While our presidential race is mired in negativity and marked by shallowness, our economy is stuck in low gear, and our country is in danger of drifting into yet another war as it tries to execute a little-reported and less-understood pivot from over-engagement with the Islamic world to increased engagement with Asia and the Pacific, one aspect of public life is looking up, literally. And that, odd as it would have seemed just last year, is the long-neglected space program.
After 30 years, the space shuttle program finally wound down last year. Many wondered, to the extent they thought about it all, if, after abandoning Moon missions 40 years ago, running the old space truck round and round the planet would turn out -- along with Neil Armstrong's "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" -- to have been the highlight of our space endeavors, and if deeper exploration and adventures would henceforth be left, albeit fictitiously, in the hands of Hollywood.
But now space is happening again, in ways different than before. While NASA begins to refocus on a true deep-space mission to the asteroid belt while maintaining its presence with the International Space Station, private enterprise is beginning to pick up the slack for orbital missions. And unmanned exploration, run by sci-tech geeks in California, is coming to the fore as never before. These are the missions that are generating the knowledge that will pave the way for interplanetary exploration and travel in the future. Going to the Moon was great. Orbiting the Earth is useful. But the future is out there.
In a major success for the U.S. space program, the Mars rover Curiosity successfully executed a series of complex maneuvers to land on the surface of Mars late on the night of Sunday, Aug. 5. The Mars Science Laboratory is the most complex spacecraft ever to land on another planet -- well, from Earth, at least. The mission, like all U.S. deep-space and interplanetary missions, is run out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Then, after testing various systems, the rover's software system had to be completely updated and rebooted as it shifted mission focus from getting to Mars and landing there to exploring its environs.
Once that was successfully and laboriously accomplished, it was time for a test drive. Governor Jerry Brown was on hand for that. In fact, it was the anticipated success of that endeavor that Brown's proclamation of Space Day in California implicitly acknowledged. (Brown declared Aug. 22 Space Day in California.) After all, it wouldn't have looked too good for the governor to be there when the giant gadget suddenly didn't work.
But work like a charm it did, showing how it will tool around its new habitat, winnowing out the clues that will enable it to fulfill its mission: to determine habitability, including the past or current presence of water; to study the planet's climate and geology; and to gather data to prepare a future manned mission to Mars.
Because that, too, is a major goal of NASA, as retooled by President Barack Obama. And Brown has been a longstanding advocate of exploring Mars.
For this was not the first time that he had proclaimed Space Day in California.
The first was 35 years ago, on Aug. 11, 1977, a much more elaborate affair that he timed for the day before the first test flight of the first space shuttle, the Enterprise, named for the Star Trek starship.
Brown put on a day-long Space Day conference at the Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, attended by all the top leadership of NASA and various science notables such as Carl Sagan, Gerard O'Neill, and Jacques Cousteau. There was even a beat poet or two on hand (those way over the right who deride Brown as a former hippie completely miss it; he's much more beat-influenced [use the Google]), with Michael McClure ending the day by reading a new work set against spectacular NASA space footage.
The next day, Brown and the crew, including Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweikart, who was to serve first as Brown's sci/tech advisor and then California Energy Commission chairman, went up to Edwards Air Force Base, the legendary test flight center in California's high desert country, for the test flight of Enterprise.
Edwards, of course, is where Neil Armstrong, who passed away over the weekend from coronary procedure complications at 82, cut his eyeteeth as an elite test pilot. An engineer educated at Purdue and USC, Armstrong was a naval aviator in the Korean War, decorated for flying nearly 80 combat missions. But it was his prowess flying the hottest experimental jets over the California high desert, taking the famed X-15 into the beginnings of outer space, that, coupled with his engineering expertise, made him a natural for the space program. His leadership of the first Apollo mission to the Moon, and his stature as the first person to walk on another world, deserves more than the somewhat muted attention his passing has received.
Brown proved to be a bit too anticipatory in 1977 on the eve of that first space shuttle test flight, declaring, "The shuttle's flight tomorrow is truly like laying the last spike on the transcontinental railroad, only much more so. And whether or not we're going to see in in the next 10 or 20 years, there are people alive today who will see manufacturing in space from moon materials or from asteroids."
There are, after all, reasons they called him Governor Moonbeam. There are also reasons why hardboiled Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who coined the term, tried to disavow it, indeed dismantle it. (In 1991 Royko called it an "idiotic, damn-fool, meaningless, throw-away line" and, in exasperation, tried to kill off his, er, intellectual creation. "Enough of this 'Moonbeam' stuff," he wrote. "I declare it null, void and deceased.")
But the moniker stuck, as did the notion, comfortable for some, that Brown's ideas were simply wacky, pushed along by conventional thinkers in the media and persistent conservative critics, like Sacramento Union columnist turned Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who built his career over the past four decades attacking Brown, the Brown family, and most Democrats, for that matter. Walters, who, during Brown's 1992 presidential campaign, appeared in a faux exposé story on ABC News that alleged a Brown drug scandal, saying he had been at a Brown fundraiser where drugs were used (it later turned out to have been an Eagles concert where -- gasp! -- some in the huge crowd smoked pot), has, in the absence of a credible state Republican Party PR effort, taken on the role of attacking Brown's moves to raise taxes on the rich, balance the budget, control greenhouse gas emissions, promote renewable energy, and build a high-speed rail.
At his 1977 Space Day celebration, in L.A. and up at Edwards, Brown sought to square what seemed a contradiction to some between his acknowledgement of the Era of Limits and his advocacy of an expansive space program.
"Ecology and technology," he intoned, "find a unity in space. When the day of manufacturing in space occurs and extraterrestrial material is added into the economic equation, then the old economic rules no longer apply. Going into space is an investment. It's not a waste of money, it's not a depleting asset, it's an expanding asset, and through the creation of new wealth we make possible the redistribution of more wealth to those who don't have it. ... Awareness of limits leads to awareness of possibilities."
This time around, presenting less of a profile for attack, Brown was a bit less gushing, this Space Day far less programmed and produced, though he did, and rightfully so, close his telling remarks by thanking the JPL controllers for "taking us to the stars."
"Ad astra per aspera," he had just argued, citing the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid. That means, for those few who never took Latin, "to the stars through difficulties," or, in the interpretation of UC Berkeley Classics major Brown, "to the stars through the thorns."
Brown pointed out, as you might guess, that it makes little sense to stop thinking long and building for the future just because there are some budget difficulties, which, as he noted, are much worse at the federal level than they are at the state level.
Brown was especially bullish about the prospects for the California Republic as compared to the Roman Republic, which, as he noted to the laughter of the JPL and Caltech team, took 700 years to collapse, so, bahdump, we have hundreds to go.
Brown was briefed in on the Mars rover mission, examined the tech, and met with the mission controllers. And he was named an honorary member of the JPL Mission Control team. He even got a nifty blue T-shirt, which the JPL and Caltech crew urged him to wear next time he addresses the state legislature. Maybe at a brown bag lunch.
As I wrote here on The Huffington Post at the end of May as the first SpaceX mission to the International Space Station wrapped up, California has emerged as a center of the post-shuttle space exploration movement.
The Los Angeles community of Hawthorne serves as mission control for SpaceX, the California-based commercial space exploration firm headed by Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk. SpaceX, as you know, made history a few months ago by staging the first private resupply mission to the International Space Station.
Across L.A., the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in nearby Pasadena is in charge of the expansive unmanned deep space exploration projects underway, such as the current Mars rover missions Opportunity, still operating since early 2004, and Curiosity.
While L.A. is a major nexus in this new era of space exploration, another place in California might be even more important.
At the end of the '90s, I was briefly involved with the California Spaceport Authority, a sort of hybrid, a state-authorized agency that was functionally a nonprofit corporation designated for the task, headed by a former Republican politician. Then Governor Gray Davis recognized that the '90s were a rough time for commercial space, and nothing much came of it, and the nonprofit no longer exists. But things ebb and flow.
For just a few years later, with some assistance from Davis and later from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Mojave Spaceport got its act going in a big way.
Mojave ("Mo-hah-vee") is in the high desert of Southern California, near the legendary flight test range of Edwards Air Force Base (think Chuck Yeager). The New York Times ran a very good summation of the very promising ventures at Mojave in the spring.
I watched the December 2009 christening at Mojave, in near freezing conditions, by then-Governor Schwarzenegger and Virgin chairman Richard Branson, of the first SpaceShipTwo, now undergoing flight testing. This craft, part of Branson's Virgin Galactic venture, is designed for suborbital space tourism. Which is another way to further development of private spacecraft.
While things percolate up in the high desert, SpaceX announced on Aug. 3 that it has won a contract from NASA to make the orbital manned spacecraft that will take the place of the space shuttle.
But not everything works, of course.
In some bad news on the aerospace pioneering front, even as the Jet Propulsion Lab successfully upgraded and rebooted the operating software for the Mars rover mission, the Air Force's X-51 ultrasonic space plane test off the California coast ended in failure. A faulty control fin prevented the start of the experimental "scramjet" engine, and the WaveRider craft broke apart in midair. The experimental craft, which some believe could accelerate to air speeds as high as 18,000 miles per hour, was dropped from a B-52 Stratofortress bomber. The B-52 airframe, incidentally, first flew in 1952, entering full service in 1955. B-52s are expected to be in service until 2040, giving the design an astounding 88-year lifespan.
In July 2011, noting the contrasting impermanence of most aerospace projects to date, I asked in "Over and Out, Above and Beyond: Is the Space Age Over or Just Beginning?" if the future was already passé with regard to space. I think we're already seeing the answer.
It makes perfect sense that space programs should continue to thrive in the U.S., despite the shortsightedness of the predictable naysayers, for the exploration of space is very much in furtherance of the Enlightenment ideals engrained in the founding of the United States and the fabric of American society by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin: Curiosity, exploration, scientific advancement turned into ingenuity and know-how to accomplish practical goals and maintain a sense of vision for further advances in knowledge.
Of course, as we contemplate a future that will ultimately (unless we destroy ourselves first) take humanity to the stars, we do so in a world bounded by the muck of practical politics, which, in this era, has proved quite limiting.
Brown discusses his take on that in an intriguing Pacific Standard interview with my old colleague Marc Cooper.
Though I don't always agree with Marc (with whom I worked in the LA Weekly days, and in projects with Arianna Huffington helping run Shadow Conventions 2000 and the Warren Beatty for President exploratory effort), he does a nice job of drawing Brown out on his approach to practical politics, which goes against the campaign professional grain in a number of respects. I'll have more on this.
A recent poll, conducted online for USC and Policy Analysis for California Education, has mostly good news for Brown and his November revenue initiative. It shows Prop 30 leading by 19 points, 55 to 36. And rival/zombie initiative Prop 38, funded with mega-millions by heiress Molly Munger, is losing, 40 to 49, despite its patroness already spending millions on ads.
When a Web video favoring Prop 30 is played opposite a radio ad opposing it, Prop 30 drops from a 19-point lead to, er, an 18-point lead, which, some pundits opined, shows it to be "very shaky." Well, there's something that's shaky.
No public word yet on a public pension reform bill emerging from the California state legislature, looking at leaving for the year with the upcoming holiday weekend, though an announcement is evidently impending. Hey, it's merely needed to make sure that the Proposition 30 revenue initiative passes. The legislature will be in session only till the end of this week. Tick tock.
Yes, it can be disorienting when a rice bowl moves. But not nearly as disorienting as when a rice bowl disappears.
No, that is not a koan, merely common sense.
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes.
William Bradley's Huffington Post blog archive can be found here.