Favorite

Pluto on horizon 

As The Observer writes this on Tuesday morning, one of the greatest Observational opportunities in a generation is hurtling through space and time to make its impression upon the third planet from the sun sometime this evening. Well, insofar as such subjective designations have any meaning when nonterrestrial matters are concerned — "evening" and "night" and other such functions of Earth-shadow all start to seem pretty petty in the context of space. Sometime in the next 12 hours, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will reach a frozen trans-Neptunian object we decided in the 1930s we'd call Pluto, the consummation of a 9-and-a-half year journey across 3 billion miles. And we're going to get to see it.

The idea that a species of such demonstrably weak-willed, violence-prone, sex-crazed primates could get their shit together enough to send anything at all into outer space seems unbelievable. Pics or it didn't happen. But there they are, indelible images from a half-century of exploration: Mariner, Viking, Voyager, the Mars rovers, the Philae lander that thunked down on a comet last fall. And now, New Horizons. The photos are only the tip of a vast iceberg of data returned to us by the little burbling robot children we've sent out to explore and measure the solar system on behalf of our soft, fleshy selves, and with each generation of craft we learn more and more. That Jupiter's moon Europa holds a sea of liquid water vaster than all the oceans of Earth, locked beneath an icy crust and kept unfrozen by the tidal pull of its parent planet. That beneath the opaque cloud ceilings of Titan, a moon of Saturn, there are lakes of hydrocarbons and an entire atmospheric "methane cycle" of evaporation, condensation and precipitation — like the Earth's water cycle, but occurring at a temperature of around -290 degrees Fahrenheit. Miracle after miracle, uncovered through the Promethean gifts of science.

Whoops, hold up. Ugh. That right there is the problem with getting caught up in romance. One minute you're learning about a beautiful thing; the next, you're waxing grandiloquent with such BS phrases as "the Promethean gifts of science" or "the inky black shores of the cosmos." Or worse, Manifest Destiny-laden metaphors about intrepid explorers sighting the shores of the New World — an event which, let's not forget, begot 500+ years' worth of genocide, plague, rape and chattel slavery in this blood-soaked hemisphere. Grandiloquent waxing is always suspicious, be it over science or God, liberty or equality, local food, punk rock, Sarah Palin's Real America, or whatever.

And that brings us to the ultimate killjoy question when it comes to NASA: Ehhhhh, but what about the costs? The price tag for New Horizons is going to run in the neighborhood of $700 million of public money. It's honestly a shoestring budget, considering the scope of the mission, and damn it's going to be thrilling to see Pluto, but still ... that'd pay for an awful lot of pre-K teachers, malarial drugs or solar panels.

Of course, you can play that game all day. At $700 million, New Horizons will cost about $100 million less than the cash Americans collectively shelled out for Girl Scout cookies last year. NASA's budget of $18 billion is about 1/28th the size of what the Department of Defense is asking for FY 2015 ($496 billion). Still, if The Observer were sitting in front of $700 million in cash, with the Pluto lobby on one hand and a Syrian refugee camp on the other, we'd have to concede that the population of Pluto can probably cope just fine without us.

Thankfully, we're not. And anyway, if The Observer had been in charge of NASA from the birth of the space program, we probably would have blown our budget launching truckloads of basketballs and cantaloupes into orbit, perfectly content with the sheer awe factor of the concept of spaceflight itself. Briefings to Cold War-era Congressional oversight committees would have read something like, "They're actually up there! Just floating around! How nuts is that, senators?" The lesson here, as usual, is that it's fortunate for everyone that The Observer isn't in charge of much of anything.

Favorite

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • I'm sorry

    I'm sorry we stood by while your generation's hope was smothered by $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, just because you were trying to educate yourselves enough to avoid falling for the snake oil and big talk of a fascist.
    • Nov 17, 2016
  • Snake stories

    The Observer's boss, Uncle Alan, is something of a gentleman farmer on his spread up in Cabot, growing heirloom tomatoes and watermelons and crops of chiggers on property that looks like the perfect farmstead Lenny and George often fantasized about in "Of Mice and Men."
    • Aug 27, 2015
  • Show and tell

    The Observer is an advocate of the A+ method of integrating the arts and using creativity to teach across the curriculum, an approach that the Thea Foundation, with help from the Windgate Charitable Foundation, is offering to schools across the state.
    • Feb 25, 2016

Most Shared

Latest in The Observer

  • Memories of Townsend

    Vernon Tucker, musician and former Arkansas Times writer, asked for The Observer space this week to remember Townsend Wolfe. Why not? What follows is memory of early days at the Arts Center.
    • Jan 19, 2017
  • Weird trivia

    When completed, the Ten Commandments monument on the state Capitol lawn will be the exact size, shape and weight of the vaguely humming black monolith that appeared at the foot of Conway Sen. Jason Rapert's bed in June 2010 and later elevated his consciousness from apelike semi-sentience to incrementally less apelike semi-sentience.
    • Jan 12, 2017
  • Resolutions

    No more clinging to material things, unless those material things are life preservers tossed as I go down for the third and final time, the few remaining strands of my once-majestic locks, or the skids of the last helicopter out before the fall of Little Rock.
    • Jan 5, 2017
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

1.73-carat diamond found at Crater of Diamonds State Park

1.73-carat diamond found at Crater of Diamonds State Park

Jack Pearadin and Doug Nelsen found a 1.73-carat diamond after nearly a year of searching the park's field.

Event Calendar

« »

January

S M T W T F S
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31  

Most Recent Comments

 

© 2017 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation