Readers dig in to debates about NASA's future, urban sprawl, and more.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Our Place in Space

NASA's intention to divert substantial funds from unmanned to manned scientific missions to the moon and Mars is bad policy for science and for the future of the space program ["The Future of NASA," September]. The unmanned vehicles working on Mars and elsewhere in the solar system have provided valuable scientific information, more than a manned mission could have in the same time period and for a small fraction of the cost. The space station has shown that about the only thing learned on large manned missions is how to maintain bare survival conditions for humans in space.

Richard Williams
Princeton, New Jersey

The Ares rocket and the rest of the new lunar program are just Apollo-era technology dusted off and biggie-sized. This is a make-work project for the propulsion-systems company Thiokol and the rest of Bush's friends in the military-industrial complex. If NASA wants to show real leadership, it should pressure Congress into giving it the resources to build a big, reusable launch vehicle that would bring the price of space exploration down through reusability and the economics of scale. The private sector would then have to build even more economical vehicles just to compete.

Rod Sprague
Moscow, Idaho

The future of NASA and space exploration doesn't lie with new rockets but with the construction of a space elevator out to the geosynchronous orbit. The elevator would permit access to space that is both safer and cheaper than with any conceivable rocket. Increased safety and reduced costs would make possible a more aggressive program of learning to live in space, including the construction of a moon base and the fleet necessary to make a voyage to Mars. Safety and reduced costs also make space tourism a more realistic notion, which should lead to private investment.

Yale Zussman
Weymouth, Massachusetts

"The Future of NASA" stated that the agency's budget for 2007—$16.8 billion—is six-tenths of 1 percent of the overall federal budget. NASA has been at a more or less 1 percent disbursement since 1970. These meager funds have been and are representative not only of Congress's commitment to NASA but also to the future. Many in Congress would be delighted, if only privately, if NASA just went away. Why not ignore the Luddites and give NASA enough to both mount science missions and pursue manned spaceflight in partnership with private industry? Pardon my audacity, but why not even double NASA's budget? A few months in Iraq would pay for it.

Fairleigh Brooks
Louisville, Kentucky

My reaction to David H. Freedman's excellent piece on NASA's identity crisis is a possible solution to one of the key problems he identifies: how to get the public on NASA's side for space exploration using robotic missions and at the same time prepare a way forward for those incredibly expensive manned missions. A pair of polar-orbiting satellites carrying advanced fine-resolution cameras could map the entire surface of Mars in exquisite detail. Using photogrammetry techniques and supercomputers to process the data here on Earth, a virtual simulacrum of the Mars surface could be created, true in every detail to the actual planet. Narrated "flights" over this surface constructed from the database could be marketed through IMAX theaters to the public, which would flock to the cinema for what would amount to a virtual tour of our neighboring planet. A useful side effect is that immense amounts of technical information about the Martian surface could be gleaned to assist later manned missions should a primed public become willing to support such a venture through taxes.

Byron Rogers
Ottawa, Ontario

Freedman cites global warming as one of the possible reasons for finding life on Mars appealing. Freedman also cites NASA estimates for the cost of the Mars mission as $500 billion to $2 trillion. I'm all for space exploration for the advancement of knowledge, but if the human species throws that much money at a Mars mission with the idea that it represents some kind of first step toward interplanetary colonization without first taking more than the current halfhearted measures toward addressing global warming, renewable energy, family planning, and other sustainability issues here on Earth, we deserve whatever nature decides to do to us.

Michael Aldridge
Cary, North Carolina

Developing Discontent

"Is Urban Sprawl an Urban Myth?" [Data, September] did a great disservice to this issue. Momentum to address sprawl has only recently reached critical mass in communities that have begun to understand the many dimensions of this problem (including the link between urban form and such critical environmental issues as climate change and pollution). Economist Matthew Turner too nonchalantly equates sprawl with one narrow definition of it: scattered development. On other measures, such as population density, it is inarguable that sprawl is real: Cities and metropolitan areas continue to grow in land area much more rapidly than in population.

Ari Schnitzer
Takoma Park, Maryland

Mystery's End?

In "The Murder of Mystery" [Jaron's World, September], Jaron says, "I don't believe that something natural is necessarily any more meaningful or true than something artificial." Although the general public and their dictionaries define artificial as "made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally," this is a false and mystical dichotomy. Humans and the things they make are just as natural and as much a part of nature as bowerbirds and the bowers they build, beavers and the dams they build, or chimpanzees and the tools they use and even create. A Beethoven symphony or a Rembrandt painting or a computer program that beats chess grand masters is just as much a consequence of our genes in interaction with our environment and experiences as is the song of a European starling. Nothing exists outside nature.

Jerre Levy
Professor Emerita
Department of Psychology
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

One Thing You Didn't Know
About Mummies

I enjoyed "20 Things You Didn't Know About Death" [September]. But number 13 is an urban myth. The notion that in the 19th century "construction companies unearthed so many mummies that they used them as fuel for locomotives" was suggested by none other than satirist Mark Twain at his most satirical.

Cory Dodt
Fresno, California

Editor's note: We acknowledge that this was probably a hoax perpetrated by Mark Twain in his 1869 book Innocents Abroad. No less an authority than the BBC repeats the claim, but as Heather Pringle points out in her book The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead (Hyperion, 2001), "No mummy expert has ever been able to authenticate the story, although several have tried and written about their frustration. Twain seems to be the only published source—and a rather suspect one at that, given his penchant for fiction and his own published disclaimer: 'Stated to me for a fact,' he observed of the train tale in a note to Innocents Abroad. 'I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe anything.'"

Our Bad

The probability of the coincidence in "Birthday Boggler," problem F [Mind Games, August], is 25 percent, not 31 percent.

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