It has been 40 years since he last human being set foot on the moon. I was not alive when this occurred. The Whig views history as a progression. When we recall the past we remember, perhaps pity, a less developed age.
Overall I disagree with declinists who simplistically portray our age as one of silver, that perhaps we live in the modern Western equivalent of late antique Rome. Certainly there is greatness all around us. And one can argue that the “space race” was driven not by ennobling sentiments, but rather the raw competition between the United States and Soviet Union. Be as that may be, could we soon look back to the 1960s as the ultimate high point in the spirit of the West? Perhaps we do live in a fallen age in a sense, unable to rouse ourselves and recapture past glories, and even surpass them. The Hellenistic Greeks were a civilized people, who were more advanced than their Classical predecessors in particular details of science and engineering. Yet most scholars would suggest that there was something derivative and unoriginal when compared to the ferment of Athens’ golden century.
I wonder. Did Neil Armstrong ever consider when he set foot on the moon that humanity would not return for the last four decades of his life?
It’s been a big few weeks for space, with the success of Dragon. I don’t have anything to add in a descriptive or analytic sense, I know as much (or likely less) as you on this issue (this is why should read Bad Astronomy). Needless to say I’ve been rooting for Elon Musk’s enterprise, so to speak. I’m not old enough to remember the “space race,” which put a man on the moon. Rather, for my generation space and NASA had become rather pedestrian, with the shuttle being a sky ferry par excellence. Space is important not because of what it will do for us in concrete terms (e.g., Tang), but what will do for us on a deeper level. Otherwise we may fall prey to the sort of ennui one reads about in science fiction universes such as the city of Diaspar. Remember, we’re the species which made it to the New World and Oceania. This sort of crazy and irrational endeavor is part of who we are.
On a different note, hope people are enjoying the de facto start of the summer (Memorial Day weekend in the USA).
Amos Zeeberg, the person you should pester (hopefully ineffectually!) when I’m not being nice to you in the comments, has an interesting opinion piece up lambasting the Shuttle program. Here are the numbers which jumped out at me (I knew the broad outlines, but nice to have precise numbers):
The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year. NASA predicted each shuttle launch would cost $50 million; they actually averaged $450 million. NASA administrators said the risk of catastrophic failure was around one in 100,000; NASA engineers put the number closer to one in a hundred; a more recent report from NASA said the risk on early flights was one in nine. The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.
To take the intangible value of human life out of the question, if we were going on the cheap then a 2 out of 135 failure right might be understandable. But we weren’t. The shuttle cost a lot. To whom much is given (in dollars) much shall be expected. It didn’t live up to the expectations.
In an unrelated vein, I wonder if the aging of the earth’s population is going to put a damper on space exploration in the short term. The explorers of the future are more likely to be de facto intelligent robots.
But perhaps the most interesting and exciting aspect of all this is what it implies. The Milky Way galaxy is composed of about 200 billion stars, and is 100,000 light years across. The fact that we found a planet that is even anything like the Earth at all orbiting another star only 20 light years away makes me extremely optimistic that earthlike planets are everywhere in our galaxy. 20 light years is practically in our lap compared to the vast size of our galaxy, so statistically speaking, it seems very likely it’s not unique. I don’t want to extrapolate from a data set of two (us and them), but if this is typical, there could be millions of such planets in the galaxy. Millions.
So we don’t know if this planet is all that much like Earth — the surface gravity may be quite high if it’s dense and small, for example, or it may not have any air, or it may have a thick atmosphere like Venus — but what it’s telling us is that smaller, lower mass planets at the right distance from their star for liquid water are almost certainly common in the galaxy.
I assume this means we can play around with the Drake equation? In any case, I am now reminded of Poul Anderson’s essay “The creation of imaginary worlds: the world builder’s handbook and pocket companion.” You can read most of the essay online at Google Books. Or, find it in Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy. For us “squishy science” lovers the biochemist Hal Clament has an essay which follow’s Anderson’s which outlines how to create imaginary life.
Several people have pointed me to Stephen Hawking’s warning about ‘First Contact’ with aliens. Specifically that we’d be on the short end of the stick. His worry reminded me of something I read as a child which shocked me somewhat when I encountered it, as I was conditioned by a post-Cosmos optimism. Here’s the author:
…I find it mind-boggling that the astronomers now eager to spend a hundred million dollars on the search for extraterrestrial life never thought seriously about the most obvious question: what would happen if we found it, or if it found us. The astronomers tacitly assume that we and the little green monsters would welcome each other and settle down to fascinating conversations. Here again, our own experience on Earth offers useful guidance. We’ve already discovered two species that are very itnelligent but less technically advanced than we are-the common chimpanzee and pygmy chimpanzee. Has our response been to sit down and try to communicate with them? Of course not. Instead we shoot them, dissect them, cut off their hands for trophies, put them on exhibit in cages, inject them with AIDS virus as a medical experiment, and estroy or take over their habitats. That response was predictable, because human explorers who discvered technically less advanced humans also regularly responded by shooting them, decimating their popualtiosn with new diseases, and destroything or taking over their habitats.
Any advanced extraterrestrials who discovered us would surely treat us in the same way….
That was Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee. In terms of this particular concern I have to admit that my attitude is encapsulated by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction. An advanced alien race is basically going to have magical powers in relation to humanity, and I doubt anything we do will matter either way (i.e., I don’t think we could hide, or, get their attention). But my main question is why haven’t the von Neumann machines already co-opted all the matter and energy in the universe? The Fermi paradox is a real issue. There are still big questions that we have no idea or clue about.
It’s important to recognize, though, that the decision in question belongs to all of us, and not just to Barack Obama. The administration wouldn’t be cutting the manned spaceflight program if Americans were still enthusiastic about going to the stars — if space exploration still occupied a privileged place in our imagination, if our jocks still wanted to be astronauts and our nerds still wanted to build rockets. Obama is simply bowing to our culture’s priorities: Our geeks want to build a better XBox, and our jocks want to buy it to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Our technological energy is still immense, but it’s increasingly turned inward — toward communication, life-extension, and computer-generated adventure — rather than outward toward the stars.
In this sense, James Cameron really is an appropriate choice to opine about the space program. “Avatar,” not NASA, probably represents the future of the American relationship to distant planets. In the real world, we’ll be permanently earthbound — but inside the carapace of virtual reality, we’ll be kings of infinite space.
It’s been over 40 years since our species first landed on the moon. The small number of humans who have ever stepped foot on another world are now very old. I remember back in 1990 when George H. W. Bush made a declaration that some day we’d make it to Mars. That day keeps disappearing over the horizon.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is preparing for a major evaluation of its human spaceflight program, even as many who will conduct the survey have yet to be informed of the agency’s revised mission.
The administration might also enlist the help and financing of other nations to handle parts of space exploration — perhaps giving the European Space Agency the job of building a lunar lander, for example.
Perhaps China vs. the world? Fodder for near-future science fiction.
Dynamic of the Cats as some commentary on the LCROSS landing the moon. The “big news” is the very high confidence now that one can put on the proposition that the moon does have water. Since humans are mostly water by weight, this is very important when assessing the practical difficulties of colonization or settlement. Would have been a drag to lug or synthesize H2O.
I just listened to a radio segment on public sentiments toward the Apollo space program expenditures in hindsight. The polling had a small N, 3 people in Los Angeles on the street. But it got me wondering: who supports the space program? There is a variable in the GSS, NATSPAC, with a large sample size, which states:
We are faced with many problems in this country, none of which can be solved easily or inexpensively. I’m going to name some of these problems, and for each one I’d like you to tell me whether you think we’re spending too much money on it, too little money, or about the right amount.
I limited the results to between 1998-2008. Below are the demographic trends.
According to the Honolulu Advertiser, the state would start by spending up to a million dollars developing a spaceport.
But Hawaii isn’t alone: The state is already facing heady competition from states including Florida, Okalahoma and New Mexico, all of which are moving into the space tourism market.
Hawaii has one comparative advantage: it’s further south. I recall that the increased velocity of the earth’s rotation the closer you get to the equator means that you get some energy for lift-off for free. This is why the French launch their rockets from French Guiana, and the Soviets had a facility in Kazakhstan.
Seed‘s Mr. Space Lee Billings has an interesting piece, The Long Shot:
“If planets are found around Alpha Centauri, it’s very clear to me what will happen,” Marcy said. “NASA will immediately convene a committee of its most thoughtful space propulsion experts, and they’ll attempt to ascertain whether they can get a probe there, something scarcely more than a digital camera, at let’s say a tenth the speed of light. They’ll plan the first-ever mission to the stars.”
The premise seems to verge on science fiction. But then much of science could be fiction if it weren’t fact. In any case, some perspective:
Alpha Centauri is 136,379 times as far from Earth as Mars is currently.
Mars is 793 times as far from Earth as the Moon is currently.
If New York to Chicago = from Earth to Alpha Centauri, then Earth to the Moon is equivalent to 0.3 millimeters.
Discovering the habitable planets would be the easy part. Waiting for WolframAlpha to become sentient so it could make the trip is the hard part.
I rarely post anything on space because I really don’t know much more than the average reader of this weblog; no value-add from me. But yesterday I ran across an article which reported the financial overruns in the Mars Science Laboratory project. Today NASA said that the project will launch on schedule. It seems that to make this work they’ll have to ax some other missions, though they’re putting a happy-face on their claims today (as if the money will magically appear in these strained financial times!).
Mercury, the smallest planet, bakes in the heat of the Sun, but it has water in some form. It has volcanoes. It appears to have an active magnetic field generated by a molten iron core. And it has shrunk more than scientists thought.
–Determine whether Life ever arose on Mars
–Characterize the Climate of Mars
–Characterize the Geology of Mars
–Prepare for Human Exploration
I too defend space cadets, what is mankind without a dream? I remember back in the late 1980s a speech by Joseph P. Kennedy II as he stood on the floor of the house of representatives and asked his fellow members if people here at home should eat less so that vessels could fly above them in the cosmos. Should we be forced to make this choice? (shall I point out that many Americans should eat a bit less!)
I’m not going to defend the details of Hawking’s argument, I think the time scale is a little compressed (I’m being generous). But, I am going to defend the dream, because to venture into space isn’t just a utilitarian decision, it is an artistic act. Yes, you heard me right. Human beings engage in a lot of peculiar and “wasteful” activities, from massive architecture to baroque entertainments, and yes, even to esoteric scientific projects. Calls to be more “practical” and “realistic” neglect the fact that we are fundamentally a race of nutcase dreamers whose “spark” of sentience can be gleaned 25,000 years ago via to ochre splashes in dark caves which were emblazoned by the imagination of man.
Since Chad Orzel hasn’t posted on it, I figured I’d link to this story about a Nature letter which announces the discovery of a planet 5.5 times as massive as our own! This is pretty cool, I was a big fan of astronomy when I was a kid, and it certainly is the science with tickles my “shock & awe”-o-meter. But combined with the possibility of sub-thousand dollar genomes in the next 5 years, it really does make me feel like we are at the End of Times and soon we shall be as gods. OK, that was a hyperbole, but I can dimly grok the difficulty of a extrasolar detection feat like this….
Update: Chad comments copiously now.