Saturday, July 9, 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.