Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part I: Space

12 Sep

Sometime last week, I came across this call to action against negative nerd stereotypes. My first thought was, “Oh, I’m going to have to do this.”  My second thought was “Oh, I’m going to have to do this for a lot of things.”

So this is the first part of (tentatively) a five-part trilogy. Today: NASA. I know you’ve heard it all, here and elsewhere. I know it’s easy to be positive about space exploration, although a lot of people can get pretty tetchy over manned vs. unmanned spaceflight, and the necessity of one or the other.

I’ve already written (once or twice) about the ideological aspects of space travel that made me fall in love in the first place, so today I’m going to try to do something different. On top of seeing the shuttle launch this summer, I just watched Apollo 13 and viewed last Saturday’s GRAIL launch, both of which got me thinking about the different propulsion systems NASA has used over the years. Limiting myself to just the shuttle program, Apollo, and GRAIL, we have:

The Saturn V

Might well be my favorite to see launch — it’s so slow, Atlas-like, as if it’s somehow aware of the weight on its shoulders. The Wikipedia article confirms that it’s still “the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status,” and that it “holds the record for the heaviest launch vehicle payload,” with over 7.5 million pounds of thrust. All together, there were 13 Saturn V launches, with zero loss of crew or payload.

That is one snazzy machine, and the one I’ve been physically closest to.

Like apes to an obelisk. Astounding.

Of course, reading the Wikipedia entry gives a pretty interesting picture of the history of the program. (I know that some things are just plain complicated, and this may be one of them — nonetheless, I cannot read the name of Wernher von Braun without hearing this Tom Lehrer song.)

Here is the obvious Saturn V launch to post: Apollo 11.

See the slow rise I mentioned above? If you don’t notice it now, you definitely will after watching the Delta 2 launch below.

The Delta II

It’s sort of…  I want to say elegant, in that it launches so quickly, I mean, when compared to both the shuttle and the Saturn V. It’s also the one that I’m least familiar with, but I do know one thing about it: I watched it launch two lunar probes on a journey to the Moon while I was in bed half-asleep at 6:00 on a Saturday morning, 2,500 miles away, and that’s something.

The External Fuel Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters on the Shuttle

It’s interesting that it has such a different set-up than the other two, presumably necessitated by the orbiters (I am so very not an expert in the subject). Here is a wonderful view of the final shuttle launch this summer:

Gorgeous, right? And so bright. I love poetry, and art and music and television and social advances, and whatnot, but it’s hard not to say that mankind’s greatest advancements have been purely technical. Obviously, there are problems with that — all for another time and place.

The point I’m trying to make with this comparison is the sheer amount of knowledge and skill needed to design and build these gorgeous machines — that’s impressive, and I think it’s at the heart of nerdiness or geekery or whatever you want to call it. An appreciation of knowledge for its own sake, no matter what field it happens to be in, is, for me, the essence of being both a nerd and a decent human being.

I’m a neuroscientist, a biologist, and I think at times that can be pretty impressive, too — but there’s no way you can compare anything I’m likely to do with launching people into space. They’re two totally separate realms, both equally amazing and incomprehensible to outsiders, and that is why I try my best to learn all I can about space exploration — because I appreciate the knowledge and skill involved for its own sake, as a thing of beauty separate from the inevitably beautiful results it brings.


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