January 8, 2004

There are no words.

We need a manned mission to Mars and a permanent presence on the Moon like a fish needs a bicycle.

[More: Linus Torvald. I guess I must be missing the “it’s all about exploration, science, and new technologies” point but I can’t help but feel like better funded schools and higher quality education for our citizens wouldn’t yield better returns on the investment. Whatever.]

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David Selders

Oh wow sounds like a really great way to waste a lot of money. Just think about how that money could be better spent…

So we should stop exploring and just in our homes? No way.

Sean Peisert

Hey, we can explore science, art, and the universe, while improving the planet if we concentrate our resources more on the planet on which we live.

And what’s our success rate with even unmanned Mars probes??

Walt Dickinson

Anonymous: False dilemma, two choices are given when in fact there are three options. Care to try and make a well-reasoned argument?

If you insist on a reasoned argument for this, you’re missing the point.

Should we make our schools, health system, roads, bridges, homeless etc better? Absolutely.

Should we do it at the expense of exploring our place in the universe? Absolutely not.

We should do both. And lately, we haven’t been doing much of either.

`I recognize and respect your opinion on this Walt but here’s my $.02 — I’m totally for this.

  1. This mission will create new jobs in the United States. While I was working at NASA Ames, some of the most brilliant people I had ever met were longing for this announcement. There’s been a great deal of research already conducted into this — for instance, what crops would grow best in Martian soil (would we need to genetically engineer foods to handle this?). Many, many, jobs will be created by this endeavor as all of the engineering, planning and design work will all be done here in the United States.

  2. Technology. Some pretty remarkable technology was developed by our country during the Mercury, Apollo, the space shuttle, the International Space Station (ISS), etc. For instance, wireless networks for computers. Biometric devices which helped track the life signs of astronauts — now, these technologies are commonplace in hospitals. Heck, even Velcro was invested by NASA to help make sure the astronauts could remain stationary in zero gravity conditions.

Who is going to develop all of these technologies? — Almost certainly U.S. companies and universities (at least, a vast majority). For companies, this will help provide a competitive advantage over foreign countries and enhance our understanding of critical technologies.

While I agree we must continue to invest in our public school systems, I also think that the school systems should challenge themselves better to design and deploy curriculums that challenge students better. In many ways, in terms of academic levels, most of junior high school and high school was not terribly challenging. For even those students who did not perform well, I think in many cases it was because not of the difficulty of the material but the lack of interest in it.

Now, more than ever, our school systems need to be their own worst critics and make some fundamental changes to how students learn. With China, Russia and India now competing for jobs in many of our same industries (that?s close to 3 billion people!), we have a renewed sense of competition. No amount of money is going to make our school children smarter ? but rather, smarter people with innovative ideas will. Our school systems are antiquated not because of a lack of physical resources so much as outdated ideas and school teachers that have been trained to develop lowest common-denominator curriculums. Every year, China graduates five times the number engineers as here in the United States that are willing to work for less than 10% of our wages.

What?s my answer to this? Leaders such as presidents, governments, mayors, county officials, etc. must step up to the plate and lead the comeback. Prides must be set aside within our education systems and the idealogy must hold that “change must be embraced.”

  1. National pride & unity of vision. Our country seems to excel when united under a common vision. Just in the past several days, I?ve engaged in conservation from various people who I had no idea were even interested in space programs come up to me and say, ?Hey man, you seen those Mars photos. It?s absolutely unreal!? The Mars landing has been a national achievement that we can all take some sense of achievement in (the whole world should for that matter). More people than ever have stated to educate themselves on Mars and the space programs. There?s a contagious enthusiasm in the air that I haven?t seen in a very long time. Think of how inspiring this is for children in school right now. You remember growing up with the Space Shuttle? it was pretty damn stunning that we could take a small team of people, put them in a box attached to a set of rockets and launch them into outer space. I know that it inspired me as well as others around me. It inspires our creativity and challenges our ability to innovative.

  2. If we don?t, someone else will. China has been keeping very quiet about their space programs (they don?t even announce where they launch their rockets!), but their vision is huge. With a surging economy that shows no sign of waning, China has plans to establish a permanent moon base and other research stations. Their eyes are also focused on Mars and the moon is merely a stepping stone. Is China not spending enough on education? It doesn’t seem to be that way to me. Like I said, a higher percentage of their population graduates as engineers and they are very educated. China has a ways to go of course but they are investing in themselves and new ideas.

Although ostensibly it may not seem like it, there are huge rewards in investing in such a seemingly outlandish endeavor. The rewards are in the journey.

I probably haven?t changed your mine, but hopefully have made you a little less pessimistic. I?m excited by this opportunity because it shows a huge investment in discovery (and hey, it will likely reduce funding on military research :).


  • Rob
Walt Dickinson

Anonymous: First of all, pardon me for expecting a “reasoned argument” for any proposal the president puts forth. (Ba-da-bump-ching!) Second, (and way more seriously) I do recognize the value of space exploration (although I woudn’t mind being pointed to a webpage somewhere that lists what we’ve learned in the past five years of manned spaceflight (you know, aside from the fact that you really shouldn’t ignore a large chunk of insulation slamming into the shuttle’s wing at 1500 mph)) but there’s a resources/returns component which doesn’t seem justified. At this point anyway.

Rob: Whoa. =-) I’ll have to read this later.

Rob Conner

When I read about Bush’s plans for renewed manned exploration I initially got all excited. I always dreamed about being an Astronaut as a kid (like everyone else?) and find exploration very emotionally stimulating. And hopefully it would be very beneficial too for the reasons Rob Christensen stated

(I’m not so sure of his criticisms of school systems, but I admit I’m not knowledgable in that field. To me they do seem to always be underfunded and short of everything. Plus I think it should be easier to pay for an undergraduate degree without having rich parents - I could go on for days about this - chip on shoulder!).

Then of course the more experienced cynic came out and I started thinking about Bush’s motives (he always seems to appeal to emotion and gut-reactions rather than logic) and the opportunty costs of manned missions.

I guess I’m with Walt on this. Historically, the US always gives education the shaft when it comes to budgeting (at least in my lifetime). We can spend tens of billions inventing wars to fight but can’t repair leaking schools or pay the best teachers enough to stick around. Also, I’m skeptical of pretty much everything Bush proposes, which isn’t fair but there it is.

Sean Peisert

Rob —

Velcro was invented in 1948. Quite far from space. :-)

Sean Peisert

Who is going to develop all of these technologies? — Almost certainly U.S. companies and universities (at least, a vast majority). For companies, this will help provide a competitive advantage over foreign countries and enhance our understanding of critical technologies.

True, but do we need an FDR-like look at the space program right now to revitalize the country? Or would it be more effective to dream of 95% graduation rates, universal health care, universal organic, shade-grown, fair-trade dark-roasted coffee, etc….

Sean Peisert

If we don?t, someone else will

The USSR beat us on several occasions, but let’s face it: Did it matter? The mechanistic, industrial society eventually collapsed.

probably haven?t changed your mine, but hopefully have made you a little less pessimistic. I?m excited by this opportunity because it shows a huge investment in discovery (and hey, it will likely reduce funding on military research :).

If only it were so. I bet they reduce funding on education, welfare-to-work, Medicare, Medicaid, Vetrans Benefits, medical research, etc…. all while raiding Social Security like there’s no tomorrow (don’t worry — there won’t be) and storming into the screaming throngs of catastrophic and unrecoverable debt.

Sean Peisert
Walt Dickinson

Rob (Christensen)’s optimistic vision of the potential payoffs of going to Mars brighten my spirits about the future of manned space exploration while Sean’s cold hard reality puts a soggy dampness on my mood. =-) I propose we start broadcasting distress messages in Vulcanese as soon as possible.


First off, I do stand corrected on my assertion that NASA invented ?Velcro? ? I was mistaken on that and I admit it. I do believe NASA had something to do with enhancing Velcro for some reason, but I am not able to verify this. The point still stands, however, that NASA?s work over the years has led to the development of some pretty outstanding technologies. It frustrates me greatly when critics yell out, ?What the hell has our space program done for us? It doesn?t contribute to real science. There are many case in points. Here are some examples (source http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/spinoffs2.htm and http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/shuttle.htm)

They all use technologies or materials that were originally developed for the space program.

  1. TV Satellite Dish NASA developed ways to correct errors in the signals coming from the spacecraft. This technology is used to reduce noise (that is, messed up picture or sound) in TV signals coming from satellites.

  2. Medical Imaging NASA developed ways to process signals from spacecraft to produce clearer images. (See more on digital information and how spacecraft send images from space.) This technology also makes possible these photo-like images of our insides.

  3. Bar Coding Originally developed to help NASA keep track of millions of spacecraft parts, bar-coding is now used by almost everybody who sells things to keep track of how much of what is sold and how much of what is left.

  4. Vision Screening System Uses techniques developed for processing space pictures to examine eyes of children and find out quickly if they have any vision problems. The child doesn’t have to say a word!

  5. Ear Thermometer Instead of measuring temperature using a column of mercury (which expands as it heats up), this thermometer has a lens like a camera and detects infrared energy, which we feel as heat. The warmer something is (like your body), the more infrared energy it puts out. This technology was originally developed to detect the birth of stars.

  6. Fire Fighter Equipment Fire fighters wear suits made of fire resistant fabric developed for use in space suits.

  7. Smoke Detector First used in the Earth orbiting space station called Skylab (launched back in 1973) to help detect any toxic vapors. Now used in most homes and other buildings to warn people of fire.

  8. Sun Tiger Glasses From research done on materials to protect the eyes of welders working on spacecraft, protective lenses were developed that block almost all the wavelengths of radiation that might harm the eyes, while letting through all the useful wavelengths that let us see.

  9. Automobile Design Tools A computer program developed by NASA to analyze a spacecraft or airplane design and predict how parts will perform is now used to help design automobiles. This kind of software can save car makers a lot of money by letting them see how well a design will work even before they build a prototype.

  10. Cordless Tools Portable, self-contained power tools were originally developed to help Apollo astronauts drill for moon samples. This technology has lead to development of such tools as the cordless vacuum cleaner, power drill, shrub trimmers, and grass shears.

  11. Aerodynamic Bicycle Wheel A special bike wheel uses NASA research in airfoils (wings) and design software developed for the space program. The three spokes on the wheel act like wings, making the bicycle very efficient for racing.

  12. Thermal Gloves and Boots These gloves and boots have heating elements that run on rechargeable batteries worn on the inside wrist of the gloves or embedded in the sole of the ski boot. This technology was adapted from a spacesuit design for the Apollo astronauts.

  13. Advanced Plastics Spacecraft and other electronics need very special, low-cost materials as the base for printed circuits (like those inside your computer). Some of these “liquid crystal polymers” have turned out to be very good, low-cost materials for making containers for foods and beverages.

  14. Artificial Heart The technology used in Space Shuttle fuel pumps led to the development of a miniaturized ventricular assist pump by NASA and renowned heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey. The tiny pump — 2-inches long, 1-inch in diameter and weighing less than four ounces — is currently undergoing European clinical trials where it has been successfully implanted into more than 20 people.

  15. Balance Evaluation Systems Devices built to measure the equilibrium of Space Shuttle astronauts when they return from space are widely used by major medical centers to diagnose and treat patients suffering head injury, stroke, chronic dizziness and central nervous system disorders.

  16. Bioreactor Developed for Space Shuttle medical research, this rotating cell culture apparatus simulates some aspects of the space environment, or microgravity, on the ground. Tissue samples grown in the bioreactor are being used to design therapeutic drugs and antibodies. Some scientists believe the bioreactor will routinely produce human tissue for research and transplantation.

  17. Infrared Camera - A sensitive infrared hand-held camera that observes the blazing plumes from the Shuttle also is capable of scanning for fires. During the brush fires that ravaged Malibu, CA in 1996, the camera was used to point out hot spots for firefighters.

  18. Infrared Thermometer - Infrared sensors developed to remotely measure the temperature of distant stars and planets, led to the development of the hand-held optical sensor thermometer. Placed inside the ear canal, the thermometer provides an accurate reading in two seconds or less.

  19. Lifesaving Light - Special lighting technology developed for plant growth experiments on Space Shuttle missions is now used to treat brain tumors in children. Doctors at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee use light emitting diodes in a treatment called photodynamic therapy, a form of chemotherapy, to kill cancerous tumors.

  20. Prosthesis Material - Responding to a request from the orthopedic appliance industry, NASA recommended that the foam insulation used to protect the Shuttle’s external tank replace the heavy, fragile plaster used to produce master molds for prosthetics. The new material is light, virtually indestructible and easy to ship and store.

  21. Diagnostic Instrument NASA technology was used to create a compact laboratory instrument for hospitals and doctor offices that more quickly analyzes blood, accomplishing in 30 seconds what once took 20 minutes.

  22. Rescue Tool Rescue squads have a new extrication tool to help remove accident victims from wrecked vehicles. The hand-held device requires no auxiliary power systems or cumbersome hoses and is 70 percent cheaper than previous rescue equipment. The cutter uses a miniature version of the explosive charges that separate devices on the Shuttle.

  23. Vehicle Tracking System - Tracking information originally used onboard Space Shuttle missions now helps track vehicles on Earth. This commercial spinoff allows vehicles to transmit a signal back to a home base. Municipalities today use the software to track and reassign emergency and public works vehicles. It also is used by vehicle fleet operations, such as taxis, armored cars and vehicles carrying

  24. Video Stabilization Software - Image-processing technology used to analyze Space Shuttle launch video and to study meteorological images also helps law enforcement agencies improve crime-solving video. The technology removes defects due to image jitter, image rotation and image zoom in video sequences. The technology also may be useful for medical imaging, scientific applications and home video.

Am I scared about our nation collapsing due to the gravity of its own debt? Yes, there’s reason to be. However, there’s also reason not to be paniced and exceedingly pessimistic about the future That’s your right as a person, but I do know that such a dreary outlook on the future is not something I’d like to walk around with. I’m not sure that it helps the problem any, either. Our country has been challenged again and again since its inception — in fact, our very existence was such a radical experiment that few countries at the time believed we would exist into the sort future and that we would collapse. Challenging times present challenging problems requiring creative solutions developed by diversified people (yes, that is a mouthful).

Sean Peisert

Rob — wow, that’s complete! :-) Touche. Sort of. :-) I’ll give you that NASA isn’t worthless and I’m sure there are good things that have come out of the space program. But I think that many scientists and engineers might say that NASA wasn’t necessary for the invention of the ear thermometeror the bar code scanner or many of these other “inventions.” I recognize that NASA may have had their own spin on improving them all, but despite my own curiosity, addiction to Star Trek, experience at Space Academy, etc…, I just don’t have the same glorified notion of NASA-as-Picard that I used to. They had some incredible landmarks in the past, and every time the shuttle goes up and comes down safely, they’ve done something incredible, but I really feel that in light of the root causes of recent events, NASA doesn’t just need to be reinvigorated by going to Mars, but reinvented by actually doing some real science on a regular basis.

The truth is, it had finally been launched as much to clear the books as to add to human knowledge, and it had gone nowhere except into low Earth orbit, around the globe every ninety minutes for sixteen days, carrying the first Israeli astronaut, and performing a string of experiments, many of which, like the shuttle program itself, seemed to suffer from something of a make-work character—the examination of dust in the Middle East (by the Israeli, of course); the ever popular ozone study; experiments designed by schoolchildren in six countries to observe the effect of weightlessness on spiders, silkworms, and other creatures; an exercise in “astroculture” involving the extraction of essential oils from rose and rice flowers, which was said to hold promise for new perfumes; and so forth.

The truth is, if NASA is launch these kinds of missions, they’re wasting money — and shouldn’t be launching at all.

Nick Runco

generally, i would like to see basics taken care of first. don’t cut any programs, just shift the focus so to speak. i think there are a lot of valuable programs, and not enough money, so some just have to slow spending down a bit for certain programs, when certain needs are identified. a flexible budget i guess.

it should be known that i am the first person to say that technology is the way to go when trying to solve problems. transportation being the first issue that comes to mind. and i can clearly see a corolation between NASA having more money (and affiliated programs) leading to a quicker development of useful ideas for getting our exploding population where they need to go without destroying our world or starting wars.

unfortuantely, this is completely missing the point. assuming for a second that space research (and whatever other programs would receive funding) is the best use of our money, some basic changes need to be made to take advantage of that type of investment. i am just as excited about the potential benefits of well-funded R&D, but am quite worried about the benefits being lost or not utilized. we don’t have more or better fuel-efficient cars because lobbyists (and currently our White House) make sure we still burn oil. i don’t want to see money that went into technology wasted because the products are ignored for political reasons.

what irks me even more than that however, is the politics behind this specific annoucement. i would love to think that this was done out of a scientific need and curiosity life mine, but given the current political climate and proximity to elections, it seems more likely that this annoucement was more of a red herring. i’m not alone when i think this is a bit of a sideshow for the fucking war that’s still being faught.

it’s a rather effective tactic - take a worthwhile idea and toss it out as the idea du jour to serve as a distraction for all the things you are doing wrong. if there are complaints, no matter how legitimate, paint the opposition as against the worthwhile idea itself. (‘democrats don’t support the troops!’) it’s used all the time, and makes me mad when it trivializes something important just for political protection.

like i say, i go back and forth about where the money is best spent. but this isn’t about space, technology and research and it never was. that makes it moot and it shouldn’t be.