Saturday, August 04, 2012

NASA is Our Hero

We at the Egg are often heard harrumphing about the fact that we do not yet have the personal jetpacks we were promised for the Year 2000.  We are still reeling from the GOP's shortsighted decision to choose a presidential candidate who might win over Newt Gingrich, who promised to flame out in a spectacular fashion -- but also promised to build us the damned lunar colony we've been waiting for since 1969.

But you know what?  Real science is cool too.  And although the fact that we now live in the era of commercial spaceflight, of Chinese space stations, and of a decommissioned space shuttle fleet may sometimes make NASA's glory days look like a thing of the past, it ain't necessarily so.

In a few hours -- 5:31 a.m. on Sunday, GMT, which is 1:31 a.m. in New York -- NASA will land the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.  If you haven't been following the story, this may sound ho-hum:  What, another robot buggy looking at rocks?  But there's so much more to it than that!  For one thing, this robot buggy is nuclear-powered truck.  For another, the thing is going to climb a 3-mile-high mountain.  And for a third, the new thinking is that Mars may have as much underground water as Earth does, which makes the search for evidence of life (and the prospect of colonization) a lot less impractical.  But the biggest thing, for us, is the landing itself.

Forget the airbags.  They're going to drop this sucker onto the surface using retro-rockets and a freaking space crane.  How's that for pushing the edge? (Here's a text description from iO9, our source for pretty much everything we know.)  

Here's a mock-up video.  It's 11 awe-inspiring minutes of what NASA hopes will happen:

Mind you, there's always room for error.  The distance is such that the landing can't be controlled by human beings; this is all going to be done on auto-pilot, and we won't even know if it has worked until a few minutes after the fact.  Some people at NASA describe the incredibly complex maneuver as "seven minutes of terror." Everybody knows that it may fail, which is -- of course -- one of the risks of exploration.

Today, we read (also at iO9) that they're even planning to film the landing from a second spacecraft, already in orbit.  It's an iffy proposition -- Curiosity will be hurtling toward Mars at hundreds of mph, the other craft is moving, the controllers are hundreds of millions of miles away.

But you know what?  Even if there are no pictures -- heck, even if there is no landing -- this is one of the most ambitious pieces of space exploration ever attempted.  The engineering skill involved is immense.  So, sure, SpaceX shot some cargo up, the Chinese managed to dock with their own station, and we need the Russians to give us a boost getting to ours.  But when any of those guys can build a 2000-pound nuclear robot truck, send it into space, then drop it with pinpoint accuracy into a crater on Mars using absolutely new technology, all the while taking pictures from your other orbital craft -- well, let them give us a call.  Until then, NASA is our hero.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Romney: Racist, Tax Dodger, or Just a Cheapskate?

Two recent developments in the Romney campaign bear watching:

1.  His recent trip abroad was, according to Politico's Roger Simon, "a disaster wrapped in a debacle inside a calamity."  The allegations of racism from Palestinians are probably par for the course in Middle Eastern politics, but our favorite moment was when, after Mitt visited Warsaw's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, his press secretary kept reporters at bay by shouting a loose paraphrase of Exodus 3:5: "Kiss my ass!  This is a holy place!"  (Perhaps this is the Mormon version).

2.  Harry Reid now claims to have heard from "an extremely credible source" that Romney hasn't paid income taxes in a decade.  After promising to look into the matter, the Romney campaign quickly announced that it would have no further comment.  This story raises two noteworthy questions:

(a)  Is it true?  The campaign's promise of silence almost certainly means that it is. This raises the possibility that the wealthiest man to ever run for president pays lower taxes than, say, a single mom from Peoria.  As Reid say, the super-wealthy have mastered the art of hiding their money, and a story like this one drives home the vast difference between the lives and values of of the haves and have-nots.  We can expect to hear John Kerry's underrated line about "Benedict Arnold corporations" recycled to "Benedict Arnold plutocrats."

(b)  What's the source?  Romney's campaign has suggested that Reid's informant is, ultimately, the white House.  If true, that raises some serious questions about the use of government agencies for partisan politicking, and virtually guarantees that heads will roll in the executive branch.  But there is also speculation that the informant is inside the Romney campaign and, specifically, inside the LDS movement, to which both Reid and Romney belong.  Remember that the Mormons are notably strict about tithing.  If Romney has been using the same tricks to shortchange his church that he uses to avoid the taxman, it is entirely possible that a  fellow-Mormon might be righteously offended and looking for justice.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Gore Vidal, R.I.P.

First edition, from Wikipedia
In the seventh grade, we were asked to give oral book reports.  Our teacher, a dear woman turned prematurely gray, would devote one entire class day each week to private interviews with each of her charges, listening to awkward descriptions of whatever book they had been reading.  We imagine that she went home each Friday and drank a triple martini, trying to forget whatever she had learned about the works of Judy Blume or Scholastic's Great Pitchers of the Minor Leagues.

"So, Little Middle Schooler Anonymous," she asked with a tired smile one afternoon, "What are you reporting on?"  She was no doubt bracing herself for yet another tedious summary of Hymns Ancient and Modern or The Ecclesiastical Hierarchies.

Her eyebrows shot up when we handed her a battered paperback copy of Myra Breckinridge, by Gore Vidal.  She failed to suppress a nervous laugh, and then said, in tone between shock and incredulity, "You ... read ... THAT?"

We had indeed.  It was borrowed, incidentally, from the bookshelf of our late grandfather -- a shelf which time and again belied the old man's pretense of stern conservatism by surrendering such dubious treasures as the complete Oscar Wilde and Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent.  (Grandpa A. was also standing by to translate the Latin bits the summer we spent reading Sade's Justine and Juliette.  To call him a corrupting influence is to go not nearly far enough.)

Anyway, we read Myra, a madcap Hollywood farce told by a transsexual. Much of the sociopolitical commentary was no doubt lost on us in those years of adolescent bliss.  Really, we just read the thing for its sex scenes, which were -- if memory serves -- insane.  And it is easy now to imagine why our teacher became so nervous as a little boy with cherubic cheeks and Sears Roebuck jeans prepared to deliver his book report.  (In the event, she interrupted us and did all the talking herself -- a curious sort of book report, but probably easier on everybody.)

We read Myra, and liked it so much that we went on to seek out more by the same author.  In the ninth grade, Burr made an enormous impression upon us, forever reshaping the way we read American history.  More than that, it probably shaped the way we would come to read theology as well, giving us both an abiding interest in the perspective of the underdog, and a proleptic sense of what is now called the hermeneutic of suspicion.  In college, we cackled wickedly over Vidal's collected essays, adopting as our own his many prejudices regarding the politics and literature of a generation that was even then passing out of relevance.   In the YouTube era, we have occasionally banished glum spirits by watching Vidal provoke William F. Buckley on television.  ("I'll sock you in your goddamned face and you'll stay plastered" has never sounded less threatening than when drawled by a man who can't seem to sit upright.)

All this was long ago.  Even then, Vidal wrote much for which we did not care, and in later years his work has left us cold.  We think of him, now, as one does of an adolescent crush -- the memories are happy but also a little embarrassing, and we're relieved that it did not end in marriage.  Still, we had some good times.

Vidal died this week, at the age of 86.  You can read an obit at the Guardian, or a love story at the Daily Beast.  Or wry commentary on the gawrshawful Myra movie, at Deadspin.