There are a lot of questions of late as to what NASA should really be focused on over the next few years, especially under the new Obama administration. This piece in the Orlando Sentinel recently reviewed some of the pragmatic options.
But reading this op-ed by Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute really got me thinking different about what our space efforts might be focused on. First he takes us back to the reality of space that many of us might not have thought about since childhood:
"The fastest rocket ever launched, NASA’s New Horizons probe to Pluto,
roared off its pad in 2006 at 10 miles per second. That pace would be
impressive in the morning commute, and it’s passably adequate for
traversing the solar system, something we’ve done and will continue to
Combustion rockets, like New Horizons, can deliver you to the Moon in a matter of days, Mars in a matter of months, and the outer planets in a matter of years. But a trip to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star beyond the Sun and 100 million times farther from us than the Moon, would consume a tedious 800 centuries or so. You’ll want to upgrade..."
The piece then goes into the technical, monetary and biological hurdles to take us to where we've really wanted to go ever since we first started to gaze at the stars.
And it gets depressing just like when we first found out there is no Santa Claus.
But he then starts to talk about the glass half full:
"But there’s another technology that’s developing at a breakneck clip, and with which our grandchildren could make virtual trips to other solar systems. It’s called telepresence — a collection of technologies that extends vision, hearing and touch far beyond the corporeal confines of our nervous system.
Consider that in 1965 the Mariner 4 spacecraft made the first fuzzy photos of Mars with a black-and-white TV camera boasting 40,000 pixels. The HiRISE camera now operating onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sports 200 million pixels. It can snap photos of objects just three feet across.
That’s resolution comparable to what’s on Google Earth, which many people use to examine remote parts of the globe or inspect cities known only from the nightly news. Google Mars takes advantage of the high-quality imagery being collected by our robotic orbiters, enabling armchair astronauts to peruse the red planet in considerable detail without the angst of transporting their delicate protoplasm 34 million miles into space.
Almost like being there, no?
The whole piece is worth reading. And then maybe it may make sense for President Obama to think about this more pragmatic mission for NASA.
Who knows, even Google may want to help.