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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Current Topic Post
NASA: Still a place for Wonder and Curiosity

A lot of us who work at JSC these days are worried about the future. Justifiably so, the future of the country’s space program is up in the air, so to speak, and we are the unhappy few, the engineers and scientists lost in the maze of programs and policies who become pawns in the national game of politics and posturing that usually accompanies national debates such as these, played out in our polarized, attention-depleted and 'info-tainment' -saturated, 24 Hour news era. Suffice to say, one can rather easily succumb to inevitable cynicism, Thoreau-like desperation, fatalism or even outright denial. But the truth is, I think, that times like these call out for renewed inspiration in the wonder of Science and Exploration itself.

For you see, Science above all, remains a human activity –it doesn’t proceed in a vacuum. In fact I think of it as a process that exists entirely because of and finally emerges willfully out of, human frailty itself. Precisely because of this, it follows a mostly haphazard trajectory, but one that hopefully does not wallow in the muddy pool of ignorance and superstition which has trapped so much of humanity in that unyielding quicksand of loony ideologies and strong-armed navel-gazing. The lot of which has fatally preoccupied many of our ancestors, since time immemorial.

So Science like any other cultural process, any human endeavor, and despite what the utter rationalists (who plead ignorance at being caught in any form of spiritual game) might say, Science, truly still is, like any other type of ‘ism’. It is one that needs its popularizers and evangelizers. And these days, it needs them desperately. Every once in a while even its abstracted, polished temples of knowledge must be cleared of money changers and corrupt ideas, to allow for paradigm shifts and renewed remembrance that change, like death, is inevitable. Yet, hopefully from this change follows renewed inspiration.

Now a brief personal segue: As a kid, some of my favorite books and documentaries were by Carl Sagan. I grew up escaping what he called the ‘demon-haunted’ world and enveloping myself in the world of Science and the intellect.. I found myself fascinated by how the world works, not just superficially in the rote labeling and memorization of minor school-aged wisdoms, but truly awed by it, in the depth of what I could understand and even more awed but what I couldn’t. And not being a very religious person, I found myself gravitating to Sagan’s aphorisms about the wonder of it all… The infinite smallness of the individual in comparison to the ‘muchness’ of the universe. He often liked to use the word ‘numinous’ in his writing to describe the ‘spiritual’ feeling one obtains in pursing the truth. And by slowly and methodically washing away centuries of ignorance and speculation, with a few carefully done observations, I think that one can find in this ‘numinous’ process of Science, a sense of solace in dealing with the loneliness of human existence.

But putting aside the philosophical condition, and putting on my workday shoes. I realized that my own job is in itself a very, very small and humble part of this whole process. I write some code and sit in front of a computer screen for most of the day. Hardly a big deal. Small potatoes next to the sacrifices (and lives) many have given in pursuit of knowledge and exploration. Yet still sometimes, I can’t help but ponder the ignorance of the masses and secure myself in the hope that what I and my colleagues do, has some meaning and inspires wonder.

So despite all the naysayers, I can’t help but think of The International Space Station, The Space Shuttle and all the unmanned explorers of NASA as a tribute to this sense of wonder in its all myriad forms. Now again, I’m not here to argue about politics, dollars and wasted opportunities. and perhaps we have indeed become spoiled by science fiction wonders, and computer generated fantasy, but I think reality is still pretty amazing as it stands. It just requires a moment’s contemplation. Here and Now, up above us, floats a true marvel of engineering.. Born of brains, blood, sweat and tears, The ISS is the most complex structure ever built and maintained in space.. to belittle or cast it aside now is like rather like a small nation of primitive and ignorant land-lubbing islanders complaining about their only canoe when the New World beckons at their feet. The ISS may be a small canoe indeed, but its all we have, and its available above us now, lapping on the shores of a vast, cosmic ocean.

Here's my own small, inspiring anecdote, my own personal encounter with the numinous: Some nights at work, as the tedium of long hours of another night shift wears us down.. we get word that the space station is about to pass over the control center, and then quickly as an LOS approaches, some of us take a break and dash outside, into the hot, humid Houston haze and look up, glancing out among the stars for a brief glimpse of it passing quickly overhead. There it is!, we happy few in Houston, we engineers and scientists, young and old, men and women, from diverse backgrounds all pointing excitedly, up to a small, bright moving light, easily lost in the cloudy night, just over the horizon to the left.. Yes, its just another evening star, but this one is still under construction, by mankind, existing only thanks to science and willpower… Tonight, we on the ground are watching over a star in the heavens, and I can proudly say that this one is almost complete, because, I helped build it.

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