“Honorable Chairman, ladies, and gentlemen:
Happy New Year!
“Indeed a happy New Year beginning the 11th year in the Age of Space, greatest era of our race – ”the greatest!” – despite gasoline shortages, pollution, overpopulation, inflation, wars and threats of war. ‘These too shall pass’, but the stars abide.
“Our race will spread out through space – unlimited room, unlimited energy, unlimited wealth. This is certain.
“But I am not certain that the working language will be English…”
– Robert A. Heinlein, speaking before the Congress of the United States on the subject of NASA Spinoffs, August 19, 1979, later published in Omni magazine and Expanded Universe (1980) as Spinoff.
I recently lost a Facebook friend.
Everyone has hot-button issues. Two of the three that tend to get me going are
1) Creationists insisting religious writings equate with science and;
2) people claiming there are compelling arguments to dismiss Global Climate Change (Global Warming) when, in fact, there aren’t any that haven’t been thoroughly examined in the scientific court of peer review and shown to fail.
The third hot button, the one that is pertinent re the FB friend-loss, is the claim that NASA is a waste of money.
My reply when Seamus (not his real name) said this on FB was:
“Seamus, you don’t know what you are talking about.”
Okay, so I could be called for being mean and rude. It was a thoughtlessly flip comment responding to another flip and very, very tired cliché that people use when they want to say they don’t like NASA or space exploration in general but really don’t know the first thing about why they don’t like it beyond the unqualified assertion it is a money waste. In a series of polite emails following-up my extraction from Seamus’ personal universe of social media connections I pointed out that if he felt I was being rude, he should call me on it, and I would apologize immediately … and then gone on to point out why he didn’t know what he was talking about. (Tact was never my strong suite, in case you hadn’t noticed.) Anyway, he’s not talking to me, which is too bad: Seamus is generally a good guy and I do kinda miss him. But things be what they be and we carry on.
Ironically, at least in the spirit of making the best of an otherwise bad outcome, the incident provided me with a nice little lead-in to something I did want to talk about, to wit:
President Obama is canceling the Constellation Program, his predecessor’s initiative to get the U.S. back to the Moon and to Mars while providing a replacement to the Shuttle Program, which will be retired after this year.
To start, I really want to concentrate on how the “too expensive” tag underscores a fateful problem we seem to have as a species … we don’t look too far down the road. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not being a Pollyanna about things; I fully understand space exploration is a huge, frightfully perilous undertaking, demanding a commitment of resources, fiscal and material, which even in the best of times can be unsettling and during a deep recession that may be permanent for many, downright insulting – at least in terms of apparent short-term outcomes. These are certainly not like the good old days when a Queen Isabella could pawn a necklace and start the greatest adventure of the Western World to that time, the Age of Discovery, a development that in many ways spurred the Age of Enlightenment. The Queen’s was an investment that resulted in untold wealth that to this day continues to be realized.
And, yes, I know it’s a shitty comparison. The exploration of the Americas also coincided with one of the nastiest long-term genocides in recorded history, as well as the virtual rape of the American wilderness – the former born out of an innate xenophobia that seems to reside in us as a species, and the latter from a general ignorance of how the biosphere sustains us and a misplaced belief that we “own” things. (We don’t, of course. Ownership of nature is a non-sequitur; if anything, nature owns us. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself a simple set of questions. Could nature survive without us? Could we survive without nature? Unless you are an idiot or willfully ignorant, you get it.) These are ugly aspects of human history, and of our evolutionary behavior as a species … and certainly not unique to this one example. But this is who we are. It’s up to us if we want to be better.
There’s another, more positive commonality about exploration that seems significant … it tends to coincide with the growth and vitality of a population … a nation. It is, in part, a reflection of the inspired genius of a people, perhaps even their spirit.
The previous administration’s proposal for going back to the Moon – the Constellation Program offering the vague promise of using our satellite as a jumping-off station for Mars – wasn’t necessarily an idea I was a huge fan of, given as the project was underfunded from the start and, likely, more an invention of cynical election year politics than any desire to open up the final frontier. Besides, I’d seen the mess the president made of his two invasions and the New Orleans disaster, so I wasn’t too encouraged …
Then again, the Shuttle Orbiter program was not funded as well as it could have been. That inconvenience led to delays, increased expenses, and cutting of funding to other space science. NASA, for example, has miles of tape from space missions that have never been analyzed because the money isn’t there, and those tapes are deteriorating – data we paid for lost because of underfunding. It’s all rather unfortunate.
Yet despite being underfunded, the Shuttle built the International Space Station. Not just that: the Orbiter put satellites in orbit; countless scientific experiments were conducted that benefited scientific and medical research; methods of working in zero-gravity, often involving complex tasks, were developed. Invaluable experience was gained for the future.
Perhaps most pleasing and important of all, the Shuttle put up and maintained the most wonderful invention in the history of man: the Hubble Telescope. Nothing … and I mean NOTHING … has brought us closer to seeing the immense, intense beauty of the reality we inhabit as we ride this infinitesimally small piece of flotsam adrift in the celestial ocean. That perspective alone is almost worth every penny spent on space from the very beginning of space exploration.
In spite of obstacles, the Shuttle was a success. It was what it was supposed to be, a workhorse that delivered and assembled payloads in orbit, conducted repair and resupply missions, and generally did more to maintain mankind’s regular presence in orbit than any other launch vehicle in the short history of space flight. Maybe the question that should be asked is if could it have been a greater success had it been funded like the moon project?
Nuts & Bolts
First the earth was flat
But it fattened up when we didn’t fall off
Now we spin laps round the sun
– 2-1, Imogen Heap
There are very basic things our forays into space have brought us, weather satellites being amongst the most obvious in terms of what they provide us regarding preparedness and protection for populations. As bad as New Orleans was when Katrina hit, imagine how much worse it would have been without the solid data provided by the orbiting observation posts. That’s just a small portion of the payoff. These orbiting instrument platforms – and their cousins, the scientific research satellites – provide us with a copious amount of data regarding the state of our planet, data that invariably profits us.
I mention elsewhere E.O. Wilson’s comment that to sustain the planet at a level the U.S. consumes goods would require 3.5 to 4.5 planets. Here’s an irony to chew on – a committed effort to expanding out into the solar system would likely provide us with a significant source of raw materials we’re going to need if we are going to survive long into the future … and maybe even a place to escape to.
“In all scientific research, the researcher may or may not find what he is looking for – indeed, his hypothesis may be demolished – but he is certain to learn something new . . . which may be and often is more important than what he had hoped to learn.
“This is the Principle of Serendipity. It is so invariant that it can be considered an empirically established natural law.”
– Spinoff, Robert A Heinlein
When compared to government funding in general, the amount of money spent on space exploration and research is insignificant. Most government cash goes to social programs, infrastructure, corporate welfare, entitlements, endless domestic and international programs … and defense budgets that burn up NASA’s miniscule funding by the end of the first day of the fiscal year … or thereabouts. In truth, if you took your time to really figure out where your tax money went, you’d be both stunned, and likely forced to reevaluate the myths of how government spending is allotted that most people accept as gospel truth.
More important: money directed at space actually offers a return on the investment. Science. Science provides potential for real return … and has delivered on that promise at every opportunity. Just look at your electric light and think about it. Every electronic device you own, much of modern diagnostic medicine, agriculture, you name it … Space Program spinoffs exist somewhere in the lineage of all of it. The work done to get to the moon altered industry and medicine as research results generated technological innovation across the board.
Consider this, as well: People who touch our lives in so many meaningful ways – friends, lovers, siblings, parents, children – might not have been alive to do so without the spinoffs of medical research developed in the effort to get humans off planet. Medical spinoffs contribute to the early detection of disease, treatment, and general improvements in quality of life for sufferers of chronic illness
Bluntly, the cost argument is bogus. NASA – and by extension all government-funded science and scientific research – at least produces results that show a potential for return on investment. It’s hard to come up with another agency that can make that claim. And if the U.S. government doesn’t then take proper advantage of these research results is not the fault of NASA; what we’re really discussing is a failure of imagination on the part of bureaucrats, not the science. The results produced are real. Our technology, the growth of our knowledge of the Cosmos, the countless experiments performed over the years, the experience we gained in engineering and working in space … the fact thousands of people are alive because of techniques and equipment borne out of the Space Program research – these things all point to a program that gives something back.
Here’s the thing I guess I have the most difficulty with: trying to get people to see long-term perspective. My friend Mikey and I often puzzle at the shift when we talk of the oddness of living in a time where people are not excited by the prospect of a growing population of humans in space and all the potential such a reality could offer. By contrast, he and I grew up in an era charged by a sense of amazement and wonder, carried by a dream that lived in mankind since we first looked to the sky and saw the moon. It was fueled in part by the real-life-fact of it, and the imagined possibilities, going back to Cyrano de Bergerac and long before.
When I was a child, Mars was still an amazing and mysterious dream of fantasy. And this was well before exposure to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels (Bradbury got me first – what an wonderful collection of stories, imaginative, whimsical, breathed upon with deep dreams touched by both the otherworldly – and the familiar.)
Growing up, Martian canals were still big in the public imagination; heck, 20 years earlier Orson Welles got the East Coast to shit a collective cow over his reenactment of H.G.’s masterpiece. And as I grew older, I watched as the space program started undressing the Red Planet’s secrets … hers and the rest of the solar system. We peaked within Venus shroud to see the incredible geography while learning her atmosphere would eat us alive. We sent Mariner 10 to fly through the frightful solar radiance that washed over Mercury. We sent probes crashing into the moon, then landing, finally putting men on the moon.
Men on the Moon.
What a fucking fantastical statement.
And we didn’t stop. For all of the significance, the Moon landing was an appetizer. We had bigger fish to fry. Viking 1 & 2 went to Mars. And then, in the most exquisite of cosmic ballets, first the Pioneers and then the Voyagers – two craft each – visited the Jovian planets. I remember the Voyager flybys of Jupiter and Saturn … there were parties … Bikers and bankers, dweebs and sharp-dressed men … people hung around TVs, at home, in clumps in bars, watching the photos as they processed in, listening to mission control as the scientists and engineers monitored the great adventure light-minutes behind the actual events …
listening as we waited for the signal that told us Voyager successfully passed through the recently-discovered rings of Jupiter … and then of Saturn …
… and it was us up there … represented, yes, but it was US … YOU and ME and EVERYONE ELSE sailing the cosmic ocean … and we were navigating the gravity wells orbiting our home star.
As a species, we were being amazing!!!
I’ll repeat this, ’cause if you don’t get anything else I say here, you really need to understand this:
WE WERE BEING FUCKING AMAZING, GODDAMMIT!!!
More fucking amazing than we ever had been in our long, amazing history.
Even with all the extra-planetary missions to the inner, rocky worlds of the solar system, after actually putting six pairs of human beings on the moon, nothing hit home like the Pioneer and – especially – the Voyager missions. We were seeing the Jovian worlds up close and personal, our miniscule craft of exploration sailing through the ring-systems, past small moons, through radiation storms, sending back images and data to the waiting humans on our distant planet.
Jupiter and Saturn … and eventually Uranus and Neptune … were no longer points of light in the sky to be mistaken for faraway stars … these became real worlds that inhabited our local neighborhood in the Milky Way … and in the end changed how we looked at the cosmos.
We could see our future, could see where things were going to lead us.
But we never really got out of near-earth orbit.
And now, decades later, George Bush was gonna revive a listless space program and send us back to the moon.
Of course he was …
Cynicism aside, the Moon Project was the only game in town … we never developed a replacement for the Orbiter, and now we’re hitching rides with the Russians. We needed something, and this was all we had to pin our hopes to. And now that is gone, too …
Aside from a well-deserved “WTF?” owing its origins to a latent sense of pride given the United States’ participation in the history in space exploration, the news does nothing to inspire optimism regarding our – humanity’s – effort to get off-planet. And I know the whole “mankind must never flag in its commitment to explore space” thing has been done to death, and better writers than I have written enough on the subject to fill several large volumes of books. But I gotta say something.
A story … of sorts …
1981 until graduation from college in ’83, through the unintended consequences of procrastination and an odd series of synchronicities, my take-home essay tests and term papers for my ancient Greek and Roman courses were almost always due on the day of a shuttle launch. (God’s Truth, if you believe in that sort of thing.) I must have caught every early launch, and at least 80 percent of the time I was awake because I always waited until the last minute and finished those papers and tests by pulling all-nighters the day they were due. All in all, an interesting/ironic juxtaposition … regurgitate what you learned studying the cradle of Western Civilization while watching the result of the long road those ancient peoples set us on.
My family had an active part in the space race. At least, my Dad did … he wired silos for missiles at Vandenberg AFB in the early sixties. We were a space town, Lompoc, California, a place at one time destined to become a Spaceport. Think about that a second. Cape Canaveral was always that – Cape Canaveral, the first U.S. Spaceport. The Russians had Baikonur. In terms of Space, they were it. Thing is, in the popular imagination, we never really considered Canaveral a spaceport. It was just a place we launched missiles from. And who thought about Baikonur outside of Russia, NASA and the CIA?
But Vandenberg AFB was something else – a declared spaceport. How audacious … a spaceport … we were on our way to the stars!
Sadly, funding was cut, the facilities at Vandenberg were mothballed … and that dream died. Being short-sighted appears to be a genetic trait in bureaucrats.
Still, Lompoc at the beginning of the 1960s was the West Coast’s ‘Space City’. The people residing there lived and breathed the space race. When missiles went up at night everyone would rush outside to the thundering roar of an Atlas or Minuteman as it started on its test run down the Pacific Range. The rockets would burn brilliant against the indigo skies, sometimes exploding, pulsing a ring of energy as the rocket blew up … or was detonated because of a system failure. And when the early Saturn 1 launches were televised, we’d have sleepovers and gangs of kids would stay up late to watch Mission Control light the candle and send the massive missile up.
Much later. 1977. Like a lot of people, the whole post-Moon landing space thing had faded in importance for me as I got on with my adult life. I was working at San Francisco General at the time. I’d gotten off my midnight shift at Mission Emergency Hospital and headed straight over to the Civic Center. I was going to attend a scifi convention, Space Con 3. My primary reason for being there: a talk to be held on the Shuttle Orbiter Program chaired by Nichele Nichols, James Doohan …
… and Robert A. Heinlein.
Bleary eyed as I was from sleep-deprivation, I was wide-awake throughout. The two Star Trek alums deferred to Heinlein, and he made an animated hour of it. Holding up a large cutaway drawing of the Shuttle, he proudly pronounced it to be “the Model T” of spaceflight development. He talked as he always talked about his hopes for mankind realizing what he saw as its destiny.
That seems so long ago now. Heinlein passed a decade later, his oft-stated dream of dying on the moon unfulfilled. The world, it seems, has changed. I grew up in a nation that dreamed of conquering space. We walked on the moon, saw our small ships of metal and electronics sail to nearly every corner of the solar system to send back news and knowledge of how things really were. And now we’re on the verge of retiring our only means of putting men in orbit.
We had dreams.
And then the dreams went away. With it, maybe our future … and our greatness
… we … have lost something …
There is a growing argument the United States is in a decline as a nation. There is a concurrent argument that humans as a species may possibly be on the way out. From a paleontological perspective, species disappearance is unsurprising – most species die off relatively quickly in terms of geologic time – but ending remains unsettling from the more immediate perspective of the species. Ominously, we should know with relative certainty in the next 30 years if the climate and environment tanks as bad as they are projected to … and then it will be too late to do much about either interrelated problem. The conversation regarding human survival is in relation to our need – and inability – to curb our population growth while seriously working to keep our natural resources self-sustainable. Just to say that is incredible to me; the planet’s bounty seemed limitless as recently as fifty years ago. No more. As we trash the biosphere scientists who study such things are calling this the sixth great die-off – and the first perpetrated by a species.
In both cases – the decline of the U.S. and the decline of global human civilization – it seems the common symptom is an intense, overriding focus on the here and now; the future seems too far away to care about.
All the gods lost 2-1,
And holes to heaven pointed out to us from light years away;
We’re surrounded by a billion galaxies…
– 2-1, Imogen Heap
So here we are. On the precipice of the future, roaming the shores of Sagan’s cosmic ocean, and we appear to be allowing our true chance at greatness slip through our collective fingers. Oh, sure, we landed on the Moon. We did great things. And then we didn’t.
We live at – quite possibly – the tail end of what might end up being the most perfect time in human history, a true era of wonders. The ancients would have regarded ours as a world of miracles, but modern viewpoints are jaded by lack of perspective: it’s hard to understand our condition, particularly in the developed world, is the exception to human history. There is still a lot of potential locked up in our species … but it is unclear if we can take advantage of that untapped potential given our increasingly apparent inability to get past the smallness in us. Moving off planet would give us a chance … give our children and their children and succeeding generations a real chance to survive the future we might be bringing on ourselves.
But we don’t see. We can’t see.
And this is what I see:
We’re the builders of the Pyramids. We’re the people who raised up the Parthenon and invented Western Civilization. We conquered Egypt, Persia, India and everything between. We invented, built (and then burnt) the Great Libraries of antiquity. We constructed the Coliseum, Circus Maximus … and ruled the Western World for centuries. We’re the sons and daughters of Discovery, architects of the Enlightenment. We opened the New World to the Old. The sun never set on our Empire. We’re the people that put men on the Moon.
And then we stopped … and we went away …