Monday, February 15, 2010

Captain's Log: New NASA, New Planets, New Movies, Old Doctor

Catching up on a lot of news...In our apparent reality, a shakeup in the American space program was announced by the Obama administration. Though it requires congressional approval, the new NASA budget cancels several manned programs, provides seed money for spacecraft development by non-government companies, and refocuses more unmanned efforts towards studying Earth as its climate contorts.

The Bush program to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars was effectively cancelled, but it had been so far behind in development, the goals wouldn't have been met anyway. But with the imminent end of the Shuttle and no new spacecraft in the pipeline, the U.S. will apparently depend on quick development of private rockets or "NASA would have to rely on Russia or other foreign countries to take its astronauts and cargoes aloft," notes the New York Times editorial, but adds, "That is a risk worth taking."

Why? Because resources are switched to developing new technologies for long-distance space travel. Another Times piece: “I think this is a dramatic shift in the way we’ve gone about particularly human spaceflight over the past almost 50 years,” said John M. Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University who was one of about a dozen people briefed about the NASA proposal on Sunday. “It is a somewhat risky proposition,” Dr. Logsdon said, “but we’ve been kind of stuck using the technologies we’ve developed in the ’50s and ’60s.”

Private companies do seem to be interested in space--not only in getting there, but staying there: at least one company is working on commercial space habitats. Meanwhile, there's been progress on creating fusion energy using lasers.

As for what there is out there to be found, scientists are learning more about the orphan of our own solar system (Pluto) and about the more than 400 alien worlds discovered so far around other stars--including hot Jupiters, pulsar planets, super-Earths, water worlds and even free-floating planets. Here's a neat little summary.

Moving on to the apparently fictional universe, you have to wonder, what has Star Trek JJA wrought? First the abrupt announcement that Spider-Man 4 has been cancelled, with the director and the stars fired, and this particular saga brought to an ignominious end. Now comes word of a new Spider-Man movie, with a new (as yet unknown) and likely younger cast, another reboot to the beginning, with hints of a "darker" hero.

Speaking of which, the guy who brought "darker" to Batman, Christopher Nolan, is now in charge of yet another reboot of Superman, presumably younger and darker and more violent. I'm sure there are fans out there cheering these developments. I can only wonder how many ways they can find to ruin these characters. Some of those involved in the new Superman say they know what went wrong with the last one, Superman Returns. I wonder. I sort of liked that movie, innocuous as it was, but the new one might start by looking for stars who appear to be older than 14.

There's a little news about the old Doctor--namely that the first part of "The End of Time" topped the UK Christmas ratings, and part two won the week. As for my response to these episodes, I was sort of waiting for the new edition of Russell T. Davis' book with the chapters about them, but now Amazon says it's six weeks away, so I'll probably write about them here before that. But maybe the ultimate tribute to David Tennant's Doctor was by the astronomer who announced a major discovery in the form of a Doctor Who story, with the Doctor and Martha: Doctor Who and the Star of Doom!

Finally, linking our apparent real world science with the soul that animates the fictional--and as a tribute to Black History Month here in the U.S. as well--a note on science by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his Nobel Prize lecture (and remember, according to Nichelle Nichols, Dr. King was a big Star Trek fan):

"Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success... His airplanes and spaceships have dwarfed distance, placed time in chains, and carved highways through the stratosphere. This is a dazzling picture of modern man's scientific and technological progress.

Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.

Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live...Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul."

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