Monday, July 18, 2011

Why I'm an Optimist

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I've noticed something of a gloomy trend in the last few posts, and I'd like to address that. I haven't been happy about a number of things in my life lately, mainly because I have a relentless impulse to criticize myself. Looking back on things like letting a few grades slip during my last semester in college and moving into an apartment that's way to expensive for the summer because I was too lazy to look around more thoroughly makes me cringe, as trivial as these events are in the long run. Though I don't always do a great job of fully internalizing it, in my more level-headed moods I think the evidence abounds that there's good reason to be joyful and optimistic about the future, in spite of whatever tone you may have perceived up to now.

As I noted before, there are considerable limits to what anyone, person or organization can do. But just as surely as those limits exist, we can't possibly know the extent of those limits until they're under test. More to the point, I think it's wrong to assume that limitations are static things that forever bound our field of motion. When pressed, barriers can be broken down, or at least a detour can be found. Reading the history of some of the great scientific and engineering triumphs, the Wrights' innovations in powered flight for example, it's hard not to get a heady sense of the understanding and practical delivery that can be gleaned from nature with enough persistence and cleverness. We once new nothing of the scale of the universe, the workings of the atoms, or the way a clock slows down when launched into orbit. Now their discoveries are historical footnotes. This is the power of human ingenuity.

I'm not saying that the progress of science is endless and will eventually steamroll over any need to understand things beyond pure rationality. That would be overconfident, and worse, wrong. There are clear boundaries to what the scientific method and the progression of logic are capable of uncovering, though those boundaries are so far from the borders of our current understanding that the scientist needn't concern herself with running into them anytime soon. What I'm getting at is that each human is capable of dipping into this font of wellness and progress and helping to move us all forward. If that's not optimistic, I don't know what is.

When you run, you're bound to falter every once in a while. I'm often much more apathetic and lazy than I'm comfortable admitting and will put off tasks I find dull until they're infuriatingly behind schedule. My social awkwardness keeps me from fully engaging those around me. I regularly fail to heed the advice I wish to take from the sermons of Jesus, to say nothing of my ongoing failure to resolve how I should even look at these sermons to begin with. But though I falter regularly, I know (or at least like to tell myself) it's because I keep running. There's a lot of ground to cover, but humans can move remarkably fast when we want to. I find Mario Andretti's insight that "if you feel like you're still in control, you're not going fast enough," relevant fairly often. Pessimism seems absurd given this insight.

After the third Falcon 1 launch failed to reach orbit, and his critics were breathlessly asking if he was capable of delivering on any of his promises to radically change the launch industry, Elon Musk had this to say when asked whether he was optimistic about future attempts to reach orbit:

"Optimism, pessimism, fuck that; we're going to make it happen. With God as my bloody witness, I'm hell-bent on making it work."

Falcon 1's fourth flight (and every SpaeX launch since) was an unqualified success. There's something to be said for the Musk approach.

Ocean in View

When the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Columbia River estuary in 1805, William Clark had this to say:

"Ocian [sic] in view! O! the joy."

After the long, dangerous, and exhausting slog he and his party endured over the year and half leading up to this arrival, I can hardly imagine the joy Clark must have felt with the end in sight. 200 years and an extensive network of roads and ferries later, the journey from Texas to the Pacific coast of Washington is practically routine, and I opted to complete it yesterday afternoon.

Seattle and Phoenix, my old hometown, are both blessed to be within day trip distance of some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the United States. The Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, and Saguaro National Park dot the southwest, as Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Olympic National Park do in the northwest. Still, traveling from one to another is like going to a different planet as the southern desert slowly gives way to the northern rain forest.

Ruby Beach was shockingly empty when I arrived. A few tourists milled around and took snapshots at the estuary, but no one seemed interested in venturing far from the parking lot. That seemed absurd to me, as the beach goes on for miles in each direction. So I ventured north, then south, not looking for anything but what it was like to be at Ruby Beach, listening to the melodic pounding of the surf.

After a while I realized how empty the place was and felt the urge to start running. I took of my shoes and ran in the surf until my feet went numb. When I saw, but couldn't feel, a cut on one of my toes after tripping on a rock, I thought better of that and put my shoes back on. As I walked and the sensation returned, I felt the pebbles of the beach under the soles of my shoes like a swarm of prickly interlopers. Such is the richness of sensation at the beach.

Feeling a bit like the only human in a timeless world, I started acting silly. First, I sang this:

Then, I sang this, but much louder:

Anyone watching would have very confused ideas about what kind of person I am. They'd probably be mostly right.

With no one watching and no sound but the endless churning of the sea and the occasional squawk of a gull, I suppose I meditated for a while. Or prayed. Mostly I just sat and listened, and practically begged for some kind of inspiration to strike my mind. It doesn't work that way, I know. Even in a place as numinous as the Olympic coast, insight is never reliable, and inspiration never comes simply when bidden. It did feel good, though, just letting the noise flow through me and running till I could barely breathe anymore. Most of all I felt like I was doing what I should be doing, as though I were fulfilling a purpose. It would be an odd thing, to feel a longing for purpose, if there truly weren't any plan behind the curtain.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Planned Obsolescence

This morning the space shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. By Sunday afternoon, if all goes according to plan, she will have docked at the International Space Station for the final time. With some luck and much effort and skill, two weeks from now she'll be back on the ground in Florida or California. No space shuttle will ever fly again.

The phasing out of the Space Shuttle Program reminds me of the Concorde's retirement in 2003. No other machine built by humans (with the exception of a limited and confused Soviet copycat program) does quite what the shuttle does, or does so in such a grandiose way. Several launch vehicles exist today that can launch as much payload into orbit as a shuttle, but none of them can take that same payload from space back to Earth. Nearly every spacecraft that's ever been launched has never felt a human touch after the payload fairing was closed was closed around it. Thanks to the space shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, Mir, the ISS, and a small gaggle of communications satellites have been serviced, repaired, refueled, and upgraded much to their benefit. Not quite a rocket, not quite a spacecraft, not quite an airplane, but all of these things at once, the space shuttle is a remarkable vehicle that will surely be admired for centuries to come.

Like the Concorde, though, the shuttles' retirement makes a cold, rigid sense in spite of their unique capabilities. It was very difficult to build a business case for the Concorde, in spite of so much tilting the tables in its operators' favor. The state-owned Concorde customers paid nothing at all for the airplane's development and virtually nothing for the airplanes themselves. Since there was no initial investment, a grounded Concorde was essentially no cot to British Airways. Grounding a 737 costs Southwest Airlines about $10,000 a day in amortization alone if the aircraft's sticker price is to be believed. Despite this, and despite the marvelous engineering that allowed Concorde to achieve nearly the same fuel economy as subsonic airliners, it could only carry a quarter of the passengers of a full 747, quadrupling its seat-mile costs. So long as there are many wealthy and impatient customers in New York City, London, DC, and Paris, the model closes, but it was always tenuous at best. And so the Concordes sit in museums, soon to be joined by the three remaining space shuttle orbiters.

The combination of capabilities the space shuttle combines is impressive on a scale that inspires awe. In engineering, though, everything has a price, and the price in blood, sweat, and dollars to keep the shuttles flying just doesn't make sense anymore. The Bush administration knew this when it put the writing on the wall by mandating their retirement by 2010 seven years ago. So the target date slipped a year. It happens, but we all knew this was coming.

In the midst of all this nostalgia, it's important to remember that American human spaceflight is not dead, it's simply retooling, becoming a leaner, more organized, more utilizable beast. The age of widespread space travel will come to humanity, and the United States will probably be the nation that pioneers this. The Space Shuttle Program fits into this journey obliquely, in its own odd and twisted way, and so I think the best response to this last flight is respect for the lessons learned and wonder at the beauty of these machines while flying. Godspeed, Atlantis, and fly safely.