Thursday, September 22, 2011

Your Mother Doesn't Live in Outer Space


I’m not one to lose faith in the human race, but even a person with my high level of patience and boundless optimism can be tested.   

Some things just make me wonder if we humans will ever grow up.  Are we evolving? 

OK, sure, we’re standing upright.  That’s important, but so 2 million years ago.  We created Facebook and yogurt-on-the-go, though some may question whether these represent progress. 

It’s just this news item I ran across the other day:  “Orbital mess may require high-tech maid service.” 

Come on!  Really? 

The brain trust that developed our space program, the brilliant thinkers who put the International Space Station and all manner of satellites into the sky bringing us everything from the NFL Red Zone to GPS pet tracking, the brightest and the best among us merged onto the intergalactic highway and just threw the trash out the window? 

It’s so disappointing.   

Twenty-two thousand objects large enough to track from terra firma circle above our heads, not to mention the countless chunks of space rubble too small to track, but still large enough to damage human-carrying spaceships or valuable satellites.  The International Space Station had to maneuver out of the way of this cosmic flotsam more than once.  That involves a bit more effort than swerving to avoid a cast off tennis shoe on the freeway. 

“We’ve lost control of the environment,” admitted a retired NASA senior scientist.  That’s a pretty big environment!  It’s not just a teenager’s bedroom you can close the door on.  

To be fair, 25 years ago, when scientists around the world first noticed their slovenliness could cause problems, they came up with agreements to limit new space junk.  They signed a pact guaranteeing what they sent into orbit would eventually fall back to Earth and burn up.  It actually worked. 

That was a close one. 

But wait…what’s this?  Another headline?  “Earth braces for giant piece of space junk.”   

You mean the grand “it’ll flame out and fizzle on re-entry” scheme is flawed?  OMG.  A six-ton NASA satellite the size of a school bus reported to be “tumbling in orbit and succumbing to Earth’s gravity”…will crash to the surface Friday [today].  Or maybe Saturday.  They’re not sure exactly when, or where. 

Great.  “Out-of-control crashing satellites don’t lend themselves to exact estimates even for the precision-minded folks at NASA.”  Ha ha ha.  LOL.  NASA scientists did, however, calculate the odds of a person being struck by a piece of this debris at 1-in-3,200.  I feel much better now. 

Adding insult, two recent incidents dumped enough junk into our cosmic greenbelt that the original problem re-asserted itself.  (We may be able to write that sci-fi disaster screenplay after all.) 

First, two satellites crashed into each other.  Go figure.  In the vastness of space they found each other, like that guy wandering in the desert who trips over the only log for miles.  Looks like we have a surplus of circumnavigating high-tech tree trunks.  

Then, in what’s characterized as an anti-satellite weapons test, the Chinese used a missile to smash one of their aging weather satellites into more than 150,000 dangerous hunks o’ junk, more than three thousand of which are large enough to trace with ground radar.  

In response to this, an expert panel at the Department of Defense huddled up and began developing all manner of unusual strategies, techniques, and weird space technology to vacuum up all the extraterrestrial trash accumulating above us. 

They’ve designed cosmic nets, magnets, even gargantuan umbrellas to collect the clutter and dispose of it properly.  I guess that means they’ll bring it back home and take it to the dump.  

The good news is the demand for these gadgets means jobs.  The project requires a wide range of workers, from those with high levels of technical skill and expertise who will create the machinery and launch it, all the way to those who will operate the levers on the colossal garbage trucks patrolling our solar system like so many Wall-E’s. 

The bad news is we must scale down our noble dreams of celestial exploration.  We’re reduced from Galaxy Quest to orbiting street sweepers.  

Considering this and the budget cuts to NASA and SETI, we won’t be exploring new worlds or seeking out new life forms and civilizations.  We won’t boldly go where no one has gone before.  

No.  Like chastised adolescents, we’ll go timidly right back where we went before and clean up after ourselves.