Don't Just Celebrate--Commemorate

A week ago, Americans celebrated the 226th anniversary of our declaration of independence from England.

Unfortunately, for many of us, the emphasis was probably on celebration, rather than commemoration. We went to our ball games, and barbecued our hot dogs and burgers, and in the evening, we watched the fireworks, perhaps without giving any thought to the real meaning of the day.

Given the events of last September, we should cherish such days and what they represent a little more, now that we've had a recent sharp taste of how fragile our freedoms can be. And I hope that now and in the future, we will all spend a little more effort on truly commemorating — that is, remembering and honoring with a ceremony — such events, and not just celebrating them.

The Jewish people have a valuable tradition for such a purpose. During Passover, they don't simply get together with friends and relatives. They sit down to dinner and they tell the story of what they are celebrating — the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. Everyone reads the story, and everyone is involved, and no one goes away from dinner in ignorance of why they gathered.

We can do the same holidays like the Fourth of July. It is instructive, and educational (particularly for those who haven't seen it since high-school civics class, if then) to read aloud Jefferson's work of genius, the Declaration of Independence. In so doing, we are reminded of the principles on which this country was founded, the offenses committed against our ancestors by the English king, and the reasons that we forged our own nation.

So, I hope that you all thanked the founders who solemnly pledged "their Lives, their Fortunes, and their sacred Honor"--who sacrificed so much, and actually underwent bombardment by true explosives, so that you could enjoy your barbecued ribs and potato salad, and the benign burning of colorful chemicals launched on rockets. And that if you didn't, you will do so next year.

But this month contains not just an anniversary of national independence. In a week and a half, on July 20, it will be a third of a century since life first went forth and strode on another world. For the first time, if only briefly, life broke the shackles of its homeworld's gravity entirely.

Let Arthur Clarke describe it:

Five hundred million years ago, the moon summoned life out of its first home, the sea, and led it onto the empty land. For as it drew the tides across the barren continents of primeval earth, their daily rhythm exposed to sun and air the creatures of the shallows. Most perished — but some adapted to the new and hostile environment. The conquest of the land had begun.

We shall never know when this happened, on the shores of what vanished sea. There were no eyes or cameras present to record so obscure, so inconspicuous an event. Now, the moon calls again — and this time life responds with a roar that shakes earth and sky.

When the Saturn V soars spaceward on nearly four thousand tons of thrust, it signifies more than a triumph of technology. It opens the next chapter of evolution.

No wonder that the drama of a launch engages our emotions so deeply. The rising rocket appeals to instincts older than reason; the gulf it bridges is not only that between world and world — but the deeper chasm between heart and brain.


Several years ago, I and some other people decided to create a ceremony to commemorate this event, and the life forms down the millenia that ultimately caused it to happen.

It's not necessarily scientific to believe in a teleology--a purpose to the universe. But we can't be scientific all the time. If there is a point to evolution, perhaps humanity is the conduit through which life will burst forth, joyously, to help the vast universe come to know itself.

And on a more mundane, less philosophical level, you can think of this as a time to celebrate and honor the "geeks"--the scientists who took the time to start to figure out how the universe works, and engineers who take that knowledge and apply it to useful and noble ends, whether in providing light where there was once dark, medicine to cure once-fatal diseases, computers that allow us to read these words, or in allowing humans to walk on another planet. 

Often these people are demonized in popular culture, in constant reruns of the Frankenstein myth, or the modern and repeating tale of Prometheus, who granted to humans the powers that were once the gods' alone. 

This ceremony tells the story of humanity's, and life's achievements, and offers a well-deserved paen to those who have worked through the ages to make them possible. So if you believe that this is an event worth commemorating, and celebrating, go to the website, download it, and make plans for a week from this coming Saturday to gather with friends and tell the story of how and when life first ventured away from the place of its birth.

More Bad Shuttle News

NASA sources say that cracks have now been found in Columbia's fuel lines as well.

This may be a really big problem, though NASA isn't going to admit it immediately. If they need to replace those liners, and they don't exist (which is likely), the Shuttle could be down for many months, because it's possible that tooling, or even the original manufacturers, don't even exist any more. This is another consequence of our limited space activities and infrastructure fragility.

That means there's no way to change out International Space Station crews except for Soyuz, and it could slow even further the already-behind construction schedule of the station.

As I wrote last week, we've put ourselves in a position in which we have a very tenuous hold on space. We are not a truly spacefaring nation, and will not be until we take some fundamentally different policy (not just technical) approaches.

The Value Of Pilots

XCOR had a test flight incident that might have been a problem if the vehicle had been unmanned. One of the engines didn't shut down due to an electrical failure. Rutan let the engine burn long enough to give him the energy he needed to land, then shut it down with a manual valve and landed safely.

This is how you test vehicles--not with billions of dollars in software and simulations.


I didn't get a lot of email in response to last week's column, except for the several people who pointed out my dumb error when I said that Columbia was planned to go to ISS later this month. They're right--it's a Spacelab mission. Columbia rarely goes to the space station, because it's heavier than the rest of the fleet, and can't carry as much payload to such a high altitude and inclination.

I did get one irate letter, however, from a Tony Ianettie, who says that he's a NASA engineer. Subject: "Flawed, flawed, flawed." He posted it from what looks like a home address, however, so I assume that he's not speaking for the space agency.

It sounds like you think you could do a better job. Well, let's see you do it! I am a NASA engineer, and I can tell you, the XCOR/Rutan plane is a joke. You might as well buy a Mig 15, built in the 1950's, if you want more performance.

The energy scales between the Space Shuttle, and the XCOR plane is 6 orders of magnitude!!! In other words, the force a fly puts on you hand is comparible to the thrust the XCOR plane puts out compared to the shuttle. Oh yeah, what about obtaining orbital velocity (17,000 miles per hour)? This is the reason for the energy scales. Oh, what about re-entry, and the weight associated with surviving re-entry (the weight of the tiles? (Please name a subsititute -- that's right, there is no working substitute).

You have also failed to mention that the space shuttle turbopumps are the highest controlled enrgy density devices on the planet (bombs are not controlled.) If building airplanes and rockets were so simple, why have the Indians and Chinese failed miserably? You would think they could put around 50 million people on the problem.

What I am saying is this - there is a tremendous difference between manufacturing microchips (which burn your thumb) and building rockets (which can take out cities...).

And finally, all of these 'innovators' all have the same story: "For 200 million dollars, I could build one." Yes, you could build one rocket (a rocket costs $40 million; I am quoting a Delta 4 price, this is about equivalent to a Russian Proton). They wouldn't guarrantee their work, couldn't afford a contract penalty payement, and would be here today,  gone tomorrow!

I will debate you any time, any place.


Actually the issue with the turbopumps (and rocket engines in general) is not energy density--it's power density.

I'm sure that Mr. Ianetti is quite sincere, but NASA has had hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars over several decades to solve the space access problem, to little effect. But we're never going to know if it's because it really is hard and expensive, or if there's a problem in NASA's approach, until they have some competition. Surely, unless he's insecure in his beliefs, he wouldn't begrudge private industry (and I mean real private industry--not NASA contractors) a few hundred million to see if they can do a little better?

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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