Why A Space Program?

In the conclusion of my article honoring America’s space program, The Final Frontier, I said that

… my fondest wish is that we’ll someday realize that it’s just not wise to keep all our eggs in this one basket. After all, space is a dangerous place – even when your ship is as big as the Earth.

I was reminded of this the other night while chatting with my son about the two shows I was flipping between on TV. The History channel was showing a countdown of the greatest threats to human existence called Last Days On Earth , while the National Geographic was searching for an explanation for the disappearance of Australia’s so-called “megabeasts.” They were both great programs that I had seen before, which is why the flipping back and forth was OK with me.

But when my son joined me, I was surprised by his reactions to the subject matter. It became apparent that his knowledge of the various theories on the extinction of lifeforms was superficial at best, and I could tell that he found the graphic details provided by the shows to be more than a little disturbing. Since he almost never watches TV, the fact that he watched all of what remained with me made this abundantly clear. And since he suffers from some of the same depression symptoms that I do, I myself was disturbed by his reactions to the Asteroid Impact and Nuclear Armageddon scenarios for the shows provided.

Not wanting to exacerbate his symptoms (he has thus far refused to seek any treatment), I let the subject(s) drop after the shows were over. But I continued to ponder the subjects, and both of our reactions to them, for most of the night. I’m sure that frequent readers of this blog won’t be surprised that one of the first things that occurred to me were some lyrics from a favorite song:

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation Lost in Space
With no time left to start again … — Don McLean: American Pie

The second thing was that amazing photo, taken by the crew of Apollo 8, that is recognized around the world:

The photo known the world over as 'Earthrise"

The photo known the world over as "Earthrise"

This NASA image shows the Earthrise over the moon made on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1968 from Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, as it entered lunar orbit. After being the first humans to pass over the dark side of the moon, the crew – Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders – was so surprised by the view of the Earth rising over the barren lunar landscape that Commander Borman called out, “Wow! Look at that!”

That evening, the astronauts held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. Among the comments made during that broadcast, Jim Lovell noted that “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” And after the crew took turns reading from the Book of Genesis, Frank Borman closed the broad cast with: “We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”

Indeed, it seems that the entirety of mankind was profoundly moved when the photos were later broadcast and printed around the world. Not surprisingly, a great many famous people were inspired to speak on what those photos meant to them. And, also not surprisingly, the common theme in most of those statements is the apparent fragility of our little home in space.

William Anders, the astronaut who took the color photos, had this to say in an interview for Earth Day and NASA TV:

I instantly thought it was ironic; we had come all this way to study the moon, and yet it was this view of the Earth that was one of the most important events for Apollo 8 …

There are basically two messages that came to me. One of them is that the planet is quite fragile. It reminded me of a Christmas tree ornament. But the other message to me, and I don’t think this one has really sunk in yet, is that the Earth is really small. We’re not the center of the universe; we’re way out in left field on a tiny dust mote, but it is our home and we need to take care of it.

… Back in the 60’s it gave us a sense that the world was a place we all shared together. We couldn’t see any boundaries from space.

The “Earthrise” photo came to symbolize the leap humans had taken with the first voyage to another world. But it also didn’t take long for it to become the iconic image for the environmental movement. As historian Christopher Riley of the BBC wrote:

These images, along with hundreds of other still pictures taken of the whole Earth during Apollo’s nine flights to the Moon, helped to drive the momentum of a burgeoning green movement during the 1970s.

They fueled an awareness of the vulnerability of the Earth which still resonates with us today and shapes our behaviour.

And in what can only be described as an attempt to advance the environmental movement at the expense of the space program, Robert Poole describes the ‘accidental’ manner in which the images were captured – and there later impact – in his book Earthrise: How man first saw the Earth:

This general lack of preparedness had one important effect on all concerned: the sight of Earth came with the force of a revelation, a sense which deepened as the excitement of Apollo faded. After watching the last Apollo launch, the new age philosopher William Irwin Thompson wrote: ‘the recovery of our lost cosmic orientation will probable prove to be more historically significant than the design of the Saturn V rocket.’ The writer Norman Cousins told the 1975 congressional hearings on the future of the space programme: ‘what was most significant about the lunar voyage was not that men set foot on the Moon, but that they set eye on the Earth’.

The perspective expanded again, to embrace all life in the universe, and all time since the Creation.

Now I’m all for getting our act together when it comes to taking care of home, but any attempt to use that desire to divert resources away from expanding our presence in space does so at the risk of destroying the very motivation that drives that desire in the first place: self-preservation.

To quote Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin:

We can continue to try and clean up the gutters all over the world and spend all of our resources looking at just the dirty spots and trying to make them clean. Or we can lift our eyes up and look into the skies and move forward in an evolutionary way.

It’s mankind’s destiny to walk on another planet… We can achieve it, but we’ve got to have the right plan. However, no nation can carry out such ambitious programs alone, and the experience gathered by those who undertake missions should be shared for all humankind.

[The exploration and colonization of the solar system is] a pathway to establishing an alternate survival location for the human race, and at some point a maturing Earth society should take the necessary steps to ensure its survival.

As further proof of just how tenuous our foothold on existence is, I came across A Pale Blue Dot from Big Sky Astronomy Club:

On October 13, 1994, the famous astronomer Carl Sagan was delivering a public lecture at his own university of Cornell. During that lecture, he presented this photo:

The Earth from 4 Billion miles away

The Earth from 4 Billion miles away

The photo above was taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 as it sailed away from Earth, more than 4 billion miles in the distance. Having completed its primary mission, Voyager at that time was on its way out of the Solar System, on a trajectory of approximately 32 degrees above the plane of the Solar System. Ground Control issued commands for the distant space craft to turn around and, looking back, take photos of each of the planets it had visited. From Voyager’s vast distance, the Earth was captured as a infinitesimal point of light (between the two white tick marks), actually smaller than a single pixel of the photo. The image was taken with a narrow angle camera lens, with the Sun quite close to the field of view. Quite by accident, the Earth was captured in one of the scattered light rays caused by taking the image at an angle so close to the Sun. Dr. Sagan was quite moved by this image of our tiny world. Here is an enlargement of the area around our Pale Blue Dot and an excerpt from the late Dr. Sagan’s talk:

A close up view of The Pale Blue Dot

A close up view of The Pale Blue Dot


We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Like it or not, that Pale Blue Dot is, for the moment, the only place that humans are known to exist. And while it may appear to be safe in its lonely isolation, it is by no means immune from disasters great enough to threaten our very existence. Whether you count the ones that originate from here, including those caused by our own hands, or those that originate from the hostile universe at large, there are simply too many threats to ignore – too many reasons why continuing to have the entirety of Mankind all in one place is tantamount to inviting our own extinction. Despite the loveliness of The Pale Blue Dot, Man simply cannot afford to have it as his only home.

In an article for Space.com entitled COMMENTARY: Why Space? The Top 10 Reasons, Joseph N. Pelton wrote:

Actually the lack of a space program could get us all killed. I don’t mean you or me or my wife or children. I mean that Homo Sapiens as a species are actually endangered. Surprising to some, a well conceived space program may well be our only hope for long-term survival. The right or wrong decisions about space research and exploration may be key to the futures of our grandchildren or great-grandchildren or those that follow.

Arthur C. Clarke, the author and screenplay writer for 2001: A Space Odyssey, put the issue rather starkly some years back when he said: The dinosaurs are not around today because they did not have a space program. He was, of course, referring to the fact that we now know a quite largish meteor crashed into the earth, released poisonous Iridium chemicals into our atmosphere and created a killer cloud above the Earth that blocked out the sun for a prolonged period of time.

This could have been foreseen and averted with a sufficiently advanced space program. But this is only one example of how space programs, such as NASA’s Spaceguard program, help protect our fragile planet.

To make absolutely sure that my point is getting through, here’s a nice little video showing just one example from the multitude of threats we face:

OK, we’ve all seen the movies were a massive nuclear strike is used to destroy an incoming asteroid or comet before it can do the kind of damage shown in this video. Unfortunately, no scientist or military man worth his salt thinks that such a defense would work in the real world. At best, it would simply cause the asteroid or comet to break into smaller – now highly radioactive – pieces that would do just as much, if not more, damage.

Most agree that the best approach would be to divert the incoming threat into an orbit that doesn’t result in an impact on the Earth. The problem with these scenarios, however, is that they require technologies that don’t yet exist and – more importantly – they require many years of advance warning that an impact is imminent. But with all of the things that can influence the path of the threatening object, such as other collisions, the gravitational pull of the planets, and out-gassing in the case of comets, providing reliable, long-term trajectory data is very difficult.

The simple, undeniable fact is that such impacts have happened in the past and they will happen again. To survive such an event, the safest bet is to be elsewhere when it happens.

In conclusion, a few more notable quotes:

Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress. — Stephen Jay Gould

The extinctions ongoing worldwide promise to be at least as great as the mass extinction that occurred at the end of the age of dinosaurs. — Edward O. Wilson

Why do some die and some live?…The answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live…This self-acting process would necessarily improve the race… the superior would remain—that is, the fittest would survive. — Alfred Russel Wallace

And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died … — Don McLean: American Pie

In The Final Frontier, I also said:

Besides, conquering the unconquerable is in our nature. I also think it’s good for the soul.

And finally:

Beautiful, beautiful. Magnificent desolation. — Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin said that while standing on the moon 40 years ago. My prayer is that we are not all here when that becomes a description of the Earth.

I want ice water.

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8 thoughts on “Why A Space Program?

  1. WOW Mak.
    My first thought after reading this was, “I had no clue they were taking money from our space program!” I mean hell they can have the $1000 my Governor spent on an ice machine for his office, if they like. I know it’s not much but hey, if all of us chipped in then we would atleast be putting something into it, not taking from it. To take from it is just….well…idiotic. I wonder if taking from the program is a reason why we have had so many problems lately with the NASA missions.
    I also think the talk from Dr. Sagan about The Pale Blue Dot should be played throughout the air in the Middle East. Not that it would work but all should hear that, so many parts to it ring true and bring about thoughts of wanting to do kindness and respect one another because we all live on that very tiny planet. There’s nothing like the galaxy that can make you think just how small we really are, how fragile, how in one moment we could all just not be here any longer.
    I have to say it again Mak, WOW!
    Thank you for posting all of this, I know it took a lot of work and I just want you to know I very much enjoyed reading this and thinking about life on Earth, about how young and small we all really are.

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    • Once again, your response makes it all worth it! I wish that I could’ve found a video of Dr. Sagan’s speech. His words are impressive, but I’ll bet it was so much better hearing his voice. I know people used to make fun of his “billions and billions” but I loved the way the man spoke. I watch the reruns on Discovery Science mainly because of the powerful humanity in the way he communicates his passion for science. Maybe I’ll search for one again.

      On the NASA funding thing, I don’t blame the failures on that. I blame a bloated and politically driven bureaucracy for that! But it really pisses me off when I hear people say things like “when we’ve got so many problems here on Earth, why are they wasting all that money in space?” I personally think that the competition to beat the Soviets to the moon has given us at least a 10 to 1 return on our investment.

      I think that the program became wasteful after the sense of urgency wore off. That’s what allowed political concerns to start interfering with the programs effectiveness. It’s that sense of urgency that I want to restore, because the real threats are more frightening than the Soviets ever were!

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  2. Pingback: Recent Asteroid Discoveries Prove Need For Robust Space Program | I Want Ice Water

  3. Pingback: Recent Asteroid Discoveries Prove Need For Robust Space Program | I Want Ice Water

  4. Pingback: The Final Frontier | I Want Ice Water

  5. Very well composed post, Izaak! I enjoyed it. And I miss Carl Sagan.

    The Space program was successful in capturing the world’s imagination and enabling science and engineering education to some degree. Maybe that’s enough to justify the expense. Maybe.

    Maybe I am too much engineer and not enough poet, but I am not optimistic about saving humanity by escaping into space. Mars is the least inhospitable planet and it doesn’t even have enough gravity to retain its atmosphere. The diurnal temperatures are incompatible with human life and terraforming is not practical. Neither is interplanetary flight – the very laws of physics are stacked against it.

    As a young person, my imagination was fired by science and the Space program. As an older man, I am resigned that this blue marble is the only home mankind will ever have. Ever. And even if I’m wrong, I am not wrong for the lifespan of anyone living now (assuming the Second Coming doesn’t happen, of course).

    Now one thing I could get behind with great enthusiasm is a program to prevent catastrophes, such as asteroid collisions with Earth. That is doable. In fact, that, IMHO, is vital.

    Just think. The dinosaurs ruled the Earth for some 60 Million years. Homo Sapiens has been a species for about 190,000 years, or about three-tenths of one percent as long. We’ve got a lot of chutzpah for such new creatures, don’t we?

    Jim

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    • Thanks Jim. It means a lot that someone appreciates something I wrote back when my heart was more into it.

      Over the years, I’ve gone from being one of the most optimistic people you can imagine (in no small part because of the space program), to being one of the most cynical – particularly when it comes to big government programs. But what I’m the most cynical about, by far, is human nature. I too agree with Sagan that we humans are “the kind of species that needs a frontier,” but a huge part of that need, IMHO, derives from a desire to escape the craziness of other people.

      And yet, despite what I now see as overwhelming evidence that our species doesn’t deserve to continue on, there remains a tiny grain of my former optimism that wants us to have the chance to fulfill our potential. And, just as it has always been, I think the best hopes for that lie in those willing to risk the new frontiers to escape the craziness.

      BTW, I also did a post on Carl Sagan for the My Heroes volume of this blog.

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  6. Pingback: Sunday Sermon – Messages From Heaven | I Want Ice Water

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