A Glimpse Of The Future Of Space

Our governments are running out of money.  Programs like space exploration — which don’t pander to particular interest groups and aren’t viewed as “essential” — are easy targets for budget cutters.  That means that, if we are to advance in space, commercial entities motivated by profits will have to carry the ball forward.

Today saw a big step in that direction.  A company called SpaceX launched its own Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral.  The rocket is carrying a SpaceX Dragon capsule filled with supplies for the International Space Station.  Because this is the first flight, the supplies are not essential, and the Dragon capsule will need to show its reliability and maneuverability before it will be allowed to get near the ISS.  If it passes those tests, however, it will move close to the space station, be snatched from space by a robot arm, and then emptied of its cargo.  If the mission is a success, it will be the first of many such deliveries.  With the space shuttle program ended, NASA will need to rely on private companies to deliver the goods.

I’m sure there will be some who moan about the intrusion of money-grubbing corporations into the pristine realm of space, but the fact is that capitalism is already there, in the form of countless communications satellites.  If space is to be fully explored, profit-seeking risk-takers will need to take the lead.  We should all celebrate SpaceX’s achievement and hope for a successful venture that encourages other companies to get into the business of space.

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The Styrofoam Curse

Kish bought a present for a friend from a mail order catalog retailer, and the present came in a box filled with those Styrofoam curlicues — the worst, most pernicious, packaging material ever devised by Satan.

Who else but Beelzebub would come up with packaging materials so lightweight, and so charged with static electricity, that they adhere to every surface and can never be easily discarded?  Had Dante lived in the modern world, he would have written of a lowest level of hell filled with these little man-made peanuts that cling to your skin and, if inadvertently rubbed together, emit an annoying high-pitched shriek calculated to drive even the hardened sinner to gibbering insanity.

Once spilled on the floor, these devilish objects will be with you always — a constant reminder that you should never again make a mail-order purchase.

Looking For A Quick, Clean Exit, Far Into The Future

How do you want your life to end?  An even more difficult question:  how do you want the lives of your loved ones to end?  An article in New York magazine, about a family’s struggle with their mother’s long, slow decline — and the related emotional and societal costs — raises those stark heartbreaking issues.

I think most people would like to go out like my grandfather did.  He lived to be 99, kept his mental and physical health until the end, then had a stroke while eating breakfast and died later that day.  No institutionalization.  No dementia.  No months or years of a twilight existence, apparently unaware of his surroundings, experiencing bedsores and diaper changes and incomprehension.

Of course, we don’t get to make stark choices between the ideal and the awful.  Instead, families deal with impossible judgment calls.  Should the frail 84-year-old woman with the bad hip endure the pain, or have an implant operation that could give her a pain-free existence — or produce a shock to the system that causes her to slide into an irreversible downward spiral?  If an elderly relative decides not to undertake life-extending treatment, should the grief-stricken children try to argue him out of his decision?  How should a family deal with an institutionalized Alzheimer’s victim in the bewildered, angry, unrecognizing end stages of mental decline and the guilt that comes from not wanting to see their relative in that terrible condition?

The author of the New York article yearns for a “death panel” — he calls it a “deliverance panel” — where family members could appeal for a relative’s death.  There’s a reason why the concept of such panels provoked such opposition during the recent debate on health care reform, however.  What modern Solomons would staff such panels?  The doctors who want to sharpen their skills at an aggressive life-extending procedure and get paid for their efforts?  The bureaucrat who sees his health care budget exploding and wants to rein in costs?  The hospital administrator who thinks the room the patient occupies could be better used by someone receiving more care and treatment?  The children who are heartsick about the potential loss, hoping for a miracle, guilt-ridden, exhausted, overwhelmed, and concerned about their inheritances, all at once?

There are no easy answers to these terrible issues.  I think the appropriate first step is for everyone to make their own decisions about their own care, when they are still healthy and capable of doing so, and memorialize those decisions in some kind of binding way so that their surviving relatives aren’t saddled with impossible choices.  Is the prospect of long-term institutional care and constant pain a source of unimaginable horror, or would you be willing to put up with it in order to meet your great-grandchildren?  Only the individual can know how much of a deviation from the ideal end-of-days scenario they are willing to endure.