Russell D. Hoffman Discusses JPL's deep space probes and the scheme of things...


Email correspondence with someone from JPL

Hopefully this is part of an ongoing conversation, but so far, this is what has gone down...

Subj: space debris not defined
Date: 96-07-16 05:02:26 EDT
To: Hi!

I realize you NASA/JPL people don't like to mention the pollution you've created in outer space, but I think you have a duty to at least define the phrase SPACE DEBRIS in your internet glossary. But I really think you should go quite a bit further than that and really explain it in all its horror.

And for a complete rundown on all the things you should be talking about on this important topic, please visit my web site article/transcription of a radio show on the subject of space debris.

I hope you will choose to add a discussion of this important problem, or at least add a link to our discussion of it so that people can become aware and concerned about the problem of SPACE DEBRIS.

Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.

Russell Hoffman
Host, High Tech Today

I received a challenging and well-crafted response to this email. (And much appreciated.)

Unfortunately it was from an individual at JPL and did not represent NASA/JPL, so I can't publish it or credit its author here. One point they made was that what JPL mostly does is deep space probes, not the near-earth stuff where the junk is such a problem. Point taken. I'm for deep space probes.

The person also said they "tend to disagree" about our "obligation" to colonize the moon and other planets. They didn't think we are that important in the "great scheme of things". They thought we should use technology to take care of and clean up earth.

A good point. What if we each thought about a child born 1000 generations from now and thought "that person is me, is my direct descendant, and I want to leave a nice place for that person" instead of the current common "this world ain't gonna survive that long anyway" attitude that so many people have? Even if it isn't going to survive that long, what gives us the right to treat that as a foregone conclusion when it's our own actions that would make it happen? And, don't create problems today that tomorrow's uninvented technology is expected to solve.

But to answer the writer's other point, I say we are that important--kind of, anyway.

We're important just to ourselves. It's just extending our fondness of our family and our friends, of our society and our country, of our neighbors and of our world, and of our pets and fellow creatures, into the future for hundreds of thousands of years and thousands and thousands of generations. Just as the ancient Egyptians built great pyramids for some unknown reason (maybe to store hazardous waste!?!) so should we build for the future, and that includes immediate exploration and colonization of other planets in the solar system.

Subj: Re: JPL's deep space probes and the scheme of things...
Date: 96-07-16 15:37:00 EDT


Thank you very much for the prompt and courteous email. I would like to post it as an adjunct to the space debris article, but obviously without your name to protect your privacy! I will bear in mind, in the future, JPL's deep-space outlook goals in my future criticisms.

I for another, would love to see more funding (if not all of it) going into deep space probes. If you also happened to have found my review of Independence Day at my web site you might think I don't think we should explore other worlds or do the deep space stuff. QUITE THE CONTRARY. In that review I'm merely speculating that if we ever have contact with aliens, it will probably be a bad thing. But by all means send out the probes! And actually, (this next sentence will probably only make sense if you read the review) go ahead and place the information I complain about on a plaque for whomever finds it.

But do it for some future humanity's sake, not for some unknown 'alien' who might decide that, on earth, mankind is the plague that needs to be eradicated. (In other words, I could see a 'benevolent' alien race descending upon earth, looking at what's happening to the planet, and deciding that if they are going to leave earth alone as a viable healthy thriving self-sustaining planet, or if they are going to use it up, they will first have to eradicate the one species that is self-destructing the planet and cannot--chooses not to--live within the capabilities of the planet's ecosystem (and that includes the needless creation of space debris which is a hazard to JPL launches, I might add.)

I would be happier with more deep-space probes and less near-earth-orbit circling junk. I'd really like to see rail launch capabilities, which would have the added advantage that launching your probes will be much cheaper once we've built it, whatever their final destination and purpose.

I think we should be sending up probes to other planets. These probes should be 1) Capable of sustaining themselves and gathering data for hundreds of years. 2) They should not even bother to send signals back to earth (so sure are we that we will pick them up eventually). and 3) They should have better probing qualities than a machine which has to involve itself with communications with earth.

Also, we should place one or more multi-functionality base stations on the most interesting planets (eventually on all of them.) The base stations would include communication with earth and with smaller units on the ground. And some units would be expected to be gathered or 'found' sometime in the next millenium and we don't know when, but one thing we do know is that accurate sismic, weather, and other phenomena will be vital to future architects of space colonies. For example, perhaps one type of robot probe would land somewhere, gather a soil sample, and then wait, and then gather another. It takes samples every year for the first ten years, every ten years for the next 100 years, every 100 years for the next 1000 years, and every 1000 years after that. Ask ourselves: If some intelligent race had left a marker of some sort for us to find now, what information would we hope for? The answer is, for course: everything. Soil samples, air samples, average temperature, extreme temperature, movement (if any) of the soil the probe rests on. And of course, if a living thing walks, runs, slithers, rolls, crawls, swims, flys, hops or bounces past us, we want our probe to go bananas and try to get noticed, and record the event as well.

And I know it's --whatever-the-word-is--humancentric or something, but while I agree wholeheartedly that we are all nothing more than a blip on the cosmic chaotic nothingness that pervades our universe at an ever increasing rate, nonetheless we're all we've got, and we matter to us. I don't have children myself, but I do so much want my species to survive and to thrive in a healthy environment, and to colonize.

It seems to me that that's really the only reason we exist, is to keep on existing. It's not much of a reason but it's all we've got. It seems perfectly natural that we should want this, so natural that we shouldn't even think of anything else as the 'ultimate goal' of science and of society. I mean, do any of us (professionals, upstanding members of society) want to leave the world --or the universe-- a worse place than it was when we arrived, seemingly out of nowhere?

And, from the individuals own self-preservation instincts (you look both ways when you cross the street) on up to the fact that all living things besides us humans also try to "take over the world" (insects would, lions would, fish would if they could breath air, bacteria would, fungus would--right?) I see nothing wrong with mankind wanting to colonize the world, or the universe. A duty? I guess I was going too far there. Nothing is making us do it. I guess a better word would have been our instinct. Let's just sort of admit that a modern manifestation of our natural ingrained survival instinct is simply to try to colonize other planets. Is that better than calling it a duty? Because you're right, it wouldn't amount to a hill of beans anyway, but let's try.

Let me ask this: Why do YOU want to work at JPL, what is the ultimate goal of the science the JPL does? Just to learn? Knowledge for the sake of knowledge? Okay, but let me say this: The most interesting knowledge you can scrounge up out there will be that which relates to the survival of mankind when eventually we do (and it is inevitable that we'll try) explore other worlds, and also, some of the information you gather would directly effect our survival on earth.

For example, perhaps (to return to my favorite topic) we should be exploring in great detail just what is happening in the rings of Saturn. Because that is space debris that has been created long ago and has appeared to have reached some sort of near-steady state existence. But I'll certainly bet, as would most people I assume, that what appears to be steady is actually just a snapshot on a grandly and gradually changing orbital behavior pattern. That is to say, will it eventually spread out into an evenly spaced cloud of pieces no bigger than a pinhead, or will it collide and descend to Saturn's surface but remain mainly in rings? Will this take 10 million or 100 million years, or a billion or 10 billion? What are the landing patterns of pieces of Saturn's rings on Saturn's surface? What is the average weight, speed, degree of tumbling, and composition of the particles? Are they in that peculiar pattern because they started in a collision that put them there that way (and they'll spread out), or did they float there from a more spread out position? (I'm betting heavily on them being the result of two very nearly equally massive moons colliding nearly exactly head-on at incredibly enormous speed, but I don't really follow up on this stuff.)

Anyway, all that is of interest, I think, to earthlings because of the space debris we've created, which is a problem to earthlings. And whichever planet is most likely to be inhabitable by mankind some day soon is the most interesting planet that JPL can explore, from a public-interest point of view.

Sorry this is so long, I got carried away (by aliens, I guess.)

Russell Hoffman

Related pages at this web site:
Space Debris Home Page
An exposé about this shameful pollution.
Stop Cassini Home Page
No Nukes In Space! Not now, not ever.
Other Environmental Issues
Selected statements on specific issues...

Related material outside this web site:
JPL's Basics of Space Flight Learners's Workbook
Developed by NASA/JPL for students

"Complaining is like a fine whine. It is never useful if it is left corked up."--Russell D. Hoffman
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Last modified March 27th, 1997.
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