Icy Mercury, hype on Mars and Armstrong vs. Dryden

Dec. 1, 2012

Scientists this past week announced that NASA’s Messenger probe, launched from Cape Canaveral and now in orbit around Mercury, has confirmed the presence of ice on a planet whose daytime highs can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The ice is located at Mercury’s north pole within deep craters that are forever in shadow, like we discovered on our own Moon.

Even more interesting, the instruments used to confirm the presence of ice on Mercury also appear to show that organic compounds are present. It’s likely that comets crashing into the planet are responsible for both the water ice and the organics.

If you don’t find that absolutely amazing, I don’t what will. It seems everywhere we look – on the Moon, on Mars, on other moons around other planets, and now on Mercury – we are finding evidence of water. And, as the saying goes, where there’s water, there could be life.

As we continue to consider the future steps we will be taking in space during the decades to come, we should also learn to take advantage of the fact that where there’s water there’s hydrogen and oxygen. That can give us air to breathe, electricity and rocket engine propellant.

You know, there’s a reason why we built so many towns near water as we settled this nation. It’s so much easier to use what we find on the frontier, rather than haul it from wherever we came from. We’ll need to continue that tradition as we open the space frontier.

Hype on Mars

Meanwhile, over at Mars, the Curiosity rover continues to look for evidence that life might have once existed on the Red Planet. But based on what happened this past week, I’m still searching for signs that intelligent life exists within certain members of the news media.

Eleven days ago Curiosity’s chief scientist was interviewed in his office by NPR. He had been looking at information beamed back from Mars involving the rover’s on board chemistry lab, which is capable of detecting and identifying organic compounds in the rusty soil.

Enthusiastic about the quality of the data the scientist was seeing, and generally animated about the whole mission so far, he attempted to convey that excitement to the journalist interviewing him, saying “this data is gonna be one for the history books.”

NPR broadcast the interview, suggesting NASA was on the verge of an historic, earthshaking revelation. The story went viral, with dozens of media outlets repeating the story, adding more hype and speculation to each iteration of the telling.

The story morphed from NASA has a big announcement to make soon, to NASA has proof there is life on Mars, to NASA is covering up a huge story, to it was all a misunderstanding so never mind.

Look, the space program needs all the public awareness and support it can get, especially at a time when so many people believe our space program is dead in the water following the Space Shuttle’s retirement. But I’d just as soon see those reminders take the form of real news of real earthshaking significance.

In this case we had a scientist who probably doesn’t think like a journalist, talking to a journalist who probably doesn’t think like a scientist. Both are supposed to be good at communicating, but neither was speaking each other’s language.

As a former journalist, I’ve seen this happen time and again. I’ve probably even been guilty of it. Of course, back then, before the immediate deadlines of instant news published online had really taken hold, we had more time to figure things out and get it right.

When I was a Florida Today reporter we might see something reported in the Orlando Sentinel that we had missed and then have a whole day to chase down the story. We had time, and really only one competitor to worry about.

Again, today’s news media have instant deadlines to contend with and little time to be absolutely sure they have the story correct. Complicating matters, many feel obligated to respond to every hack with a web site who thinks their opinion-filled, slanted and sensationalized dribble passes for real journalism.

And I say that as someone whom many at my own paper never considered a “real” journalist because I had an aviation business degree and never went to a journalism school. Many felt I was never “hard enough” on those “government dweebs at NASA who obviously don’t know what they are doing, are wasting the taxpayer’s money and can’t be trusted.”

Whatever secrets Mars has now or in the future, they won’t be revealed any sooner because the news media gets into a feeding frenzy and demands answers from NASA that just don’t exist yet.

Keep it Dryden

Finally, also this past week, some California congressmen have introduced legislation to rename NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base for the late Neil Armstrong.

Apparently this was attempted before in 2007 and failed, but with the passing this year of the first man to walk on the Moon, I’m willing to bet there’s going to be a lot of popular sentiment to approve the idea. I would be disappointed if the change was made.

Dryden is one of NASA’s four aeronautical research field centers and presently is named for Hugh L. Dryden, the director of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at the time NASA was formed in 1958. He became the space agency’s first deputy director and served in that capacity until his death in 1965.

Dryden is a legend among the aeronautical innovators in our nation’s history, and was a key player in the discussion that led to President Kennedy setting the goal of landing a man on the Moon. He managed the technical side of NASA, while Administrator James Webb saw to the politics and business side of the operation.

Both Dryden and Armstrong have their place in the history books, and both deserved to be honored and never forgotten. Yes, Neil flew the X-15 from Dryden, and worked on other aviation projects, but in my opinion this is isn’t the place to put Armstrong’s name on.

In fact, I’m willing to bet Neil would be upset at the suggestion that his name would replace Dryden’s, at this important aviation-oriented NASA facility.

I say let’s be patient and find another prominent, more space-related national treasure to name in honor of Neil Armstrong. Perhaps a future spaceship or lunar probe? Or even better yet, let’s dedicate ourselves and our resources to enabling a space program that puts a colony on the Moon that’s big enough to see from Earth by 2063.

We could rename the Sea of Tranquility to Lake Armstrong, a gesture that I’m sure a few Star Trek fans might appreciate.

In any case, NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center should retain its historic namesake, and public sentiment for honoring America’s beloved moonwalker should be directed toward some other worthwhile memorial.

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  • Jim Banke is owner of MILA Solutions, LLC, and has some 25 years of experience as an aerospace journalist, writer, producer, consultant, analyst and project manager based at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
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Published on: December 1, 2012

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