Space Program Gets Year off to Good Start

Leigh Weimers,Column,San Jose Mercury News
Jan. 6, 2004 

Happy New Year (belatedly). So what's worth talking about since last we got together? As usual, plenty. Let's catch up.

RED MEANS GO: The U.S. space program dropped a picture-perfect lander on the Red Planet, Mars, and anticipates loads of perfect pictures. Just the thing to lift spirits here in Silicon Valley, where making science fiction science fact is a way of life. And earlier, another space vehicle captured samples from a comet's tail -- the equivalent, we're told, of a firing a bullet to hit another bullet. There'd been major disappointments in our space activities before these two accomplishments. But as in sports, cooking and running for office, you're only as good as your last effort. And these last two are really good.

TAKE A SHOT: Other uses of science, though, can seem a trifle bizarre. Sunnyvale sign company exec Gary Williams was surfing the Net during the holidays and came across some different greenery. According to a report in the South Florida Business Journal, he learned, Miami-based ammunition maker American Ammunition has received a federal contract potentially worth up to $52.7 million to supply ''green'' ammunition.

''Green ammunition?'' Williams asks. ''Environmentally friendly bullets? Guess it depends if you're the shooter or the shootee.''

It does sound like another government oxymoron, all right. But Phil Guzman, the veep of tech services at American Ammunition, tells me the company's heavy-metal free bullets aren't intended for warfare. ''They're used primarily for practice and training,'' he says. The military finds they ease cleanup on firing ranges, where accumulations of lead slugs can cause pollution problems. I know how that can be. They're still trying to remove the bullets I sprayed into sand dunes instead of targets while I was in basic training at Fort Ord.

Still, you have to wonder if overzealous environmentalists will take note of this green ammunition and demand a more widespread use in future warfare. An unpolluted battlefield (bodies aside) would be a happier battlefield.

''Can you imagine biodegradable bullets with expiration dates?'' Williams wonders. ''That'd be killing 'em with kindness.''

HONORS LIST: But let's get serious again. December was a good month for York Wu of San Jose and Andrew Chien of Saratoga. They were among the student winners of the 2003 Mathcounts national competition who received congratulations from President George W. Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige at the White House. (Wu, incidentally, plays suo-na, a double-reed Chinese oboe/trumpet, with the local Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra. Kids who play music usually do better in math, points out instructor Gordon Lee. So why do some schools still think music is a frill?)

And congrats to the tech angels recently honored by The lineup -- Tom Byers of Stanford's engineering school, Deven Verma of TIE, lawyer John Goodrich, software guru Andy Bechtolsheim, semiconductor whiz Glen Balzer and biotech leader Norm Sokoloff -- would make anyone's risk-finance hall of fame. In this happy new year or any other.