Friday, October 09, 2009


Just watched the coverage of the impact of the LCROSS spacecraft on the Moon, following the impact, a few minutes earlier, of the Centaur rocket stage it had been shepherding. The impacts, in a permanently shadowed part of a crater at the Moon's south pole, have thrown up plumes of material; measurements of the plumes are being analysed right now to see if they contain any water. If they do, it's good news for those who want to press ahead with a return of manned landings to the Moon; if they don't, it could mean that there aren't any ice deposits in those shadow regions after all, or that LCROSS and the rocket stage hit dry spots. In any case, it's a tremendous techical achievement.

What struck me was the enormous gap between the behaviour of the NASA scientists and their fictional counterparts in films and TV shows. No fevered arguments between brilliant mavericks and unimaginative bureaucrats about last-minute make-or-break adjustments to the spacecraft's trajectory; no nervous breakdowns based on flashbacks to childhood trauma; no instant and triumphant cry that millions of tons of water had been found. In short, no drama, just quiet and calm competence, a short round of applause when LCROSS hit its target, and a brief subdued talking heads panel.

Well, that's reality. But what's also real is a couple of spacecraft slamming into the Moon within a few minutes of each other with pinpoint precision and at twice the speed of a bullet, throwing plumes of debris ten kilometres above the surface. The future of manned missions to the Moon hangs into the balance. And the official TV presentation has all the excitement of the opening of a new telephone sales centre on the Watford Ring Road. I'm being a little unfair - there were plenty of press releases, and NASA Ames put on a show for impact night - but given the general public's indifference, and NASA's reliance on tax dollars, it's a shame that its own coverage was so low key. Surely there must be some way of sexing up the work of its scientists without distorting it?


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