Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Expensive Hardware Lobbing

In honor of the roll-out of Discovery to the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I offer the following walk on the lighter side of space exploration. To wit:

The history of planetary exploration, as written by a sports journalist.

It's a shame that they stop at Mars. There are four other planets to consider. But, the play-by-play wouldn't be quite as interesting.

Every so often, I get the urge to give that a shot. Here's a first cut.


Earth has stolen a commanding 0-7 lead on the king of the planets, beginning with the Pioneer 10 spacecraft in 1973, and ending the current series with a stupendous performance by Galileo in the mid to late 1990s. That last looked for a while as if it would be Jupiter's first goal in the match, when its antenna failed to deploy properly, but masterful play on Earth's part saved the streak.


Saturn has fared little better, dropping four staight to Earth. Pioneer 11, along with Voyagers 1 and 2, grabbed three quick goals in the early 1980s. A lengthy delay followed, prompting many fans to wonder if Saturn would ever get a chance at a rematch. Earth obliged with the Cassini probe, which scored a successful goal in late 2004.


Uranus has only hosted one match to date, dropping a flyby to Voyager 2 in 1986. Earth leads this series 0-1.


Neptune, like Uranus, has only had one test, with the same result. Voyager 2 earned Earth a goal in 1989, becoming the only player ever to score four goals in succession. Voyager 2 has since gone on to a lengthy retirement tour, but still calls home regularly.


Pluto has yet to host a match. The New Horizons probe is due for launch soon, however, so eager sports fans are watching their calendars for 2014 or thereabouts.

Comets, Asteroids, Minor Planets

In minor league news, there have been few results to report. Giotto slipped one in on Halley's Comet in 1986, giving Earth a quick 0-1 lead. Deep Space 1 edged out a squeaker, almost dropping the goal to failures in the navigation system. NEAR followed that up with a commanding tour-de-force at Eros, extending Earth's lead to 0-3. Genesis carried out a successful comet rendezvous to bring the score to 0-4, but sustained serious injuries sliding in to home plate.

And that's it for the sporting report. Good night!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Morality of Shields

I'd like to clarify something I wrote in my post on stupid intel tricks.

Specifically, the tone of the fourth and last item in that list.

It's a very serious topic, and some of you may not understand how anyone could be flippant about it. I understand. With me, it's a coping mechanism, more or less. Those of you of a certain age understand what I mean. Some things, if you can't laugh, you'll start crying and you might not be able to stop.

Atomic energy has, on the balance, proven a boon to civilization. It provides us a way of producing electricity without filling the air we breathe and the water we drink with industrial poison. If it's ever allowed to come into its own here in America, it can change lives for the better.

Atomic weapons ... are more problematic. On the one hand, I probably wouldn't even be alive without them. Had World War II lasted enough, my father probably would have had to participate in Operation Downfall, and may not have lived through the experience. He'd already survived bailing out of two airplanes. There's no reason to think he'd be three times lucky.

On the other hand, they are the most destructive weapons ever devised. Broadly, vastly, indiscriminately destructive. The only value they have is indimidation, the threat of wide scale annihilation.

They did manage to enforce a fragile peace between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We knew, they knew, that we could never cross swords directly. That way lay death in unimaginable numbers. The utter destruction of everything either side might have been fighting to protect. It was only imaginable in extremis. And, it stained the souls of everyone that considered the problem deeply.

I can only speak for myself on that. But I do know that I have seen the gates of Hell cracked open, and I have looked inside.

For ten years, I was able to put that nightmare vision aside. Between the end of the Cold War and the recent nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, I was able to forget those visions of horror.

See, here's the thing that I don't like: if some nut lobs a missile at us, even by accident, we only have one option open to us. It's what we've solemnly sworn to do for over half a century, now. We will bomb the perpetrators until they glow in the dark for the next ten thousand years.

I find it morally unacceptable that our only option in such a situation is mass murder. But since it is our only option, we must be prepared to make it happen, if it's forced upon us. I sure as hell don't have to like it, though.

How much better it would be, if we were somehow able to keep a stray missile from finding a home. How much better, if we could swat it down in flight, and keep it from erasing San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or Portland, or Sacramento. We would have so many more options, in such a case. A successful intercept, followed up by a surgical strike on the offending installations, would send a powerful message to anyone contemplating a similar move.

So why in the eternal name of God are so many people so violently opposed to America's attempt to attain such a system? Why is there such knee-jerk dismissal of such research as destabilizing?

Here's a thing that I find both repellent and curious: the most vehement opponents of missile defense aren't the ones who think it will not work. They're afraid that it WILL. They're afraid that it will provide an effective layer of defense, and provoke an arms race. Therefore, they contend that such a defense is immoral.

Again: the status quo is that our only defense against nuclear strike is the promise of swift and certain thermonuclear genocide. How is that more moral than deploying interceptor missiles and laser-armed aircraft?

In the end, I believe that it is always more moral to threaten things than people. It is more moral to swat an unmanned missile out of the air than promise fiery death to millions who've never done us any harm.

For those of you who still oppose missile defense, convince me of what I've missed in the paragraph above.

THEN we'll talk.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Requiem Donum Est, Domine, Et Lux Perpetuae

Karol Josef Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, was a giant of the late 20th Century.

I don't agree with everything he said. He was a staunch conservative in the Roman Catholic tradition. Not surprising, really, given his position. He could be obstinately unbending.

But, as with many other important people, you can at least partially judge a man by the enemies he's accumulated.

He fought the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland as a young man, when it would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to just stand by and let it pass. Upon his elevation to the Papacy, he became a beacon of hope and freedom to many who groaned under the oppression of Communism in Eastern Europe. So much so, that he emboldened the Solidarity movement in Poland to do more than just talk. So much so, that the KGB tried to have him assassinated in 1981.

It's almost tautological that if the KGB wanted a man dead, he HAD to have been doing SOMETHING right.

He was very much an activist in his Papacy. He reached out across denominational boundaries, doing as much for the cause of Christian ecumenism as any other man I'm aware of.

And, agree with him or no, his championship of the worth of human life is consistent, end-to-end. He's fighting out his last hours to the last breath, the last gasp, as a testament to what he believes it's worth. Another might have given up when their health began to fail. Another might have resigned his office, at least. Not him. He's staying until his Boss says he's done.

We're losing a great man today. A man of tremendous courage and resolve, a true servant of Christ and His Church. We're diminished by his loss, even us Presbyterians.

I don't envy the next Pope at all. He's got a huge pair of shoes to fill.

You've lived long and labored hard, papa. May God gently speed you to your well-earned rest.