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Cosmos 1 Solar Sail

    If we ever make it to the stars it won't be for any practical reason. It'll be because it's entertaining. All technology in the future will rise or fall on its ability to amuse us. The problem with space travel in the 1960s and 1970s is that it got boring so fast. The United States went to the moon to best the Soviets in a political competition, and didn't realize that maintaining public support would require more than arm-waving about our Journey to the Stars. In my recent piece on the space program I quoted James Cameron saying that NASA needs more cameras to make spaceflight as dramatic as the stuff put out by Hollywood (very loose paraphrase of Cameron). What we have seen in the past 30-plus years is stagnation in the government's civilian space program, some scary advances in the militarization of space (potential death rays from above, etc.), and some energetic activity among private entrepreneurs -- but nothing that comes close to matching the innovation, money and ingenuity that we've seen in the world of computers, gaming, and communication. In fact the one unvarnished triumph of the space program has been the rise of satellite technology that in many cases is used for communication and entertainment. My point, rambling though it may be, is that the space program needs to invert the usual order of things and, rather than performing missions that inspire computer games, instead create missions that ARE computer games -- that allow ordinary 12-year-olds to joystick the microbot as it bounces around the surface of Mars.

       In the meantime, there's the Cosmos 1 Solar Sail, enclosed inside a converted ICBM and due to be launched today (maybe already has) from a submarine. It's the brainchild of, among others, Lou Friedman, the co-founder of the Planetary Society and one of the most sensible and clear-headed visionaries in California. Lou describes the solar sail as an experiment, a test of the technology and the ability to steer the sail in orbit. A solar sail has the great advantage of not carrying its own fuel. Most spaceships are fuel tanks with a tiny craft attached to them. The gas mileage is just awful until you reach orbit. The other driving force behind the sail is Ann Druyan, the author and documentary filmmaker who is the widow of Carl Sagan. A press release from Druyan isn't the sort of thing you would be likely to get from the media folks at NASA:

    "Imagine the rays of the sun striking the solstice markers at the ancient astronomical observatories of Stonehenge and Chaco Canyon as Cosmos 1 rises from out of the sea and into the sky...Cosmos 1's launch vehicle is an intercontinental ballistic missile that was originally designed to deliver a nuclear weapon of mass death to a city somewhere on our tiny pale blue dot. Now she has been converted to a peaceful and even mythic purpose."

     To my ear that's a bit touchy feely -- is it mythic or scientific? -- but it's also probably a great way to pitch the story in a world where the great competition is not between the U.S. and the Soviets but between MTV and GameBoy.

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 21, 2005; 7:04 AM ET
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