The Future of NASA, or Three Days in Iraq

Tonight I heard a superb opinion piece by Dr Moira Gunn, host of the weekly radio show TechNation. She notes the political debate over NASA’s budget and President Obama’s new vision for the agency.

The proposed annual budget for NASA is only $19 billion … and do you know what we spend in Iraq every single day? $7 billion.

That’s right. Three days from now, we will have spent on Iraq the entirety of next year’s budget for NASA, and then some. Obama’s proposal to increase the budget of NASA by $6 billion over the next five years, really says that in half-a-decade, NASA will receive one more day in Iraq. (Yes, try to contain your enthusiasm.)

Gunn advocates a much larger investment, both in NASA and in science education & innovation in general—advocacy best championed by a government. Fifty years ago, President Kennedy’s leadership was critical in pushing the country not just towards the Apollo moon program, but towards excellence in science. The United States definitely needs another inoculation of science excellence now.

My angle on NASA’s vision is this: the current debate seems to hinge on whether we’re going back to the Moon, or to Mars—and whether various communities around the country will retain their aerospace industries that work to put humans in space. I wish human space flight weren’t such a political flash point, because it’s not where NASA should direct its energies.

Human space travel is very expensive, and very dangerous. There is, of course, the risk of accidents, such as those to the Challenger and Columbia, but the chief danger in space is cosmic radiation. A trip to the Moon takes about two weeks, but these days people are talking about going to Mars. A manned mission to Mars would take two-and-a-half years, because Mars is so far away. That’s a 2-1/2-year dose of cosmic radiation for each astronaut, and there’s no way to shield it.

Unmanned interplanetary missions have been enormously successful (Mars Rovers, Cassini, Galileo, Ulysses), and several others are en route to their destinations with all systems go (Messenger, New Horizons, Dawn), demonstrating without a doubt the value of further robotic missions. I remain skeptical of the feasibility of manned missions, not only because of their cost, but of the political fallout from the inevitable accidents and loss of life. The age of easy and ubiquitous space flight is still far in the future.

So how about we give NASA a few extra days in Iraq?

Here are the electronics we recycled today

Yesterday was Earth Day, and today is electronics recycling day at our house. I’ve had a growing box of obsolete equipment for some time, because the last thing I want to do is throw that stuff into the landfill. Then my wife Arlene Baxter, Chair of the GREEN Council at the Berkeley Association of REALTORS®, organized an electronics recycling event at the BAR office. Here is what we recycled today:

Analog TV, scanner, laptop, firewall, modem, camera, floppy drives, serial switch and a bunch of cables. All obsolete. Don’t throw away, recycle!

Am I a tech hoarder?

You have probably heard—or worse, experienced—stories of elderly men & women living amidst huge piles of debris: newspapers, clothes, food. Today I learned about a reality TV show called Hoarders where viewers can be duly shocked at how some people choose to live, presumably to assure themselves that their own piles of debris aren’t so bad considering. Following that logic comes an article in ITWorld about tech hoarders: geeks and nerds who keep piles of long-obsolete equipment, either because it’s still in perfectly good working order (you never know when you might need it), or for spare parts. Some of the photos are quite amusing, particularly the lamp stand made out of a pile of rack-mount Linux servers.

This got me thinking about whether I may be a tech hoarder. I’ve decided I’m not, with a few caveats. I do have lots of cables, but that’s a hard-learned lesson. Any tech job requires at least a few cables, and a missing $5 cable can hold up a $100,000 project. Back in 1988, my networking teacher told me “You’re not a network engineer, you’re a cable puller. If the cable doesn’t work, nothing works.” So I’ve always hung on to cables.

And yes, dear reader, I still have my Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III that I bought in 1980, and my original 512K Macintosh (“and you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984″), along with their software on 5″ and 3” floppy disks. Maybe I thought they’d be teaching props, or eventually, museum pieces. I think they will eventually be museum pieces, but eventually is probably still a long time from now.

Hoarding, of course, is not the same thing as collecting. I plead guilty to collecting on several counts: chiefly books, but I still have all my LPs (remember those?) and I now own four accordions. A collection may not always be tidy, but it is lovingly cared for, and the collector knows exactly where a given item can be found. I shall wax eloquently on collecting in another blog post.

So what’s my next step? I’m getting rid of some stuff tomorrow at an electronics recycling event in Berkeley, organized by my wife Arlene Baxter on behalf of the Berkeley Association of Realtors. In the pile so far is an old television, a dead PC and a bunch of old cables and DC converters. Ok, so I am getting rid of a few cables. I’m pretty sure I’ll never need them again. I think.

Free Electronics Recylcing for Earth Day

My wife Arlene Baxter, a splendid realtor here in Berkeley, has organized a free electronics recycling event to celebrate Earth Day. Here’s your chance to easily dispose of the obsolete computers, cables, converters and printers that you didn’t want to throw in the landfill. The event is from 10-3 at the BAR office, corner of Martin Luther King & Cedar in Berkeley. Here’s a flyer with all the details. If you come between 10-12, Arlene will greet you with one of the GREEN Council’s special Eco-Bags, containing outlet & switch gaskets, a bio bag, CFL and lots of good info for further greening of your home and your life!