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Spill it, NASA

Taxi Driver



It's happened, the one thing I thought would never happen with this job. For a solid week riders in my taxicab have been shamelessly well-behaved. Just who do they think they are?

When I sat down with my friends at the Independent to brainstorm and begin this column, I assured them that the supply of sordid subject matter would be inexhaustible. But for now, the fake epileptic seizures to avoid paying a fare, the pleasures and pains of Tejon Street revelers, the tearful confessors, the outraged bigots and evangelists, the crime victims and perpetrators, and so on, all seem to have retreated to their respective dens and lairs to perhaps rest and rearm for another assault.

Let's hope so. I'm shaken, perplexed and disappointed by this current plague of good behavior.

For now, I'm compelled to share part of a phone conversation that took place in my cab the other night, on a subject that concerns us earthlings one and all.

The rider emerged from a busy crowd at The Ritz, and got in, a smartphone held to his ear. He glanced at me and said "Peterson," meaning of course, the Air Force base, then "Take Platte straight out." Off we went. The phone would never leave his ear.

If the possibility of life on other planets has never interested you, or doesn't now, read no further. Otherwise, there's a thing out there called the Cassini space probe, and from this rider I feel that we should have knowledge of and concern about it, especially since "We're paying for it!" as he emphasized over and over to his friend on the phone.

As an Air Force insider, he might know something revealing, I figured. To paraphrase, he explained that the Earth is enveloped in methane gas, giving evidence of our existence and residency here. "Cow flatulence," he maintains, is the primary source of this methane, and is "purplish-looking in the orbit photos," the result of our massive beef production. Methane, therefore, signals the presence of "decaying organic matter," of plant, animal, and human life forms.

It's also been detected on one of the moons of Saturn, one we call Titan.

NASA, the rider maintained, launched a satellite years ago to penetrate Titan's atmosphere and photograph its methane-shrouded surface above and below. Now it's collecting the data.

What do the pictures show? My rider demanded to know, and now.

We reached a stretch of motels and nightclubs along Platte, but the rider was elsewhere, obsessively focused on two things: the possibilities for life existing on Titan, and our right to know if it does, or does not.

Who can avoid speculating when this topic — "life in the universe" — presents itself? It's not always a matter of what science can tell us, but what we need to know for ourselves, that sustains interest.

We arrived at Peterson and he paid, got out, and was gone. But later, on my own, I did a little research on Cassini. Turns out that over the past 10 years, NASA has reported on geysers and oceans on Saturn's moons. Next week, it will get within 600 miles of Titan before sending back another mass of data. Which is all well and good. But what I'm looking for, and I think this rider was, too, is some kind of message.

If we're gonna get that close to a planet so much like our own, there has to be something worth interpreting to see or recognize, something that conveys meaning to consider, not just another pile of rocks like on Mars or the Moon, or decaying "organic matter" with no attachment to anything. If that's all NASA expected to find, and they must've had some idea what was out there, then the mission was a waste before it ever got off the ground.

It is an injustice not to be given all the facts, and allowed to interpret them for ourselves. There is methane on Titan. So, NASA, what is that really about? And isn't our right to the facts just as important as the facts themselves?

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