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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

If we destroy Earth, maybe we can move to Pluto

Hubby always has been a space cadet. From the time that he was a boy he was into planetary exploration, both fiction and non-fiction. This was in Arkansas, where we each knew folks who still argued against the notion that the world was round. Such flatlanders pretty much have given up saying that aloud in public, but they continue to believe that much of what they see through the magic of television is a hoax -- so in their hearts, why not? Denial is a fundamental principle of fundamentalists, and they not only are anti-science, they also see themselves as the victims of consistent liars and sophisticated schemers. They vote for candidates who endorse creationism and other unscientific ideas – and yet such politicians also often endorse STEM.

It’s probably simply that this neat acronym has to include “science” to be cool, but it’s really the less creative and more docile technology, engineering, and math that such politicians want to promote. And probably most appealing, STEM keeps students away from the truly idea-provoking fields of social science and humanities. Philosophy is the academic area that best combines today’s disparate fields; its ancient Greek name meant “love of wisdom” and covered everything. That is what Hubby taught at USF for thirty-five years, but he never has given up his interest in science. I’ve never shared his fondness for science fiction, and I walk through the family room while he is watching Discovery or TED talks and rarely stop to pay attention.

For last week’s Pluto, of course, I did. This was on a scale of the moon landing, for which we bought our first television. It was used and black-and-white, but unlike our Massachusetts neighbors and even our graduate friends at Harvard, we understood that we were witnessing important history. I must say that along with the successful science, I especially rejoiced that last week’s TV screen showed almost as many female scientists at NASA as male ones. And the women didn’t care about their hair or clothing style: they wore broad smiles and cheered loudly, happy about their work to reach the most distant planet in our solar system. Pluto is some three billion miles away from us and would going there have been beyond comprehension when I was young, when President John F. Kennedy issued his call for space exploration.

What I didn’t realize, until I read a lengthy online article in the Seattle Times (and isn’t it great that we have such news access now?) is how close this major achievement came to never happening. “When it was cancelled,” said one scientist, “the associate administrator said, ‘We’re out of the Pluto business. It’s over. It’s dead. It’s dead. It’s dead.’ He repeated himself three times.”

But “ordinary” rocket scientists bucked their administrative bosses. They pointed out (mostly to each other, as few of us were listening) that Pluto had reached its closest point to Earth in 1989 and was outward bound. Not for two hundred years would this opportunity repeat itself. They added: “The quickest way to Pluto is to take a left turn at Jupiter, using that giant planet’s gravity for acceleration, which cuts the travel time by four years. But a launch after January 2006 would mean Jupiter would be too far out of alignment.”

Over Thanksgiving weekend in 2000, a small group of scientists worked on their own time to come up with the lowest possible budget. NASA soon put out a request for proposals to build a rocket that would get to Pluto by 2015 and cost less than $500 million. Headed by scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the implementation would be done by an engineering firm called New Horizons, based in the university town of Boulder, Colorado. NASA contracted with them in November 2001 – and according to New Horizons’ spokesman, “two months later, the Bush administration cancelled it.”

* * *

Maryland’s U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski saved it. Unconcerned with right-wingers who preached against “earmarks,” she put enough money in the federal budget to keep the project on life support. By the way, how recently have you heard anyone rail against “earmarks?” That’s because Republicans are in control of Congress now, and earmarks are exactly what they – and all representatives -- do. That’s why we elect them: to make choices, especially budgetary choices. But a decade ago, “earmark” was the right’s trendy word to convince people that Democrats were doing something corrupt.

So scientists worked from year to year, hoping that the next budget ax would not fall. Another problem soon developed, when the Department of Energy informed New Horizons that it could not obtain enough of the necessary plutonium to power the spacecraft once it was beyond the reach of the Sun’s solar power. Budget cuts and other issues had shut down the production of plutonium pellets at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The rocket scientists needed 220 watts, and only 180 was in storage. Back to the drawing board they went, and working together, the two agencies came up with 200 workable watts.

On January 19, 2006, the spacecraft – about the size of a grand piano and containing just seven simple instruments – made the fastest trip ever out of Earth’s orbit. Only thirteen months later, it was within Jupiter’s gravitational pull. While there, it captured a photo of an erupting volcano on one of Jupiter’s four big moons – another first in our knowledge. The craft continued on its nine-year flight without major problems, traveling at more than 36,000 mph, which is about a hundred times the speed of the fastest jets. Scientists monitored it constantly because the tiniest error could be calamitous. Even space debris the size of a grain of rice could destroy a mechanism moving so fast.

The big flyby past Pluto was scheduled for July 7, 2015, and while the rest of us were parading and eating on July 4, mission operator manager Alice Bowman had the horrifying experience of hearing the spacecraft go dead. She called her colleagues, and together they figured out that the problem was just like what most of us computer users encounter every day: its memory had overloaded trying to do two things at once. But its creators had been forethoughtful enough to install a backup computer, and ninety stressful minutes later, it kicked in. Wonders! New Horizons did everything it was programmed to do.

I have nothing but praise for these dedicated, thoughtful professionals who go up against the ignorant and the selfish. They continue the tradition of creative and largely anonymous people that began when someone first wrote words on papyrus. I’m sure there were folks who ridiculed that, asking what the point was and why time should be wasted on it. And money: I’ll conclude by pointing out that this amazing human achievement cost appreciably less than a billion dollars.

In comparison, the Air Force spends over a billion on each stealth bomber. The Navy recently spent $2.3 billion on a new submarine and $13.5 billion on an aircraft carrier. In total, we spend about $52 billion annually on nuclear weapons programs – programs that arguably we don’t need and can’t use in an era when our threats come from individuals, not other nations. NASA, which promotes peaceful scientific progress, is indeed a bargain. We already have discovered that Pluto has water. If we destroy planet Earth, maybe our descendants can live there.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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