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Wednesday Roundup: Outer limits

With Venus shining bright in the predawn sky for the rest of November (due to a morning transition), let’s see what the stars say about some other would-be celestial events.

NASA’s Discover launch has been delayed because of a glitch, making this Thursday its last chance for a launch before the entire endeavor gets pushed to December for the best launch window. The ship has been plagued with voltage irregularities, and a backup generator for its triple engine heart has been “sluggish” in turning on.

For space enthusiasts, the 2010 envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke falls far short of expectations. We aren’t living in a real space age, any more than the early kayaks built by Neolithic adventurers qualify for an age of navigation. Our thinking has turned inward, for better or for worse. While we do have a space station, it isn’t a hub of tourism. Our rocket science hasn’t made significant strides in decades, and instead of returning to the moon we’re content to smash rockets into it. And it is significant that the real 2010 isn’t just devoid of lunar bases; approximately 20 percent of my fellow Americans believe that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax altogether.

On the other hand, we don't have this to contend with.

The International Space Station celebrated its 10-year anniversary yesterday, and saw astronauts casting ballots for the divided states of America’s latest election. NASA’s new space plan has given the station a lease on life to the year 2020. Beyond that, we don’t know.

We are discovering alien worlds at an increasing rate, including planets in the prized “Goldlilocks zones” of their stars: an area believed to be most hospitable to the development of life, being neither too close nor to far from its star.

And to top it off, earlier this year famed physicist Stephen Hawking voiced his opinion that contact with aliens — assuming they exist — might be disastrous (an opinion that I happen to agree with wholeheartedly.)

It isn’t news that the space race is dead.  As much as we’d like to retcon history, it wasn’t humanistic adventure which got us to the moon, but rather Lyndon B. Johnson’s fear that Americans would “sleep by the light of a communist moon.” Once we plopped down in the lunar dust and planted a flag, the race was over. And since the Russians didn’t seem especially interested in claiming the Red Planet to make it, er, red, the driving force behind space colonization vanished in a puff of apathy.

I have heard arguments that perhaps space must wait. Firstly, space exploration won’t be like Star Trek. Technologies like anti-gravity and warp drive are wholly outside the realm of physics. The reality would be slower and more radiation baked.

Secondly, the skeptical community faces an incredible challenge in a world where current science is constantly under attack, whether its Evolution and Creationism butting heads 150 years after Darwin (on one end of the spectrum) or the popularity of astrology on the other. Science has always faced an uphill battle, especially in a culture which prizes blind belief over rational inquiry.

Or do we encourage science and scientific thinking by looking outward and supporting space programs to wherever they may lead?

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