Sunday, July 19, 2015

Flights of Fancy

When I was young, I spent a great deal of time in outer space.

I read every science fiction book I could get my hands on and watched every movie from "Destination Moon" to "Star Wars" in hopes that someday the world they portrayed would be a reality in my lifetime.

We would travel the solar system if not the universe on flights of adventure and fantasy. We would encounter strange new civilizations whose inhabitants we would befriend. We would also fight bad guys, from Ming the Merciless to Jabba the Hutt, in our quest to establish freedom, truth and justice throughout the galaxies.

Alas, at my age I’ll not see those fantasies become reality unless someone invents warp speed next week. But we have come so very close. When my time comes to leave Earth, I will have loved the future that I lived.

When I was young, there were no astronauts, no moon walks, no space stations, no Mars rovers. Now, with the Pluto fly-by this week, we have visited every planet in our solar system. It is an amazing feat considering we were Earth-bound a mere 112 years ago.

And while our search for extraterrestrial life continues, our voyages have become de facto journeys of self-discovery, teaching us that our planet is a very special place in a vast and violent universe.

The voyage of the New Horizons vehicle past Pluto was much more than a trip through time and space. It allowed us to see a place so shrouded in mystery, so cold, dark and distant, that it has held the public’s imagination since it was discovered by an American, Clyde Tombaugh, in 1930.

As a literary subject, Pluto is the stuff of dreams.

In “Plutonian Depths” (Wonder Stories Quarterly, Spring 1931), a short story by Stanton A. Coblentz was the first to take advantage of the newly discovered and named world. In “The Red Peri” by Stanley G. Weinbaum., the title character is a space pirate with a secret base on Pluto.

“First Lensman” (1950), a novel by E. E. "Doc" Smith, features an alien race colonizing Pluto without ever realizing that life existed on Earth.

In “World's Fair 1992” by Robert Silverberg (1968), a U.S.-led expedition reaches Pluto in less than two weeks using a nuclear-powered spacecraft capable of continuous acceleration. The spacecraft collects five crab-like indigenous Plutonians and returns them to Earth orbit for study.

In a July 1958 comic book, Superman journeys to Pluto to obtain some giant snowflakes, frozen so solidly that they will not melt on Earth, for inclusion among the collection of “space trophies” which he is gathering for the Metropolis Museum.

In the sitcom “Mork and Mindy” (1978), Mork informs Exidor that he's been to every planet in the solar system, even Pluto, which he derides as a "Mickey Mouse planet."

Even more famously, astronomers drew the wrath of the public when they declassified Pluto a few years back, deciding it was a “dwarf planet” and not worthy of membership in good standing of our solar system.

In a compromise that pleased no one, it was later declared to be a “plutoid.”

Perhaps the highest honor to be accorded the Pluto mission is that it has given birth to conspiracy theories.

The “truthers” have adjusted the tin foil on their heads and declared that the whole journey is a fraud,  announcing that “Pluto is only at Disneyland’ and “NASA’s mission is to ensure we know nothing about what is outside of our world.”

Others believe that NASA has indeed captured real images of Pluto but that there’s a possible cover-up involving aliens and buildings on the surface.

Now that be have traveled our solar system, what's next?  Most scientists believe a manned mission to Mars will be attempted by the mid-2030s.

There are no press releases or Kennedyesque pronouncements (“we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”).  NASA is doing its planning quietly. 

Faced with an ever-changing political landscape and the scope and expense of a program that may take 20 years, it is better not engage in chest-beating.

Jason Davis, in a Planetary Society blog, put it this way: “There is indeed a plan to put humans on Mars. Vague? Yes. Hard to see? Absolutely. But that's because… NASA officials are playing the long game. And right now, it may be the only game they can play.”

NASA’s budget in 1966 was $43.5 billion (in 2014 dollars). Today, NASA gets about $18 billion. Add to that an apparent lack of political will to go to Mars.

“So NASA has less than half the money to execute a program that is twice as ambitious and will take twice as long (as it did to go to the moon),” Davis writes. “Nevertheless, they'll need a methodical, step-by-step approach like the one used in the 1960s with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

“Furthermore, officials…want to avoid Apollo-style one-and-done Mars visits. They'd rather see NASA establish a sustainable, long term presence in deep space.”

Insurmountable?  No. Man will visit Mars someday. And beyond. After all, exploration is part of our DNA. Had it not been, we would still be living in trees.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

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