Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cassini gets another tour of duty

The Cassini-Huygens probe orbiting Saturn is functioning so well that NASA has extended its mission for two more years. The extended mission will make flybys of three more moons and continue to study the rings and magnetosphere of the giant planet. We get to look forward to two more years of heartbreakingly wonderful pictures of strange other worlds.

When a satellite like Cassini continues to function long beyond its expected lifespan, the main limits on continuing to use it are fuel for maneuvering (there is no way to refuel it) and, most importantly a budget, for people here on Earth.

It's frustrating to know that a satellite like this might continue to send data and answer questions for years, but we might have to shut it down because NASA can't afford to pay a ground crew to ask the questions or listen to the answers. The entire cost of the Cassini-Huygens mission so far, has been 3.26 billion over twenty-five years. That includes planning, development, construction, launch, ground control, and administration. We even got the Europeans to pay twenty percent of the cost. That is less than we spend in Iraq in one week.

One of the most common John McCain ads on line is his grizzly bear ad. He shows a picture of a bear and the text tells us that the government wants to spend three million dollars to study grizzly bear DNA in Glacier National Park. Even with no sound, the sneer is clear. When he appears in person, the bear anecdote is a major laugh line. He asks whether we are checking their DNA as part of a paternity suit, then he lets the audience know that a McCain administration won't be wasting our hard-earned tax money on bear DNA. That three million dollars he's so concerned about would pay for about twelve minutes of the Iraq War. He's completely unconcerned over how much longer we continue that adventure. The rest of his life, decades beyond that, even a million years, he doesn't care. He claims to hate war more than any man alive, but he'll keep wasting national treasure, prestige, and lives indefinitely rather than have his masculinity questioned.

I have an idea; let's get McCain and all the other insecure or scared Americans a lifetime supply of Viagra or Valium, end the war, and put a fraction of the money saved into doing some useful science. Productive satellites should get additional tours of duty; twenty five year old National Guard members should come home to their families and communities.

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