Space Station Information

I watched the space station, the International Space Station, fly over last Friday night. It was visible for five minutes, passing almost directly overhead. The shuttle was still docked, and it was brilliant against the dark sky. The first satellite I ever tried to see was Echo, in the very early sixties, a mere speck in the sky as I held my dad's hand. Nearly 50 years later, at this instant, six humans are orbiting every 90 minutes or so, conducting research. Their mere presence in that environment is an inspiring study.

A recent documentary described the ongoing startup of the "super conducting super collider" in France. It's a project about 30 miles in circumference and 30 years in development. It has had cost growth, construction and technical problems. It's also unique, and on the verge of revolutionary research in sub-atomic particle physics. No one could truly postulate a benefit-cost ratio on the project at inception; it probably can't accurately be done now. The United States cancelled its plan for a larger, more capable collider in the mid 1980's, before even clearing the construction site. The payback couldn't be determined. We still won't know what we don't know.

Thirty years ago, in my card-punching Fortran class, it was believed that mid-sized engineering firms could one day afford room-sized computing systems. This blog is being thumbed on a "BlackBerry." In 1900, who envisioned an electronic chip-dependent world in a century, molecular biology, nano-technology, or footprints on the moon?

We are approaching an interesting hurdle in "the race for discovery." The Space Shuttle Program and ISS assembly are nearing completion. The station is fully tended, able to be devoted to science for its remaining life. How long, and how valuable will that life be? What's the next human step off the planet? What technology is required to get us there, and how will it enrich life here? Trite, but true, these are extremely tough choices among many national issues.

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