Sunday, 10 July 2011

Brightly fade the stars

The first powered human flight took place in 1903 when the Wright Brothers took their flyer to the sky and flew 120 feet in 12 seconds. In just 58 years after that momentous event, mankind took to space - Yuri Gagarin made that historic spaceflight in 1961. Just eight years later man was on the moon. (just a pause to note that virtually every reader of this blog was not born when Armstrong placed that first footstep on the moon). In 1971 and 1972, Pioneer 10 and 11 probes were launched which flew by Jupiter and Saturn . They are still flying somewhere, but we have lost contact with them.  In 1977, the greatest mission of all - Voyager was launched. Past Jupiter, Saturn , Uranus and Neptune and now past the solar system itself, into interstellar space. 34 years after it was launched, it is still in contact and is mankind's first feeble attempt to reach out to the stars.

After 1977 ?? Nothing. The space shuttle program, which is the only noteworthy achievement since then, was all focused on near earth orbit. Even that is coming to an end. Atlantis , the last shuttle flight is in space now. When it returns back, the space shuttles will also be consigned to the museum.

Mankind has turned inwards. The romance and the fascination for space has gone. We go into space today to launch satellites - so that we can watch 5000 more saas bahu serials (soap operas).  We want to have  a communications system in space so that we can find the way to the nearest bar. We want a spy satellite so that somebody can launch a cruise missile to hit a donkey in the ass in Afghanistan. Better to stop here, before  I go bonkers .

Its all a question of money of course. Who can afford to go to the stars, when there are so many problems on the ground.  Competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, which drove the fantastic achievements in the 60s and 70s is , alas, gone . When long term is defined as up to the next election, who has the patience to wait 1.6 years for the shortest launch window to even go to Mars which would still take 260 days to reach.

Because space technology is so intimately linked to defence technology, we can kiss international cooperation goodbye. Each nation will do its own thing (Its a telling commentary on the human race, that even when faced with the majesty of Jupiter or Saturn, let alone the stars, Americans, Russians, and Chinese would prefer not to talk to each other). The only country even remotely capable of taking the next steps in space is America. With one of the greatest institutions it ever created - NASA.

Money is short in the world of course, but the way mankind chooses to spend its resources says a lot about it. NASA's annual budget is some $19 bn. The US alone spends some $700 bn on defence. Mankind across the world spends close to $1.3 trillion trying to kill its own. It spends $300bn on drugs to get a high. It spends some $100 bn on pornography. And NASA, the only body in the world that does anything meaningful in space has a princely budget of $ 19bn, which will now be cut given where the US is on its fiscal deficit.

I'm afraid, we are entering a new period of the Dark Ages, when mankind is more familiar with the  characters in Harry Potter, but cannot name the planets in the solar system. Where a television programme called Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader exists and in which only one person has so far won.

On an idle Sunday, lazily browse through the NASA website here , especially the Voyager site and tell me you aren't filled with awe.


RS said...

Of business, of money, of humanity, now of space! You rock, sir!!

Amazing how with giant size computers, people managed such feats in the 60's and 70's....And shame on us, that we are so busy securing ourselves from each other that we fail to look far....

In so many ways, we, the younger generation have to hang our heads in shame, given the resources and the technology we gave today!

gils said...

ithana varusham avanga spend panna billionsku returna NASA vachirukarathu ennavo glorified looking photographs of light bursts thaane..spacela rocket parakka vidalaam..humans walk pannalam..ithu poga perusa avanga kandupudichatha i cudnt think of any. Sila peroda(read crazy nerds with big specs) whims and fancy sci fi ideaskaaga..spending billions..while kannukethirka..pasi pattinala makkal saagarappo..ithelaam thevayaanu thaan thonuthu. Agreed there are even more wasteful things on which billions are being spent. Atleast athulalaam..end result ennanachum teriyum..ithula ethukaga rocket anuparom..enna kedaikumnay teriama irukkay. when i cant even figure out wats there within my own planet..why litter the space with shuttle excreta? Its fascinating to see a rocket spit fire and rush into the sky..and more faascinating to see it land on Mars and crawl around in search of stones and sand. But i guess..hollywood has better movies than these videos. Intha edusat..geosat..ithelaam they help to track earths resources and are actually useful. mathabadi..intha SETI velaikaga use panrathelaam wastenu thaan thonuthu.

gils said...

huh..konjam overa pesiten. basically me a physics baiter :) pls pardon the outburst.

Reflections said...

I founf it very interesting, didnt know half of it.....thank U:-))!!!!

Have to agree with RS....
"Of business, of money, of humanity, now of space! You rock, sir!!"

Anonymous said...

"I'm afraid, we are entering a new period of the Dark Ages"

Certainly feels that way.

I think the Shuttle program is also a victim of diminishing returns. For the money that is going into the program I don't think we are seeing the huge gains in scientific advancement and discovery that we saw at the beginning of the program. The shuttle used to go up with all kinds of experiments and observations to perform, nowadays I think it mainly serves as a garbage scow. Shuttling supplies to the space station and garbage back from it.

NASA's visions are starting to expand further and further into reaches of space that manned exploration is currently incapable of reaching. With hubble, the mars rover, and the voyager missions extending our reach well beyond what the shuttle can, I think NASA is finding they are getting much bigger returns on their budget with these programs. Most of the critics of the closing of the shuttle program have been former astronauts, and they really haven't been too vocal about it.

On a somewhat related topic, if you have an IMAX theater nearby (I know India has a few) keep an eye out for their 3D Space Station film, it is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. They run it through a rotation and it pops up for limited runs occasionally.

Ramesh said...

@RS - It does feel we are turning inward again. Perhaps the great advances upto 1970 are impossible to sustain.

@gils - Oh no that was no outburst at all. Perfectly reasonable point of you. Except that for the first time ever, I don't agree with your view !! Need that spice, don't we. If we agree everything; there isn't much fun.

@Reflections - Hey thanks. Very kind of you.

@Hopfrog - NASA is indeed concetrating on unmanned missions, but afraid the budget cuts would mean that it wouldn't be much. But what surprises me is the absolutely tiny budget NASA has in comparison to other heads of spending.

I actually saw the shuttle flm at the Kennedy Space Centre. The film has been around for a few years I think. One of my most awesome experiences has been to stand in the control room of the Apollo 11 mission, which they have kept as a tourist attraction. Awesome is an understatement.

RS said...

I just noticed the typo:'given the resources and the technology we have* today!

Anonymous said...

@Ramesh, "what surprises me is the absolutely tiny budget NASA has in comparison to other heads of spending"

Agreed there. I would certainly rather see less money spent on long range donkey ass hitting research and more money spent on NASA.

Vishal said...

In the age of globalization, we are far away from it, Ramesh! Your last two posts just had me thinking again and again.

Generation Y is busy FBing and tweeting 80% (90%???) of their non-office/ non-college hours. Gone are the days when youngsters used to call their parents to tell them that they landed safely. First thing that occupies their mind is to see if there is any new activity on FB and Tweeter. I guess some portion of that intellect is in great danger due to technological advancement. Space and solar system is too much in this scenario. Chinese is busy working 12 hours a day, Indian is busy talking about work of others 6 hours a day, American is busy planning their vacation 6 hours a day.

Yet, we have a great community on this blog who also lives in this space and understands the outstanding power of your thoughts. Wish a leader like you could lead universe in the best direction of growth and advancement!

zeno said...

1) What about the writer?
2) Why care for Space, when you could have heavens on earth!
Couldn't resist giving this link [After a long time i guess],8599,1949790,00.html

Ramesh said...

@Vishal - Ha Ha - brilliant regarding what the Chinese, Indian and Americans do !!

@zeno - Naughty Naughty. Flying in the air is a bore. Heaven on earth ? Perish the thought. More like having to sit through 3 hours of the latest movie that Gils is trashing. Flying in space - well; if only, if only .....

zeno said...

@Vishal Just now read your comment. 80% of their non office hours? Is it a typo? You could very well say 90% of office hours and you would not be wrong!

@Ramesh You have some special powers saar. Seems you have typed naughty naughty and it appears as nallavan nallavan to my eyes :)

Vishal said...

@ Zeno - that could very well be the case but 90% during office hours seems just too much (still possible, there are examples), unless the boss himself/ herself is addicted to it ;-):-)

raghavendra kotla said...

Ramesh, speaking about space, tomorrow Neptune is celebrating her first birthday. One full revolution after she was discovered on 24th September 1846 (164.79 earth years) :-)

Shachi said...

Hi Ramesh....Preeti Shenoy pointed me to your blog a while ago and I've been reading a few posts on and off.

It's indeed sad that the shuttle program is coming to an end. The fascination of space exploration has dulled. I wish NASA and other such organizations were investing a lot more than they currently are. It's all about using the cutting edge technology and resources that we have today, and channeling it into findings that we help us evolve like never before. I have hope that things will take a turn in the positive direction sooner, rather than later :).

Anonymous said...

It is sad that the budget has dwindled to $19 Bn for NASA. No more grand lauches and no more space searches and researches.
Another feather off Gen Y :-(
Yes, it would be more useful to spend on this, than spending on missiles.

Having said that, I also am not sure if all the money spent on the space missions is fruitful. What exactly are we trying to discover?
We do have so many issues that need to be sorted out right here and people can still do with a lot more of money to spend on various causes. I know it sounds quite narrow minded, but it does strike the mind.
Btw, must have been a great experience to stand in the control room of Apollo 11 mission!
Anyways, with this trend, for generations to come, we will continue to sing " Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are"!!

Chennai Vibes said...

I remember growing learning science was in the "IN" thing. Research was considered "glamorous" and becoming an engineer or a science graduate was the goal of many a mankind. Much of this was fuelled by the amazing achievements made by man in scince and space technology spearheaded of course by the US. But now I hear that recessionary trends have forced many a good colleges abroad to cut down on research spending and focus more on academics and ensure survival. I wonder in the next couple of decaded or so, will there be anyone who will be even remotely intersted in research or sciences. Perhaps it would help if there emerges a cold war like scenario between US and China where we can see money and countless hours of human brain be spent in creating new and greater achievements.

Ramesh said...

@kotla - Yes, but that's just one revolution after Neptune was "discovered".

@Shachi - Welcome and thanks for leaving a comment. Public's fascination with space has completely gone. So there is no support for spending. Unfortunately space technology and defence technology are so closely linked that there is not much international cooperation either.

@Hema - The beauty of space is that we don't know what we may find. Imgaine if SETI were to be properly funded and we actually find evidence of life somewhere else. What a momentous impact it would have on humankind. I completely understadn that when there are so many problems, we shouldn't be wasting resources, but its all a question of balance. When we spend on spce less than we spend on pornography, something is wrong.

@Chennai Vibes - The cold war idea is very attractive. Man would not have gone to the moon but for the Soviet US rivalry. Maybe the rise of China is good in that way.

Deepa said...

That picture is definitely on one of my NCERT textbooks. I have a huge respect for that organization for one of the best text books. The ones that would make you think rather than just dish it out to you.

Now that you've mentioned, I also want to add a tribute to some illustrious moments in the Indian space missions. I wish we had done more. I guess those were a lot of 'firsts' in terms of steps on the moon, going into outer space, etc and thats what excited everyone. But now that you have every other satellite sent into the space, people simulating the Big Bang, its just not that enchanting anymore.

There may be a few kooky oddballs, who still get excited at recognizing the Orion, the Big bear (and then locating the pole star), spotting Mars or Venus once in a while; wishing there was more appreciation to the fact that there was so much more to explore in the universe, and some humility knowing that we were such a speck in the whole scheme of things; but thats about it!

Viji said...

I had been to this place this May and they were getting ready for the last program. It was an awe inspiring sight to see and hear about the space programs including the 3D movie (we saw the one about the Hubble telescope & the Mars exploration).
Dark Ages is what it is really especialy when you hear about those who sacrificed their lives in one of the unsuccessful missions and laid the base for new learning and understanding.

Anonymous said...

for our kids I suspect sci-fi movies have something to answer for here...... when real life space travel is compared to what happens on the big screen, our kids think the real world is boring !!. I like to think about it in reverse..... perhaps the sci-fi movies are a glimps into what the future might hold for us....Mmm, maybe on second thought that might not be such a great idea !!

Ramesh, love your blog, thanks

regards trevor

Ramesh said...

@Viji - Oh yes - the Kennedy space centre is a marvellous place. Great that you enjoyed it. Truly awe inspiring

@Trevor - Thanks very much for the kind words Trevor. If mankind stops dreaming and is only bothered about day to day affairs, somehow I think we have lost some of our uniqueness as a species.

Sandhya Sriram said...

I had taken my kido to the planetorium a month back. it started with a small video that the Pluto has been delisted from being a planet due to certain considerations and now we have only 8 planets around the sun.

I guess, we are only left with money to list and delist planets rather than exploring if there are 9 more that we cannot see today?

but the other perspective of looking at this is that when economies are struggling to debt bills (taking the benefit of your next post), isnt this Vanity so to say?

A vanity with no pay back at all -- and a high cost one as well. we are better off building Burj Al Arab with all the surplus money @ the gulf and making secret missles to take over the world @ China. Who else has money these days to spend?

Ramesh said...

@Sandhya - No Sandhya - there's huge payback. The returns from space exploration are many times what has been spent. But if immediate returns was the only considerations of our forefathers, no far reaching scientific innovation would have been made and we would perhaps be still living in the trees. The spirit of enquiry, the thirst to seek knowledge, is what defines the human race. And we are willing to spend not more than $19bn on it.

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