Thursday, July 14, 2011

The End of the Space Age?

This started life as a column for the local Mensa newsletter. I happen to be Member at Large for Metro Washington Mensa. Our group covers Washington, DC, the inner suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, but part of the group extends out to West Virginia. Believe it or not, you can reach West Virginia in a few hours of driving. OK, maybe not at rush hour. This column might have some interest for people even in other parts of the world. This column is a response to the leader The end of the Space Age and the articles Into the Sunset and Spooks in orbit.

Here's the column -- unedited.

As I write this column, the space shuttle Atlantis is on not just its final voyage, but the final voyage of any space shuttle. The Economist magazine cover for July 2nd-8th, 2011, has on it a photograph of a shuttle orbiting Earth with the title “The end of the Space Age” on said cover. The Economist makes several interesting points in that issue. Launching humans into space is expensive – and has few benefits, if any. Robots can do the work for such things as communications satellites, weather satellites and exploration of both other planets as well as the rest of the universe.

The Economist points out that human space flight was a consequence of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Americans got really interested when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite in October 1957. In 1961 John F. Kennedy set a goal of landing Americans on the Moon before the decade was out. That goal was met in 1969 with the landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon on July 20th. How many of you remember that day? I watched them walk on the Moon on a Sunday afternoon into evening while I was living in Palo Alto, California. We were riveted to the TV screen. Apollo 12 lasted from November 14 through November 24th. By that time I had moved to Poughkeepsie, New York and was working as a physicist at IBM. I don't remember Apollo 12. Apollo 13 was the aborted Apollo mission. It lasted from April 11, 1970 through April 17, 1970. My strongest memory of that mission is the film “Apollo 13.” The last Apollo mission happened in December 1972. I don't remember that mission at all. That was my last semester of full time graduate work in physics. I was getting fed up with, I thought, physics. It turned out to be late 20th century academia. I discovered that when I was doing grad work in social psychology in the 1970s.

What got me interested in space again? I read Gerard K. O'Neill's book “The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space” in 1977. I was fascinated by the idea that humans could be living in space colonies within our lifetimes. I thought I could be one of those humans. I joined a group called the L5 Society which was advocating such colonies. Why would humans want to build such colonies? One idea which had been proposed in the 1960s was to build giant solar power stations in Earth orbit to supply power to the entire Earth cheaply and cleanly. L5's slogan was “L5 by 95.” I did not know at the time how hard that would be. I learned about the difficulties in the 1980s. Still, though, by this time I was clearly committed to a future where humans lived and worked in space in large numbers for the benefit of all of humanity – at least those of us in free, technologically advanced societies.

What of the future? The two shuttle disasters revealed an agency afflicted with major problems. The loss of Columbia in 2003 resulted in an investigation that showed an agency that could not lead anymore. In fact, the agency had become – and had been for a long time – hostile in many ways to new ideas. Not Invented Here had become an acronym – NIH.

We've discovered other problems. First off, humans cannot live in space – at least at the present time. We and the Russians have sent several hundred humans into space for periods that have lasted several months and, in a few cases, more than a year. All of the people who have spent even that short a time in space have come back much weaker, needing years to get back to the normal human strength. These are people who are in excellent condition for most humans. Anyone who takes a multiyear trip to Mars will, most likely, come back in even worse shape. Living there would be impossible.

We can also look at Antarctica. Humans first discovered Antarctica in 1820. 1820? It took that long for humans to sail that far south. The continent was ignored for the rest of the century. Humans first paid real attention to Antarctica when Scott and Amundsen raced for the South Pole a century ago. Amundsen's team won, reaching the pole on December 14, 1911. Scott's team reached the pole, but died on the return. This could be viewed as the early 20th Century equivalent of the race to the Moon. It cost much less than Apollo. Humans did not really make any strong efforts regarding Antarctica until after World War II. We now have some bases there for research and some adventurous tourists.

The Space Age, then, must be finished – as finished as the Roman Empire. Perhaps it is. Perhaps we will only use the “inner space” of communications satellites, weather satellites and other things connected to the real well being of humans. We may send off a few robots to explore elsewhere and a few orbital observatories to look at the rest of the universe. “Star Trek”, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and more will be viewed as 20th Century myths. Awhile back on Facebook I commented “If you had told a resident of Haight Ashbury in 1969 that none of the space exploration stuff in “2001: A Space Odyssey” would have come true 40 years later but that General Motors would be in bankruptcy and that Lincoln would be selling luxury, high end pickup trucks, they would have told you to cut back on the LSD and go talk to the nice people down at the Free Clinic.” Karen Caron and Jody Carlson liked that quote. A couple of space cadets didn't even get it.

I will say, though, that the First Space Age is finished. With real reform, we may be able to build a real future for humans in space. Open democratic reform, though, is needed. Open democratic societies do a much better job of really advancing human civilization. Such societies are open to new ideas and new people. They are better at creating real progress. They are better at solving problems over the long haul. They respect their people and try to make lives better for all. We all know they fail at this all too often, Still, though, they are the best kinds of societies that humanity has created so far. Winston Churchill once said “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Those solar power satellites are looking increasingly possible. People are struggling for real reform in tech fields. I know – I am one of them.

I will close by comparing three years: 1621, 2011 and 2525. Those of you old enough to remember might remember the song “In the year 2525” back in the 1960s. I have it on a CD. It was look at a future of fantastic myths -- and possibly dark times. It was very different from what we have today. What about 1621? That was the year John Donne became dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, England. A few years back I read the book “A Cambridge Companion to John Donne.” Why? I was curious about a man I am descended from. I was stunned about how similar I was to this great man who lived four centuries ago. I'm not is his league, but I was surprised about how we thought and felt about things. Now, let's compare our times. If I could take a time machine back to 1621 and tell Donne about a typical day for me, he would be thoroughly surprised. Listen to stereo? I could even take a small one back to show him. Drive a car? Live in an air conditioned house? Communicate via the Internet? He would learn much about the great accomplishments of humans in the past four centuries – and be surprised at how similar today's humans were to those of the 17th Century. What will 2525 be like? As far ahead of ours as ours is from 1621? Or more like 1621? Our descendants will know.

That's enough for now. Feel free to bring this up at any Mensa event or elsewhere. I try to be open to everyone.

1 comment:

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