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Archive for October, 2012

The death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, on August 25 got me reflecting on what was accomplished by NASA during his time. I found a YouTube channel called “The Conquest of Space,” and it’s been wonderful getting acquainted with the history I didn’t know.

I knew about the Apollo program from the time I was a kid in the 1970s. I was born two months after Apollo 11, so I only remember it in hindsight. By the time I was old enough to be conscious of the Apollo program’s existence, it had been mothballed for four or five years. I could not be ignorant of its existence. It was talked about often on TV, and in the society around me. I lived in Virginia, near Washington, D.C., in my early childhood. I remember I used to be taken regularly to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Of all of their museums, it was my favorite. There, I saw video of one of the moon walks, the space suits used for the missions (as mannequins), the Command Module, and Lunar Module at full scale, artifacts of a time that had come and gone. There was hope that someday we would go back to the Moon, and go beyond it to the planets. The Air and Space Museum had an IMAX movie that was played continuously, called “To Fly.” From what I’ve read, they still show it. It was produced for the museum in 1976. I remember watching it a bunch of times. It was beautifully done, though looking back on it, it had the feel of a “demo” movie, showing off what could be done with the IMAX format. It dramatizes the history of flight, from hot air balloons in the 19th century, to the jet age, to rockets to the Moon. A cool thing about it is it talked about the change in perspective that flight offered, a “new eye.” At the end it predicted that we would have manned space missions to the planets.

Why wouldn’t we have manned missions that venture to the planets, and ultimately, perhaps a hundred years off, to other star systems? It would just be an extension of the advancements in flight we had made on earth. The idea that we would keep pushing the boundaries of our reach seemed like a given, that this technological pace we had experienced would just keep going. That’s what everything that was science-oriented was telling me. Our future was in space.

In the late 1970s Carl Sagan produced a landmark series on science called “Cosmos.” He talked about the history of space exploration, mostly from the ground, and how our destiny was to travel into space. He said, introducing the series,

The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can…

Winding down?

As I got into my twenties, in the 1990s, I started to worry about NASA’s robustness as a space program. It started to look like a one-trick pony that only knew how to launch astronauts into low-earth orbit. “When are we going to return to the Moon,” I’d ask myself. NASA sent probes out to Jupiter, Mars, and then Saturn, following in the footsteps of Voyager 1 and 2. Surely similar questions were being asked of NASA, because I’d often hear them say that the probes were forerunners to future manned space flight, that they were gathering information that we needed to know in advance for manned missions, holding out that hope that someday we’d venture out again.

The Space Shuttle was our longest running space program, from 1981 to 2011, 30 years. Back around the year 2000 I remember Vice President Al Gore announcing the winner of the contract to build the next generation space shuttle, which would take the place of the older models, but it never came to be. Under the administration of George W. Bush the Constellation program started in 2005, with the idea of further developing the International Space Station, returning astronauts to the Moon, establishing a base there for the first time, and then launching manned missions to Mars. This program was cancelled in 2010 in the Obama Administration, and there has been nothing to replace it. I heard some criticism of Constellation, saying that it was ill-defined, and an expensive boondoggle, though it was defended by Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, two Apollo astronauts. Perhaps it was ill-defined, and a waste of money, but it felt sad to see the Space Shuttle program end, and to see that NASA didn’t have a way to get into low-earth orbit, or to the International Space Station. The original idea was to have the first stage of the Constellation program follow, after the space shuttles were retired. Now NASA has nothing but rockets to send out space probes and robotic rovers to bodies in space. Even the Curiosity rover mission, now on Mars, was largely developed during the Bush Administration, so I hear.

I have to remember at times that even in the 1970s, during my childhood, there was a lull in the manned space program. The Apollo program was ended in the Nixon Administration, before it was finished. There was a planned flight, with a rocket ready to go, to continue the program after Apollo 17, but it never left the ground. There’s a Saturn V rocket that was meant for one of the later missions that lays today as a display model on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center. I have to remember as well that then, as now, the program was ended during a long drawn out war. Then, it was in Vietnam. Now, it’s in the Middle East.

Manned space flight ended for a time after the SL-4 mission to the Skylab space station in 1974. It didn’t begin again for another 7 years, with the first launch of the Space Shuttle. The difference is the Shuttle was first conceptualized towards the end of the Apollo program. It was there as a goal. Perhaps we are experiencing the same gap in manned flight now, though I don’t have a sense that NASA has a “next mission” in mind. As best I can tell the Obama Administration has tasked NASA with supporting private space flight. There is good reason to believe that private space flight companies will be able to send astronauts into low-earth orbit soon. That’s a consolation. The thing is that’s likely all they’re going to do in the future–launch to low-earth orbit. They’re at the stage that the Mercury program was more than 50 years ago.

What I ask is do we have anything beyond this in mind? Do we have a sense of building on the gains in knowledge that have been made, to venture out beyond what we now know? I grew up being told that “humans want to explore, to push the boundaries of what we know.” I guess we still are that, but maybe we’re directing that impulse in new ways here on earth, rather than into space. I wonder sometimes whether the scientific community fooled itself into believing this to justify its existence. Astrophysicist, and vocal advocate for NASA, Neil deGrasse Tyson has worried about this, too.

I realized a few years ago, to my dismay, that what really drove the creation of the space program, and our flights to the Moon, was not an ambition to push our frontiers of knowledge just for the sake of gaining knowledge. There was a major political aspect to it: beating the Soviets in “the space race” of the 1960s, establishing higher ground for ourselves, in a military sense. Yes, some very valuable scientific and engineering work was done in the process, but as Tyson would say, “science hitched a ride on another agenda.” That’s what it’s often done in human history. Many non-military benefits to our society flowed from what NASA once did, none of which are widely recognized today. Most people think that our technological development came from innovators in the private sector alone. The private sector did a lot, but they also drew from a tremendous resource in our space and defense research and development programs, as I’ve documented in earlier posts.

I’ll close with this great quote. It echoes what Tyson has said, though it’s fleshed out in an ethical sense, too, which I think is impressive.

The great enemy of the human race is ignorance. It’s what we don’t know that limits our progress. And everything that we learn, everything that we come to know, no matter how esoteric it seems, no matter how ivory tower-ish, will fit into the general picture a block in its proper place that in the end will make it possible for mankind to increase and grow; become more cosmic, if you wish; become more than a species on Earth, but become a species in the Universe, with capacities and abilities we can’t imagine now. Nor do I mean greater and greater consumption of energy, or more and more massive cities.

It’s so difficult to predict, because the most important advances are exactly in the directions that we now can’t conceive, but everything we now do, every advance in knowledge we now make, contributes to that. And just because I can’t see it, and I’m an expert at this, … doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And if we refuse to take those steps, because we don’t see what the future holds, all we’re making certain of is that the future won’t exist, and that we will stagnate forever. And this is a dreadful thought. And I am very tired when people ask me, “What’s the good of it,” because the proper answer is, “You may never know, but your grandchildren will.”

— Isaac Asimov, 1973, from the NASA film “Small Steps, Giant Strides”

Then as now, this is the lament of the scientist, I think. Scientists must ask society’s permission to explore, because they usually need funds from others to do their work, and there is no immediate payback to be had from it. It is for this reason that justifying the funding of that work is tough, because scientific work goes outside the normal set of expectations people have about what is of value. If the benefits can’t be seen here and now, many wonder, “What’s the point?” What Asimov pointed out is the pursuit of knowledge is its own reward, but to really gain its benefits you must be future-oriented. You have to think about and value the world in which your children and grandchildren will live, not your own. If your focus is on the here and now, you will not value the future, and so potential future benefits of scientific research will not seem valuable, and therefor will not seem worthy of pursuit. It is a cultural mindset that is at issue.

Edit 12-10-2012: Going through some old articles I’d saved, I came upon this essay about humanity’s capacity for intellectual thought, called “Why is there Anti-Intellectualism?”, by Steven Dutch at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. It provides some reasonable counter-notions to my own that seem to confirm what I’ve seen, but will still take some contemplation on my part.

There’s no science in the article. In terms of quality, at best, I’d call this an “executive summary.” Maybe there’s more detailed research behind it, but I haven’t found it yet. Dutch uses heuristics to provide his points of comparison, and uses a notion of evidence to provide some meat to the bones. He asks some reasonable questions that are worth contemplating, challenging the notion that “humans are naturally curious, and strive to explore.” He then makes observations that seem to come from his own experience. Overall, he provides a reasonable basis for answering a statement I made in this article: “I wonder sometimes whether the scientific community fooled itself into believing this to justify its existence.” He comes down on the side of saying, in his opinion (paraphrasing), “Yes, some in the scientific community have fooled themselves on this issue.” He discusses the notion that “humans are naturally curious,” due to the behavior exhibited by children. He concludes by saying that children naturally display a shallow curiosity, which he calls “tinkering.” The harder task of creative, deep thought does not come naturally. It’s something that needs to be cultivated to take root. Hence the need for schools. The question I think we as citizens should be asking is whether our schools are actually doing this, or something else.

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