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Needed: Accessible Frontier

the sense of constriction grows

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, November 12, 2014.

We here in Boulder - and those of you in lesser, uncool locations - are awash in near zero degree temperature and snow. So, throw another of your few remaining chairs on the fire and gather around the radio to stay warm. Well, that's if you're a real American and kept your old floor mounted RCA radio with fuses that look like light bulbs only with red filament and give off life saving heat. Try to keep your hands warm on your digital cell phone, you faddish fools. We olde farts know how to keep warm in the wild. With electric bulbs!

While this dicing with death goes on in the living room, the European Space Agency, composed of Europe's nations not named Russia, completed a ten year voyage to a comet heading our way. Rosetta is now a sort of satellite of this comet, and this very morning they detached a landing vehicle and deposited it on the comet itself. It speared the comet, which looks like a dumb bell rotating at a brisk speed, as if it were a whale, and pulled itself down to the surface. And there it is, happily reporting as designed. The ESA is ecstatic, as well it should be. We used to have days like this as well.

So, not bad, given it has been on this journey for ten years, and the target comet was a last minute substitution when the launch had to be delayed, killing the possibility of meeting its first choice. So, they devised some afternoon activities for the probe to keep it busy, and it visited Mars and Jupiter and did close fly bys of at least two asteroids. Rosetta will circle the comet 67P-C-G for seventeen months, during which the comet approaches the sun and will start the chemical processes to give birth to the tail. What will happen to the lander is unknown, because this will be the first up close and personal view of a comet from that comet. I'd suppose the outer layers of the comet are shed, and the lander with it. All this with equipment and computers considered ancient at its launch.

It does not pass unnoticed that this follows two disasters in our own space program. An unmanned commercial supply rocket headed for the International Space Station after launch some weeks back. As yet, we don't know why, but it was not a NASA project, and the Antares rocket had been supplied by one of the space contractors struggling to put space travel in the black and make it commercial and profitable. Those of you not aware of our early space fiascoes in the 1950's might find it more disturbing than it really was.

An actual disaster just last week killed a pilot of SpaceShipTwo, which disintegrated above California. This was the project of Virgin Airways founder Richard Branson, who still says making commercial space travel a reality is worth the risk.

Space travel is not the excitement it once was, and those days of Them Seven and Apollo landings on the moon will never excite the public as they did then, when you could see the promises illustrated in centuries of mythology and literature come true. It was somehow assumed that space travel was just starting, and the ensuing years would be full of space firsts, with events escalating so fast and furious it was seriously thought we'd have space colonies over a decade ago. It didn't happen.

The primary reason is that there was no mission specific to needs of our species. Unless we can alter time or go into deep hibernation, it cannot be seen how we as animals can ever leave earth, at least willingly. And, far more stultifying, is the realization that there isn't a lot of the visually attractive out there, and it's easy to believe people could go mad on space travel. That is, by the way, not much different from how European and American settlers described Colorado and the entire nation between the Rockies and the Mississippi: a desert, fit for bison, locust, and Indian, but with landscapes so barren to the eye people would go bonkers. Some did, and it does take time to appreciate and love the seasons of the high plains.

But the syllogism broke down at the beginning. As yet, there is no life - as we'd understand it - out there within reach. Yet, each week comes word of new planets around stars relatively near but not enough, at least not yet. It's dangerous now, because as a species we need an accessible frontier. The constriction is too much, otherwise.