Thursday, July 28, 2011

Death Of The White Elephant: Part I

With the Shuttle "fleet" finally decommissioned it's time to crash the ISS into the Pacific and dismantle NASA.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that on the final Shuttle launch NASA would still be lying to the American public. I hadn't watched a launch for years, primarily because they make me feel physically sick. Partly this stems from the fact that the craft is a death-trap, but the manipulative, disingenuous garbage that accompanies the Shuttle traveling "into space" also contributes to my nausea.

As those of you who have read Douglas Adams will know, space is big. When I was teaching introductory astronomy, one of the first assignments I gave was intended to give students some idea of the scale of our neighborhood. For the first time ever I've worked out the numbers using "British" units. Somebody should probably check my arithmetic.

Suppose the Earth is a basketball. On this scale the Moon would be a bit smaller than a baseball twenty-four feet away. I think that's quite an instructive image. On this same scale the Sun would be a bit less than two miles away. If you can imagine something like a spherical five-story building that is very hot indeed then you're getting a decent idea of the Sun.

So we've learned that in our immediate vicinity - our little corner of space - the Moon at only twenty-four feet away is much closer than the Sun, and the Sun is much bigger than both the Earth and Moon.

During the countdown before Atlantis commenced its eight minute journey into "space," various key personnel added whimsical speeches to their usual pre-launch routine. We were reminded of the thirty magnificent years of the Shuttle program and its pivotal role in space exploration. The notion of the Shuttle "exploring space" came up time and time again, wearing more enamel from my teeth on each occasion.

Let's put the Shuttle on our scale model of the Earth-Moon-Sun system. Remember the Moon is twenty-four feet away, the Sun almost two miles. On this scale the Shuttle orbits the basketball that is representing the Earth at a height of one quarter of an inch.

Exploring space? The Shuttle explores space in the same way an automobile going round Daytona International Speedway explores Florida. Except much less so. The idea is completely preposterous, although it does invite further comparisons between NASA and NASCAR that I'll explore in the second part of this rant.

I think what really bugs me about NASA selling the Shuttle as space exploration is that it reflects the broader NASA culture of lying to the public. And that in turn reflects a deeper culture that led to the unnecessary deaths of fourteen astronauts. NASA lied to them too.


  1. Kat, not to quibble but the highest orbit attained by a shuttle was when one put the Hubble telescope up having it 385 miles above the earth. The earth at its equator is 24,902 miles in diameter. The proportional size of each has the height of the orbit being 0.015461 of the earth’s diameter. Now with a basketball 9 inches in diameter this orbit in comparison would be 9 X 0.015461 = 0.139245, just slightly larger than 1/8 of an inch; having you then too generous by a factor of 2.

    Never the less, I would agree that the space shuttle was a poor vehicle for manned exploration of space and not even a practical low orbit payload delivery one. That’s not that I am against manned exploration, yet I agree with Dyson that we shouldn’t sell this as science which the unmanned probes and instruments do far much better and cheaper. Further I agree with Gerald t’Hooft that serious manned exploration needs to have its way first paved by intelligent robotic machines to place infrastructure on first the moon from which we can get a foothold for human habitation then using the moon's resources to push us out further. Problem being, most on this basketball we call earth can't envision their own futures much more than few weeks ahead, let alone that of all of humankind’s for the lifetimes of commitment such ambition requires.

  2. I knew I'd screw this up if I did it in inches. But... that is not the diameter of the Earth Phil.

  3. It’s not, then please explain where I screwed up.

  4. according to my sources the diameter of the Earth is 7926 miles.

  5. Sorry Kat I have confused circumference for diameter and now I have PI on my face, thus having me to stingy by a factor of three. The lesson learned from this is I’m better off sticking to philosophy.

  6. The lesson I take is that the US should switch to metric units

  7. if you have enough ire in reserve, please could we have rants about redtops, bankers and oil?



  8. oil and bankers for sure. not sure why you're PO'd at cherry cup cakes

  9. don't forget monsanto and big pharma

  10. i dunno pointing out the evil deeds of monsanto is a bit like pointing out caligula was a harsh boss who additionally had some issues with women

  11. Very funny stuff--I'd add more but I'm exploring space here in the den.