TCS Daily

Determined to Make a Deep Impact

By Charles Matthew Rousseaux - June 28, 2005 12:00 AM

"Life is so strange/ Destination unknown/ When you don't know/ Your destination"

-- Missing Persons

NASA spacecraft have seen a number of strange destinations over the years -- gas giants and small rocky worlds, the red seas of Mars and the brilliant blue clouds of Neptune.

This July 4th, another NASA craft will hit -- literally -- another new destination, the comet Tempel 1. Deep Impact is NASA's first comet impact probe. It is not likely to bomb like the movie it wasn't named after. But it is designed to do a bit of excavating (the faint glow of which might be visible from earth), and to study the results.

Scientists hope that by doing so, Deep Impact will give them insights into the structure and nature of comets. The innards of Tempel 1 might even offer a few more clues about the origins of mankind, since comets are thought to be composed of the original stuff of the solar system.

Deep Impact may also provide a bit more information of the opposite sort, about keeping mankind from going extinct. Comets are not always the most benign of objects -- particularly on the rare occasions that they crash into the planet that one is residing on. Some comets, like Tempi 1, have well characterized orbits. But others come screaming into the solar system from odd angles and unexpected times. Should one aim itself at Earth, there might be little time to try to divert it.

Deep Impact is not likely to answer all the important questions that might arise from such a scenario -- like whether a nuclear explosion would actually divert a comet, why people often confuse the movie Deep Impact with Armageddon, and what Liv Tyler saw in Ben Affleck in the first place -- but it will likely add a lot of data points.

Not that the Deep Impact mission has been free of flaws. A few months after launch, the craft's primary scientific eyeballs, the High Resolution Instrument, went on the blink. Yet scientists have since found a way to see the data straight.

That's not surprising. The mission is being managed through NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a center which has a habit of transforming near tragedies into extraordinary advances.

The JPL-managed Galileo mission to Jupiter is a case in point. The craft to the king of the planets seemed stricken by the lesser form of fate known as Murphy's Law. Galileo almost didn't get off the ground, and when it did after years of delays, almost everything else that could go wrong did go wrong. For instance, a data recorder jammed and the main antenna never opened.

Yet Galileo still made an amazing series of discoveries. Among other things, it was the first craft to send back detailed images of an asteroid and discovered a moon around another. Galileo saw strong evidence of oceans on Jupiter's moons Europa and Callisto and took amazing images of active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io.

The same fates and fantastic successes have befallen many other JPL-managed missions. When faced with almost impossible problems and bound by significant physical constraints -- balky equipment and being a billion or so miles away from it -- scientists still find ways to achieve amazing results. The ingenuity they demonstrate often seems as astonishing as the data they collect.

While NASA's unmanned programs have achieved decades of innovation and discovery, NASA's manned program has spent much of that time literally spinning in circles. Why?

It isn't a question of dedication or intellectual candlepower. Rather, it is probably a question of direction and purpose.

In an article in the Spring 2005 issue of the Ethics and Public Policy Center's journal The New Atlantis (written before Mike Griffin became head of NASA), Dr. Robert Zubrin, president of both Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society, pointed out "JPL is mission driven, and the missions it selects are science driven."

Later in the article, Dr. Zubrin elaborated on the destination-driven operation, "NASA is forced to develop the most practical plan to reach the objective, and on that basis, select for development those technologies required to implement the plan. Reason chooses the goal. The goal compels the plan. The plan selects the technologies."

The manned program largely lacked a purpose or destination until President Bush made his bold proposal to send humans to the moon, Mars and beyond. That unknown destination made for a strange manned space program -- one in which people were largely missing from space, in which much of the program's innovative energy and financial fuel was spent on simply getting and staying in low earth orbit.

That is unfortunate. Despite its name, "space" is filled with opportunities and potential. Mankind belongs there; both unmanned probes and manned missions.

The possibilities are there. They should be grasped.

This July 4th, Deep Impact will give an explosive demonstration of the power of innovation and planning coupled to direction and clear purpose. The fireworks will remind Americans of who we were and what we are. The faint glow of Deep Impact's impact will illuminate what we still can be.

Charles Rousseaux is a speechwriter for Interior Secretary Gale Norton. The shallow, spacey views expressed are his own.


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