Friday, June 17, 2011
Five space-worthy orbiters were builttwo were destroyed in accidents and
two have been retired. One remains in service pending completion of the
final Shuttle mission in July. It is customary at retirements to review
the accomplishments and failures of the retiree, and introduce the
successor. In the Cold War, Apollo was a hard act to follow. The Soviets
had chosen to explore the moon robotically, and from a technological
standpoint they accomplished with robots all that we did with astronauts,
and perhaps a little more. The world hardly noticed; many people today
seem surprised to learn that the Soviets had a sophisticated moon
exploration program. The lesson is clear; you gotta put people in space.
The shuttle was sold to Congress as an economy measure because it was
reusable. On the contrary, it was the most expensive launch system ever
devised until now. Before the project was cancelled last year by
President Obama , Orion was being built to return Americans to the Moon.
Sending humans to the moon served us well in the Cold War, but the Cold War
is long over. We have a rare opportunity to rethink our space priorities.
I will talk more about the needs and opportunities in space in coming weeks.
Driven by a remarkable coalition of liberals and fiscal conservatives, a
bipartisan majority of the Senate yesterday voted 73 27 to end more than
three decades of federal subsidies for ethanol. An editorial in this
morning's Wall Street Journal saw a supernatural influence in the vote.
Some economists doubt that the tax credit is now crucial to the industry,
but the $6 billion tax break had heretofore been considered untouchable.
There is little evidence that ethanol from corn produced by modern
agricultural practices actually results in a net savings of fuel.
Historically, however, there is ample evidence that consumption of ethanol
rises in stressful times.
Speaking of ethanol, the Defense Department is offering a half-million
bucks to somebody with a good idea about how to get to another star,
according to an Associated Press story yesterday. What good is it to find
all these extrasolar planets if we can't visit and maybe pick up a few tips
on new weapons? I'd be happy to have them visit my freshman physics class
this fall. We take a few minutes in each class session to plan the trip.
How far is it? What should we take with us? How fast will we need to go
make the trip in working lifetime? It all goes pretty well until we get
near the end of the semester and calculate how much energy it will take.
No matter, there are 7 billion people in the world. One of em must have
an idea. Otherwise, it's back to the ethanol.