I saw an interesting Update on LinkedIn today. Yesterday, 20 July, was the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon-landing, the first in history. The poster suggested that the apparent lack of ambition in terms of space flight nowadays might be countered by the creation of a global space agency. There were a couple of Likes and a couple of Comments, making the probably valid point that we as a species should be spending more money on cleaning up the mess we have made of our own planet before worrying about going anywhere else.
In the first place, I confess to missing the anniversary completely. I can remember vividly as a 16 year old kid sitting in the Red Lion pub watching the Saturn rocket blast off from Cape Canaveral. I remember sitting up all night watching the grainy black and white images broadcast to the world’s TV screens of the landing, and the “giant leap” moment when Armstrong stepped off the ladder to seal his place in history. I can remember thinking that I would love to go there myself someday….. I followed the entire mission closely, and that of Apollo 12. Like the rest of the world, I prayed for the safe return on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission (so well captured in Ron Howard’s movie). I marvelled at the entire Shuttle program, and wept for the fatalities aboard the doomed Challenger and Columbia flights.
And I feel saddened by the apparent lack of imagination and intent displayed these days by once pioneering NASA.
I’ve blogged about this before (see the post “Out of this World” from October 2010 if you’re interested). In the nearly four years since I posted it, not a lot has changed.
NASA concentrates on unmanned missions to the outer planets and asteroids and trying to land on comets, and supplying crews to the ISS, and planning, seemingly half-heartedly, for a manned mission to Mars at some ill-defined point in the future. The Russians continue to provide the only means of getting people to and from the ISS in the absence of a replacement for the Shuttle. They sometimes suggest they’re planning to go the Moon or to Mars, but it always comes across as even more half-hearted than NASA. China and India continue to creep slowly forward with their own plans, mainly again in the realm of satellite technology, while both say they hope to go the Moon and/or Mars and establish viable colonies in 50 years or so. The EU – satellites, and the odd national spending time in the ISS, mainly it seems for publicity.
And that’s about it. To all intents and purposes, mankind seems indeed to have lost its mojo, at least as far space travel is concerned. It depresses me now more than it did four years ago.
Now I know the arguments.
I recognise that sending anything into space is hideously expensive. I know that the parlous state of the world’s overall economy means governments must think very carefully about the most cost effective and beneficial ways of spending what money they have – I have to do that every day as an individual.
I know that things like climate change, and healthcare, and food provision, and waste disposal, and alternative energies, and a hundred and one other concerns require increasing amounts of funding too. Governments everywhere face increasingly complex demands for their tax revenues.
I recognise too the arguments about going out into the universe and trashing other planets not being the best advertisement for human civilization (whatever that is – I’ve yet to see a decent definition), and essentially sympathise with them.
But, I’m sorry, I cannot bring myself to agree with them.
Man has always been an explorer. I’m sure when Columbus set off to find a passage to India, a lot of Portuguese citizens complained about the Royal family wasting so much money financing this Spanish adventurer. But off he went, got lost and discovered (or at least re-discovered) the Americas, and the rest, as they say, is history. Britain probably faced similar complaints when it started its Empire building but got around the problem by employing the Armed forces and convict labour.
This is what humans do. It is part of the never ending search for knowledge. That is what has dragged us, often kicking and screaming, from the plains of pre-historic Africa, to every corner of this old world we inhabit. That search for knowledge has also brought us from the first flint and bone tools to modern weapons systems (perhaps not the best advertisement for progress, but valid nonetheless). It’s brought us from cave paintings in blood and sand and water to today’s 3D and wide screen tv’s and cinemas. From the wheel to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.
The Wright brothers first took the air in a flimsy wood and fabric glider in 1903. That entire first flight, from take-off to landing, could have taken place INSIDE the body of a stripped down Boeing 747 freighter – a plane that itself first flew not much more than 60 years after the Wright’s maiden flight. That’s well within a single lifetime. Two years after the 747 took to the air, Apollo 11 landed. That is phenomenal progress.
Look at old pictures of the Mission Control centres in Houston and the Cape. Row upon row of desks, each with its own computer screen showing a little bit of information, each to be interpreted by its operator, often armed with a pen and paper and slide rule. There is now more computing power in the average smartphone than ran the Apollo program. We’ve gone that far, in terms of computer power, in less than 50 years. The internet has grown from a handful of users, all scientists in a more or less closed environment, to ubiquity in half that time.
The oldest airline is KLM, founded in 1920. Before it celebrates its centenary, Virgin Galactic, an off-shoot of Virgin Airlines (itself only 30 years old), will carry its first paying passengers into space for an hour’s joyride at a cost of a quarter of a million bucks or so. It has a waiting list of passengers already.
This progress has all been great, and in many ways has given us all a better life. But it’s not perfect – nothing ever is.
Not everybody has access to it all for a start. Huge swathes of the population still live in poverty and have no job or home. No amount of iPhone computing power is going to help them. As manufacturing has gone up – and despite factory closures world-wide, businesses continue to start up and flourish - the demand for raw materials shows no sign of abating. This leads to increased output of greenhouse gases. This in turn leads to global warming, as far as many scientists are concerned (although many more would strenuously dispute that). And what no-one denies, the supply of those raw materials decreases, and once they’re gone there is nothing to replace them with.
The population too continues to grow. There are in excess of 7billion people on this Earth now. It’s expected to reach 10billion sometime around July 2060 (source: the fascinating Worldometers website at http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/). That’s a lot of people to feed, when the land mass itself isn’t changing size to keep pace with population growth and the amount of arable land is actually decreasing as cities and, worse, desert areas get bigger all the time. So as well as shortages of raw materials like oil and various ores, we are facing, soon, food shortages too. Expect poverty levels to go up then.
Scientists are working on of these issues of course, but they faces challenges as big – perhaps bigger – than any that we have faced before. New energy sources are needed. Nuclear is good but accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and Fukushima have turned many people, in particular environmentalists and (crucially) vote chasing politicians against it. Wind power increases in popularity but is still relatively inefficient and those same environmentalists tend to object to the proliferation of wind turbines that spoil sometimes beautiful landscapes. It takes an awful lot of turbines to match the energy output of even the smallest power station. Solar power is good and increasingly efficient, but expensive to install and still reliant on the weather: fine in the southern Mediterranean, the Gulf states and similar areas of high sunshine, less acceptable in say northern Europe, or the extreme southern parts of South America and New Zealand, where the climate is cloudier and wetter.
In food terms, scientists in the Netherlands have grown meat (or something like it) by a sort of cloning process, building a burger cell by cell. It took a couple of months and cost millions. Other protein sources such as insects (fried cockroach anybody?) are being seriously discussed as foods of the future.
All of which, in my humble opinion, as a layman with no vested interests (beyond living), suggests that in not too many years’ time, this old Earth will become incapable of sustaining anything remotely like even a modest way of life. Mankind needs, desperately, more space. More raw materials. More energy sources. More food.
For this reason alone, it seems to me, there is an imperative to move out into realms beyond this Earth. This is what people have been doing since time immemorial, moving on to find themselves more space and food and, yes, wealth. But we have almost exhausted everything there is to find and exploit here.
So it seems to me we need to rediscover this spirit of exploration, of going somewhere new and dangerous and exciting. We all know it will cost huge amounts in money and, perhaps, lives – but relatively speaking that has always been the case, and it hasn’t stopped us yet. It should not stop us now.
It seems, however, that NASA and its worldwide partners and competitors are lacking that spirit, at least individually. Perhaps a Global Space Agency is the way forward, a pooling of minds and ideas. It works at CERN, but that seems to be an exception. The US, Russia, China, India and the EU seem incapable of sitting down in a room and coming up with any kind of consensus. They have failed to do so in the face of the on-going Palestinian and Syrian genocides. They are failing to do so in the wake of the murderous downing of MH17 over Ukraine. There are always, but always, competing priorities and cost concerns and vested interests. Perhaps there always will be, but I hope for the sake of us all, and our grandchildren, that I’m wrong.
A final analogy. Put yourself in the place of Mr and Mrs Ugggg, the first humans on the plains of Africa when food starts running low in their little valley. Mr.Ugggg is insisting they should move on and find somewhere else where there is more to eat. Mrs.Ugggg wants to stay where she is – she’s just cleaned the cave (again), she has skins to cure and the kids are settled and there’s still at least one wild pig to eat….. But Mr.Ugggg is insistent, so move on they do. And this turns out to be a good thing, for their ancestors proceed to populate the entire planet over the next several millennia.
Sadly, it seems to me we are all turning into Mrs.Ugggg, at least as far space exploration is concerned.