Friday, July 17, 2009

Does the Moon Beckon Us Back?

As the father of three teenagers, I share with millions of other boomers a head-scratching perplexity. Why don’t today’s youth care about outer space?

The easy answer would be to seize upon a simple nostrum -- about each era rejecting the obsessions of the one before it. But then, in that case, why is the very opposite true about popular music? Back in the hippie era, music divided the generations. But today? Well, my kids adore classic 60s and 70s Rock. In a surf shop or bike store, all I have to do is mention a few of the concerts that I snuck into, long ago, and the brash young fellers are at my feet, saying “tell us more, gramps!”

So why do they yawn, when we turn to the NASA Channel or tape the latest shuttle launch to show them after dinner, or when we talk about colonizing Mars?

Or when we brag about being members of a species who walked on the Moon? For certain, you don’t hear astronaut mentioned on any list of dream jobs.

Puzzling over this quandary, I was reminded of something Norman Mailer said, when he wrote his 1960s tome Of A Fire on the Moon. Mailer had begun researching the book amid feelings of smug, intellectual hostility toward the crewcut engineers and fliers he encountered... only then his attitude shifted when he realized, in a startled epiphany that: “They were achieving not one, but two bona fide miracles.”

Feats that -- when Mailer really thought about it -- struck him as truly Biblical in proportion.

1. They were actually going to the Moon!

2. They were actually succeeding in making such an adventure boring.

Mailer’s insight came to mind, while I was talking to my kids about the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Of all the predictions* ever made about spaceflight, I figure the least imaginable outcome would have been ennui.

*(Speaking of predictions. In a 1959 comic strip Jeff Hawke, the writers forecast that the first human landing on the Moon would happen on 4 August 1969, missing the real-life date by only two weeks.

Of course, policy has had a lot to do with it. Members of the astronaut corps were always willing to accept a level of calculated risk similar to -- if more carefully managed than -- the adventurous pioneers of aviation. Perhaps the public might also have accepted the kind of casualty rates that usually occur on a frontier -- they did in Lindbergh’s time. But politicians could not. They wanted promises of “routine access to space.” And so, the shuttle proved an expensive and awkward mix of overblown promises, lost opportunities, relentless nit-pickery and mind numbing sameness. Not at all what we expected, back when my peers sat in dazed wonder, in the front row, watching Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.

Nor is that entirely a bad thing. As I point out elsewhere, we may have failed to build magnificent, rolling space hotels and moonbases that frolic to Strauss waltzes. But our civilization is a better one, than was depicted in that film. And if I had to choose...

Now consider a few other perspectives. For example: ever since the invention of the steam locomotive, human beings (or their machines) managed, every passing year and decade, to keep traveling faster at an accelerating rate -- a curve that kept spiking ever more vertical, until we launched the Voyager space probes on their pellmell fling past Jupiter and beyond the Solar System, in the mid 1970s. Extrapolating that curve of ever-greater speed, some expected that we would, by 2010, dispatch probes to distant stars! We might easily have landed humans on Mars, using Freeman Dyson’s marvelous Orion-drive ships. It all appeared as inevitable and obvious as Moore’s Law of computer development seems to a different generation of techie-transcendentalists.

Only then, quite suddenly, the curve of acceleration abruptly stopped -- after 150 years. The Voyagers still represent, in many ways, a high water mark of humanity’s progress in space, culminating and concluding our raucous search for speed. At least, for now.

Indeed, millions now look at the Space Race obsession as a mark of earlier immaturity. Sure, we benefit from weather and communication satellites, and reconnaissance-sats spread the worldwide strategic transparency that arguably save all our lives, during the Cold War. People are moderately proud of robotic space probes like Hubble and Cassini and Spirit and Opportunity. But, when it comes to dreams of men and women, venturing into vacuum waste, well, you can hardly even find that happening in movie sci fi anymore, let alone our rel-life ambitions.

Certainly, when it comes to the actual Moon itself, I look with skepticism upon any thought of hurrying back there. My own graduate research advisor was the fellow who predicted there might be ice in lightless crater-bottoms, at the north or south lunar poles -- and if it turns out to be true, there may be something useful about the place, someday. But, despite a politician's grandiose boondoggle, it hardly seems a useful destination. Not compared to the riches that await us at near-Earth crossing asteroids, for example. Or that prime piece of real estate that has already caught the Russians' eye -- Phobos. Or the possible abode of life that is Europa.

And yet, in honor of this anniversary, I want to make two points, in defense of those quaint old missions to the Moon.

First, they serve as a backstop against the gloom and pessimism that seem to be preached by cynics of both right and left, at every turn. How many of the arguments for some ambitious enterprise or another begin with: “If we could go to the moon...” Damn right. If we could do that... well... we could do a heckuva lot of cool things, with some gumption, that is.

Finally - I believe the Apollo missions helped to create some of the most important art in human history.

That's a bold and strange statement. But let me dare to define effective visual art as some work or representation that subtly changes human beings just by the sight of it, transforming hearts and minds without verbal or logical persuasion.

By that reckoning, the 20th century featured two hugely effective works of visual art, both of them gifts of physics! First, the terrifying image of the atom bomb altered forever our little-boy romantic attachment to war, beckoning us instead us to grow up a bit in dealing with this new and awesome power to destroy. Defense became the business of serious grownups. Even (especially) among soldiers, war itself is now seen as evidence of failure - an urgent and risky measure arising out of inadequate diplomacy, preparation or deterrence.

The second image that changed us was a gift that arrived at the very end of one of the most difficult years any of us can remember - 1968 - a year that brought most Americans to the brink of exhaustion and despair.

Only then, a final token arrived -- like a gleam of hope shining at the bottom of Pandora’s Box...when the Apollo 8 astronauts brought home that first perfect image of the Earth, floating as a blue marble in space. A picture that moved even the most cynical hearts and changed forever our outlook towards this fragile oasis world.

I'm willing to argue that it was that image -- a work of art that was purely created by humanity’s scientific boldness and ambition -- that transformed us more than anything else. Perhaps making us better, more responsible citizens and world-managers. But also -- one can hope -- possibly sending us down roads that will make us more ready and more worthy, when that day comes for our childrens’ children to reverse things yet again, to once again resume chanting:

“Let’s go!”


For a somewhat expanded version of this essay... and other goodies(!)... drop in at the wonderful site


SteveO said...

Interesting piece, Dr. Brin.

I don't know that space ennui is that pervasive, though certainly less than it was in the heyday of exploration. I teach at the University of Colorado, and there are space geeks galore there. In fact, last semester the class before me in the classroom was on the effects of freefall on the body taught by a former astronaut.

My older daughter's early dream was to be the first person on Europa, there to study the animals. (You can imagine what kind of reaction this caused when adults asked this 5-year old what she wanted to be when she grew up!)

But she has drifted away from this goal now that she sees NASA can only achieve LEO, and I can't say otherwise since the chance of actually getting into space just to LEO are (pun intended) astronomically small.

So I think that a major component of what appears ennui is maybe the disconnection between space and anything young people are likely to have anything to do with.

Perhaps the excitement will be rekindled if (and when) a more affordable and common way to space is found. (Space elevator anyone?)

My concern has been for a long time that, having achieved the goal of being to the Moon, humans would piddle around concerned with the immediate and not the long-term, until one day we simply do not have the resources to get back. (This is my depressing answer to the Drake equation.) Already the era of cheap power pulled from the ground is ending, and for all its downside, petroleum is an amazingly energy-dense material. If we don't get off this rock and out and about the solar system soon, I fear the confluence of cheap energy and the minimum level of technology will be gone, and we will be stuck here for the rest of our species (and any following species won't even be able to get there the first time).

Cliff said...

But our civilization is a better one, than was depicted in [2001]

I don't recall anything, really about the civilization in 2001. It pretty much all took place in space, IIRC.

Defense became the business of serious grownups.

wait what

I mean, when we have military commercials featuring songs by Godsmack, Kid Rock and Three Doors down, can you really say that with a straight face?

As for the point of the post, I wonder if part of the reason for the disinterest is now we know how hard it is to live in space.
Radiation, loss of bone mass, cramped quarters. Hell, even going to the bathroom is an epic.
I know it takes some of the appeal out for me.

lc said...

The picture:

Tony Fisk said...

I think 'space ennui' is primarily directed at manned exploration, whereas schoolchildren are naming unmanned vehicles (David might care to add his three data points to refute/support this). Space probes are still delivering the goods in spades (consider Cassini and, of course, those intrepid pioneers still trundling around on Mars). And how can anyone *not* be moved by the stunning images given by Hubble (featured in the latest Planetary Society magazine)

Manned missions are currently seen as routine and, yes, boring. An exception would be where they are doing something to aid unmanned missions, like fixing Hubble. Trips to the ISS, though? (hell, what do they *do* up there? Answer, until recently, not a lot)

An aside to that image. Clarke, in one his last interviews, made an observation that Apollo was an abberrant spike and that we are at about the level of space exploration you would expect from a smoothed extrapolation from abilities in the 40's and 50's. It is a really sobering thought that, in some parallel and smoother universe, they might only just becoming aware of the true extent of man's impact on the Earth from space.

In fact, I tend to share the view that manned exploration is not a priority, *particularly* if it sucks money from the unmanned effort (and I think we've had enough smoky conspiracy theories on why that might occur!)

So, a question to ponder: what would rekindle interest in manned exploration?

(I've rambled enough for now, but might come back with my thoughts later)

kethequa: indian term for 'spirit of discovery'

Acacia H. said...

Apollo was the result of what happens when humanity takes big chances. There is a saying though I might be garbling it: shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you still end up among the stars.

I still believe the Moon is where we need to go next, and to stay. We need to set up a permanent lunar base, as part of a long-term project to establish ourselves in the solar system. Mining of Near Earth Asteroids or going to Phobos isn't enough, you see. Someone will always say "why not send robots instead?" and we'll end up still on the Earth letting machines do our exploring... and staying safe and cozy on this planet while it goes to pot around us.

No. We need to shoot for the stars. And to do that, we need a visible presence on the most visible reminder we have of space around: the Moon. It doesn't matter what resources are there. It doesn't matter if it's a waste of time and money and physical resources. What the Moon represents is something greater, something spiritual. It represents a dream come true.

How much of science fiction has a lunar base as part and parcel of the establishment? How many science fiction movies have the Moon as a place where man lives? Why is this?

It is because the Moon is a part of our collective psyche and subconsciousness. Mars and Europa and the rest of the solar system outside of the Sun lack the large-scale visibility the Moon has. To the naked eye, Mars, Jupiter, Venus... these are spots of light, moving stars. It is the Sun and the Moon that have meaning, that have shape and importance. One is so hot we cannot go there... and even if we could, is there a reason? The other, however... is so much closer, and so much easier to get to (relatively speaking) that we must go there. To inspire humanity. To take that first step to the stars.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

David Orban said...

I met recently Giovanni Bignami, former Chairman of the Space Science Advisory Committee of the European Space Agency, and author of the ESA Cosmic Vision 2015-25 ten year planning document, and recorded a short video with him: "Space Exploration: the Moon, Mars, and beyond".

He made a few remarks that are relevant imho to your points:
1. there is little to learn from a scientific point of view from going back to the moon
2. if chemical rockets are sufficient for Earth orbit, serious interplanetary exploration needs nuclear rockets
3. we have no idea how to engineer interstellar missions
4. within ten years we will observe an extrasolar planet with traces of free oxygen in its spectrum.

The drop-off in the increase of speeds I think can be attributed to 2. above: nuclear propulsion hasn't been adopted on a wide scale. It is still very controversial when plutonium powered ion-drives on board of our probes are blasted-off.

The discovery of extraterrestrial life, the only source of free oxygen replenishment we know of, is going to be a watershed event of course, and will be one of the reasons a new generation is going to be in awe with space again.

Unknown said...
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Tim H. said...

The moon may have a future as a manufacturing base with a shallow gravity well, but it might be inferior to an asteroid brought to a convenient earth orbit. A new, small moon would be a very satisfactory conclusion for an interplanetary mission.

lc said...

We need to learn how to live on another planet. The Moon is a convenient place to do that. If anything goes wrong, help is only three days (or so) away. (The rescue rocket/supply rocket would have to be kept ready.) The Space Station is good for learning how to live in zero/microgravity for long periods. What do we need to learn about moving about a landmass, building shelters, making fuel, growing crops, repairing equipment, etc.? Finding out on Mars itself would be hazardous or hopeless. A Moon base makes sense as a dry run for living on Mars. There will be differences such as the lack of duststorms on the Moon, but there is so much we can't even imagine about living on another planet that we should practice on the heavenly body next door first.

sociotard said...
A publisher gave Amazon permission to sell a book electronically, then changed its mind. Amazon quickly removed the book from its selection. What they did next, though, was strange.
They removed the book from the Kindles of the people who'd already bought it. Yes, Amazon refunded the money quickly, and yes, this is rare. Even so, it is unsettling that it is even possible.
But wait, it gets better. The books that vanished were "1984" and "Animal Farm".

Stefan Jones said...

I wanted to give a thumbs up to this indie-theater middling-budget SF movie.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is a working stiff spaceman, the only human on a He3 mining operation on the moon. His three year contract is fortunately almost up, because he's in really sore shape. The video link to home is in "recorded message mode only" due to a bad satellite, and the only real conversations he has is with a utility robot ("GERTY," Kevin Spacey). He starts to see things . . . including when he's on the job fetching helium3 cylinders from the always-on surface scraping mining crawlers.

One such hallucination results in a near-fatal accident. One moment Sam is stuck in a depressurizing rover, the next he's on the infirmary cot being tended by GERTY.

And things get weird from there.

Savvy SF fans will probably figure it all out really quickly, but it is still really well done and worth seeing. The special effects -- "outdoor" shots of the lunar surface -- are modest but well done.

Tony Fisk said...

Are you referring to Moon?

I am not opposed to manned exploration, but I don't see it as a priority at the moment. Here are a few factors that may change that:
1. wanting to do something that can't be done better by robots (being in a position to apply a good thump to Galileo's high gain antennae being an example although, like Marvin, I wouldn't call it 'job satisfaction')
2. a clear guarantee that manned missions will not proceed at the expense of unmanned ones.
3. a cheap mode of access to space
4. a quick mode of transport, once in space.

A couple of ways of achieving these:
1. the most immediate thing I can think of is establishing orbital power stations and factories.

2. I suppose the term 'business plan' is going to come in here.

3. space elevators of whatever kind (btw *this* strikes me as the challenge of the moment: something that should be doable but which remains tantalisingly out of reach)

4. Requires something that frees us from the useful but mundane Hohlmann orbital transfers. Something delivering a steady thrust (at least ion drives are now being used in at least two space missions. Now 'all' we need do is increase the force by a few orders of magnitude)

The moon: why dig yourself out of one hole, in order to jump into another? True, it's a shallower hole, and one that can be surmounted by alternate technologies (eg, EM accelerators). It is also a grotty environment long term. It could serve as a source for materials, compared with NEO asteroids, or old Earth. The question now arises: which option for supplying raw materials to orbital factories is the most economic and most achievable?

I look forward to being able to detect interesting compounds in other solar systems, but our capacity for interstellar travel is currently so limited that I doubt even the discovery of chlorohpyll near Proxima Centauri will get us going.

Tony Fisk said...

Speaking of lunar landings, here are some pictures from LRO of the Apollo 14 landing site (complete with footprints!)

rewinn said...

Barring an extremely unlikely MacGuffin left by a benevolent Elder Race a.k.a. Clarke's Sentinel, there is nothing on Sol's other planets we need more than we need to clean up this one first. Gaining Mars and losing Earth is a mugs' game.

I'm sorry this is the case, but facts must be faced bravely. Appeals to the joys of exploration, to the need to get off this rock and so forth are simply appeals to an Elder Race or other religious figure to relieve us of our mundane responsibilities, e.g. cleaning up our room BEFORE we go out to play.

"Earthrise" is certainly a lovely and influential picture, but we can now make as many of those as we wish through robots and/or Photoshop; both are far cheaper than another Apollo. Getting astronauts to the moon, or even to Mars or an orbit intersecting Alpha Centauri isn't beyond our technology; it's getting them there ALIVE that's the problem, one that is intrinsically expensive to solve AND has almost no return superior to sending an expendable, cheaper and more durable robot ... other than an appeal to emotion, which is no basis for spending that kind of money.

The good news is that we have unlimited power available to us in the form of decaying elements at the core of our Earth (powering the largest fission reactor we can conveniently tap), and fusing elements in our Sun (powering the largest fusion reactor from which we can conveniently get energy.) Implementing the infrastructure to power our civilization from these may take a century, but thereafter our civilization may have the surplus energy to start sending practical probes toward the Galactic Core, or where-ever.

The bad news is that we, personally, will never see this promised land. Buck up and face it! This is the failure of no-one - not NASA, and not our youth; it is simply the result of the universe's cold equations.

As to our youth, there is no shortage of adventurous spirit there; their focus is on more practical issues such as making the energy transition so necessary to our civilization's survival and (if you will) ultimate exploration of space.

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Tony Fisk said...

The bad news is that we, personally, will never see this promised land.

I consider myself fortunate that I have been able to observe each* of the solar system's planets from close up in my lifetime, and seen the surface of four.

All on a budget which is small change.

Of course ecological issues take priority, and probably will for the next century at least. It shouldn't mean no effort can be spared for anything else, however.

*barring Pluto, which has to wait another 6 years or so. Then again Vesta and Ceres are due in the next couple of years as well.

Douglas Carnall, @juliuzbeezer said...

From the article to which you link extolling the virtues of our civilisation:

Over half of those alive on Earth today never saw war, starvation or major civil strife with their own eyes. Most never went more than a day without food. Only a small fraction have seen a city burn, heard the footsteps of a conquering army, or watched an overlord brutalize the helpless. Yet all these events were routine for our ancestors!

A bit complacent? Your excellent American artist Gil Scott-Heron had it about right when he sang:

"I can't pay my doctor's bills
And whitey's on the moon!"

Apollo 13 - 1969
ObamaCare - 2009

Maybe young people realise, with 800 million people undernourished and another 1200 living with food insecurity, that their civilisation ain't so civilised.

The space programme was very much linked to ballistic missile technology; in 2008 the US spent 800 billion dollars on its military.

As M. Gandhi said, when asked what he thought of western civilisation: "I think it would be a good idea."

Still, it's not all bad: Stewart Brand's lobbying for NASA to release those images of our blue planet, our spaceship if you will, was, I think instrumental in producing a global consciousness.

Anonymous said...

There was an op-ed piece by Tom Wolfe posted to our meteorite group today, about how we may never get out of NEO again:

The space race was a political one, and once the political goals were achieved, space became nice but ultimately unnecessary. Without a series of progressive goals, any space program ultimately gets shelved in favor of terrestrial navel-gazing.

BTW, WordPress comments seem to be broken at the moment.

Tony Fisk said...


Yes indeed, there's much to grieve over: social injustice is rife!

As rife as it was back when... well, just when has it ever been as rife?

My point being that, while you will always find individual cases of hardship and hard luck, don't use them to prove a point (although they can certainly suggest one). Use trends, instead.

(there was whitey on the Moon, and darkey in the white house... and Kofi Annan was an inspiration to a generation of Africans. M Gandhi was an inspiration for anyone)

Still, trends only show us what has been, and we may well be about to hit a wall wrt food and water.

David Brin said...

Tony makes an excellent point that I've shared with Arthur Clarke on occasion. The Apollo era of spaceflight was brilliant, divine madness!

The Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) you can see at the Air & Space Museum was one of the finest tools ever built by Man. It worked perfectly every time and saved the Apollo 13 crew. And yet, I look at it and mutter -- "There were actually guys who would climb into that thing?" Our descendants will consider us to have had cojones the size of bowling balls!

No, Apollo was an example of human will and desire overcoming impossible obstacles, decades before the right technology was around. Another example is the VCR -- a Rube Goldberg contraption of stunning, hypnotic complexity that should not have worked, let alone been mass-produced by the hundred-million copies so cheap they could not be repaired! All so that people could get to watch what they wanted, when they wanted, 30 years before the "real" technology was ready.

As for whether we should keep up our momentum into space, well, I do believe we should, but my chief reason is a surprising one.

Self-hating westerners - like Ghandi-worshippers who refuse to see his faults - miss the point about their OWN impulse to criticize their own society... which is that they are "social T Cells" who attack errors, and thus, they are proof of the HEALTH of Western Civilization.

I've made this point (and cited it above) elsewhere: People who watched the premiere of 2001 in 1967 who were teleported to 2009 would find two things stunning (1) that space proved so slow and hard...

...and (2) that we accomplished many generations of social change and improved tolerance and justice and reduce violence, in just one.

"Clean up Earth First!" is an absurd and stupid nostrum. It is entirely due to investments in space that Earth is today not a radioactive waste. Those investments taught us vastly better how to be planetary managers and are helping to refute the know-nothing climate change deniers. Galileo and Voyagers' data helped refine weather and atmosphere models. And much more is to come.

But my real reason is more basic and informed by history.

500 years ago, an anomalously bold Chinese emperor sent out a fleet of ships under Adm Cheng Ho, whose voyages would have changed the world... had not the emperor died, leaving the natural Chinese system to revert to normal xenophobic conservatism and dedication to static sameness. This is not an asian trait but a universal trait of pyramidal, feudal societies. And it will be our own trait, if we lose sight of what makes us different.

Being an exploratory people is PART of being a self-critical and self-improving people. You cannot separate the two. it is a false dichotomy and a horrid one. And it shows that many liberals are actually, deep-down, as troglodytic and officiously control-minded as the conservative with whom we normally associate those traits.

Fortunately, there are "techno-liberals" like Stewart Brand, aplenty. And they are (for now) in the driver's seat. Let's regain the spirit of that movement. The spirit of the positive sum gam.

The Apollo Program coincided with the most rapid era of social self-improvement in human history. We can do two (and more) things at once.

Stefan Jones said...

I just finished watching the pilot (and maybe only) episode of a Fox SF show, Virtuality.

I'm pretty impressed. The spaceship, headed for Epsilon Eridani, is believable; it has an accurately described (if shown as overly-powerful) Orion Drive, artificial gravity via a spinning section that is stopped and its modules swiveled for acceleration, and much else. There was no magical technology. A medical crisis is depicted in a realistically grim way.

The crew of twelve takes to dwelling in virtual reality to escape the tedium and defuse interpersonal conflicts. There's some sinister stuff going on in this psycho-recreational cyberspace. I suspect that will be the major plot-driver.

Crowning bit of wonderfulness: The trip is being funded in part by the entertainment industry, so everyone is on a Fox reality show. And back home, the climate situation is rapidly deteriorating.

* * *

That said . . . I'm in a really sour mood.

We're not going anywhere, any time soon. The shuttle-successors seem slap-dash and very, very early in their development. (Bad News.)

The Apollo 8 Whole Earth vision thing doesn't amount to much when it is pitted against crass nationalism and religious fundamentalism. The climate change bill is a tepid compromise; Americans as a whole aren't willing to change enough, fast enough, to make a difference. All the hard facts in the world won't change the mind of the climate change deniers, because they've got entrenched monied interests standing by to arm them with more bullshit talking points. Facts do not matter to them.

I think it will take disaster, suffering, and loss before enough minds get changed enough to cause a major change in attitude and government policy. I can only hope we have enough spare resources as we address the mess to go adventuring in space.

David Constantine said...

David- I believe you're thinking of Mailer's OF A FIRE ON THE MOON. James Michener wrote SPACE. Great post, btw.

Jonathan Andrew Sheen said...

I posted about that image on my LiveJournal on the 24th of December, 2008:

It was 40 years ago today...
On December 23rd of 1968, aboard a tiny craft, three human beings left the Earth. For the first time ever, human beings looked out the window of a spacecraft and watched their homeworld recede behind them.

This was a time before the Moon was a "Place." I've spoken and written of this often, but I'm not sure those of you too young to remember it can really understand the impact. I say "Moon," and you think of a place, of rolling grey hills that show no jagged edges, of people bundled up in comical padded suits, hopping across the landscape like bunnies. Oh, sure, you also think of the light in the sky. The bit of nighttime scenery, the playful crescent, the spooky Hallowe'en orb. But you also see those gently rolling hills.

And that began with Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders, 70 miles above the Lunar surface, seeing an actual landscape.

And on Christmas eve, from a place closer to that barren, alien world, than I am to any of my LJ friends (Save possibly modestyrabnott) the voices of three human beings spoke to the entire human race. They read the first ten verses of "Genesis" from the King James Bible -- a specifically Christian and generally religious choice I am not entirely comfortable with -- and wished the best to the people of the world that they had, for that moment, left behind.

And they showed us something that changed everything. They showed us that our world, the entire length and breadth of all human experience -- save theirs -- was all entirely contained within what the moon had been until that moment: a tiny, fragile, lonely light in the sky.

Politicians like to tell us that there is more that unites us than divides us. It's truer than their callow platitudes can imagine. Democrat and Republican, Liberal and Conservative, American and Briton and Australian and German and Iraqi and Afghanistani and Russian and Chinese, Christian and Jew and Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu... All of us live side by side on this big blue marble, on this light in the sky that a man on the moon could hide behind his thumbnail.

And humankind saw that, as we watched, for the very first time, the small, fragile earth rising from behind the horizon of another world.

So I wish to you all, all my sisters and brothers and neighbors on this fragile planet, the same good wishes that Messrs Borman, Lovell, and Anders offered to theirs, from that unique viewpoint:

[The famous "Earthrise" photo is here, and the quote below linked to an MP3 of the same words, as they were first spoken.]

"Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."

TwinBeam said...

Kids know there's nearly zero chance they'll become an astronaut or otherwise get into space, let alone go to the moon or Mars, let alone have a chance to contribute significantly while they're still a kid. Fix that and they'll get excited.

Take $1 billion a year from the budget of the US Department of Education. Turn it over to the finalists of the 2010 national Science Talent Search contest (or other suitable group of highly talented, mature and motivated kids). Up to them how to organize, except they ultimately have to please their congressional oversight.

Give them mandates to (a) develop space resources for the benefit of mankind as a space-faring civilization; and (b) get every kid in the country excited to contribute to the program by learning and doing; (c) keep control of the program in the hands of volunteers aged 19 and younger.

My recommendation to them would "remote controlled lunar robots". Have kids earn "robot operator's licenses" through knowledge and simulator skill tests. Time on the robots (doing real work), would be broken up into 30 minute slots, to be distributed in a variety of ways that stimulate interest and achievements contributing to the program's goals.

David McCabe said...

The spam problem is getting pretty bad here. Perhaps spam deletion can be delegated to some faithful reader.

rewinn said...

" "Clean up Earth First!" is an absurd and stupid nostrum."

The reason given for this bit of invective is:

"It is entirely due to investments in space that Earth is today not a radioactive waste.

This is simply false. The only evidence given for this claim is:

"Those investments taught us vastly better how to be planetary managers and are helping to refute the know-nothing climate change deniers. Galileo and Voyagers' data helped refine weather and atmosphere models."

But it does not follow that our planet would be a radioactive waste without "those investments". We avoided a nuclear WW3 and/or massive nuclear accidents for entirely different reasons (basically, the economics absurdity of nuclear fission power in the case of the latter, and a basic desire for survival in the former).

More to the point, even if the premise is granted (that space technology was responsible for thus-and-so), it does not follow that it is foolish to focus on fixing our impending ecological, environmental and civilizational catastrophe, rather than sinking resources into putting a few complex organisms on another large rock currently inhabited by something like bacteria or, if we're lucky about Europa, iceworms. The economic case for human space travel has yet to be made, whereas the economic case for converting our planetary civilization to sustainability is beyond argument.

Certainly unmanned devices have been extraordinarily useful, and one can also throw in communications and earth-monitoring satellites. If you want to say they're essential, I won't argue; it's probably true. If you wanna keep sending robots hither and yon doing basic science, that's probably a good idea. And if you want to help convert our civilization with Dyson spheres or Mylar mirrors in near-earth orbit or a space elevator converting our Earth's rotation into usable energy, fine, make the case.

But none of this involves manned spaceflight. Advances in robot technology is improving much faster than advances in human-space flight technology, for obvious reasons.

And none of it will matter one whit if we don't prioritize repairing the planet. If civilization sustains the sort of hit reasonably expected from a CO2 level of 450ppm, we won't be sending any more manned expeditions into space for another century even if we *have* the technology on file somewhere.

So prioritize.

This is not romantic. So what? Spaceflight is boring not because NASA is incompetent, but because when engineering projects work well, they ARE boring. In spaceflight, as in aeronautics, submarining or indeed nearly every enterprise for which the human body is badly designed, if things get exciting, you are in trouble.

rewinn said...

I must apologize for not addressing the "Cheng Ho" issue: the thesis that civilization requires outward exploration to avoid some sort of internal collapse:

"Being an exploratory people is PART of being a self-critical and self-improving people. You cannot separate the two."

The difficulty with this argument is that it defines exploration as motion in space and reasons that, therefore, we must keep moving in space, or else we're not exploring and will therefore stop improving ourselves.

This may have had some validity in an era when there was a lot of usable geography unexplored, and that a curious people who naturally generate people who wanted to see what was Over There. However, it confuses causation; a lack of exploration in such a case would be a SYMPTOM of a non-exploratory attitude, not the CAUSE of the attitude.

Today we have physically explored most of our planet; the question is whether the exploratory attitude can be continued without ever-wider physical exploration. It's difficult to see how even the complete lack of a space program would discourage software engineers, artists, biophysicists and so on from usefully exploring their fields. And of course, we'll always have some sort of space exploration; with our telescopes and whatnot we see further every year. It is not necessary to do things physically to experience the adventure, awe and majesty of exploration.

Exploration needs to be redifined away from mere motion in space into the gathering of useful information.

"...many liberals are actually, deep-down, as troglodytic and officiously control-minded as the conservative ..."

That may indeed be the case but it's not terribly relevant.

Travc said...

Wow, folks here pretty much hit my points regarding space exploration... A few more comments/thoughts though.

@Robert... What is wrong with just sending robots for now? Really. It isn't "letting machines do our exploring"... it is *humans exploring*, just using the right tools for the job.

As SteveO pointed out, if we are really interested in making humans and multi-planet species, a more efficient way to get into orbit should be the next big goal. A space elevator, big rail gun, or even good air/balloon launch system would be a game changer.

The capacity for manned spaceflight is a very good one to have. I'm not sure how we maintain that without engaging in wasteful "routine" manned flights.

As for persistent manned outposts, I'm all for that, but not just now. An non-idiotic argument can be made for exploring Mars with people (at least in orbit) since it is just a bit too far for interactive teleoperation to work well. On the other hand, the moon is close enough that a mix of automated and teleoperated robotic systems seem very much like the way to go.

After all, there isn't all that much a human can actually do on the surface of the moon. A robot is actually more circumspect and dexterous than a human stuck in a pressure hull or spacesuit.

Travc said...

Random tidbit...

Al Gore pushed the idea of putting up satellite with the primary mission of images of the whole Earth. I think the Earth-moon Lagrange point was the proposed location.

Of course, there isn't a really good research value to images from so far out. The sociological impact was the main justification. Yet despite it being far cheaper than a single manned LEO mission, it was considered too much of a waste. (A mistake in my opinion.)

PS: The engineering experience gain from putting a long duration satellite at the Earth-moon Lagrange point would probably be pretty significant. Potentially useful location, and good practice for more difficult but definitely useful positions.

PPS: Deep Space One was a one hell of a cool mission. No one can claim that wasn't exploration in a number of different ways.

Travc said...

Dr Brin... your mention of the VCR brings two similar current examples to mind.

802.11 wireless networking... it would make Rube Goldberg's head spin. Definitely not the "right way" to do it, but demand and a hell of a lot of fiddling actually ended up with something that works.

A more dramatic example is cel/hand phones. There is no sane reason those technological marvels should be available at 100 times the price. Yet many peasants in rural India even have access to them.

Anyway... back to space exploration. I think there is critical difference between the Apollo generation and the current one. Exploring and "being there" does not actually require physical presence anymore.

I don't think there really is a conceptual difference between sending a robotic probe and sending a person in a tin can to look out the window. We are very rapidly getting to the point (if we aren't already there) where the robotic probe can do more than a person could. Neither one is exploring "in person" for anyone other than the astronaut.

cheap electronics said...

My older daughter's early dream was to be the first person on Europa, there to study the animals. (You can imagine what kind of reaction this caused when adults asked this 5-year old what she wanted to be when she grew up!)