've accomplished since then and breathe a patriotic sigh of satisfaction, as some space writers have done. Or you could look at this and wonder how we can possibly equal the accomplishments of the sixtes, as others have done.

I find it frustrating to read all the coverage of this anniversary, because so much of it misses the point. And the point is clear right there on the cover of Life magazine: "Why Reds Got It First." A lot of Americans (more to the point, the Americans who controlled the money) didn't much care what an artificial satellite did or how it worked nearly so much as they wanted to know how the Russians could have beaten us to it. So, after it became clear that they couldn't get a human being into orbit first either, they made up a new goal (man on the moon) and the rest is history. (History that a shocking percentage of Americans don't believe happened-- but that's another post.)

So in all this hand-wringing over why we haven't followed through on the promises implied by our early successes in space, the answer seems obvious--there's no more enemy to race. It's not only that our enemies don't express themselves through technological achievement (if only they did) it's also that we have no enemies capable of engaging in this sort of sparring with us at all. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had Mars ambitions instead of nuclear ambitions, and if he had the resources to get there, we'd be going too. And until we get an enemy worth racing, we're not going to do much.

Well, that's depressing. Happy Sputnik day...