Friday, December 20, 2013

The final frontier

After a very long break I decided to resume posting on my blog. I find that it's a good idea to organize your thoughts and write them down so that's what I plan to do. In the next few posts, I'm going to talk about 3 things that have been on my mind lately. I will start with the most recent...

Space travel and the future

I recently saw the new Interstellar trailer. It's less a trailer and more an inspirational video about space travel and while I watch videos like this all the time, for some reason this one really got me thinking. "We've always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible", that's how the trailer starts, "and we count these moments, these moments when we dared to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known" it goes on as it shows footage of the first manned aircraft to break the sound barrier, the launch of a rocket, Gemini 6's atmospheric reentry, the descending Apollo 11 lunar module, "we count these moments as our proudest achievements" as we see a shuttle launch, "but we lost all that" as the shuttle lands for the last time and we fade to black... "perhaps we've just forgotten" and we see a dusty bookcase, "that we're still pioneers, that we've barely begun and that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, 'cause our destiny lies above us". So true.

Apollo 11 Lunar Module
The great space-related accomplishments from the 60's and 70's inspired generations of scientists and engineers from across the world. It got people thinking and dreaming about the future, about the astronomical potential of space travel and what it could offer us (a solution to the energy crisis, to overpopulation, a means to defend ourselves against threats from space such as asteroids, a greater understanding of our solar system and the Universe, a reason for people of all nations to work together). Even in the most distant corners of our planet, people knew that Man had walked on the Moon. The achievement was so amazing, so impressive, so mind boggling, that many people today still have a hard time believing it ever happened. But back then, newspapers all around the world mentioned the names of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins as heroes.

Some may see the Moon landings from a pragmatic standpoint and argue that they did not produce anything of short term practical value. But they did something more fundamental for us, they lifted the human spirit, fueled our ambitions and dreams, changed the way we view our planet and offered us a greater understanding of our surroundings. To quote Carl Sagan "The idea that we've now understood something never grasped by anyone who ever lived before [...] encourages us to address problems in other fields that have also never been solved, it increases the general sense of optimism in a society, it gives currency to critical thinking of the sort urgently needed [...], it helps stimulate a new generation of scientists. The more science in the media [...] the healthier, I believe, a society is. We're the kind of species that needs a frontier, for fundamental biological reasons. Every time humanity stretches itself, it receives a jolt of productive vitality that can carry it for centuries".

Sadly, this noble venture began for less than noble reasons. It was during a time when two superpowers, locked in a decades-long cold war, were trying to out-best each other in science, technology, military, politics, economics, international influence, sports and so on. The greatest achievements of that period did overcome the impossible, being driven by visionaries and scientists but also funded by politicians and designed to serve a political agenda. It would have probably taken the Americans much longer to break the sound barrier, if the technology that went into the aircraft did not have immediate military applications. It would have probably taken them much longer to send people to space if the Soviets hadn't already done it. They probably would not have sent people to the Moon if the Soviets weren't also planning on doing it. And sure enough, the Soviet Union ceased its planned missions to the Moon after the Americans got there first, because that was the whole point... to get there first. Competition is a catalyst for technological development and innovation.

For a while, I regretted not having lived through all of that. People, at that time, were thinking that by the end of the century, we will have sent humans to Mars. But that day never came. Once the political motivation was gone, so too was the funding. The gears behind humanity's greatest adventure were gradually slowing down. The main argument against space exploration was that there are more than a handful of terrestrial problems that require our attention. We started pulling back, turning inwards, and apart from a few robotic missions, human spaceflight became restricted to Earth orbit. This saddened me, but also gave me some hope for the future. I realized that, unfortunately, the people who saw Armstrong's historic small step would probably not live to see next giant leap for mankind. Sad as it may seem, this made me no longer regret having missed the Moon landings. I became optimistic, because I lived in a different time, one in which, hopefully, humans would set foot on another planet. But now, I'm starting to wonder if that will indeed happen in my lifetime.

Space travel is no longer what it used to be. Why is that? Sure, there's no more political motivation which means that government funded agencies don't have the resources for large scale space exploration. But what about the private sector? It doesn't seem to be doing much better either.
Google launched a challenge called the Lunar X Prize. They will award a large sum of money (around $40 million) to the first privately funded team to send a rover to the Moon. To put things into perspective, this challenge has been around for a long time. I remember hearing about it for the first time when I was in high-school and I was actually considering participating. Unfortunately, the entrance fee was 1000$ (if I remember correctly), which was more than I could afford on a high-school allowance :). At the time I was thinking: how hard can it be to send something to the Moon?

Saturn V rocket

Sending something to the Moon is not difficult from a physical standpoint. We did it almost 50 years ago, surely we could do it now. Absolutely! The only problem is that it's very expensive. Most of the costs are for fuel (more than 90% of a rocket's mass is fuel) and life support. Technology may have evolved in 50 years, but rocket fuel is still the same and so are the requirements to keep a human alive in space. The cost per kilogram to send something to low-Earth orbit is on the order of thousands of dollars. Sending something to the Moon is far more expensive, especially if you're trying to send a person (life support adds to the weight). So should we wait until we find a more efficient propulsion system? Should we spare ourselves the risks and the expenses until then? No, absolutely not! What if after Columbus's voyages the Spanish would have said "you know? I think we should wait until we have a faster, safer and more efficient means of crossing the ocean before sending more expeditions".

Think of the vast amounts of money that are currently going into finding more efficient ways to kill people instead of helping them. We fear each other more than we fear our own ignorance. We are held back in reaching the final frontier by the frontiers we've created between ourselves. How long will this last? Our planet's past is filled with examples of mass extinctions caused by asteroids, volcanoes, cosmic radiation and so forth. What's worse is that we can't know when the next extinction event will happen. Maybe in a million years, maybe in a thousand years or maybe in a few days. It's true that we don't yet have the technology to defend ourselves against all of these dangers, but we can ensure the survival of the human species if we don't restrict the presence of human beings to a single planet. We've already made the first steps, we have to keep on going. The Soviet astronaut Yury Romanenko said "Space is like a magnet. Once you've been there, all you can think of is how to get back". Our future depends on getting back into serious space exploration... our destiny lies above us.
In closing, consider the following story:

Billions of years after the formation of the first fundamental particles, atoms and molecules, in one of the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe, on just one body out of the many orbiting a tiny star out of 400 billion on the outskirts of that galaxy, an extremely improbable event takes place: the emergence of life. So simple and so primitive at first, over the course of billions of years it would evolve into complex organisms. All of these organisms would spend their entire lives completely oblivious to the long, incredible and improbable chain of events that led to their existence. All but one, one that not only possessed a curious nature, but also evolved the unique and remarkable ability to comprehend the world. This species was so far beyond all the others, that in a relatively minuscule amount of time it managed to conquer the entire planet and then escape it altogether and venture into space. This species, with all its greatness, with all its potential, sadly suffered the same fate as all the others from their planet's long history. Maybe, they were too young. Maybe, they were so proud of their accomplishments that they did not aspire towards higher goals. Records of their existence still travel through the cosmos. Radio signals, from their planet, fade away as they cross light-years of space. Probes sent long ago, that have left their solar system, journey through the galaxy. These timeless artifacts, are a testimony to their great achievements, to their hopes, dreams and ambitions... the last remnants of humanity.

Pioneer plaque