Internet traffic on blogs, YouTube, and discussion boards
was nearly predicting the end of the world today.
It didn’t happen.
People warned that a missile launched by evil government
scientists was going to plow into the virgin Moon and explode. The effects on
Earth from disrupting the celestial harmony would be unpredictable but
devastating: tsunamis, meteorite showers, volcanoes – and even more global
What happened instead? Early morning news anchors were
speechless at the NASA live TV feed. That’s because absolutely nothing was seen
happening at the ground zero moment.
The LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) two-ton
Centaur rocket booster disappeared into the perpetual shadow of Cabeus crater
without even a thud. (Just imagine Slim Pickins from the 1964 film “Dr.
Strangelove” riding it down and shouting “Ya-hooooo!”) Its shepherding probe,
serving as cameraman, fell silently out of the black lunar sky a few minutes
later and was swallowed by 4 billion year old regolith.
This much anticipated space drama went off for the public like
a lead balloon as observatory after observatory failed to seen any evidence of skyrocketing plumes of dust and ice crystals, so dramatically previsualized in
NASA animation made for TV. Even Hubble Space Telescope seemed to come up empty
handed as scientists poured over the data looking for signs of water vapor on
the moon – the purpose of the experiment.
Just minutes before its ultimate death, the shepherding
probe did send back an infrared view of a hot spot where the Centaur impacted.
The greatly enlarged image showed the crash site as one pixel wide. Imagine,
one pixel, not a ballooning nuclear mushroom cloud.
It would be an understatement to say that this was anticlimactic
to the Internet bubbleheads who whined and bitched in the buildup to the LCROSS
impact. The much anticipate collision sure wasn’t the exploding moon so
dramatically illustrated in the “Time Machine” remake in 2002, or the late
1970s sci-fi soap opera “Space 1999.” Reality sucks.
I have lamented in previous blogs about how science
illiterate and frivolous our culture has become. This was dramatically
demonstrated in some of the public reactions to the LCROSS. It shocked and saddened me.
NASA, once the crowning jewel of American technological
prowess and scientific boldness, was lambasted in blog after blog as
extravagant, paramilitary, and arrogant. That’s because in our Bart Simpson
culture being stupid is cool and smart is, er, being “stupid.”
Pop culture portrays scientists as geeks to be distrusted. Some
people are so fearful of science they respond to it purely with doubt and
ridicule. That is, except when geeks can engineer IPods and IPhones — which
only work because some eggheads a century ago invented quantum physics.
Some of the most caustic comments I’ve seen:
What difference does the result make anyway? Does it have
the potential to stop global warming, or something?
NASA geeks think we should all pay for their cool
firecrackers in space.
It’s time to pull the plug on NASA; they can all go home and
play with their slide rules.
This is horrible and irresponsible and beyond dangerous. And
all for, what, WATER!
Add to this the ongoing ridicule from those journalism flunky bloggers who find NASA a high-visibility target to go after for relentless accusations of government secrecy, cover-up, and excesses. These pundits will now blame NASA for hyping public expectations prior to the lackluster moon smashup. And, if the collision had been a phenomenal fireworks show, these same people would have accused NASA of failing to get the public engaged.
Even worse is the mawkish environmentalism some chat board
discussions tried to graft onto space exploration. Many folks assumed NASA was
sending nukes to the moon in violation of the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty, not to mention
the “natural laws” of the universe. So they got all huffy-puffy about our
“right” to “despoil” other worlds.
Guess what folks? Our universe is a violent and deadly place
to be feared. Worlds are destroyed every second — literally — by supernova
blasts, gamma-ray bursts, black holes, and cosmic collisions. There is nothing
our puny technology can do to upset the moon or other planets. (But if you
place 7 billion people on a single planet, that’s a different story!)
Some LCROSS critics took a giant leap back to the Middle
Ages by expressing a pre-Copernican view of the moon as mystic and romantic. They
even ignored Newton’s Laws of Gravity that make it crystal clear the LCROSS impact energy was Lilliputian for slamming into something the mass of the moon.
Face it, the moon is
simply a ball of rock with a cold heart of solid iron. It has survived bombardment for
4.4 billion years, and will far outlast our brief tenancy on planet Earth.
Though all of us who viewed the impact were disappointed that there
were no “instant results,” the mission was a good cold splash of reality for
the science-phobics. This event came off for what it simply was, an innocuous
experiment done out of pure curiosity.
Regardless of the science outcome, LCROSS embodies the
spirit of exploration and inquisitiveness. It demonstrated that science is a
careful step-by-step process to be respected for it perseverance.
Those who belittle such expressions of human curiosity are belittling all of us as an intelligent species.