“Astronaut Politics” Meme

11 09 2013

One of the universally-championed benefits of human space exploration is not actually related to any physical activities performed while in space.  Instead, an important aspect of leaving our world is the change in perception that space exploration has upon astronauts themselves, and the societies that receive them, upon their return.

ASTRONAUTPOLITICSMEME_MITCHELLQUOTEIrrespective of country of origin, religion (or lack thereof), cultural background, or political ideology, and having seen firsthand the fragility of Earth in the context of the rest of the cosmos, a great majority of astronauts return as prophets of a unified Earth and humanity upon it.

Hearing what they have to say is powerful stuff, considering that they’ve lived through something still very, very unique to human experience.

Fighting Fire with Fire

So, as a bit of a social experiment, I took one of my favorite astronaut images and paired it with some of the more poignant, (if not also somewhat charmingly coarse), “overview effect”-inspired astronaut quotes as a meme (see image at right for an example) to inspire the question:

“How might the world be different if astronauts ran it?”

The six images I whipped up in series are included below – if so inclined, feel free to distribute at will.  (Attribution not necessary – I want to promote their opinions, not mine.)

They’re intended to trigger the consideration that the same training, rigors, education, problem-solving skills, decisiveness, and unique experiences required of and provided to those selected to venture off-world might also happen to make them ideal for leading us here at home.

I’d argue that we need more out there communicating the idea that supporting human space exploration has more behind it than the development of new technologies, probing the laws of our universe, figuring out if we’re alone in the cosmos, turning a profit, or even capitalizing on our species’ deep-seated impulse to explore.

By no means a new concept, many have instead suggested that with the apparently-universal nature of the Overview Effect and an increasing number of astronauts in our midst, conflicts may be given a broader or different context, and world contention might thereby diminish.  (It’s an admittedly lofty hope, but that’s no reason to avoid testing it; In my opinion, it provides all the more reason!)

About the Meme: Why That Picture?

The picture itself, that of future moonwalker Alan Shepard severely chomping on a cigar while leading ground control during the Gemini 6 mission to space, provides several subtly unsettling contrasts that I hope inspire thought or debate.  On its face, by depicting a very assertive, gruff 1960s American male stereotype, we’re shown a side of science and exploration that is not really depicted today.

Next, by just placing the picture of an astronaut (not in a spacesuit) in a vaguely political context, I feel that the concept of the explorer and the politician – two seemingly unrelated or even incompatible archtypes – are juxtaposed in such a way that the idea of an explorer-politician might be seen as something beneficial or even desirable.   (Many are unaware that several astronauts have, indeed, gone on to political careers after hanging up their flightsuits, John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt being two noteworthy examples.)

Further, however, is the fascinating contrast made by the impression of the picture and the content of the quotes superimposed over it.  Most today would consider the quotes to be promoting “liberal” leaning opinions, (i.e., ideas that those of a “hawk”-style international relations stance would consider to be fundamentally weak views,) – yet the majority of the quotes were made by military men epitomized by the stereotype the image suggests!

In addition to highlighting that no personality types, even those perceived to be warlike, are immune to the power of the spaceflight experience, this contrast visually assaults two modern myths currently operating in America’s evolving cultural narrative:

  1. That stereotypical, “20th Century male” (i.e., overt or hegemonic masculine) personalities or gender identities are synonymous with physicality and are incompatible with intellect.
  2. That the same personalities typified (or classified) at the time by masculine stereotypes are synonymous with aggression and conflict and are incompatible with humanist views.

Meshed with the deconstruction of a stereotype, (to the point, several of our “Right Stuff” astronauts, themselves amongst the most disciplined and committed military men of our country at the time, admitted to being moved to tears at the simple sight of the Earth from beyond,) it’s my hope that their message finds a memorable channel to the public, if not to a virgin audience.


For those inclined to do so, let me know what you think, and please copy and “fire at will,” as they say, on your social media outlet of choice.  Who knows?  These might not get a single view, or they just might plant a seed to someone whose eyes drift over it in the daily waterfall of social media that washes over us all.

Hopefully, discussions will result.

Having had their eyes opened, (perhaps metaphorically-dilated by the cosmic darkness to resolve a reality we’re evidently excellent at blinding ourselves to down here on Earth), I believe that there is a pressing social motivation for broadcasting the consistent messages carried back by humanity’s astronauts.

Especially given the increasingly-polarized political views on display these days, and considering the global, long-standing ideological conflicts that persist to this day, I think the message from our off-world explorers is becoming only more, not less, relevant with time.



Solar System’s “Planet X” lost in space?

21 10 2011

Some researchers have proposed a new planet beyond the Oort Cloud. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Well, the intriguing possibilities affecting the likelihood of a mysterious companion in our Solar System continue to blossom.

First, the actions of comets suggested that there may be a large “Planet X” named Tyche beyond the Oort Cloud.  Then, we discovered planets around distant stars with highly elliptical, highly inclined orbits, giving us more potential places (oblique orbits) to look for distant, cool companions in our own system.

Now, SwRI researcher David Nesvorny recently published research indicating that our Solar System likely did have another giant planet in its youth that was flung into space as the planets matured and settled into their current orbits.

Why?  Well, as it turns out, computer modeling of star systems with only four giant planets, (read: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune,) doesn’t tend to settle into a Solar System that looks anything like our own.  However, adding a fifth, giant icy world into the primordial mix appears to generate systems like ours, though this Planet X is ejected into interstellar space in the process.

So, according to this new research, there may indeed have been a Planet X in our planetary past, though not one that could ever return to fulfill doomsday prophesies.

Might the cold, shadowy deep beyond the prying eyes of our best infrared telescopes conceal large worlds awaiting the heady thrill of human exploration?  Research continues to tease us with the possibility.

I for one believe our star system has big surprises yet in store.  Time will tell.

“Planet X” lost in space?

29 09 2010

Where is Planet X? It may have escaped the solar system or may not exist at all, say fossil researchers. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Researchers at the University of Kansas and the Smithsonian Institute have performed one of the most extensive analyses of Earth’s past extinction patterns to date.  So, what did researchers Adrian Melott and Richard Bambach conclude?  Planet X cannot exist.

Planet X, also known as Nemesis, is a proposed “dark” (i.e. dim) companion star to the sun, such as a red dwarf or brown dwarf, that sits at an extreme distance and orbits once every 26-million years or so (see other related Planet X blogs here and here).  Conventional Nemesis theory holds that as Nemesis is knocked around by the gravity of nearby stars in the galactic plane, the dark star perturbs the Solar System’s Oort cloud, a shell of icy fragments surrounding the solar system, and sends a shower of comets into the solar system, causing impacts and ultimately – extinctions.

The problem that Melott and Bambach found is that:

  1. According to galactic gravity fields, Nemesis cannot have an exceedingly stable orbit,
  2. The extinction patterns in the fossil record are too regular to be caused by something orbiting the way Nemesis would.

The Solar System moves up and down through the galactic plane as it orbits the Milky Way, carrying the Earth and other planets, (and Nemesis if it is there) along with it.  Well, this up-and-down motion can be roughly measured and tells us that the Solar System passes through the galaxy’s plane less than twice every 54-million years.  If true, that means a perturbation of the Oort cloud because of Nemesis interacting with the galactic plane once every 27-million years doesn’t line up quite right.

This difference was brought into sharp relief by Melott and Bambach, who measured the regularity of fossil record extinctions with meticulous detail using multiple methods, and they found that the period of extinctions is too sharp.  They suggest looking for alternate mechanisms to explain these surprisingly regular apocalyptic events.

So, is Planet X gone?  Another possibility is that we lost it.

If Nemesis’s orbit were too unstable, being perturbed by nearby stars as the Solar System passes through the galactic plane, (think having someone push you regularly on a swingset,) eventually it achieves an escape trajectory and becomes “unbound” – a rogue star in the galaxy no longer gravitationally-linked to us.

In that case, we’d never know – a free dwarf star in the interstellar medium is extremely difficult for astronomers to find.  (i.e., currently impossible.)

So, in an ironic twist, has the Nemesis theory been destroyed by the extinction record that engendered it?

Only time will tell.

Two small asteroids bulls-eye between Earth and Moon tomorrow!

7 09 2010

Asteroids 2010 RF12 and 2010 RX30 to narrowly miss Earth. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Note: Two asteroids, roughly 30-feet-across and 60-feet-across, will zing between the Earth and the Moon sometime tomorrow, as reported by AstronomyNow.  Nothing to be alarmed about, as these guys are small enough that if they hit Earth, they’d burn up and become a “shooting star.”  However, it is noteworthy that the two ancient rocks, named “2010 RF12,” and, “2010 RX30,” both pass within the distance separating the Earth and Moon.

Fun to know what’s going on in our neighborhood.

Solar System has more than one “Planet X”?

12 06 2010

Recent observations of the nearby (44 light-years away) multi-planet star system Upsilon Andromedae have kindled in my mind an intriguing question:  Namely, can our own solar system have one or perhaps many “Planet Xs” hiding in oblique orbits?  Allow me to explain.

New findings show Upsilon Andromedae's planets have oblique orbits. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Field

It has been known for quite some time that the Upsilon Andromedae star system is composed of at least three Jupiter-sized planets (we can’t yet see Earth-sized planets or smaller, yet).  However, research recently presented at the American Astronomical Society suggests that unlike our solar system where the major planets orbit in the same plane, two of Upsilon Andromedae’s three known planets orbit askew with respect to each other to the tune of nearly 30 degrees tilt.  This defies what we have come to know as a “normal” star system configuration of planets.

While there have been many “Planet X” hypotheses in our own star system over the years, including recent research suggesting the possibility of a large, distant icy planet in our own solar system, (see Tyche post here,) astronomers have not yet been able to locate any of these proposed culprits of periodic extinctions or comet peculiarities.

However, planets are notoriously difficult to find, especially the farther away from the Sun they are.  Planets do not intrinsically emit their own light (except infrared), and their reflections get exponentially dimmer with distance.  So, with the recent Upsilon Andromedae findings in mind, perhaps the reason we’ve yet to find any Planet Xs isn’t because there’s no merit to the ideas, but rather that astronomers have been looking in the wrong orbital planes.

Let’s investigate a step further. With “ordinary” planet formation in a young star system, the conservation of angular momentum causes material around a new sun to flatten into a disk, (called a “proplyd” or protoplanetary disk,) and planets form from the material in this disk.  Hence, planets will be found in an orbital plane around a star, just like ours are.  However, when we look closely, we find that there are even notable oddities in our solar system.  Namely, Uranus is tilted almost completely 90-degrees onto its side, and Pluto is not only tilted sideways, but it also orbits obliquely, much like its Jupiter-sized kin in Upsilon Andromedae.  What does this mean?  At the very least, it means that the evolution of any star system is a dynamic process.  At most, this is an indicator that we’ve yet to fully describe our own system.

On this note, Upsilon Andromedae is actually a “quiet” binary star system.  The main star, Upsilon Andromedae A, is a yellow-white star not unfamiliar to human eyes.  However, it does have a dim, red dwarf brother (unsurprisingly called Upsilon Andromedae B) in a wide orbit, far enough away to leave the planets orbiting Upsilon Andromedae A alone, so far as we are able to tell.  However – it does beg the question: Might subtler interactions of Andromedae’s red dwarf or perhaps outer, dimmer planets we have yet to find be responsible for the oblique orbits we see?  And if so, have we found a distant mirror suggesting there might be more places to look for Planet X in the far reaches of our own system?

Food for thought.

CSI: Extinction Event…

1 03 2010

Gravity / electromagnetic profile of the buried Chicxulub impact crater. Yucatan, Mexico.

Penn State geoscientists have just made the first true bio-geospatial analysis of extinction patterns caused by the Yucatan impact 65 million years ago.  What does this mean, exactly?  -They managed to make the first determinations about where, how badly, and for how long specific places on Earth were devastated by the impact. 

Let me tell you, it ain’t pretty.

Sure, we’ve known for quite some time now that the ~5-mile wide rock responsible for the Chicxulub crater caused or contributed to a mass extinction (end of the dinosaurs, etc.,) from which it took life eons to recover, but now we have a real picture:

  • For instance, the asteroid was found to have entered the atmosphere from the southeast and traveled northwest to its point of impact in the Northern Hemisphere.
  • Researchers also found that in addition to the surface devastation from pervasive fires and high temperature debris, nanoplankton (a major ocean food source) disappeared for 40,000 years afterward.
  • Near darkness persisted in the region for nearly six months as a result of the impact, and toxic metals distributed by the meteor prevented ocean life from recovering  for a full 270,000 years.

Ouch.  The sooner we venture off-world and develop strategies for both manipulating near-Earth asteroids as well as for developing extraterrestrial human settlements, the better.

Jupiter has been hit twice in the last 20 years by comets large enough to destroy Earth’s biosphere entirely.  We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

1994 comet impact (fragment G), Jupiter.

2009 comet impact scar, Jupiter.

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