Category Archives: Society

Eagles and Jet Engines

The SpaceX Dragon docking with the ISS.  Photo courtesy of space.com
The SpaceX Dragon docking with the ISS. Photo courtesy of space.com

I distinctly remember when two NASA astronauts visited my elementary school. They showed off bits and pieces of space technology, talked about how bright a future we’d have (where all of us would be afforded the opportunity to go to space) and generally made a lot of kids really excited.

Like some other things, the space part has not come to pass. Indeed, the US really doesn’t have a space program right now. We don’t even have a launch platform for people. NASA has to rely upon Russia (you know, the former USSR, who has a 10% launch failure on their Proton rocket) for cargo and personnel transport to the International Space Station. It’s fallen to private entrepreneurs to lead the way, such as Branson’s Space Ship Two which looks to be narrowing in on the space tourism gig.

As a SF author, I’ve something of a confession to make. If I could get out there and do this stuff, I would. I’d drop writing in a heartbeat, and take living that life. I’m certain there’s a lot of others who both read and write SF who feel the same. Clearly, some nerds with a lot of money have decided to stop waiting on someone else to make it happen and do it themselves. Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo and Elon Musk’s Dragon are two of the better known examples.

So, the question I’m asking… why now? Why has NASA steadily stepped back and why as the federal government essentially stepped out of the space business? Oh, there’s lots of talk about drones and robots, and missions such as the Spirit and Opportunity are great, but what about people?

And why are the private companies (albeit sometimes with trivial subsidies or grants), the ones who are doing the heavy lifting? I think a big portion of it has to do with how drastic the consequences of failure have become in America, and more specifically American politics. Americans, as a whole, have become increasingly risk averse, especially at government levels. A politician who backs a financial (or life-ending) failure will see his career destroyed. A bureaucrat who does the same will have similar consequences. Corporations, such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin, are by necessity, risk adverse. They don’t want the market to change, they want things stable, they’re on top of the market, innovation could jeopardize all of their ongoing profits. There’s a saying that I’ve always liked: Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.

Entrepreneurs are different. They make their money through innovation, through start ups. They aren’t afraid to fail, and they know how to pick up the pieces afterwards and move on. We’re in a unique position in history right now where money, correctly applied, will allow a private sector individual to leverage a place in the space industry. These people run the risks of the eagles, they’ve put their money and, in some cases, their lives, on the line for their dreams. And that’s something I respect. I think companies such as Musk’s SpaceX and Branson’s Virgin Galactic are keeping space alive and hopefully soon they’ll be expanding the frontiers.

That’s the important part. Keeping us out there and then pushing for greater expansion is essential. Somewhere, right now, I’m certain someone is telling a bunch of kids that they’ll own space when they grow up… it’d be a shame if they were lying to them.

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Remembering September 11, 2001

I started to post something rather trivial about books that have affected my writing, and I realized I really should write something about September 11, this being the day and all. For those only interested in writing, well, this is mostly me rambling about my impressions of the effect on society and a bit on me.

For some background, I was there in New York when it happened. I was in college, right across the Long Island Sound, playing a computer game and waiting to go to class. I still remember the guy who came past my room and told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. At the time, I thought he was joking with me. Even so, I followed him down to the waterfront area of my campus. I could see the tower (yes, only one at that point) from there, on the steps of the chapel. I could see the column of smoke from that one and the ruins of the first tower. And I saw the second tower fall.
There was a crowd of us, midshipmen, all wondering what was going on. We didn’t know who had done it, we didn’t know why. We didn’t know about the plane that crashed into the Pentagon or the other one, Flight 93 where the passengers fought back. We were kids, confused, worried, and a little angry that someone had attacked us.

These were things we all, as Americans, felt and learned as time went on. And for those few days and weeks afterwards, we mourned our dead and started our recovery. The event itself wrought profound changes on our society. There was fear and uncertainty, and that caused a shift in what many people were willing to accept in the name of security. This can be seen in everything from TSA, to the PATRIOT Act, and even in the current NSA scandals.

American society has become more risk adverse. This can be seen in politics, our economy, our decline in space exploration, and even clothing trends. It can also, I’d argue, be seen in some of the literature written since. There’s been a shift in American SF, away from the big dreams and vast panoramas of classic SF and towards darker and grittier stories. There have been many more novels about empires in decline or simply futures where humanity never leaves Earth, where the science doesn’t support it and our society has turned inwards. In fantasy, the genre has also grown darker, and either magic has faded out or it is something that corrupts. The reemergence of the antihero and the morally ambiguity of heroes and their choices is another aspect. Right and wrong seems less clear and our world is more frightening; so the unknown and mysterious has become something frightening too.

There are any number of arguments as to why society has taken this turn, but I think in some respects most of them come back to September 11th. Everything from the politicians who stir up further uncertainty to appear strong to the increasing use of ‘retro’ clothing fads to the continuing struggle with the economy… these are products of our own uncertainty as a society. It’s almost the equivalent of societal PTSD… which is ridiculous. In giving into our uncertainties, we fail to properly honor those who lost their lives that day. They would not want us to live in fear. That’s what the terrorist scum who attacked our country wanted.

We have to continue to live life, to dream big and to have confidence that we are strong. We have not yet even begun to test ourselves. We are the country that put man on the moon, created rock and roll, and invented the airplane. America is founded on the idea of big risks leading to big results. That aspect of pioneering is what led to our success in the first place. We are, as a people, drawn to risk, drawn to big dreams. And I would argue, if we let uncertainty and fear take that away, we will lose the very thing that makes us so great.

It’s SCIENCE!

ImageI still remember the time I first got in an argument with a teacher. It was in a science class in middle school and the teacher was explaining how some simple physics would work in some rockets we were making (2 liter coke bottles with water and compressed air). Things went pretty well in the class until I asked a question about why the water worked better than just the air.

I know now that water has higher mass, that the compressed air pushed the water out and imparted a greater initial thrust. That’s not the answer the teacher gave me, that’s one I figured out later on. My teacher just said ‘because it works.’

My response, in typical twelve-year-old fashion, could have been more tactful. I said, “That means you don’t know.” Cornering your teacher with the fact that they don’t understand how something works is not a way to endear them to you.

What I didn’t really grasp then (and the teacher, who had a teaching degree rather than a physics or engineering degree, didn’t get either), is that science is about asking those questions. Knowing how things work is the key to science… and something our education system does its best to program out of students at a young age. I don’t have a degree in teaching, but it seems to me that telling someone to read the text book is not a way to encourage kids to ask questions. Nor is, oddly enough, having them take rote tests designed to ‘check on learning.’

Teaching science, as in teaching most things, requires interaction and participation. I’ve had a few teachers who understood this, but only one in High School who taught science. My chemistry teacher was so good at the time that I retook her class as a senior as an AP class, both for the college credit and to do some of the crazy experiments she’d put together. Creating methane bubbles in a classroom and lighting them on fire might not seem like an educational process. Doing that while discussing the properties of soap films and the exothermic reaction of methane and oxygen both gets the students to pay attention and to actually think a little bit. This was a teacher who wasn’t afraid to admit that sometimes she didn’t have the answer… but that we could work on it.

The scientific method, trial and error, these things are essential to learning and developing science. That’s something that we, especially as fans of Science Fiction, should always remember.