Friday, August 6, 2010

Meteorite Men

About 35 years ago, when the skies were darker in the suburbs north of Baltimore I would keenly wait for the large meteorite showers in August and November. I would stay up late and peer through my bedroom window hoping to catch a falling star. They seemed more impressive back then, I could usually count on seeing them if I looked hard enough. To my amazement, and in what could only be considered a coincidence of astronomical proportions, one morning I found a tiny meteorite lying on the garage roof just outside my window. What are the chances that someone actually watching the meteor shower having a small fragment land outside their window. There was no mistaking it. It was a little smaller than the size of a dime, irregular shape, black with and orange crust in a few places. Back then I wasn’t sure what to do. We didn’t have internet, email or any type of instant communication. So I wrote a letter to a university that I had seen in a book while I was doing research on it at the library. I asked how I could tell if it were a real meteorite. They wrote back and said I would have to send them the object. I couldn’t do that, it was a one of a kind. So I tucked it away in a small metal tube for safekeeping. Over the years, somewhere in the accumulated mess of a teenage boy’s world I lost track of it. I’m sure it is still there in my parent’s house somewhere, but wherever that place is, it isn’t obvious.

Last weekend while watching part of the marathon of Meteorite Men that ran on The Discovery Science Channel I began to think about my little visitor from space and whatever became of it. Now, there were other grown adults like me who were captivated by rocks falling from the sky, only they spent their adulthood scouring the country looking for the same little pieces of rocks from space that had come right to my rooftop. The “Meteorite Men” have done quite well finding space rocks of all types, shapes and sizes. So well, that they’ve made a career out of it. Seeing them unearth buried pieces of rock that date back to the formation of our solar system is quite awe-inspiring when you think about it. Being the first human to touch a rock from space, or see a rock from space is quite the feat.

A few years ago, on the 23rd of December, my son had just come into town for the Christmas holidays from his Air Force Tech School training. When he got here we decided to do some very late night shopping to get him caught up. As we were driving back to the house around 1am we saw this ball of fire come out of the sky right in front of us. It was bright and large and it seemed near the city of Charlotte about 15 miles away. As soon as we got back in the house we started searching the internet for news. We were so certain that others had seen it, or that a weather cam picked it up and caught it on film, or that it landed somewhere near Charlotte and someone heard it, but no luck. I emailed local weather people, no response. It could have been miles away or hundreds of miles away, but debris from it is out there somewhere. With no concrete evidence of where it could be, no one will ever know.

So I got to thinking about that and did some quick research on meteorite strewn fields in my immediate area. There are a few, and not what I would call immediate to Charlotte, but within North Carolina, but they are old and date back to the 1800’s and they most likely have been picked clean by meteorite hunters over the years or the fragments long eroded by wind and rain. I did find one intriguing sighting in a nearby state that was recent and the object has yet to be found. Just for fun, I’m going to do a little research using the available data and plan a little road trip and try my luck where others have failed. In the sixty minutes that Meteorite Men is on, the task of actually finding a space rock seems easy, but that is just the edited version. They admit that they often search in futility and find nothing. My endeavor will likely end the same way; it’s searching for a needle in a haystack. The thrill of this is not just the search, but getting out and looking. It’s about being creative and inventive and talking to local townspeople about what might have been seen or found. It most likely will be never found, but it is just another space adventure that will happen right here on earth.

Perhaps one day my little rock will turn up or maybe I’ll start using my spare time to head west and spend some time in the Arizona and Nevada deserts looking for rocks from space. It doesn’t seem like there can be a much better way to see America and meet interesting people than to find the little towns that were lucky enough to have a visitor from outer space come calling.

Good News, Bad News....

The Senate passed the NASA Authorization Bill that put the American space program somewhere in the middle between the drastic retooling that the Obama Administration had sought and the “stay the course” approach outlined in the Vision for Space Exploration. There are a few things we should never compromise in this country and the exploration of space makes the top five behind life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and national defense. I say this because space exploration is one of those things that does not lend itself to compromise very well. Space is difficult, full of unknowns, and when you’re doing something for the first time, incredibly expensive. Getting NASA back on track is turning out to be a lifetime endeavor. By that I mean I’m not sure in my lifetime I’ll ever see it on the right course. Decade after decade the same mistakes and missteps, more compromise that delivers enough to keep the program on life support until we can change strategies yet again. The good news is that we are most likely going to build some things we need, the bad news, there isn’t enough money to do it right or do it in the mandated timeline. That’s just the start of it. This Senate bill is only half the battle. There still needs to be reconciliation with the House version of the same funding authorization. As they stand now, they are both radically different and neither is the optimal solution. It’s getting to the point now where we need to either be in this all the way or out of it and get a thumbs up on whether or not we need to continue manned space or the thumbs down and get out of it and boost unmanned exploration. This continual political infighting ends up costing us more and we get less. If the Senate bill is a compromise and the House bill is radically different then just imagine what we are going to end up with when this is all said and done.

Realistically, we’ve moved very little since Apollo. One could argue we’ve done almost nothing since the moon landings since we appeared ready to abandon the space station and we have already committed retiring the shuttle. We haven’t learned from those projects and built upon them a better future. We’re treating the Shuttle era like that forgettable season on the television series Dallas where Bobby mysteriously reappears after being killed off the previous season and we find out it was just a dream. Just like that we’re being asked to forget that whole Shuttle and ISS program happened and let’s pickup where we left off with Apollo. It’s senseless. We can’t have this both ways. We can’t keep the space program as a trophy in the case while providing minimal funding to keep us in the spotlight. The strategy and funding mistakes of the past have costs us the lives of astronauts and we’ve lost valuable time.

I think it was Dave Scott, Commander of Apollo 15 that said we shouldn’t be so worried about the program, that explorations of great discovery have sometimes had hundreds of years between them. The difference then and now was the evolution of technical capabilities, not a will or commitment to explore. It was because those predecessors never lost that will to explore that we have a space program, but now it’s different. We’re willing to do only what we think we can afford. This cycle has to be broken. We need to once and for all decide what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it, and when we’re going to do it. Once we agree on that, then it will cost what it will cost to achieve. Somehow, this mindset has creeped into the Congress and the President that NASA willingly makes things more expensive just to waste taxpayer’s money. The solution then becomes dictating a spending ceiling and a timeline that fixes NASA’s problem. It doesn’t work that way. This logic escapes me. I challenge any member of Congress to tell me a real world example of where that works. Where do we dictate broad specifications on something extremely complicated and provide funding and a timeline as if every detail was known? What inevitably happens is that it costs more and takes longer because we didn’t do it right up front. Everyone’s angry and the course changes and funding restrictions only get more frequent. I don’t know that I care if we spend less and it takes longer if it’s the right course. It’s where we spend less and compress the timeframe, or compromise the strategy and don’t get what we need just get something that disappoints me the most. We’ve got lots to do in the area of space exploration. There are so many exciting destinations for humans and unmanned spacecraft. I realize we can’t do it all right now, but we need an integrated approach independent of costs. Once we have that, we can decide how we will pay for it and how long it will take. The way we’re doing it now we will never make any real progress.