Saturday, May 25, 2013

Close Encounters With Stupidity

"It's not going to do any good to land on Mars if we're stupid. "- Ray Bradbury

When I was a kid, I was a voracious reader of science fiction. So much so I read nearly every sci-fi book on the shelves of the local library.

While I was fascinated by these flights of fantasy, it wasn't until a neighbor invited me over one night to view the rings of Saturn through his telescope that I developed an appetite for all things astronomic. I was beyond enthralled.

Nowadays, of course, an adult who invited a young boy over at night to stargaze would be run out of town as a suspected pedophile. But, thankfully, it was a simpler time.

I quickly joined some interplanetary travel society where I eagerly signed up for a future trip. Venus was my destination of choice because it seemed shrouded in mystery.

Of course, as I learned a little bit more about our solar system, I discovered that the planet named after the Goddess of Love was anything but enticing. Surface temperatures average about 842 degrees, higher than the melting point of lead. The atmosphere is primarily carbon dioxide and the clouds that cloak the planet are composed of sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide vapor.

Think Bakersfield in August.

It all seems a bit silly now, this notion that someone could sign up for a journey into the solar system simply because they fantasized about space travel.

Or so I thought.

Then came the recent news that 78,000 people have signed up to form a human colony on Mars, responding to a Dutch nonprofit organization called Mars One, which wants to have boots on the desolate ground by 2022.

I wonder how many of these volunteers read the fine print: Due to the physiological changes in the human body due to low gravity, there will be no coming back. It's the ultimate one-way ticket.

Yet the company is expecting 500,000 applicants by the time applications close on Aug. 31. "This is turning out to be the most desired job in history," says Bas Lansdorp, co-founder of Mars One.

It also may turn out to be the worst job in history. And maybe the worst idea.

For one thing, the Mars One gang will need billions of dollars and as-yet undeveloped technology just to land on the planet.

They've got the money part all figured out. The project will be financed through a global reality-TV media event that would begin with the astronaut selection process (with some public participation) and continue on through the first years of living on the Red Planet. Call it "Martian Idol. "

They figure the cost at about $6 billion. By comparison, a NASA mission to Mars formulated in 2009 had a projected cost of $100 billion and 18 years of planning. Of course, those warm-hearted NASA folks planned to return the astronauts alive to Earth. Not very cost effective.

Mars One officials say they will supplement their budget with donations. So far, a generous public has coughed up $84,121.

According to their schedule, the first crew of four astronauts would arrive on Mars in 2023, after a seven-month journey from Earth. Further teams would join their settlement every two years, with the intention that by 2033 there would be over 20 people living and working on Mars.

What would life on Mars be like?

In a word, brutal. The atmosphere is essentially equivalent to a vacuum on Earth. Temperatures on Mars roughly approximate those of Antarctica.

Mars has dust storms that can cover much of the planet and quite commonly last for months. Additionally, Mars has no global magnetic field. Combined with a thin atmosphere, this permits a significant amount of ionizing radiation to reach the Martian surface.

Are we having fun yet?

Then, of course, there is the whole deal about second thoughts. There are none. You'll live the rest of you life on a patch of ground that makes the Mojave Desert look like Yosemite.

At best, you'll be on the cutting edge of space exploration. At worst, you'll be a tragic footnote to a half-baked experiment.

The Mars One plan, as Ray Bradbury feared, is stupid. It is an ill-conceived, underfunded fantasy cooked up by a bunch of would-be Captain Kirks. It is even more astounding that there are tens of thousands of people on this planet who would follow these Pied Pipers into the vacuum of space.

But Mr. Bradbury can rest in peace because this is one launch that will never get off the ground.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Rocky Road to Equality

When professional basketball player Jason Collins announced recently that he is gay, it seemed the whole world took notice.

And with some justification. He is, after all, the first active athlete from one of the four major North American professional sports to publicly and proudly do so.

Collins' decision drew praise from President and Mrs. Obama, former President Bill Clinton, NBA Commissioner David Stern, Lakers star Kobe Bryant and numerous other athletes from basketball, football, hockey and baseball.

It was more celebratory than confessional, seen by some as a game changer in professional sports which has long been considered a bastion of testosterone-fueled homophobia.

We may not be living in the Age of Aquarius but are we entering the Age of Acceptance? Will professional sports lead us on the path to greater understanding?

Maybe. But right now, significant roadblocks remain on that path.

Consider: While everyone was focused on Collins, there were a couple of other notable sports stories taking place.

Punter Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens were released from their professional football teams.

Both had enjoyed long and successful careers, And both were outspoken advocates for gay rights, specifically marriage equality.

Both filed amicus briefs when the Supreme Court took up the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, which challenges the California law against gay marriage as defined in Proposition 8.

"When we advance the idea that some people should be treated differently because of who they are," they wrote, "demeaned in public as lesser beings, not worthy of the same rights and benefits as others despite their actions as good citizens and neighbors, then we deny them equal protection under the laws. America has walked this path before, and courageous people and the Court brought us to the right result. We urge the Court to repeat those actions here. "

Strong words spoken by strong men which carried additional weight because neither are gay. And notable, too, because it's not the kind of talk you generally hear coming from a football locker room.

But as refreshing and insightful as it may be, you can bet it didn't represent the current thinking in the NFL.

Let's face it, the league is hardly a bastion of forward thinking. Most of the billionaire owners don't tolerate anyone to the left of Rush Limbaugh and make generous contributions to conservative causes. Marriage equality ain't one of them.

After all, this is a league that asked a college player at a scouting combine this year if he liked girls.

This is a league that heard one of its players say prior to this year's Super Bowl, " " Ain't got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff. "

This is a league that embraces equality but has yet to condemn intolerance.

But most of all, this is a league that hates controversy. And the best way to deal with boat rockers is to sink the boat.

So goodbye to Brendon. Ciao, Chris. And while were at it, so long to Tim Tebow, an evangelical Christian quarterback who won't be marching in any gay pride parades any time soon but whose religious beliefs have become an issue. Or a "distraction" as coaches like to say.

We'll never know for sure if the dumping of a couple of outspoken jocks was a result of their views or if they had simply outlived their usefulness as football players.

But it is a more than suspicious turn of events. And it sent a clear message: get arrested, fail a drug test but keep your beliefs, whatever they may be, to yourself.

What an irony it is that the NFL whose rosters are nearly 60 percent minority, an organization that historically has advanced the cause of racial equality, should now lose its voice.

Maybe the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball would be wise to follow the lead of the National Hockey League, which announced its support of gay rights and its intent to fight homophobia.

That stance led to this scene, as reported in the Canadian media: At a hockey game between a pair of bitter rivals, the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs, two gay women stood on the ice before the game. Christina, a Senators fan, asked Alicia, a Maple Leafs fan, to marry her in front of a packed arena in Ottawa. The Ottawa Senators mascot then held up a sign that said, "She said yes. "

The place erupted in cheers.