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2e9fba9c_242259The NBC news tonight reported that the population of giraffes has dropped by 40% in just 10 years, to about 80,000. When I took this photo of giraffes out on the great Masai Mara plain of Kenya about  10 years ago, and wrote about our safari it in an essay titled “The Masai Mara Hood Ornament,” I reported that wildlife in East Africa was then down about 60% since the 70s. Why? Climate change, human development, poaching, legal hunting. If the global human population had dropped as much over the past 10 years, we would have seen almost 3 billion people die. While the loss of so many of these magnificent animals is shocking in itself, perhaps their devastation makes them canaries in a coal mine:for mankind.

Everyone is taking about the new film, Intersteller, about a dying earth and the search for another planet for our species. A recent episode of The Newsroom dramatized the announcement, over a year ago, that carbon levels in the atmosphere and their consequences for mankind may be irreversible. And meanwhile we spend more and more on war and see renewal of primitive tribalism all around the globe, despite the internet and global communication.

I’d like to think there will still be giraffes, and people around to watch such wonderful animals, in the next century. What might we do to increase the probability of that?.  .

The 1979 James Bond film Moonraker, which I watched again tonight, reminds us of a space program that was then exciting and new, and which has now been left to wilt on the vine by a U.S. government that seems more bent on war than on exploration.

Moonraker, written by Ian Fleming in 1954, was due to be filmed in ’73, but was not shot and released until 1979. Its release preceded the Space Shuttle by 2 years, though the film featured not less than six of the shuttles, and the manned space station featured in the film was not actually started until the core section was assembled in space in 1998.

The film also featured the supersonic Concorde passenger plane, showing a BA plane landing in Rio. The Rio service, via Paris, began in 1976, and the Concorde, of which 25 were built, flew from 1969 to 2000. Thus, the Space Shuttle and the Concorde featured in this 32 year-old movie, are no more, and only the Space Station, which began 19 years after the film and is not due to be finished until next year, remains. It is expected to fly until 2020, and possibly 2028, and maybe there will be a U.S. spacecraft capable of shuttling to it again before then.

Just as the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, inspiration for Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” gets underway this week (, there is also a lot of “bull” coming out of NASA, as America’s last ever space Shuttle Mission is about to blast off.

The U.S. has no successor manned space program ready to go, or even in the works. What a bunch of bull that is! When the U.S. transitioned out of the Apollo space program in 1975, we were already working on the Shuttle program which launched in 1981. But this time, there is no plan to get back into space. If we want to sputter along in space, we buy a ticket on a Russian vehicle, as long as they choose to let us.

There is a lot of talk out of NASA about encouraging private enterprise to launch deep space initiatives, but guess what? Private enterprise has already been building most of the components of our previous space technology, so there’s nothing new there. What has now let us down is the U.S. government’s non-commitment to space, and all the innovation and discovery space exploration has to offer. Just as climate change is reminding us that our own home space platform, the Earth, has its limitations, we are closing the door on humankind’s options in space.

We can fight two pointless wars and launch billions of dollars worth of war drones (robot-controlled bombs), but we can’t seem to move forward on a peaceful program that can inspire and help insure America and the world’s future. How disgusted I am in everyone in government connected with non-funding of space exploration is something I can barely find the words to articulate. Just let it be known that any, and I mean any, of those involved who are up for re-election deserve to be scourged from what is left of our competent political leadership, along with those who fund our wars.

Yes, there is something as stupid as those who lunge ahead of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and that is the gaggle of political cretins who pull science out of space and send it out to kill people with drones. Guess that is our new “space” program. What bull!

Plodding the treadmill at the gym today, on the cusp of Congress voting the health insurance bill, I came into the middle of a History Channel feature on the history of volcanoes at Yellowstone National Park. I didn’t have earphones, but read the scrolling text over the beautiful photography and graphic seismic maps. Driving home, reflecting on what I saw and read, I came to what at first may seem an odd conclusion – space travel may become the next great health care challenge.
Not health care insurance, or even the provision of health care itself, but long-term health care for the human race, not to mention the rest of life as we know it. When Einstein said that the greatest challenge to humankind might be extending our compassion across time and space, I thought he was referring to the need for more selflessness. But after watching the history channel piece, I think he may have meant that man’s challenge is to extend our very being across the vastness of time and space, before our ancient earthbound homeland destroys itself, not in battle, but in turning itself inside out once again.
Let’s look at what we know, as reported in the Yellowstone TV special. Visitors are drawn to the park by the hot cauldrons of mineral water bubbling and steaming to the surface, and by the dramatic geysers. What are they? Obviously, they are made of water that is heated deep below and pushed to the surface under variable pressure. Why? Because 10 miles below lies a 25-mile wide pool of liquid rock, molten at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit – twice as hot as a pizza oven. This heats natural water coursing through the thick hard crust, and that’s what we see bubbling up.
Scientists have found evidence of ancient lava on the earth’s surface a hundred miles from the center of Yellowstone, yet where are the remnants of the ancient volcanic mountain from which it burst? Gone. Why is the mountain gone? Because the volcanic blast was so large, so devastating, some 640,000 years ago, that it totally destroyed the mountain, which rained down as lava and dust from a cloud that covered the entire west of the U.S. It was what scientists now call a super volcano. The ancient rim remnants are 45 miles wide. The fields of lava it left behind have evolved into the vast plains of trees and grass that cover the area now.
Also evident in the area are the parallel scratches on surface rock that indicates the previous movement of glacial ice, yet there is no current evidence of mountains high enough to support such glaciers. Why? Previous volcanic activity must have thrust up the land to heights high enough to support the freezing of snow into glaciers, and then those mountains disappeared into volcanic oblivion.
Yellowstone had been riddled by many, many earth tremors since such measurements began a hundred years ago. Why? That molten sea is still active though trapped below miles of hard rock. Scientists, using modern measuring equipment and space observation, have also detected evidence of a series of super volcanoes going back millions of years that have left traces of rims that have moved in a vast V-shape pattern through the area. They have also detected a deeper, active volcanic mass, stretching at least 400 hundred miles beneath the Yellowstone pool, in a rising chimney shape. What could that all mean? Plate tectonics at work. As the earth’s surface has moved above its core through the ages, the chimney has thrust up its magma in different places at the surface, tracing the giant V of super volcano rims.
So, what does the future hold? Obviously, the Yellowstone region, even without any current volcanic mountains, is seismically active. The many small earthquakes indicate that the molten pool and the magma chimney beneath it are restive, even through the thick surface rock. This suggests that pressure is continuing to build, and someday will again burst through the surface in another catastrophic super volcano, perhaps devastating much of America.
This planet Earth we love and which many of us work so hard to conserve, is probably not done with us. Like perhaps millions of species before us, not to mention the many we see in jeopardy to this day, we may face ultimate atomization. In fact, it is almost surely inevitable.
So why space travel? If man is to have any opportunity to extend that compassion Einstein, in his vanity, seemed to have thought we possess, colonizing other planets in this and perhaps other solar systems may be our only feasible destiny.
How much time do we have? Visit Yellowstone and check out Old Faithful. The long-term health of the human race may depend on our collective conclusions. Keep that in mind when legislation and incentives for space travel next come around.

Today is Albert Einstein’s birthday. He was born in Ulm, Germany (1879), and his pre-kindergarten fascination with a compass needle left an impression on him that lasted a lifetime. He liked math but hated school, dropped out, and taught himself calculus in the meantime. Einstein worked for the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, where his job was to evaluate patent applications for electromagnetic devices and determine whether the inventions described would actually work. The job wasn’t particularly demanding, and at night he would come home and pursue scientific investigations and theories.

In 1905, he wrote a paper on the Special Theory of Relativity, which is that if the speed of light is constant and if all natural laws are the same in every frame of reference, then both time and motion are relative to the observer. That same year, he published three more papers, each of which was just as revolutionary as the first, among them the paper that included his most famous equation: Emc2. E is energy, m is mass, and c stands for the velocity of light.

Einstein received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921. He said, “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.”

I thought I’d add the following perspective on why man might want to go into space, which was part of the closing of my 2005 essay, “French Fried — From Monticello to the Moon,” which you can find at  Albert Einstein thought that perhaps the greatest challenge facing mankind is to “widen our circle of compassion” across both time and space. Our ethnic and geopolitical squabbling might pale into insignificance if our compassionate circles were wide enough, he reasoned.

It was on this day in 1972 that astronauts on the Apollo 17 spacecraft took a famous photograph of the Earth, a photo that came to be known asThe Blue Marble.” Photographs of the Earth from space were relatively new at this time.

On Christmas Eve of 1968, the astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission, orbiting the moon, took a photo with the gray, craggy surface of the moon in the foreground and the bright blue Earth coming up behind, only half of it visible. That photo was called “Earthrise,” and it really shook people up because it made the Earth look so fragile, and because the photo was taken by actual people, not just a satellite.

And on this day in 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 took another photograph, not only one of the most famous images of the Earth but one of the most widely distributed photos ever taken. It’s known as “The Blue Marble” because that’s how the Earth looked to the astronauts. It was the first clear photo of the Earth, because the sun was at the astronauts’ back, and so the planet appears lit up and you can distinctly see blue, white, brown, even green. It became a symbol of the environmental movement of the 1970s, and it’s the image that gets put on flags, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters.

The crew of Apollo 17 was about 28,000 miles away from Earth when they took the Blue Marble photo. It was the last time that astronauts, not robots, were on a lunar mission — since then, no people have gotten far enough away from the Earth to take a photo like it.

January 2023

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