xkcd and other-world walkers

By Phil Plait | May 5, 2011 11:00 am

Like a bazillion other geeks, I’m a big fan of Randall Munroe’s web comic xkcd. It’s funny and wonderful, but sometimes it’s his particular way of expressing his view that’s simply astonishing.

As poignant as that is, you really need to go to his page and mouse over the comic to read the text that pops up. It reminded me strongly of my own sentiments in an OpEd I wrote for the New York Post a couple of years ago. Especially this part:

For all of history, the Moon was a metaphor for an unreachable place, beyond our grasp. But in 1969 NASA looked to this unachievable destination and made it achievable. It was an event so singular that every accomplishment ever since has been compared to it. It was NASA’s shining hour.

But I’ve met many Apollo astronauts, and — no offense to them — they’re old. The last man to walk on the Moon is 75. How old will he be when the next human leaves a footprint on the lunar surface?

It’s a question I’d like the answer to very soon.


Related posts:

- What value space exploration?
- The cost of SETI: Infographic
- A half century of manned space exploration
- Wait. How big is NASA’s budget again?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Space
MORE ABOUT: Randall Munroe, xkcd

Comments (38)

  1. Bandsaw

    And THAT is why I’m still mad at Obama for saying that we’ve been to the moon and don’t need to go back.

  2. As of yesterday, there are no known surviving combat veterans from WWI. And only a single active service veteran.

  3. Sigmund

    Whatever about walking on the moon again there are good reasons why it should be more thoroughly explored by robotics. Imagine what a modern rover could do up there. We wouldnt have to worry about winter hibernations or dust storms so it could continue working throughout the year. One of the most compelling reasons to send a rover up there would be to look for earth rocks! Most of the earliest sedimentary rocks on earth have been destroyed by plate tectonic forces but the moon was not subject to these and so earth rocks, thrown up following large meteor strikes, should be preserved as meteorites on the lunar surface.
    These would be fascinating to examine in terms of working out the early biochemical evolution on Earth. The evidence is no longer here on Earth but it might very well be sitting on the moon.

  4. WORD. I caught that comic yesterday and it’s been a thought stuck in my mind. When will the next generation of explorers venture boldly forth? It’s a cringe-worthy thought that this graph could soon become completely accurate….

  5. MattF

    Sigmund: One of the most compelling reasons to send a rover up there would be to look for earth rocks!

    Perhaps. I haven’t done the math to see if what you say is reasonable. But one of the most compelling reasons for humans to go there is to ensure our long-term survival. We will need to learn how to live in space if we are to increase our vitality as a species, and only getting out there ourselves and figuring out how to do that will make that happen.

  6. Bill

    Did you forget? — I did.

    Hints:

    Cinco de Mayo

    50

    15 minutes, 28 seconds

    A man who walked on the moon

  7. JohnK

    Sigmund,

    The moon has some extreme temperatures far greater than Mars. It also has a two-week night.

    Also, even though the lunar surface has no atmosphere, the Apollo and surveyor missions observed there is an atmospheric glow in the horizon and streamers of dust arising from the surface and scattering solar radiation during the sunrise. Therefore dust can and probably will be a problem.

  8. From an engineer’s perspective, men on the moon or mars make very little sense.

    The cost of establishing a community large and skilled enough to advance humanity’s long-term survival by hedging our bets on Earth is so immense that it is hard to justify. The Earth is a nicer place to live than Mars or the Moon for humans, even after massive global warming, running out of oil and a mid-scale nuclear war. From a survival of the species over the next thousand years perspective, our money is probably better spent finding way to keep us from getting whacked by sneaky comets or building a big space station with lots of seeds and sperm/egg banks.

    If manned exploration of the solar system, let alone deep space, is to get anywhere, it needs to acknowledge openly that a big part of the justification for doing it is not scientific, but romantic. It is as much about proving what we are capable of accomplishing collectively as it is about scientific or economic advances that flow from the effort. We might make advances, but those are side dishes, not the main course, in this kind of adventure.

  9. If you plot my life on that chart, I begin during the big plateau. Then the number of world-walkers drops. Sometime around 55 years old, I’ll likely see the last of the world-walkers pass away. Meanwhile, I’ll have never seen a single man (or woman) walk on the Moon. Neither will my kids.

    Even if this is just an “inspire the youth of today” move, we *NEED* to go back to the Moon. Though it’d be better if it was to inspire and also lay the groundwork for a permanent Moon presence.

    Imagine how different a Moon landing would be today from the last one that happened. You could live-stream* it online in HD, you could have people submit questions for the Astronauts or suggestions for them to do. You could have NASA bring back some Moon rocks to be auctioned off on eBay for a worthy cause**. (I wonder how much of the mission NASA could pay for by promising Moon rocks to billionaires in exchange for $$$.)

    I really hope that I’ll be able to sit by the television/computer/whatever with my kids in the near future and watch as people walk on the Moon again.

    * Well, as “live” as you can with the time delay from the Moon.
    ** In addition to ones which would be taken back for study.

  10. Bob_In_Wales

    In the film Apollo 13 the scriptwriters put in Jim Lovell’s mouth a phrase which has stuck with me and which for me has always summed up the the joy of being lucky enough to live in an advancing technological society: From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. And it’s not a miracle …

    We just decided to go.

  11. Mike

    The mouseover text:

    ‎”The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space–each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.”

  12. lucky7

    Thus is the fermi paradox solved. Same reason that we haven’t been back to the moon is the same reason that we haven’t been swamped by aliens right now.

  13. Earl

    Actually, one could multiply the Y-axis by 10,000 and change the label to “number of living humans who worked on the Apollo project.”

    (77 days to layoff)

  14. I will play the curmudgeon.

    We should be careful about how we justify such things… The old question of how best to spend what little funding we have is not an easy one. And while manned exploration certainly strikes an emotional “awesome” chord in my heart, I don’t know that it’s really the best thing in all cases.

    Are there interesting questions that could be answered by exploring the moon or, more generally, be studied there, mars, or in in low gravity? Certainly.

    Are they worth spending money on? I think so.

    Of those questions, what can be done remotely and what has to be done by people directly? That’s a more difficult question and one that needs an expert, say a planetary scientist for example, to answer. However, at least naively, it would seem that many of the potential questions could be done remotely at a fraction of the cost. And if it’s done for much less, then perhaps we could do much more.

    As for inspiring future generations? Well, could you, with a straight face, tell the people doing astronomy and planetary science using satellites and robots that it’s not inspiring. Maybe it’s a question of imagination… Find me a child that would only be swayed into science, or more generally inspired to learn and be educated about the universe, by manned exploration and not by such incredible things as can be done through remote exploration. I think most kids, most people, that would be inspired by manned exploration, would be just as inspired by say Hubble.

    Ensuring our survival? I think there are questions much closer to home in that regard that could use both effort and adequate funding.

    And with regards to “live”, the time lag, while noticeable on human scales, is relatively nothing.

    As always, best wishes Phil.

  15. James

    When I saw this cartoon I nearly cried. The realization that touched Phil and me didn’t seem to take root on the xkcd forums. Maybe they are too young.
    Michael,

    These things may inspire, but not nearly to the same level. I’ll read a good article on robots in space. I dream of humans living there.

    The last Apollo flight happened before I was born. I found it shameful that Apollo is celebrated so much in Smithsonian, yet we haven’t gone back. We know we did something great, but then we just seemed to stop dreaming.

  16. frankenstein monster

    The Earth is a nicer place to live than Mars or the Moon for humans, even after massive global warming, running out of oil and a mid-scale nuclear war. From a survival of the species over the next thousand years perspective, our money is probably better spent finding way to keep us from getting whacked by sneaky comets or building a big space station with lots of seeds and sperm/egg banks.

    What about permian extinction level global warming, several bouts of all-out nuclear wars, and complete exhaustion of all minable resources. Good luck defending the planet against a comet/asteroid with a stone axe. Compare that to terraformed mars PLUS large self-sufficient bases on the moon PLUS asteroid mining colonies.

  17. Jim

    Ensuring our survival? I think there are questions much closer to home in that regard that could use both effort and adequate funding.

    False dilemma. We are completely capable of doing both; it’s a matter of scraping together the political capital (or actual capital in a private-industry-based plan).

    In the long term, there are existential threats which cannot be solved purely from the ground, so expansion into space is not just “interesting” or “romantic” but necessary. No amount of social improvements will protect us from rogue comets or nearby supernovae or any number of other large-scale disasters. And we should start as soon as possible, because people are bad at long-term planning. If we put off important projects now it becomes all the easier to put them off later as well, until something big happens that we’re unprepared for and it’s game over.

  18. Nic

    You know, I looked at the graph and it shocked me, in my head the 12 names on the up and 3 going down. I am sufficiently nerdy to know them all in order.
    But you know – I am a manned spaceflight fan – but much as I adore the Buck Rodger factor the science returned from machines from space utterly and completely outweighs anything the few hundred people in orbit, the 24 around the Moon, and the 12 to walk on the Moon.
    A billion dollars to launch ONE shuttle into low earth orbit? That’s about 2 or 3 unmanned Mars missions.
    To repeat, I adore the idea of a person, being there, doing that, Jack Schmitt (or was it Cernan?) saying ‘Houston there is ORANGE soil!’ – amazing stuff, incredible…
    But I have to give it to machines – The Opportunity rover on Mars has been there for think 7 years? 6? Something like that. How many tens of (hundreds?) of billions would it have cost to support one or two people for that period? No competition. None. Unless someone can change the equation. Antigravity might do it, ;-)

    N

  19. Tom Huffman

    It’s interesting that this post is on the 50th anniversary of America’s first man in space: Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mercury flight: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-mercury-anniversary-20110506,0,2820446.story

    By the way, I am a fan of people in space, including eventual space settlement.

  20. CB

    In the very long term, if we are to survive, we have to get off this planet, and not just get off it, but have self-sufficient and self-sustaining colonies on other worlds, and indeed outside of this solar system because in the very long term our star is going to fail. And this is a long-term goal, both in the need, and in the capability, because even if we devoted our entire beings to accomplishing it starting today, it would be a very long time before there would be humans living on another world without need of contact with Earth. In the meantime, any near-term threat to our survival on this planet is dwarfed by the difficulty of surviving on any other. There is no human-induced calamity that could make earth less habitable than mars or the moon. Full-scale all-out nuclear war wouldn’t do it. Even in the case of a global extinction level impact, it would be easier to survive the event and continue living here. I wager nothing short of another impact like that which created the moon would truly make an off-world colony the only way to survive.

    My point being: This is a goal I wholeheartedly believe in, but let’s not confuse it with the short-term goal of human footprints on other worlds.

    The reasons for that sad graph originated 30 years ago. Scrambling to do something now just so that graph doesn’t reach zero, even though that has nothing to do with the long-term goal, would be silly. Instead, accept the reality of the past, acknowledge that, sad as it is, there may be a time when no living human has walked on another world. And make sure that the next time one does, they can stay there for a while. And bring lots of friends.

    It’s not about bootprints, it’s about progress.

    Of course we may not get either, and the sadness of [i]that[/i] is something I think we can all agree on.

  21. Grand Lunar

    @ Bandsaw
    “And THAT is why I’m still mad at Obama for saying that we’ve been to the moon and don’t need to go back.”

    I partially agree on that.

    However, most of my anger is directed toward former NASA admin Mike Griffin, for choosing a highly expensive method of getting to the moon; a method that was bound to be canceled.
    We could’ve chosen a much more affordable method.

  22. Patricia

    A few posts up, Bill is honoring the 50th anniversary of the first American in space. I grew up watching the space race. I remember crying that January day when Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White died. And I remember how the proprietors of a hotel on North Padre Island set up a television so the guests could watch as men stepped onto the moon for the first time. In a family of 3 children my brothers and I managed to form 3 “generations” connected to space: I was born pre-Sputnik, my younger brother was born post-Pioneer 1, and my youngest brother celebrates his 50th birthday today. He was born just hours after Alan Shepard returned from his flight. I was almost 5 that day… and it is because of family legend that I remember what I said when I was told my brother had been born: I asked for a PONY not a brother.

  23. So the reason is basically “because soon nobody who has been on the moon will be alive anymore”?

    Sorry but to me that is no reason.

    Soon nobody who has survived the Holocaust will be alive either. That won’t change how we Germans will always remember it. I never spoke to anyone who was in a concentration camp and that surely wasn’t needed. We will _always_ remember what our ancestors did and will always adhere to what basically became our mantra “Wehret den Anfängen”. Every time there’s a small gathering of neo-nazis there are thousands who gather as a counter-protest.

    All that was needed was a strong emphasis on educating our youth (me included) about what happened back then in history class. Oh and the tons of programs on TV about the Nazis also seem to do their share of the work.

    I think in the days of 3D Cinema, Television and Computer(-screens) it’s more than enough to have breathtaking pictures like the ones you post on this page nearly every day Phil, the IMAX Movies and a good science education in schools.

    And that last thing there, at least to me, seems to be the problem. I have never EVER been shown a SINGLE picture about space, the moon, the sun, or ANYTHING like a movie in school. I had to discover how great space is by myself. We did have ONE excursion to a planetarium. ONE. In 13 years. We never EVER spoke about dimensions in space. We spoke about the speed of light briefly. And that was that.

    If only a fraction of the hours and hours (and hours) of history lessons wouldn’t have been about the Nazis or crop cycles in the middle ages or learning the name of every large river in Russia (yes we did stupid stuff like that… and every river in germany and every state in the US and what have you) then maybe, MAYBE kids in school would be more excited.

    Because I really think that the Apollo program and how people got bored with the landings after only two flights to the moon and how the subsequent program was scrubbed shows exactly that in this day and age you won’t even be able to compete with all the BS that is on TV.

    Do you really expect that all channels will cover the next moon-landing live? That the world will hold its breath?

    Or that they rather keep watching Oprah? (or the equivalent since she’s retiring). I don’t think that any single viewer of a talkshow would switch over.

    Because, you know, the other problem is that all those who saw the moon-landings live are ALSO still alive. You will have to wait for THEM to all die before the moon landings will be something novel again. And even then only because they aren’t getting a good education about space in schools.

    We can go back into space as soon as space killing us will be a problem. At the moment we are clearly having a problem not killing ourselves. We don’t even have an energy source that isn’t killing people yet. How about we focus on powering our world first, then maybe take care of the death problem and as soon as we don’t die anymore, we can go into space. Because as soon as we live hundreds or maybe thousands of years, surviving in space might be a smaller problem.

    Because at the moment I think we don’t gain anything from trying to send some meatbag guinea-pigs to space.

    I want tons and tons of probes and new telescopes but as long as there’s no real gain from having someone on the moon trying hard not to die, there are bigger fish to fry.

  24. Robots are so much more efficient and cheaper. We will send out hundreds of little robots, the mechanical children of earth, and they will seek out and investigate the planets and one day we may even send a few to the stars. And we will be here studying the the gigabytes of data streaming back and we will be happy that our little machines are so efficient. But one day we may suffer an extinction event – a zombie apocalypse, a comet strike or anything. It doesn’t matter. But we will be gone. Our little robots will still be out there though sending back data until their power sources go cold. Maybe though, just maybe, a star faring race with enough foresight not put all their eggs or spores in one basket will pick up one of our little cold dead rovers and, just for a moment, wonder who we were.

  25. MaDeR

    If we want manned spaceflight, we must go first to Moon. Crawl before walk, walk before run. With current tech, going to Mars is suicidal. ISS nicely prove this whith its often breaking machinery.

  26. wallace

    This is why I love to escape into literature…my species is going to die right here on this world, likely within the next few hundred years. We have begun to make our world unlivable, but are too divided and shortsighted to ever get serious about either saving it or leaving it. We are going to be one of those dead worlds the aliens visit and shake their heads over, and there is nothing the infitesimally small group of us who see it coming can do about it.

  27. NoAstronomer

    From my perspective, and actually Phil’s too, I was born at a time when no-one living had walked on the moon. It’s likely I’ll live to see a time when that becomes true again.

  28. DennyMo

    22. Sebastian Says:
    “If only a fraction of the hours and hours (and hours) of history lessons wouldn’t have been about the Nazis or crop cycles in the middle ages or learning the name of every large river in Russia (yes we did stupid stuff like that… and every river in germany and every state in the US and what have you) then maybe, MAYBE kids in school would be more excited.”

    Wait a minute, you learned the names of all 50 US states?!? I think you’re ahead of most American students…

    14. Michael S. Pierce Says:
    “I think most kids, most people, that would be inspired by manned exploration, would be just as inspired by say Hubble.”

    Hubble images inspire a lot of “Cool!” and similar responses, but that will be about it. Most kids (I’m thinking elementary school age) are more inspired by “doing” things than “thinking about” things. As singular events, the astronaut describing his experience of being in space will always attract a larger audience than an astronomer describing the latest ovbservations from Hubble.

  29. frankenstein monster

    I think that our species should split and the groups should go separate ways. Those who want to leave, and those who for various reasons want to stay, or just don’t care.

    I think that all who want mankind to reach the stars, should group together and start preparing the grand escape. Even if it takes leaving all others behind.

  30. Trillian

    But now we know the only reason we really went to the moon is because The Silence needed a spacesuit. :P

  31. 21. Patricia Says: “I was born pre-Sputnik, my younger brother was born post-Pioneer 1, and my youngest brother celebrates his 50th birthday today. He was born just hours after Alan Shepard returned from his flight.”

    I suspect you mean your younger brother was born post Explorer 1. Pioneer 1 was launched in 1973.

    - Jack

  32. 25. wallace Says: “This is why I love to escape into literature…my species is going to die right here on this world, likely within the next few hundred years. We have begun to make our world unlivable, but are too divided and shortsighted to ever get serious about either saving it or leaving it. ”

    This is very sad. I’m sorry that you have been influenced so strongly by the doom meisters. If you are really into literature, you should realize that nearly every generation feels this way. I remember the hysteria over the very first Earth Day (my graduation year from High School) which was in the heyday of Paul Erlich (Population Bomb), Alvin Toffler (Future Shock) and other less notable prophets of doom. We’re still here and the planet, despite what you read, is in better shape than it was then.

    - Jack

  33. Those defending robots should note that robots are certainly cheaper but hardly more efficient than human beings. Even Steven Squyres (principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity) figured that his rovers took a day to do what a human could do in five minutes. A human expedition could have done the rovers’ work in a couple of weeks. Put the other way, what the Apollo astronauts did over three days would have taken a rover most of a year.

  34. Bryan D

    It makes me sad that I wasn’t even born when the last man left the Moon, and I’ll more then likely be long dead before the next one gets there. :/

  35. ND

    @32, Solution: make better robots! But that would get us closer towards the robot apocalypse.

  36. outcast

    @23 shane: No, robots are not more efficient. For the same amount of time spent by all the mars rovers, a terran scientist would have done and learned a lot more than we have. The real problem is space exploration has not focused on what it should focus on: Building a real space borne economy, as in having real jobs in space. In addition to solving the problem of us being confined to this miserable rock, it creates jobs at a time when there’s rampant under employment and unemployment. Is this suddenly a bad thing? But lets not forget another benefit, it would reduce launch costs to such an extent that you can have a lot more robotic missions than we have now that can do more for much less than we are now. This way everyone wins.

    @31. Jack: While I don’t subscribe to said doomsayers, we should never discount the very real threat of a nuclear war. A look at the situation in Europe 100 years ago, just a few years before world war 1 tells a cautionary tale of how what should have been a regional crisis or at worst a regional war turned into the continent wide cluster***k that was the great war.

  37. réalta fuar

    Going back to the moon would be so much fun; think of all the great sports one could do.
    Seal up a big cavern, pump in about 14 lbs/sq inch of air, strap on wings, and you could FLY. And Phil could probably even, MAYBE, dunk a basketball. Wow, how inspiring.
    Not $100 billion worth of inspiring though. Especially not when doing so would basically end space based astronomy for Europe and the States (science budgets really are pretty much that rare thing, a zero-sum game).
    Yes, it was inspiring for 12 guys to walk on the moon. Apparently not inspiring enough for the majority of today’s space scientists and astronomers to want to go back though even many of them WERE inspired to study science and engineering because of Apollo. What happened? It’s a sad thing, they grew up and decided to do science, not stunts. (don’t beleive me? do a poll at the next winter AAS meeting).
    The west will go back to the moon, when it can be shown to promote science, not kill it (or when someone can figure out how to get rich doing it!).
    If $100 billion stunts are the only way one can think of to inspire kids, then you need an imagination transplant.
    Oh, everyone who ate tomatoes in 1825 is now dead, so for god’s sake let’s ban tomatoes! (for a similar piece of brilliant argument).

  38. I feel confident that SOME human is going to go back to the Moon someday. Currently it looks like it’s going to be a Chinese citizen sent up by China’s space program. They’re the only country I’ve heard in recent years that has an actual plan being funded to put someone on the Moon. Maybe the first woman on the Moon will be Chinese. Maybe it will prompt the US and/or Russians to spend more money on manned space travel in a new cold war style space race. That would be a Good Thing if it prompted a substantial increase in science education in the US (and elsewhere in the world) the way Sputnik did.

    But for the current state in the USA, it looks like we’ll be lucky to get current projects completed such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

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