Category Archives: Space-X

TEAOTK*: Visits To A Teensy Planet

* Things Every Adult Ought To Know, No. 1

Welcome to the first of — it is to be hoped — many. This one will provide few answers but many questions. And isn’t that what science is all about?

They’re Here! They’re Here!

Every ten or so years for the past three quarters of a century, Americans go UFO crazy.

Just after the end of World War II, and extending into the early 1950s, people in our Holy Land started seeing UFOs all over the place. Then, in the mid ’60s and on into the ’70s, after a lull in sightings, people became all agog over alien visitations again. UFO mania hit rock bottom in the ’80s and ’90s and then on into the 21st Century when people were too busy playing the stock market or worrying about when the Muslim War on the West * would explode. [ * Speaking of manias. ]

1st Question: Do You Believe In UFOs?

Well, do ya, punk? As for me, the answer is, Yes, of course I believe in UFOs! No one in good conscience and/or operating under the simple rules of grammar and logic can deny the existence of UFOs. They are things some people occasionally see in the sky that they cannot in any way, y’know, identify.

Now, if what you really mean is Do you believe this planet is being visited by intelligent beings from some other planet and they have been flying around for decades, watching us do whatever it is they think we’re doing?, my answer would be somewhat different. Is it possible alien spaceships are careening through our blue skies? Sure. It’s possible. Anything’s possible. But is it probable? Now things get a little sticky.

Perhaps one of the reasons many people are eager to believe UFOs are actually alien spaceships is their knowledge that even we, humans, the otherwise lunkheads who cannot save ourselves from climate change immolation or racial bigotry or jaw-dropping wealth inequalities, have already, in the last 64 years * sent rocket ships and odd-looking machines into orbit around the Earth; to the moon, Mars, and Venus; on a grand tour of the solar system, and even into the fiery Sun.

[ * The USSR launched Sputnik into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. It was the first human-made gadget ever to partially escape the bonds of this planet’s gravity. Sputnik, nearly two feet in diameter, was a shiny hollow metal ball with four radio antennae attached to it. Frankly, it looked cool as hell but, natch, it scared the bejesus out of America because many of us alive and aware at the time figured the godless commies were fixin’ to either drop hydrogen bombs on us from orbit or at least keep an eye on everything we do down here. Sputnik 1 stayed in orbit for precisely three months; it burned up in the atmosphere on January 4, 1958. The launch of that first Sputnik (Russian for satellite — clearly the Russkies’ guys in charge of naming the thing were not spiritual descendants of Tolstoy or Chekhov) signaled the beginning of the Space Race. ]

The idea being, hell, if we can do it, surely others in this big, wide universe can send contraptions our way, right?

The problem is, our space travels thus far have been embarrassingly modest in scope and distance. We’ve not yet come anywhere near traveling to inhabited cosmic locales. Some researchers suspect Mars or Saturn’s moon Enceladus may now or at some time in the past have harbored primitive, microscopic life, but it’s a good bet those little critters — if they exist — aren’t running around telling each other about visitors from another planet.

The farthest one of our spacecraft has flown is Voyager 1, launched in September, 1977,  to go poking around the outer reaches of the Solar System. As of May 31st this year, it is still flying outward from us and the Sun, still receiving and transmitting messages, and is a little bit more than 14 billion miles away from our star. Now 14 billion miles seems like a fairly ambitious trek but, in the scheme of things, it’s next to nothing.


It’s taken Voyager 1 some 47 years to get that far out. But, as I say, “that far out” ain’t squat. The space probe still is within the boundaries of the Solar System. Even at 14 B miles out, it’s not but a third of the way to the currently known edge of the Solar System, a boundary known as the Kuiper Cliff. The farthest extent of the Kuiper Belt, the eponymous Cliff is that the place beyond which no objects circling the Sun have yet been identified. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, only that we can’t see them. So the Solar System just might extend out much farther than the 47 billion-mile circumference of the Kuiper Cliff.

That means we haven’t even left home yet, really.

So, assuming no intelligent creatures live in our Solar System (and there’s debate over the question of whether we humans are intelligent creatures, to be honest) we’ll have to look to the stars for civilizations that might be advanced enough to take an extended weekend trip to this tiny rock.

The nearest star to our Solar System is called Proxima Centauri. It is four and a quarter light years away. That’s almost 25 trillion miles. Trillion, babies. Twenty five thousand billion. It’d take Voyager 1, were it so aimed, nearly 84,000 years to get to Proximi Centauri at its current rate of speed. To give you an idea of how long that is, consider that humanity, 84,000 years ago, had not yet achieved its Great Leap Forward, in which it learned to bury its dead, make clothing from animals skins, or even draw those animal figures in the Lascaux caves in southwest France. In other words, humans have evolved to a spectacularly dramatic extent in that time. How might our species evolve over the next 84,000 years. We’d certainly be unrecognizable to our contemporary selves, no?

Anyway, let’s assume that putative intelligent civilization on a planet circling Proxima Centauri has developed a propulsion system allowing its space probes to travel much faster than Voyager 1. There are a couple of problems with getting spaceships up to interstellar speeds. One is fuel. You can’t use coal or gasoline to achieve those speeds, of course, and even our most advanced liquid rocket fuels — subcooled liquid oxygen and kerosene in Space X’s Falcon Heavy — can only produce speeds of 25,000 miles per hour. And the Heavy must carry 430 tons of the stuff to get it into orbit around the Earth. Multiply that on the fingers of both hands plus those of several of your friends to get a rocket free of the Earth’s gravitational bonds. That’s heavy (you’ll pardon the pun) and a problem our Proxima Centauri folks’d have had to overcome so many, may, many, many, many years ago.


Let’s assume the Proxima Centauri-ites have developed the Mother of All Rockets, capable of propelling a probe at speeds far beyond what we, simple humans, have thus far conjured. How fast would it go?

Faster, Faster, Faster!

Well, you’d like it to travel at some significant fraction of the speed of light, right? Oops. There’s another problem. The speed of light is the universe’s…, well, speed limit. No complex piece of material can travel faster than that. In fact any material that even approaches that speed limit soon begins to transform itself into pure energy. Meaning some super-advanced Toyota Prius whose makers might hope for it to go, say, 90 percent the speed of light, would soon become just another part of the electromagnetic spectrum, rather than a readily identifiable coupé. That’d play havoc with the comfort of its occupants.

Not only that, the energy needed to accelerate a nice-sized piece of machinery to any significant fraction of the speed of light approaches infinity the nearer it gets to that speed. It takes scads and gobs of energy simply to get a subatomic particle within a fraction of the speed of light at places like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider or Fermilab’s Tevatron, so much so that when the operators of those devices turn them on, people in surrounding areas see their light dim. Imagine the power needs of our souped-up Prius.

You Need A Machine This Big To Accelerate A Proton.

So, we’ll have to say it’d take those Proxima Centauri explorers at the very least many thousands of years to get to us, during which time, they’ll not only have evolved through countless generations but they’ll have had to eat, defecate, bathe, read, have sex, clean out their rocket’s closets, and all the other things intelligent creatures must do. I’d guess after some tens of thousands of years, interstellar space travelers probably would have forgotten why in the hell they headed this way in the first place.

Then again, they might have sent un-crewed space probes to visit us. That’s a possibility. The problem there is powering the thing. The Proxima Centauri-ites’d have to have come up with a power source to keep the turn signals and navigation system on in the thing, no mean feat. Any civilization that comes up with a battery that lasts tens of thousands of years is advanced indeed.

Say they did send an un-crewed craft to fly around our skies. Fair enough; as I say it could be possible. The thing is, people these days are seeing not one, not a couple, not several, not even ten, but dozens and hundreds of UFOs that, they think, must most assuredly be alien spaceships. All those problems associated with getting one craft here from another star’s planet must be multiplied accordingly to get those hundreds here.


Guns are displayed at Dragonman’s, an arms seller east of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Come to think of it, why is the Earth so special that another civilization must labor so spectacularly to get here? And why must that civilization’s scientists keep its probes circling the Earth for years and years and years only to learn that we obsessively watch TV, hate each other over our external colors, spend our treasure on devices that kill each other, and amuse ourselves by listening to Kanye West and Harry Styles?

Were I a Proxima Centuari-ite, I’d say Earthlings are a dreadful bore when they’re not downright dangerously weird. Let’s go someplace else.


I’ll say it again, it’s entirely possible some wildly advanced alien civilization has visited the Earth or is in the process of gallivanting around in our atmosphere. I doubt, though, if it’s true, that we’d even be able to recognize their arrival. The difficulties in interstellar travel are so many that we can’t even comprehend what such successful travelers between the stars might look like. They wouldn’t be traveling in souped-up Priuses or even customized Falcon Heavy rockets.

I can’t see the dark blobs on photographs and videotape taken by Air Force pilots being the preferred method of interstellar space exploration for a group of beings that has somehow outpaced human intellectual development by a factor of thousands.

Again, there are UFOs, to be sure. And again, we have no idea what in the holy hell they are.


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Hot Air

The Next Appeal

Much of America jumped for joy upon hearing the Obergefell decision last week. Other Americans, though, groused, clenched their fists, and vowed to…, um…, to do something.

Those of us who think we’re familiar with this holy land’s system of writing, enacting, and interpreting laws might react with a derisive snort to the Religious Right’s pledge to act. As we understand it, once the US Supreme Court rules on a disagreement over a law, well, that’s that. There is no higher authority than the Supremes.

Ah, but that’s not so, say the Holy Rollers. There is god.

Anti-Same-Sex Marriage

The Big Daddy-o in the Sky is mightily pissed, they tell us. Almightily pissed. They know because they talk him him regularly. The fact that their conversations always are one-sided means little to the pious of our nation. Somehow they know what his immensity is thinking. He’s thinking about unleashing earthquakes, hurricanes, epidemics, and other annoyances upon our blighted land because we’re now allowing same-sex couples to get married.

Don’t mess with god, the Very Right sez. He’ll hit you so hard your mother’ll fall down.

Teehee, the rest of us say.

Put the brakes on your snorting, sez me. Don’t laugh at the Religious Right. They’ve got a power behind them greater even than god. They’ve got the Koch Boys.

Murrica’s second richest clan engineered the Citizens United decision — declared, natch — by that very same Supreme Court in 2010. CU gives the Kochs the mechanism by which they can control elections hereabouts. And do you know what remedy some Republicans are touting? The election of US Supreme Court justices.

As in, Hey, vote for me, I’ll set you free! Imagine Donald Trump on the Supreme Court. Or Glenn Beck. How about Sarah Palin? You know, of course, one doesn’t have to be a lawyer to be a US Supreme Court justice, don’t you? The Constitution says nothing mandating lawyers as bench warmers.


Habeas Who? Nolo What?

But if, say, Sen. Ted Cruz has his way, some specially anointed water-carrier for the Kochs just might make it into a black robe. Cruz is telling the world via his recently-released political memoir that we must start having general elections for Supreme Court justices.

Acc’d’g to him, the justices should reflect the will o’the people. Acc’d’g to reality, such elections would more likely reflect the will of the Koch Boys. And if the Kochs figure a candidate for the Supremes — who just happens to be a flamboyant god-ist — will serve their lofty interests, they’ll throw their dough behind him. Dough wins elections.

Let’s be frank: It’d be a sure bet a guy who’s philosophically simpatico to the Kochs would be a crucifix waver. Davey and Chuck know better than anyone the history and efficacy of the American plutocracy using Jesus to further its interests.

Those of us giddy that the US Supreme Court has ratified the freedom of any two adults who want to chain themselves together in wedlock had better watch out. The Religious Right has god behind them. And god has the Kochs behind him.

The Explosion Of Privatization

So, another Space-X rocket ship has exploded upon taking off. It’s a shame. Now the astronauts in the International Space Station will have to wait for their latest copy of Entertainment Weekly magazine.

Space-X is the rocket booster manufacturer and operator that scored a contract with NASA to resupply the ISS in the aftermath of the Space Shuttle era. The idea being private industry can do the job immeasurably better than a gov’t agency. That’s the philosophy behind privatization, right?

Right. Elon Musk put together the Space-X aerospace corp. with one of its stated goals being putting a crew of humans on Mars. Eventually. Till then, though, Space-X’d do the heavy lifting for the ISS.

In the last eight months, though, two Space-X vehicles have blown themselves to smithereens. That is, the last two Space-X ships are now nothing more than metal splinters. Make no mistake: space travel is a risky business. Hell, I can’t even lift myself off my recliner without help half the time. A rocket booster must lift tons and tons of stuff, pushing it up to 25,000 mph to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull. The Falcon 9 vehicle that blew up yesterday is designed to carry up to 27.5 tons of food, water, magazines, and toilet paper. That’s even more than I weigh.

Nobody can do it without taking the chance that the damned thing’d disappear in a burst of flaming fuel. Not a gov’t agency. Not a private corporation.

When NASA was first trying to launch rockets into space in the late 1950s, the ratio between successful liftoffs and blow-ups was a terrifying 1-1. In the ensuing six decades, though, the US gov’t agency in charge of space stuff learned how to send people and things off the Earth with a reasonable expectation of success. Oh sure, there’ve been disasters — Apollo 3, the Challenger, and the Columbia — but whenever NASA experienced such a spectacular failure, it had to shut down operations for long months and even years and explain to the American people why it screwed up. As for the non-governmental Space-X outfit, the American public will forget about Sunday’s explosion by the day after tomorrow. That is, those who even were aware of the explosion in the first place.

At least NASA had to put the lives of astronauts and the negative PR fallout from a mission failure on the front burner. The pols who authorized the billions of dollars for the agency’s operations insisted NASA launch a safe vehicle, and costs be damned.

That was then. Now, with privatization, cost is king. Private corps. put profit on the front burner. If one safety check or another cuts too deeply into the total expense of a mission, well then it just might have to be made more flexible, shall we say, or even nixed altogether. Shaving cost is the god of for-profit business. Maximizing revenue is its heaven.

I have no idea at this moment if Musk’s Space-X cut corners to put together its Falcon-9 vehicle. I assume NASA and the company itself will conduct a thorough investigation. But, guaranteed, that investigation will be done outside the public eye. And its findings will make about as much splash as the news that the City of Bloomington is using a new brand of paint for its parking meters.

Suffice it to say I’m no fan of privatization.

Magical Monocrat

Funnyman Aaron Freeman points out a prediction made by then-Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro in 1973:

The United States will talk to us when you have a black president and the world has a Latin American pope.

Some folks are saying this is evidence of the revolutionary boss’s psychic powers — or at least his ability to read the geopolitical tea leaves. I say, Bah. His “prediction” was really code for “When hell freezes over.” I doubt he would have ever guessed that Satan would be shivering while he — Castro — was still alive.

Castro & Doves

Fidel & His Famous Dove Trick

Now, if he would have said, “… when homosexuals can marry in the US and the Pope rails regularly against the evils of capitalism…,” then we could talk about his extra-sensory perceptions.

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