There’s been quite a bit of NASA press recently , both good and bad – new discoveries on other planets, funding shortfalls and avoidable accidents.  What hasn’t been thought about in a constructive way is just why we think we still need to be in space at all.  Sure, there are space installations like satellites that influence our daily lives that should and will continue to be maintained.  But why do humans need to be out there, floating amongst the debris?  Does it really enrich our lives that much more to have a human, rather than a machine, out in the void, especially considering the risks (and the cost)?

MIT says yes.  A recently published white paper analyzes the history of our space program, evaluates cooperative international efforts, and looks at the possibilities of involving the private sphere.  There’s been quite a bit of arguing going on recently in these areas.  While I may not agree that exploration itself makes the national space program worth the risk and investment, the ideas presented are generally well thought out and interesting to consider.  And the idea of that vast outer frontier – what can I say?  It still inspires wonder.

Walking the fire.

Anyone who’s ever been around a campfire knows you can only stand so close. There is a point at which the flames sear and scald instead of warming. There is an unseeable edge of heat that begins to crackle the skin, wrinkling flesh with dryness. It’s just beyond this edge, not quite touching the flame, where marshmallows roast to perfection and darkening ash whirls outwards quickly. It’s the place where sneakers begin to melt instead of drying, where wet woolen mittens cringe rather than shrink. It’s this space that makes your face morph from flushed to blistering.

Standing in this space is a constant battle. You lean in, you feel your face get brittle. You lean out and the night begins to chill you. You kind of hover, and in-out-in motion that keeps your nerve endings jangling. Then there’s a gust of wind, a blast of sparks, or a new swirl of smoke that makes the fire edge uninhabitable, at least momentarily.

I come from a long line of stubborn hard-nosers with raging tempers on both sides.   It is this fact that makes my own life – my relationships, my career choices, my moral code, and my lifestyle – its own edge of fire.  I dance at the edges of other people, flitting only close enough to be slightly warmed or a little flushed.  I have yet to fully commit to a single career path, leaning in or out in one direction or another as I circle the potential brightness of future jobs.  I edge a narrow line of responsibility and freedom.

It’s true that most of us act in a similar fashion.  Most of us just dance at the edges of life.  Most of us are afraid of the bad burns, the scarring, the pain, and the possible loss that fire causes.  But there are some few – fire eaters, hot coal walkers, special effects technicians and stunt men – that master the delicate balance of heat and burning, flame and ash.  I wonder if my life would be fuller if I learned to walk the fire, instead of tentatively bordering it.

Sex Sells.

Ok, we all know the studies that have been done linking attractive people in advertising to successful ads.  We all know that even in the smartest, most world-savvy of us, the appeal of being that attractive ourselves or winning the heart of someone else that attractive is a strong one.  We want to be and to have some ideal of beauty, and the commercials that promise us we will be and will have this ideal are the ones that get us to buy.

But our responses may be more basic than that.  A recent study has shown that men are willing to risk more when presented with a positive image before a gambling situation (say, a photo of a handsome couple together) than a negative (snakes and spiders) or neutral (office supplies) one.  In this case, unlike that of advertisements, the image is completely unrelated to the end result.  Gambling does not make you a handsome couple, a snake, or a stapler, nor is there any implication that it does.  However, the survey shows that by stimulating that positive part of the brain with a positive image, risk-taking increases.

To a certain extent this is common sense.  When we are happy, we feel more secure and able to take risks.  On a good day, you’re more likely to ask that crush out on a date.  On a bad day, you’re less likely to buy that new car you’ve been looking at.  While this study shows that such affects are almost instantaneously registered to your brain, the result is pretty much the same.  You’re going to gamble more in a casino with attractive and friendly serving staff, a good ambiance, and with a few drinks in you because you feel happy and relaxed.  No one gambles in a casino being bombed.

It’s a balloooooon!

When I was in high school, my world history teacher had an odd pronunciation of certain words, coupled with dramatic overemphasis. His eyes would get big; his hands would move expansively, and ‘balloooon’ would press out between his lips. Maybe it was his Greek heritage, which may also be responsible for his black Teva sandals worn with navy gold-toed socks. Still, this drama and pronunciation was oddly fascinating, even when the subject matter was not.

I can’t quite remember when in class he had the opportunity to even use the word balloon. Was it some odd tangential discussion of Louis XVIs reign and the first official hot-air balloon flight? Was it some reference to the expansion of the Mongol Empire, like a balloon? Was it the offhand mention of some current event? No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite recall the specifics of the situation, though I still have a perfect picture in my head of him saying the word ‘balloon’ as if he himself was filling with an unnamed gas.

If he is teaching class today, I hope he will do his special balloon impression in honor of the balloon priest lost at sea. While I typically am not a fan of fundraising that involves ridiculous stunts, world records, or a waste of time and resources, I must admit, I think this particular idea is brilliant. Let’s take off attached to hundreds of helium-filled balloons and see how far it gets us. Even just for fun, I think it’s a pretty awesome idea. And this is awesome plus, because not only is it ridiculous in a most delightful way, but the end result will also benefit truckers. And who doesn’t like truckers?

While plenty of preparations were taken for this somewhat risky publicity and fundraising stunt, the loss of the priest does serve to illuminate the dangers of the fun. Hopefully he will be found safe – regardless, let’s hope the additional publicity generates enough interest and support to open TWO spiritual trucker rest stops.

The Woman at the Top

Lyn St. James.  Janet Guthrie.  Sarah Fisher.  Danica Patrick.  These are the four women who have taken a place in Indy car racing despite their sex, showing yet another place in which women should be taken as seriously as men.  Danica in particular became very popular as rookie of the year and as an almost girlish competitor as well.  Now her continuation in the Indy car circuit has paid off – she won her first race yesterday, the Indy Japan 300.

What does this mean for the future?  Will Danica, now that she’s won an Indy race, switch over to NASCAR (which has had about three times as many female drivers as Indy car racing) after the end of her current contract?  Will the 24-year-old pursue a new career objective in a different area?  Will she continue to be a draw for Indy car racing, which continues to shrink in popularity when compared with other racing types?  Why does racing continue to be a male-dominated sport?

I’ll attempt to answer the last question, which I seem to have the best handle on.  While it’s obvious that some professions (such as fireman or construction worker) are more difficult, though not impossible, for a woman due to a necessary physical strength, racing does not require this sort of brute power.  It does require certain skills, such as hand-eye coordination, which are often (but not always) more developed in men.  However, I would say the key skill has to do with risk and judgment.  From statistics on investing, it has been noted that men are more often risk-takers.  It takes a certain type of person to willfully risk life and limb by testing their nerves against machines, or nature, or each other.  Women do it every day, as skiiers and snowboarders, cliff divers, acrobats, stunt women, and race car drivers.  However, I would guess that many of these areas are and will continue to be male-dominated, for at least as long as the female mind is generally wired towards species preservation.  Perhaps someday, more than a few of us will be able to take that hindbrain in hand, and tell it once and for all just exactly what we are risking, and what we can afford to lose.