Grunion Moon (grunionmoon) wrote,
Grunion Moon

Part 1: The Viewmaster Bug

I rarely have nightmares. Even this wasn't really a nightmare - except for its... implacability. And the fact that it woke me up.

We (a bunch of us? me, and a couple of friends, and some mildly more annoying friends of friends) were staying at a special bungalow at a sort of wildlife theme park. "Bungalow" doesn't really do the place justice. Sprawling, comfortable, flagstone-floored, broad-beamed slow-slanting ceilings... don't ask me how we got the reservations or who was rich. I'd been there before, though, so I knew the score: the place was authentic, in the zookeeper-curators' diligent, not to say capricious view of authentic. I had warned the others to look out for scorpions, and to shake out their shoes before putting them on... and they had thought I was joking until their first sighting of a translucent caramel-colored arachnid crossing the floor. Probably it was not a really dangerous species of scorpion, but... you just didn't know. There were other species of insect, spider, etc. visible here and there. You were getting an ecumenical artistic version of bush camp living here in this odd great house.

What was new was when the thing about the size of a frog was discovered in the evening.

It really did look rather like a frog, too, due to its peculiar body. It was definitely a spider. But its legs were quite short, and its most prominent feature was its cephalothorax, its front end, which was very large, right out of proportion, and as blocky as a sweet capsicum. So really the whole thing was shaped like a capsicum.

And this head-body part had a configuration that I've never seen anywhere else. Its cluster of several large black eyes was located on top, actually rather toward the rear of the cephalothorax toward the join with the abdomen... but there were two holes or tunnels through its cephalothorax, actually through the body, running from the eye area to the front, ending in two large perfectly round circles in front, as close together as spectacles - with the two biggest eyes looking straight through them! Maybe it made some kind of pinhole-camera arrangement - or maybe there were even lenses in there - but you got the feeling that this thing had excellent vision straight forward.

And from the beginning the thing seemed to have taken a shine to me.

It wasn't as alarming as a more normally configured spider of equal size would have been. It just looked cute, and comical. It just kept proceeding, in bursts, stopping in between, toward our chairs. Or toward our location after we moved.

And it proved to be oddly smart and monkeyish! One of us, not me, picked up a blanket to flip at it - and just as he picked up the blanket it did a backwards somersault. And then it rolled over sideways - and then back - and it proved to be exactly synchronizing its movements with the blanket in my friend's hands as he tilted the fabric this way and that. This was hilarious. And certainly demonstrated its excellent vision, as well as a brain complex enough to be interesting. And amid our laughter, it resumed its business of approaching me, scooting closer across the flagstoned floor.

I had been saying that we really should look the spider up. Unfortunately I had not brought my best spider book on the trip with me.

The eyes, you see, had begun to freak me out. That strange owlish spectacle arrangement. They were a reminder - any kind of spider is a predator, and of course I knew that, but the spectacles reminded me that eyes with special orientation dead forward are specific to predators. And this cute roly-poly creature that was behaving so comically just wouldn't take its forward binocular vision off me.

It didn't look harmful. It really didn't. It looked cute.

And of course all spiders are poisonous. So how poisonous...?

And it kept following me, changing course as I moved, and in the end I was standing holding a quilt that I had been using as a blanket on the couch before, and the thing had gotten onto the blanket and I kept yelling for someone to get a spider book and nervously grabbing a different fold of the blanket, and then it would dart over the fabric again, closer to me, eyes fixed on me, and people were still laughing, or a few, but they were now more distant, further off in the room, the comedy had ceased to hold their attention. I kept yelling for someone to look this thing up. It darted up the blanket in my hands, intent. "Is anyone paying attention??"

- I was almost yelling as I woke.

Part 2: Big Rocks And The Peculiarities Of Realism

Anyway. :o) Now that I'm up.

I have been meaning to write something about the logic of a really ambitious space program. I mean, a really ambitious space program as in human beings living and working in space, on Mars, conceivably in the asteroid belt, etc., with a heck of a lot of developed and "in real" spacecraft and space-habitat capacity.

I think the logic of this sort of seemingly radical development really does follow from what would seem to be a much more narrow concern: the possibility or likelihood of large masses like asteroids or comets striking Earth in the future.

I had cause to write about this in an email in response to a blog post that pricked me. It was in the Daily Dish, where Conor Friedersdorf was guestblogging. He wrote this:
The moon is not enough! That's the thrust of Tom Wolfe's argument in The New York Times, where he laments America's longtime failure to do anything impressive in space. He lays blame for this post-Apollo problem on a lack of big thinkers at NASA.
The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about. It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.
That's a sound way to think about the space program. Robert Heinlein put it this way: "The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in."

But look. Earth is going to be hit by another extinction level asteroid long before the sun is going to burn up. An obligation to preserve the only meaningful life that we know suggests that we spend money on scanning the sky for gargantuan rocks hurtling toward us, safeguarding humanity against pandemic diseases and stopping nuclear proliferation. I'd be thrilled to learn that we'll survive half as long as it takes the sun to burn up!
Now... first of all, I'm not the first to say it, but isn't there some kind of a curse on the phrase, "But look"? Pundits usually seem to use it where first they give a sop to a view or argument, or summarize it, even perhaps doing so acceptably well on its merits - and then they say "But look:" - and proceed to "answer" it with pure conventional-wisdom boilerplate, not even answering it but just saying "this other thing I'm mentioning is the thing."

And - a long-term trouble I have with this whole framing... I realize a limited-funds frame is always there, but there's this weird business about allocation of resources: I'm not sure that not "building a bridge to the stars" actually gets us any closer to "safeguarding humanity against pandemic diseases and stopping nuclear proliferation." This while the funding for even an ambitious space-development program would be quite small compared to the funding involved in a great many other things that the government is doing. Meanwhile this "not that way - this way!" funding fratricide approach seems to say - sweepingly - that therefore any actual reasons why "that way" should be funded are meaningless. (Yes, don't say "But look" to me. I brood.)

But, beyond that, I see a practical problem in that "no, scanning for asteroids is surely more important."

So I answered in email (edited slightly for clarity of point):
There's a technical problem with the focus you recommend after that "But look".

If there's a comet or asteroid on course for Earth, the computer simulations that I've read about keep indicating that we'd be very likely helpless to divert it from in front of it, even with a lot of advance warning, even with nukes. The body is not diverted; the fragments re-coalesce. And any response thrown together on Earth and launched from Earth after detection means an attempt that will reach the body late in its approach in the first place, when a large and difficult diversion in its course rather than a small one would be necessary. That "scanning the sky for gargantuan rocks" capability you talk about preferring would probably add up to simply watching the damned thing come in.

But if we were behind the thing, that is to say, if really decent and versatile spacecraft and equipment, and people, were distributed around the solar system, it would be relatively easy to intercept it and put a drive on the comet and nudge it into a different orbit. We could probably do something. As opposed to nothing.

Where does that ability come from? No Congress is going to vote to pay for, and keep paying for, building and maintaining and keeping out there a special, specific, dedicated space-based capability of really doing something about this sort of huge-impact threat when it's a threat that may show up 70, 700, 7,000, or 70,000 or more years in the future. (I feel safe saying "no Congress". How does one argue that such a thing really needs to be in this year's budget?)

The picture of the future where we are in fact saved from the kind of danger you're talking about is a picture of an interplanetary future with off-earth bases and colonies, so that the large and versatile ships and capability are there, lots of them, widely distributed, for entirely other reasons. We will not get the safety otherwise. The capability will not be there.

I have other problems with that "But look" swerve to your preferred course - it has a nasty conventional-wisdom "That is sound... but let's get real - the space pigeonhole isn't that big!" sound to it - but this one is simply functional. You don't have to care(?) about an unnecessarily long(?!) human future in order for this to be important to what you are concerned about. To want to scan for killer asteroids, and that's it, while pooh-poohing a large-scale space program, is to not be thinking about killer asteroids.
What do you think of the logic? Is it tight?

Meanwhile... this topic was pricked for me again recently, in outrageous fashion, by this news story.

The topic of that news story, to be brief, is that NASA actually has not been able to do the scanning for killer asteroids that Congress wrote into law that NASA would do... because Congress never gave NASA the money to do it... and in fact, as a space policy professor comments, NASA may never get the money.

Not even to do the scanning for big rocks.

The question for Congress is, simply: Are asteroids REAL? Or are they not real?

(Perhaps a lot more real than the prone-to-error theoretical will-o-the-wisps that are bandied about in economic and political discussions?)

Perhaps, indeed - so far from choosing scanning for asteroids over other space stuff - Congress will not think that scanning for an incoming asteroid is sufficiently urgent until such time as one becomes visible without the aid of a telescope.


P.S. I still don't have OD Plus, so I can't scan for when I have perhaps quoted this before (if I haven't, what's wrong with me?), but there was a bit in a presentation Robert Zubrin made that is sort of heartrending and points out the peculiar ways in which priorities are seen as worthy or not worthy by the "practical and realistic" and Serious men and women who run our society:
Between February and May 2004, the commission held hearings in ten American cities. About a hundred witnesses were invited to testify, but it rapidly became clear that the commission was not actually interested in ideas that diverged from a predetermined mantra. This was partially forgivable, since much of the testimony the commission chose to entertain was quite absurd, like the presentation from one crankish invitee arguing that the best place to look for Martian fossils was on the Moon, by searching for ejected Mars rocks landed there. (This idea was strange, to say the least, since there are many more Martian rocks on Earth than on the Moon—and, of course, there are significantly more on Mars itself.) But while the commission was hard-headed enough to set such nonsense aside, it was also impervious to necessary ideas. A very sad example of this was exhibited at the San Francisco hearings, when noted science fiction author Ray Bradbury testified. Bradbury gave an impassioned and eloquent speech in which he said that the American people could be inspired to support the new space policy if it were presented as the first step in the growth of humanity into a multi-planet spacefaring species. After he concluded, Aldridge replied with a question about how we “sell this to the American taxpayer.” With great patience and poetic clarity, Bradbury explained his point again. Spudis then responded, saying it would be easier to just tell the American people that space is “a source of virtually unlimited wealth.” One has to wonder how a group of people who don’t actually believe in a great enterprise can hope to lead it.
To make this even more pointed: In Zubrin's book Entering Space, Zubrin is a space booster a thousand times more than he is a space debunker, but his first couple of chapters spend time pointing out technical problems with a commercially-driven beginning to Big Space - analyzing a series of proposed vastly-lucrative possibilities and concluding that each of them is in fact at least technically dubious and some of them are actually Pharoanically difficult and ridiculous. Some of the ideas may eventually work, to some degree and in some form... but mainly Zubrin concludes that there will indeed be fortunes made in space - but after there are people in space.

So is an actual reason and rationale, and associated strategy, not worthy of consideration because it sounds too idealistic and visionary... while a cold-cash financial rationale is much more grounded and much to be preferred even if the suggested visions of easy money are likely to be unfounded nonsense, this easily seen as such beforehand by wary investors?

And, as I've said above, even if there are also practical security benefits to having gone ahead on an idealistic basis or any other?

(And, again, any excuse to again link to Bradbury's explanation to Oriana Fallaci of why to go into space.)
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