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  • Happy 77th to the poet of Science

    2011 - 11.09

    It’s Carl Sagan’s birthday today, November 9th. He’d have been 77. Today is a day to rejoice in the legacy he left behind, and maybe to lament his absence just a little too. Like so many other people he’s affected, I have a profound admiration for Carl. It’s hard to pin it down to one reason why, or even a small handful of reasons.

    Today in the news I read that the amusingly-named Russian “Phobos-Grunt” probe (ok, grunt is the Russian word for “dirt”) has apparently stalled in Earth orbit after launch. The probe was supposed to travel to Mars’ Phobos moon and return to Earth with samples of the soil. Roscosmos has a downright dismal failure rate of attempting to send probes to Mars. To the tune of 19 missions with partial sucess at best but mostly outright failures. The record was so lousy that they gave up for the last 15 years. So it’s some combination of ironic and sad that this one should fail too. The engineers still have a chance to get things back on track. We’ll see. But something that sort of sticks out in my mind is that while Russia is the traditional US rival, really we all lose when any attempt at space exploration fails. I think Carl was a big pusher of that kind of thinking. The idea that exploring space is all about expanding the boundaries of human civilization as a whole, about the survival of our species, and about the next leap in our evolution–from sea creatures, to land dwellers, to explorers of other worlds. From that point of view, to think of humanity as a contest of nations seems petty, narrow-minded, backwards. Feudal.

    Another sweet piece of news this week was that the team at JPL has instructed the Voyager 2 probe to switch over to secondary thrusters. The spacecraft radioed back that it had done so successfully. It’s 9 billion miles away and it took 4 days for the command-acknowledgement signal round trip. That’s amazing. The Voyagers have been rocking for 34 years now, older than I am, and still running. What a triumph for all those who worked on the probes; and also for every human. We have probes that have almost made it to interstellar space. Seriously, that’s a milestone for a lifeform. And they both carry a hello message from Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. It’s perfect.

    Maybe if I wasn’t preoccupied with many other things this evening I’d try to make an apple pie from scratch as a tribute. Tonight I need to start packing for Bear Creek music fest, but there will probably be time to sneak in an episode of Cosmos and enjoy some time with Carl, one of the best humans of our times.

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    2 Responses to “Happy 77th to the poet of Science”

    1. NineTenthsShavinPowda says:

      In mother russia, space probes you.

    2. MonkeyDeathcar says:

      I feel many of us who are passionate about space exploration hate to see any failure. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a perceived rival or an ally. I don’t think I can remember anyone with this kind of mindset was disappointed when China started sending things into space. We’re happy at the opportunities to learn more. There are exceptions, most sane people aren’t too excited that anyone can shoot down a LEO satellite. It was even less impressive when the US decided to show of and hit a higher satellite. As the US continues to underfund NASA we need the ESA, Russians, Chinese, and whomever else wants to send probes out.

      I’d rather be an optimist about the Russian failure. One thing Russia seems to be doing is not using failure as an excuse, even if it took awhile to get back to it.. Keep trying till they get it right. Hopefully we’ll all be better off from what they learned on their failures. This is the way these things typically work as far as I can tell.

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