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Here is one of the world’s rarest and strangest fish, the golden cave catfish (Clarias cavernicola) which can be found only one place on Earth, the Algamas/Dragonsbreath cave in the Namib Desert.  This incredible cavern is 100 meters (300 feet) beneath the desert and it holds the world’s largest known underground lake (discounting all subglacial lakes—which can be huge).  Above ground is an arid desert wasteland, but in cave is a huge lake where unfathomed waters may descend another 100 meters into the Earth.  Since only a narrow chasm opens to the sky, the lake has a very limited ecosystem built around whatever falls into this chasm (which was only discovered by science in 1986).  These blind ascetic catfish dwell on such scraps and on the white shrimp and strange aquatic worms which live in the water beneath the desert.  Though they have lost their eyes, their other senses have become extremely acute in order to find every bug or speck of nutrient which falls into the hidden lake.  Additionally, these small (16 cm/6 inch) fish have a limited ability to sip air–so that they can better survive the still and anaerobic depths of their hidden lake. The entire species may only consist of a few hundred (or thousand) individuals.

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Orion, the giant hunter, is one of the oldest figures in Greek mythology.  He is mentioned in the most ancient surviving works of Greek literature (well, aside from linear B tablets).  There are various contradictory myths about his birth and about his death (indeed, he seems almost to be from a pre-Ionic generation of gods and heroes), however out of this mish-mash, there is a rough consensus: Orion was an earth-straddling giant, the son of sea-god Poseidon.  Alone among gods and mortals, he found romantic favor in the eyes of the exquisite virgin goddess Artemis, but, because of this affection, her jealous brother Apollo murdered him by means of a giant supernatural scorpion.  Artemis was bereft, but together with Zeus, and with her contrite brother, they hung the giant in the sky as an eternal memorial and as a challenge to future heroes (and as an unspoken threat).  During winter, Orion is arguably the most recognizable constellation from the Northern hemisphere.

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There is a famous myth about Orion before he met Artemis and his doom.  The king of Chios was attempting to bring agriculture and viniculture to his island people, but the howling of lions, bears, wolves, and other wild animals kept him up all night (this is one of those troubling myths about the distinctions between uncivilized hunters and civilized farmers).  The king promised Orion the hand of his gorgeous daughter, Merope, if the hunter could remedy this problem.  Night and day, the giant huntsman slaughtered wild beasts until the island was free of big (loud) predators, yet, when Orion applied to the king to wed his promised bride, the recalcitrant monarch kept complaining he could hear nonexistent wolves.  Orion was wroth at the broken deal, but the crafty king plied him with flattering words and with wine, wine, wine by the barrel until even the giant was overcome and passed out in a drunken stupor.  The king then had his bondsmen blind Orion, who stumbled off into the ocean (which, by the way, he could easily walk upon because of his paternal heritage).  Orion wondered here and there across the Mediterranean, lost, until at last he heard the hammers of workshop of the great smith Hephaestus.  The kind god took pity upon the blinded giant and lent one of his shop Cyclops to sit on the great hunter’s shoulder and lead him to a cure.  With directions from the Cyclops, Orion strode due east until he came to the place of the dawn, whereupon the radiant light of the morning sun cured his blindness.

Landscape with Blind Orion Seeking the Sun (Nicolas Poussin, 1658, oil on canvas)

Landscape with Blind Orion Seeking the Sun (Nicolas Poussin, 1658, oil on canvas)

There is a reason I am bringing up the godlike giant Orion (whose likeness hangs so magnificently in the winter sky). And there is likewise a reason I am telling this story of perfidy and blindness at the hands of a greedy king.  Tomorrow at 7:05 AM EST, the American space agency NASA will launch its new Orion spacecraft from America’s principal spaceport at Cape Canaveral.  Orion is a crew capsule designed for deep-space missions—to take humans to the moon (or a comparable destination).  After decades, we are again building vessels which can carry humans into beyond near-Earth orbit.

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For tomorrow’s unmanned test flight, Orion will ride a Delta IV heavy rocket into orbit, but for actual manned missions, the capsule will sit atop the planned SLS (space launch system) rocket, a behemoth built for leaving Earth.  The capsule will rise to 14 times the height of the International Space Station (which hangs near the Earth) and then reenter Earth’s atmosphere at a blazing 32,200 kilometers per hour (20,000 miles per hour). Although it is designed to hold 4 astronauts for a 21 day mission, during its test flight, Orion’s crew will consist of symbolic items such as one of Cookie Monster’s cookies, poetry, a rubber duck, and a piece of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Artist's conception of Orion Spacecraft in orbit

Artist’s conception of Orion Spacecraft in orbit

It is high time we return to manned space exploration! The business and political masters of the United States have been busy building monopolies and gaming the financial markets rather than working on science, exploration, and progress.  We have been blundering around blind for too long.  It’s time to start crafting some long term space goals and working diligently towards them.  Orion is a small step, but it is a small step closer to my fondest dream of colonizing the inviting skies of Venus.

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