When you wish upon a…spent multi-stage booster rocket?

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Mornin’ all.

I just read a depressing article.

Actually, I read MANY depressing articles. If you haven’t loaded up a news site today, save yourself the gloom and doom and spend your internet time finding happy kitty pics instead. Or goofy memes. Hell, take a trip down memory lane and see if your old MySpace profile is active. Do anything else but look at the news today.

“But Bethie, I need to know what’s going on.”

I’ll tell you what’s going on. IS or ISIS or ISIL or whatever the hell they’re called this week is threatening to behead more people. Not to be outdone, Boko Haram is stepping up their terrorist game by claiming responsibility for killing hundreds more than IS/ISIS/ISIL/DEMONSPAWN.

Stars are in an “uproar” over American Sniper…both because it tells the story about our troops having a hard time coming home, which somehow means we’re all Nazis (wth Hollywood??) and because it shows violence. You mean there’s violence in war? Huh.

The crime pages are filled with stories of parents killing kids, kids killing parents, kids killing strangers, strangers blowing folks away in operating rooms…and then sub-stories of people who lost others at the hands of psychos suing schools, towns, and movie theaters for not anticipating every possible whacko scenario. Sorry, but you can’t plan for crazy, folks, and it’s no one’s fault but the shooters. Sometimes there is no resolution or closure.

And then of course we’ve got politics. State of the Union address was last night. Do I even need to say how much of an uproar Obama calling for free college caused? If you listen to nothing else today, heed this warning: Do not read the user comments under ANY of the articles covering Obama’s speech. Just don’t. You will walk away hating humanity, and it’s already a bleak Wednesday in January. Life is hard enough in the middle of a winter week. Save yourself the pain and heartache.

As I scoured the news looking for a ray of sunshiny hope, I came across an article that, on the surface, seems equally depressing. The article was about space junk floating around Earth. Because of humans’ collective inability to keep their room clean, our outer orbit is full of debris we’ve simply left lying around. There are currently over 300,000 pieces of “space junk” floating around the rock we call home.

Right now, over your head at this very moment, there’s a chunk of garbage passing by. Think that’s a morning star? Think again. It’s the spent fuel tank of a rocket. Or the crumpled solar collector of a damaged satellite. Perhaps a “Progress module” didn’t burn up properly.

…what’s a “Progress module”, you may ask? Why, an un-manned capsule the International Space Station fills with compressed human waste and shoots toward the Earth to be burned up upon atmospheric reentry of course! Pee is recycled and purified into water, but the other…well, there’s not much use for fertilizer on the ISS.

(sidenote: Perhaps we should come up with another acronym? I mean, I know it’s called the International Space Station, so ISS makes sense and all, but with all the IS/ISIS/ISIL bullshit, it’s getting a bit confusing. Let’s call it the InSpaSta. Hm. No, that won’t work. What about InterSpa? Sounds like a new come on by Ikea. AstroHome? Leans too heavily to Americans, doesn’t it? Damnit, IS/ISIS/ISIL! Why you gotta screw EVERYTHING up!? I’ll keep working on it. I know I can come up with a better name than ISS…)

Anyway, back to talking about astro-crap. They’ve got all this waste from eating yummy astronaut ice cream and Tang powder. They could just dump it, but then it’ll be in their orbital path the next time they come ’round and, well, think about that mess. There aren’t any car washes up there.

Yet.

So the astronauts and cosmonauts and any other ‘nauts that happen to be visiting take all the waste and compress it, then stuff it into an un-manned cargo craft they then fire towards the Earth. Basic physics says that if it’s launched at the proper trajectory and speed, the friction of reentry will burn up the capsule and its contents in a streaking, flaming burst across the sky.

You remember that shooting star you fervently wished upon? Mm-hm. Poop. You placed your hopes and dreams on a burning can of shit.

Gawd I wish I was a good enough writer to come up with a metaphor even half that deep!

That’s the process of waste elimination. That’s what’s supposed to happen. But, the InSpaStan (…uh, no.) has been housing ‘nauts continuously for nearly 15 years. It’s been the cosmic wayside tavern for nearly 100 people, and all of them have had functioning colons. As someone who used to change baby diapers, I can tell you for a fact that’s a lotta poo. So has it all gone to plan and successfully become a wish killer?

Who knows? In theory, sure. But in theory, *all* space debris was supposed to do the same. The assumption has always been that over time, all the crap we’ve littered around would decide to finally succumb to the overwhelming gravity of Earth and be burned up. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it will given enough time. We’re talking cosmic time lines, though. Hundreds, thousands, millions of years. Maybe they aimed wrong. Maybe the thruster didn’t thrust. With 299,999 other pieces of debris up there, what’s one more?

Right this very minute, one of those shit missiles that wasn’t aimed quite right could be floating above your head.

Kind of makes my little hoarding problem seem like not such a big deal, eh? I mean, sure, I’ve crammed the corners of my dining room full of car parts once again, but at least I’ve never kept my own excrement locked in a perpetual orbit around my home.

Can’t argue that, folks.

The problem of the great trash heap in the sky is only going to grow, too. We keep sending stuff up, and only some of it comes back down. Why is this such a big deal?

First, it’s all traveling really fast. I mean, REALLLLLY fast. In low orbit, the debris travels at a speed of about 7 km/second. That’s 420 km/minute or 25,200 kph. Americanized, that’s about 15,658 mph.

You cannot imagine that speed. I cannot imagine that speed. We’ve got no point of reference. Pick the world’s fastest super car. That goes less than 300 mph. The fastest land record set on Earth was 763.035 mph. Space debris travels TWENTY TIMES as fast. The fastest jet any government will cop to does a blistering 2,193 mph. Extremely respectable, but still a snail in comparison.

We’ve not only got 300,000 hunks of crap out there, they aren’t just harmlessly floating about. They’re careening at face-melting speeds towards anything else we’ve got up there. Not only do we have the ISStat (Better? Worse? On the fence with this one…), but 1,100+ working man-made satellites in our orbit. Some of them are governmental, most of them are private. Like that cellphone? Or being able to swipe your debit card instead of carrying around cash? That doesn’t happen on its own, and we’ve come to rely on the digital army we’ve installed around us. Every moment of every day, all the good stuff we want is threatened by all the crap that’s been turned into ammo.

We are also starting to have one helluva headache when we plan launches for anything new. The early space race didn’t have to worry about colliding with a broken antenna or smacking into a shit bomb. They just had to pick an direction and go. Can’t do that now, can we? We’ve got so much crap zinging around up there that anyone planning a mission honestly has to plan around garbage. That’s insane. Imagine if you were planning a vacation and had to constantly update your travel plans because someone keeps firing cannons at the interstate.

If this continues, it doesn’t bode well for continued exploration. Space is hard enough. We can’t very well expect a brave group of people to colonize the moon or to make friends with the Martians if they’re taken out before they even break orbit.

Putting all the inconvenience and danger to humans and our very way of life aside, perhaps the most offensive part of this whole this thing is what image it presents to the rest of the universe.

Imagine if you will that you’re Zangnil, a Vaug’niian explorer from another solar system on a mission to document any intelligent life the galaxy might hold. Maybe you got life readings on your scanner. Maybe you picked up some radio signals and are dying to know what the hell “baseball” is. Maybe you looked through your vastly superior telescope and saw blue.

You feel excited. You turn your ship Sol-ward and head on towards us, thoughts of a great friendship being struck, or new trade for your people, or perhaps you just think there will be a chance to refuel. And then you get closer and get your first look at the blue planet, only to discover…

…trash. Garbage as far as the eye can see. You’d like to land, but you can’t get through. Besides, what kind of beings would junk up their own planet so badly? Even if you did land, you’d probably catch flark pox from the filthy creatures! No amount of curiosity about “baseball” is worth a case of the flark. Instead of bringing about the single most profound moment in human history, you turn your craft around and hightail it on out of there to go home and talk shit about your idiot neighbors.

Face it, folks. We’re a galactic trailer park.

I don’t know about you, but if an alien race is going to consider us backwoods hicks, I’d much rather they decide that AFTER they’ve gotten a chance to know us first.

We’ve got to clean it up. But how?

We can’t send up giant magnets, though that idea is commonly kicked around. For one thing, the weight of a magnet large enough to have a significant effect on an object traveling at those speeds would make it extremely costly to send into orbit. Besides, most of the space crap isn’t magnetic. Sure, we’d probably pic up some random iron-filled rocks the cosmos hurls our way, but not the man-made stuff. Most of what’s up there isn’t magnetic. Iron and steel are heavy and don’t hold up well in the extreme temperature changes of orbit.

We can’t just make a net, either, though that’s also been suggested. There are over 1,100 active and very useful robots up there we need. We can’t risk damaging them in a broad trash sweep. I can’t think of a type of net that would work, anyway. Once again, these projectiles are traveling at ridiculous speeds.

The only plausible way to get it all is to actually go up there and get it. Send people up, put them on the same trajectory and let them hunt it down. Pull the big pieces in for salvage, shoot the small ones toward the ozone properly.

Sound familiar?

Of course it does! This idea is nothing new. One of the very staples of space-centric science fiction is the idea that in the future, there will be enough space garbage for there to be entire companies devoted to salvaging useful materials. All of this normally pertains to deep space. Other places, other worlds. Hell, other galaxies and beyond. It makes sense both as a story, and as a plausible distant future. If we keep creating and abandoning, then people who have the gumption and inclination can become intergalactic scrappers. Logically, there will be a need.

I’m saying, the need is here. This should no longer only be a sci-fi concept. There is a need in our society for the world’s first orbital salvage company. Think of all that aluminum and copper and titanium and gold. It’s just up there, waiting.

That thought…that perks me up. That lifts my spirits from the doom and gloom of the depressing news. Because no matter how bleak things seem at times, no matter how much it feels like we’re just treading water and repeating the same shit over and over, there IS a bigger picture. We ARE advancing. We HAVE made progress. In fact, we’ve progressed far enough as a race that we need to send janitors up into space.

And one day, we’ll need to send them to the moon to tidy up the colony.

…and to Mars, to work the mines.

…and to Europa to salvage all the failed attempts at creating a permanent city on a giant shifting ice plane.

…and beyond.

And that makes me happy.

Thus concludes the Morning Musing for Wednesday, January 21, 2015. I’m off to try and calculate just how many of my dreams have been wished upon garbage. Ah, science. You make life fun.

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