Democratic Underground

2001: Not Quite an Odyssey
January 12, 2002
by Jeffery Commaroto

So I am sitting here, typing away on my shiny new baize keyboard as a tiny red glow peaks out from the deep black ball of my HAL computer. I can feel the gentle glide of the spinning ring that provides my crew and I with much needed artificial gravity. I often wonder if I would be insane at whatever moment I wonder about it, if it wasn't for that precious artificial gravity. I at least know this much to be true. If it were not for that wonderful innovation, my ultra secret affair with Ensign Burke would surely suffer in the bedroom. I cannot even fathom how difficult it was for the early deep space voyagers of the 1980's who had to suffer with zero gravity intercourse and all the difficulties it entailed.

"HAL" I call out for a moment, "how long till we reach Jupiter orbit?" I can hear the computer buzzing in the background attempting to crunch the endless supply of numbers that make up our estimated trajectory. "We are about five minutes closer then the last time you asked me Jeffery. If you must know, five minutes from now we will be exactly five more minutes closer. The pattern will continue onward ad infinitum until we reach there. Now will there be anything else?"

Goddamn Microsoft and their pretentious and ornery computers!

"I read that Jeffery," HAL responds, "Microsoft will be deducting $500 dollars out of your account for that blasphemy. If there are any further, then I will be forced to tell them about your little secret." I jump up and begin hurling wild profanities at the annoying little device. "How dare you spy on Ensign Burke and I, what we do in private is our own business." "I was referring to the old laptop you have running a rogue copy of Linux, everyone at Star Command and Microsoft has been well aware of your affair with the Ensign, as is everyone on the ship."

Damn computer!

Actually, 2001 just ended, but instead of sitting in my quarters on a spaceship fighting with my ultra intelligent and vile minded computer, I am sitting in my office in the suburbs of Rochester New York, hurling profanities at my ultra dumb and slow, non talking computer. I think I have the better end of that deal, don't you?

I could start this chapter off with a little pronouncement that you tend to see around New Years time in a cheesy Infotainment magazine article. Something like the following.

"We all grew up on the notion that in 2001 we would be flying in spaceships, speaking to artificial forms of intelligence, zipping to the market in our flying cars, and taking trips to the bottom depths of the ocean where we would solve all of our energy and natural resource problems through innovative and highly skilled means. But the world of 2001 that we actually live in looks much different then the fantasy world created in our science fiction."

Then the article would go on about what we do have.

"We have cell phones, the Internet, computers more powerful than the ones that got us to the moon sitting on our desks and a seemingly endless stream of engaging entertainment that will soon reach our high definition television sets, digital movie projectors, handheld devices and other devices we have yet to imagine. We have revolutionized our understanding of ourselves through mapping out the entire human genome and the genomes of other species. In space we have satellites orbiting the distant planets, a telescope that is finding new distant worlds and even the first space tourist reached the International Space Station (ISS) built and funded primarily by the worlds two superpowers that only a few decades ago ignited a space race through their mutual hatred."

So we haven't achieved the glamour of space travel and technology to make our lives near perfect as science fiction presented. But we did have the first space tourist Dennis Tito head up to the ISS in April and the second one looks like he could be going up early this year. The entire trip only cost Tito $20 million paid to the Russians. I am sure there are millions of people around the world with an extra $20 million dollars lying around that would love to go. A lot of people have even said that director James Cameron is interested. I for one love the idea of him going.

Because maybe something epic will occur and he can make another movie like Titanic that will waste three more hours of men's lives with a silly fabricated love story surrounding a real life tragedy that I personally was forced to watch twice in a theater full of teary eyed teenage girls and gay men. But maybe I am being harsh; I did see it each time with a different girl and I got laid afterwards! Both times! So maybe we should send him up. So with all this tourism that means it could just be another fifty or hundred years before you and I and other non-multi millionaires can go! Well, maybe not some of you considering that you could be old and close to death. But hey, at least I could have a shot.

Actually space tourism and the industrialization of space could be a major boom to our economy and really revolutionize how humans live. Not to mention cause a renewed interest in space travel by the average citizen. Of coarse NASA has been adamantly opposed to citizen space travel and did everything they could, which was very little, to stop Tito from going. Their main concern was the safety of the other astronauts and Tito himself. Many people, myself included, criticized NASA for its criticism. Of coarse if the United States Navy had used the same discretion with their nuclear submarines then perhaps a wealthy tourist wouldn't have been at the helm of the USS Greenville when it hit a Japanese fishing boat killing nine people last year. So maybe NASA does have a point.

Of coarse the future of NASA and the space station doesn't look good. The ISS is currently at a cost overrun of $4.8 billion. (Just for comparison the federal government recently started the 2002 budget year off at a $9.4 billion deficit. So the way I see it, NASA is budgeting better than the entire federal government. Good job!) So the Bush administration has called for a reevaluation of the station and a series of initiatives to cut costs. (Meanwhile he is advocating that the federal government fund a war, airport security, a missile defense shield, a faith based charity program, tax cuts for the wealthy and millions upon millions in corporate welfare to get it out of debt.)

So what have they been cutting? Well science of coarse, what else would you cut on a multi billion dollar space station whose main objective is to, you guessed it, do science research? Basically the plan is to not install an expensive module that will house more crew members limiting the station to only three at any one time instead of seven.

Those three people will have the daily task of maintaining the station, which alone will take up a substantial amount of their time. So we have a twenty-year multi-billion dollar investment into a structure that was built for scientific research but won't be used for scientific research and can only house enough people to maintain it's relatively worthless structure. Sounds like a healthy road to fiscal conservancy to me!

Actually according to Ed Hudgins there might not even be a need for NASA in the coming years, or at least when it comes to the area of space from the Earth to the moon. Hudgins is a director at the CATO institute an organization that adamantly fights big government. He has been a leading advocate of such spending limitation ideas as selling off the space shuttle fleet and the space station to private industry and having NASA exist only as a developer of deep space and interplanetary missions, if he would have it exist at all.

Up until recently most people laughed at all of these ideas. Basically because having an organization like NASA around allows billions of dollars to be spent on scientific research and development that would never be funded by private industry. Mainly because most of that research has no immediate profit producing applications, which is the main goal of all private research and development, to make money.

I don't know about you, but if I ran a multi national corporation and I could either pump a billion dollars into a project that could possibly return back fifty times my investment in the next ten years, or a project that would let me know the average temperature on Mars, which do you think I would fund? Knowing the average temperature on Mars is important to our understanding of the solar system, our own planet and to science in general. But it won't help General Electric make a buck with an advanced Mars faring toaster oven in the short term.

But the Bush administration has shown great support of these ideas, remember I said most people laughed at them up until recently, and it looks like we could be pursuing such a plan soon. In a recent interview for Wired magazine online Mr. Hudgins also suggested that private industry could take over NASA's entire Earth Sciences program. One of the main goals of this mission is to chart out climate change, ozone depletion and changes in Earth's oceanography. I don't know about you, but I think I would feel a little uncomfortable with allowing Exxon to be the final analyzer of data pertaining to pollution and ozone depletion. What's that old saying about a fox in the hen house?

I am not completely opposed to farming out a lot of the costs and responsibility of maintaining our space program to private industry. But lets not go crazy and start dismantling NASA. Besides, what happens if we give away the space shuttle fleet to a corporation and it goes bankrupt? Would the shuttle fleet go up on the auction block? I bet China would love that, or maybe Iraq could get her hands on it. Would we have to try and outbid them? What if they joined together with some other nations and combined their money and shared? Sure it would create a very comedic sitcom esq. situation where they would all fight over who gets to use the shuttle when. But we could really lose out on something like that.

Talk about a national security crisis waiting to happen! Plus, if we did win the bidding, wouldn't we just be spending all the billions of dollars we saved over the years? So now we just paid a shitload of money on something that we already spent a shitload of money building and maintaining just a few decades before. That doesn't sound very financially sound to me. Actually it sounds really stupid!

To tell you the truth as I am writing this, I really hate this idea. It made sense for a while but now that I am reading over the data, man what a shitty ass plan. In fact most of this privatization stuff seems suspect. The worst part is there is a plan to privatize just about everything. From schools to health care the prevailing wisdom is "Let corporations do it." Hey I will even throw in a new one. Why not let corporations fund libraries? I don't know about you but letting children read for free doesn't sound very capitalist. Actually it sounds downright communist to me. Sounds like a job for Barnes & Noble to me!

For now I would like to close up with one last quick observation. There are probably a million reasons why 2001 the reality wasn't the amazing wonder filled world of space exploration that Arthur C. Clark's classic novel described it might be. But I know of one giant reason that I will use in any future discussions of science/technology. Mainly the fact that the United States congress is mostly made up of really old people!

Now I am twenty-two years old, so that statement encapsulates a lot of people for me. But when you get down to it, when you still have Senators and Congressmen who consider a color television set a magical device making decisions about aerospace and the Internet, your in fucking trouble. Anyone remember watching the ultra rich ex-president George Bush Sr. stand in amazement over a bar code scanner at a supermarket? That sums it all up right there.

So my philosophy is "get the old people out and put hip young people who actually know a thing or two about technology in." If we follow that plan I am sure we will be on our way to floating space cities, quantum computers and mountains of high quality fast downloading porno.

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