Tag Archives: Mars

Ah, 2020…What Could Have Been

“The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

Malcolm X

As we continue moving forward into this third decade of the 21st century, I can’t help but ponder the many things both we and our forebears thought society would have realized by now.  I’m considering all of this in the midst of the growing COVID-19 scourge; which now has been officially declared a pandemic.  Just imagine…by the year 2020, we thought we’d have:

Flying cars

A cure for cancer

A colony on Mars

Contact with extraterrestrials

Found Bigfoot

Achieved teleportation

Bullet trains in every major city

Life expectancy exceeding 90

Instead, what are we doing? Teaching people how to sneeze into their sleeves and wash their hands.  What the fuck happened?!

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10 After 20

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie

Here we are!  It’s 2020 – the start of a new year and a new decade.  Forty years ago I was excited about the prospect of witnessing and understanding the birth of a new decade.  I had just turned 16 and couldn’t remember 1970.  But this was different.  A whole new decade!  As my parents and I often did, we staged a New Year’s party in 1979; inviting family, friends and neighbors.  I had taken the time to cut up strips of multi-colored paper into literally thousands of squares, which I then tossed into the air from a large brown paper bag at the stroke of midnight.

I was considerably more excited ten years later, as we welcomed the 1990s, which – even now – remains the best decade of my life.  I was a young adult by then, working for a major bank in Dallas; a small personal accomplishment that made me feel I was finally a part of society and not some frustrated observer on the outside looking into a seemingly untouchable world.  During that time I began making concerted attempts to become a published writer and even contemplated returning to college.  These latter two dreams each wouldn’t materialize for more than another decade later.

The turn of the century – and the millennium – was one of the most exciting moments I’ve ever experienced.  Like the dawn of the 1990s, it remains a high point of my life.  Twenty years ago the world looked more hopeful and inviting.  I wasn’t nearly as excited about the 2010s.  Things had grown kind of awkward for me by then.  But it’s come and gone.

So alas, we are at the threshold of the third decade of the 21st century.  Every New Year’s bears the excitement of a renewal; a chance to alter our priorities and improve our stations in life.  Yet, it’s different with the start of a new decade.  Since the early 1900s, societal changes have occurred rapidly.  For millennia, time periods were designated by century; now they’re often designated by decade.  Each ten-year interval boasts its own cultural shifts; fashion and music trends; and political dynamics.  As our life expectancy increases, so does our concept of time.

I’m approaching this decade with more caution, however.  As I tend to do, I maintain a safe distance and analyze the universe around me and wonder what more can be done to improve not just my life, but everyone’s lives.

These last two decades have seen an explosion of technological and cultural advances, both here in the United States and across the globe.  But, in many ways, things haven’t changed much.  I’ve focused my concern on how dismal our political and economic well-being have become.  The pathetic presidency of George W. Bush and the ever-increasing disorientation of the Donald Trump administration have set us back on many levels.  Unlike 20 years ago we now have the greatest wealth gap in over a century.  The first decade of the present century should have been an extraordinary time of progressive social and technological advancement.  Yes, everyone seemingly has a cell phone and a personal computer.  But so many promising visions of the future were lost to Middle East conflicts and an extreme level of corporate deregulation.  The “Great Recession” squashed hope for many people across the nation.  While many of my fellow Americans wonder if Bitcoin will make a resounding return to the financial sphere or what latest cell phone apps will be available in the coming months, I’m contemplating the grander picture.

In the 19th century, the U.S. built the world’s first transcontinental railroad system and helped create telephones and electric lighting.  At the start of the 20th century, we sent men into the air and then constructed the world’s largest highway system.  In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the nation; wanting us “to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things; not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  And, we did just that!  Just seven years later, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface.

The 1960s and 70s saw the birth of various civil rights movements: women, non-Whites, and gays and lesbians.  That forced America to live up to its promise to be a land of equality and prosperity.  We finally began seeing the fruits of those movements in the 1990s.

Yet here stands the U.S. – still mired in Middle East conflicts and dealing with an economy that, on the surface, looks extraordinary.  But those of us struggling with medical bills and increasingly high costs of basic living aren’t exactly thrilled that the U.S. stock market is functioning wonderfully for large corporations that don’t often pay their taxes and feel they have the unquestionable right to contaminate the environment in the name of profit.

Although I’m an introvert, I remain optimistic and would like to see society achieve some grand accomplishment over the next 10 years.

Infrastructure – As of 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. a grade of D+ for infrastructure.  That’s an overall assessment of everything from bridges to railroads.  To say they’re falling apart is dismissively juvenile.  A grade is just a letter, but the implications are dire.  In 2007, a section of Interstate 35 through Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145.  But, nearly 13 years later, the U.S. is still spending more on military intervention in the perpetually-chaotic Middle East than making serious efforts to rebuild, or even refurbish, highways like I35.  The ASCE estimates the nation will need up to 4.5 trillion USD to repair or rebuild much of our infrastructure by 2025.  It’s one critical issue on which elected officials of all political stripes might agree.  Instead, we have a president who wants to spend even more money to build a wall along the nation’s southern border with México.  I can’t even contemplate how much that would cost.  Knowing the U.S. federal government, though, it would be much more than initial estimates.  Still, as I move around my own local area, I notice roads that have been under construction since the start of the last decade!

Subterranean Power and Telecommunication Lines – In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria rolled over Puerto Rico as a borderline category 5 storm.  With an estimated cost of 94 billion USD, it stands as one of the most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history.  And Maria didn’t even reach the American mainland.  As with most such calamities, residents in the impact zones lived without power, which includes clean water.  Like Andrew did to Florida in 1992, and Katrina to the Gulf Coast in 2005, Maria destroyed a substantial number of power and telecommunication lines across Puerto Rico.  Our government’s response?  USD 5 billion in aid and a president tossing paper towels into a raucous crowd.

Tropical storm systems aren’t our only nemesis.  Currently, the U.S. is dealing with yet another round of powerful winter weather, with strong winds flipping vehicles and blizzard conditions hampering travel.  It’s not uncommon for massive weather phenomena to impact more than 100 million people.  Last October the Dallas, Texas area experienced a rash of tornado outbreaks.  But that’s just in one city in one state.  Other areas across the country have been struck by these meteorological vortexes.  And, of course, power and telecommunication lines are among the casualties.

The same happens after floods, tornadoes, wildfires and earthquakes.  Humans can never control Earth’s natural elements.  Every time we’ve tried, those elements remind us who holds the true power.  Still, we can lessen the severity of unruly weather by burying as many of our power and telecommunication lines underground as possible.  It’s nothing new.  People have been pushing this concept for years.  And there are the usual detractors.  Although a number of power and telecommunication lines have already been interred, opponents claim they’re not always more reliable than overhead lines.  While overhead lines experience more outages, subterranean lines are generally more difficult to access and repair when problems with them do arise.  Another obstacle, of course, is funding.  There are greater costs associated with the installation of subterranean lines.  The costs would have to be passed down to consumers somehow.  But, I feel it’s all worth the financial burden.  Ultimately, it costs people more to go without power – both in actual money and lives lost.  The expenses incurred with the initial installations and ongoing maintenance will more than pay for themselves in the ensuing years.

Space – Since humans first looked up to the sky and began studying the stars, we’ve wondered what it would be like to fly and visit another celestial body.  Now, we’ve taken flight and ventured onto the moon.  The next logical step would be Mars.  Plenty of people – from Elon Musk to Mars One – are making a concerted effort to get there.  In the 1970s, the U.S. became the first nation to reach Mars with the Viking I and II voyages.  We’ve done it again recently with the Curiosity mission.  The U.S. space program was good for the country and the world, as it spurred a number of technological developments; mainly with telecommunications, but also with engineering and robotics.

Sadly, if the U.S. wants to send humans to the moon now, we couldn’t do it.  We’ve let that go.  Again, it’s the war factor – more money spent on Middle East conflicts than on things that really matter.  But I would like to see the U.S. rejuvenate its space program and begin establishing a lunar colony; thus making interplanetary travel materialize from the pages of science fiction into reality.  And, of course, we should make a concerted effort to send a craft with humans to Mars by the end of this decade.  There’s more technology in a single Smart Phone than there was in all of the Apollo 11 lunar module.  We can make this happen.

Thousands of years ago humans thought Earth was the only place in the universe that harbored any semblance of life.  We’re starting to realize that’s not true.  We exist on this third rock from the sun, but I’m certain we have never been alone.  And, even if we are (by some odd fluke of nature), what’s to say we can’t venture outward and make our world more hospitable?  If we rise above our own political and social distractions, we’ll understand we can do better than this.  We have to do better.  I can’t imagine us living in a world of such chaos and uneasiness.  Throughout this next decade, we have to move forward.  Time will.  We have to follow it.

Photo by Josh Sorenson.

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Hello! Earth to Mars!

Mars-Rising-Documentary-film

I’ve signed up to be a candidate for a Martian colony.  Okay, I’m actually just on an email list, but I’m seriously considering this.  Mars One is a non-profit organization with a goal to establish a human settlement on the “Big Red Planet” by 2023.  So far, they have a goal and a web site – and not much else.  But hey, why not dream big?!  That’s what prompted our ancestors to move north out of Africa and sail across the vast oceans of this planet.  This falls in line with an essay I wrote last year, where I included the prospect of sending people to Mars.  With the current budget deficits and political wrangling here in the U.S., that won’t happen anytime soon.

Thus enters Mars One, a Dutch-based entity that has joined with the for-profit Interplanetary Media Group to raise money for the mission.  They don’t just want to launch a spacecraft to Mars for a brief visit; they actually establish a permanent settlement.  As of January, Mars One has secured funding from Trifork BV, another Dutch company that “is a leading full service supplier of high-quality custom-built applications for organizations primarily in” education, research and government non-profit.  That’s amazing.  A country known for its tulips and marijuana cafes actually has the temerity to create companies with such grand visions.

But, the first stage for Mars One is conceptual design.  They have to convene a gallery of talented engineers and architects to visualize what Martian structures would look like and how they would function.  They have to consider air, heating, cooling and insomnia.  Next is an astronaut selection program.  That will be the most challenging aspect of the project; finding people willing to give up so much of their lives for something so incredibly unknown.  They hope to start taking applications from prospective astronauts soon.  As with anything so extraordinary, hope is the first and most significant investment.  Yet, Mars One seems undeterred.

Their literature indicates that residency on the colony will be permanent.  I don’t know how that will work out for some people.  Personally, I’m a creature of habit and enjoy certain comforts here on Earth.  I believe, though, that Mars One will have to reconsider that aspect of the project, since plenty of people may get homesick; while others will be so incorrigible they need to be sent back to Earth.  Unless they can meet an untimely death and their bodies be used for fertilizer.

I still have to give this a lot of thought.  I’ll be 59 in a decade, but I already take better care of myself than most people.  Hell, I take better care of my dog than most people do themselves!  I figure the colony will need a technical / fiction writer anyway.  I could regale the group with frightening tales of being a Democrat in a state gone wildly Republican.  That surely would keep them on Mars!

But, I have plenty of questions.

  • Will I be able to have a dog or two with me?  I can’t imagine living the rest of my life without a canine at my side.  I don’t need another person in my life.  Most people are assholes, and dogs seem to understand me better anyway.
  • Will I be able to bring my gigantic collection of books and National Geographics?  Or, will every piece of literature have to be digital?  As a writer, I’m a natural bibliophile, so books are as much a part of my life as dogs and rum.
  • Speaking of rum, will I be able to imbibe in such spirits while on this colony?  Things may not be as stressful on Mars as here on Earth, which is probably the whole point of establishing a settlement.  But, knowing how quirky most people are – especially engineers and scientists – I’d need to have a drink or two after a day of installing air filters.
  • Will I be able to masturbate in seclusion?  I’m an introvert by nature, so teaming up with others in such a remote environment will be a real challenge.  Ultimately, though, I seek out others for basic human interaction.  But, I’d still need some hand time.
  • Will I be able to have steak and meat tacos?  Or, will everything be freeze-dried and MRE style foods?  I’ve lived off peanut butter sandwiches, canned meat and blueberry muffins before.  I’ve even had a full-fledged MRE.  They’re different now than from the spam-based crap my father ate when he served in the Korean War.  But, unless there’s a chance they improve dramatically in the next ten years, I can’t see living off them for a lifetime.  I mean, I already suffer from dry mouth syndrome.

A great deal of thought and planning has to go into establishing a colony on another celestial body.  Just the logistics of getting material to the place to build will be difficult enough, unless structures can be put together here on Earth and then shipped.  I don’t think FedEx goes that far.  There’s insufficient oxygen on Mars, so no one can take a walk around the terrain without dressing up like a beekeeper.  There probably won’t be much room to move around, which means the colonizers will have to live in close proximity to one another.  That alone could take a psychological and emotional toll.  The intrepid astronauts will have to get along with each other and learn to cooperate even under the most jaded of circumstances.  That would be difficult, considering you just wouldn’t be able to get in your car and go home.  I got pissed off at some people during a play party once many years ago, so I just packed up the wine coolers and sex toys.  They tried to stop me, but I wouldn’t relent.  On Mars, I wouldn’t be able to just grab the remaining MRE’s and canisters of air and head back to Dallas on a moment’s notice.  Knowing how easily people annoy me, I really have to think about this whole Martian colony enterprise.

Still, I feel it’s a worthwhile endeavor.  Humans are naturally curious.  Think about getting into a boat and sailing into an ocean without knowing how far away the next island or land mass is.  Imagine just getting up from a grassy plain and starting to walk – to anywhere.  That’s what our ancestors did.  Americans made it to the moon, as part of the “Cold Warspace race.  I’m certain we, as a global society, can make it to Mars within a generation.  In the meantime, I’ll imbibe in a Bacardi and Coke and begin stockpiling stories for those lonely Martian nights.

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Dreams Bigger Than Ourselves

Watching the debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney the other night invoked a number of emotions in me; mainly nausea.  Obama looked half-asleep, while Romney displayed yet another side of his plastic persona.  Romney contradicted himself more times than someone with schizophrenia, and Obama simply didn’t show any backbone.  Considering that Romney announced he would take down “Sesame Street” and Obama expressed joy last week that the National Football League’s referee strike had ended peacefully, I haven’t been this disillusioned about politics since January 20, 2001, when George W. Bush first took office.

It’s come to this?  PBS and football referees are that utterly important in the overall scheme of America’s ongoing economic crisis?  Well, at least PBS serves a purpose.  But, even before the Obama – Romney debate, I pondered why America has let itself stoop to such lowly aspirations.  This is a country that built the world’s first transcontinental railroad system in the mid-1800’s and, less than a century later, constructed the world’s largest highway system.  Following World War II, this same nation created the strongest middle class the world has ever seen.  We were the first to take flight into the air and the first to place men on the moon.  We helped to develop automobiles, telephones, radio, televisions and computers.  Now, we’re talking about creationism in schools and gay marriage.  Are we serious?  How did the national dialogue become so pathetic?

A half century ago, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the nation; he wanted us “to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things; not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  And, we did just that!  Less than seven years later, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface.

I’m somewhat of a dreamer.  In fact, I’m a big dreamer.  My quiet, sometimes introverted personality conjures up the most fantastic of stories.  But, it also envisions the seemingly impossible of events.  Thus, while some people worry what Vice President Joe Biden might say in his debate with Congressman Paul Ryan next week and others sit on the edge of their seats, wondering who will take first place on “Dancing with the Stars,” I propose the following challenges to my fellow Americans.

Energy Independent – Every American president since Richard Nixon has called for the U.S. to be completely and totally energy independent.  The oil embargoes of the 1970’s first made us realize how badly our nation is beholden to the Saudi royal family who – just a few decades earlier – were still living a nomadic lifestyle.  Our technology helped them move into the 20th century almost overnight.  Currently, though, the U.S. obtains most of its oil from Latin America, mainly Venezuela.  We actually buy more oil from Canada than from OPEC nations.  But, we’re still reliant upon foreign nations for a good chunk of our fuel.  And, we’re still too dependent upon coal and natural gas.  The fact is that those resources are finite.  They’re also dirty and dangerous to extract from the Earth.  I’d like to see the U.S. develop cleaner and safer means of energy by 2030.  Yes, that’s less than 20 years from now, but I know we can do it.  And, we need to do it.  We can’t continue to pollute our environment and put our citizens at risk just to keep the lights on in the house.

Subterranean Power and Telecommunication Lines – In August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew plowed into Florida as a borderline category 5 storm, before marching across the Gulf of México and slamming into Louisiana.  It was the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history at the time; costing an estimated $26 billion.  For weeks afterward, residents in the impact zones lived without power.  Andrew had knocked down and / or destroyed thousands of yards of power and telecommunication lines.  In the richest, most powerful country on Earth, people found themselves struggling from day to day in a third world-style environment in the heat of summer.  Twenty years later Hurricane Isaac gently rolled over southeastern Louisiana and did virtually the same thing to all those power and telecommunication lines.  Tropical storm systems aren’t the only harbinger of disaster.  Almost every winter, people in the northeastern U.S. brace for mighty arctic hurricanes that send them back into those third world type living conditions.  The same happens after floods, tornadoes, wildfires and earthquakes.  We can never control what the planet’s natural elements will do.  Every time humans have tried to fight nature, they almost always get smacked back into reality.  But, we can mitigate the impact of these calamities by burying as many of our power and telecommunication lines underground as possible.  This is not a new idea.  Many people – from energy analysts to, yes, politicians – have pushed for this to be done on a massive scale.  But, there have been plenty of detractors.  While we already have a large number of subterranean power and telecommunication lines, opponents claim they’re not necessarily more reliable than overhead lines.  While overhead lines experience more outages and are more vulnerable to every piece of aerial debris from disoriented birds to tree branches, subterranean lines are generally more difficult to access and repair when problems with them do arise.  Another obstacle, of course, is money.  There are greater costs associated with the installation of subterranean lines, and – as you might have guessed – those costs must be passed onto consumers, either in the form of higher utility rates or increased taxes.  But, I think it’s well worth the financial burden.  Ultimately, it costs people more to go without power; food is spoiled and lives can be endangered in extreme heat or cold.  The expenses incurred with the initial installations and ongoing maintenance will more than pay for themselves in the ensuing years.

Humans on Mars – For eons, our ancestors wondered what it was like on the surface of the moon.  When the U.S. finally made it there in July of 1969, our fanciful images of otherworldly beings gave way to the bland reality of rocks and dust.  But, we made it!  We’d successfully landed humans on the surface of another celestial body and brought them back to Earth.  Almost immediately, people began contemplating a trip to Mars.  The U.S. has come close; first with the Viking I and II voyages, and most recently, with the Curiosity mission.  These have been unstaffed journeys, but they’re important.  The U.S. space program of the 1960’s helped to advance technological developments; mainly with telecommunications, such as facsimile machines and cordless phones, but also with engineering and robotics.  As with any grand adventure, however, there are detractors who look primarily (or only) at the money factor.  The Viking missions alone cost $1 billion – in 1970’s-era figures – and, as of now, the Curiosity budget has exceeded $2.5 billion.  But so far, the U.S. has spent nearly $807 trillion in Iraq and almost $572 trillion in Afghanistan.  If we can afford that kind of cash to kill people and destroy entire towns and villages, we definitely can expend a fraction of that money on a staffed trip to Mars.  I don’t believe we’re alone in this universe.  And, it’s in our nature as humans to explore and discover.  I feel we should make a concerted effort to send a craft with humans to Mars by 2030.

100% Literacy Rate – This is the most ambitious of my goals.  Literacy and education are paramount to the success of any society.  But, they’re also the most personal and the most difficult.  As of 2012, the U.S. literacy rate stands at roughly 80%.  While this means that more than three-quarters of the U.S. population can read and write to some degree, we’re still far behind such countries as Denmark, Japan and Norway where literacy rates hover close to 100%.  Why is the U.S. at a dismal 80%?  I think much of it has to do with our elected officials and their reluctance to consider education as equally important as military prowess and individual financial wealth.  Moreover, the United States boasts the largest rate of incarceration than any other nation; some 1.8 million people are imprisoned here, or about 1 of every 100 adults.  Of those individuals, roughly 70% are illiterate.  While rates vary among states, it costs roughly $23,000 per year to house one person in a prison.  However, it costs about $1,000 to educate a child each year at the elementary level and about $3,000 per year at the high school level.  College educations also vary widely among states and differ between private and public universities.  But, the average cost per year is about $15,000.  Once someone graduates from college, or even a vocational training program, however, they can enter the work force and start paying back those costs in earnings and taxes, as well as consumer spending.  Somehow, though, our political elite thinks it’s more feasible to imprison someone than to educate them.  Every year across this nation, states balance their school budgets on the backs of its most vulnerable citizens: elderly, disabled and children.  Just like with the costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, it’s beyond me to understand why this nation always has enough money for war, but never enough for education.  I feel it’s the conservative mindset working against us.  Earlier this year former senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum denounced President Obama as a “snob” for wanting everyone in the U.S. to have a college education.  Ignoring such stupidity, though, I think it’s plausible for the U.S. to have a 100% literacy rate by 2050, if not sooner.  It’s well worth the expense, as we’ll see our prison rates decrease, while consumer spending rates increase.  Educated people generally make better decisions and think first before they act.  It’s easier to give a child and book and deal with their barrage of questions once they finish reading it than to let a kid drop out of school and deal with their bad attitude once they’re in jail.

I know naysayers will read this and scoff at my lofty ambitions; perhaps accusing me of arrogance in imposing such goals upon others.  I’m not forcing anyone to believe as I do.  But, the wealthiest nation on Earth should have much greater objectives than ensuring tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of its citizens or constructing a wall along the southern border.  Our grand ethnic and cultural diversity will allow for it.  Our future depends on it.  It’s in our nature as humans to wonder and explore – and to dream big.

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Picture of the Day

On August 7, NASA first color image taken on Mars by the rover “Curiosity.”  The view is of the north wall of the rim of the Gale Crater.  While it doesn’t look like much, it’s a significant technological achievement in the history of both NASA and the U.S. space program.

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