Forty years since Armstrong’s one small step – where next?

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2009

Buzz Aldrin begins his moonwalkI’m too young to join in the first-hand reminiscences of the Moon landings, but it’s still an event that played a huge role in my imaginative development – as it doubtless did for many other geeks and science fiction fans. [image courtesy NASA]

I think the Apollo project’s biggest symbolism for me is that of the bitter ironies of human technological achievement: to have sent a man into space, had him walk on the Moon and come back safely is quite simply a staggering achievement by whatever metric you choose to use; to have only found the motivation and political will to do so because of a geopolitical/ideological pissing match is rather sad. And it’s that very motivation that ensured us never returning to Luna, as Tom Wolfe points out:

Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all. But then, on the morning after, congressmen began to wonder about something that hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff — they didn’t use the actual term — really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable … how far-seeing … but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?

And that NASA budget! Now there was some prime pork you could really sink your teeth into! And they don’t need it anymore! Game’s over, NASA won, congratulations. Who couldn’t use some of that juicy meat to make the people happy? It had an ambrosial aroma … made you think of re-election …

But hey – this site’s about the future, so let’s look forwards, eh? Former NASA administrator Alan Stern reckons that private industry is the future of spaceflight, and that sub-orbital tourism might be ubiquitous in another decade or so:

I think that when anyone can fly in space, rather than just those that governments choose to send in to space, it’s going to really revolutionize, not only how we look at it, but it’s going to be an accelerant to the desires to have even more of that.

The prices start off pretty high – it’s tens of millions of dollars to fly in space, but those prices will come down, and fly sub-orbitally, ticket prices are in the range of a couple hundred thousand dollars, but those are going to come down a lot to I think over time. I expect that 10 years from now, they’ll be a fraction of that.

And it turns out there may be another motivational force to pull us back to the Moon – if we ever manage to crack commercial fusion power generation, we’d be able to rake up a whole lot of fuel up there:

… the Moon’s soil is rich in helium-3, which comes from the outer layer of the Sun and is blown around the Solar System by solar winds. The element is rarely found on Earth, unlike on the Moon, where it is heavily accumulated because it is pushed away by the Earth’s magnetic poles.

[…]

Reserves of helium-3 on the Moon are in the order of a million tonnes, according to some estimates, and just 25 tonnes could serve to power the European Union and United States for a year.

That’s a whole lot of fuel… but it’s still a finite resource, and historically those tend to lead to trouble and strife of some sort as the world’s powers jostle for the biggest slice of the pie. At least if colonialism reaches the Moon there won’t be any natives to exploit introduce to civilisation…

… none that we know of, anyway.


Did the Apollo landings lead to science fiction’s decline?

Paul Raven @ 17-07-2009

Apollo command moduleWell, it’s not my theory. But Ted Gioia seems to think that the Apollo landings ushered in science fiction’s decline into irrelevance:

With the benefit of hindsight, we should probably admit that the landing of Apollo 11 was the end of the glory days of sci-fi. With the conclusion of the Apollo program, NASA became just another government agency, more bureaucratic than heroic. It is all too telling that the Challenger disaster of 1986 was the next time that rocket ships captured the attention of the general public.

[…]

When the moon became just another piece of abandoned real estate, like much of Florida after the subprime meltdown, the psychological impact on sci-fi was devastating. Many grand predictions had been made about the future of space exploration by these visionary authors. But not one of them would have dared to make this prediction—namely, that 35 years after the Apollo program, no trip would have been made to any of the other planets in the solar system, and no one would have the gumption to send an astronaut—or even a dog or chimpanzee— back to the moon.

Science fiction is experiencing a bit of a comeback these days [O RLY?], but the moon plays a low profile in the renewal efforts.

Balls, frankly.

Gioia not only seems to be conflating a subset of the genre – namely heroic/imperialist space exploration fiction – with the genre as a whole, but appears to have observed a “decline into irrelevance” that the genre’s fans, publishers and practitioners have utterly failed to notice.

Sure, science fiction has changed in character considerably since the Apollo landings, and a loss of faith in Progress-with-a-capital-P is almost certainly one of the symptoms thereof… and sure, the pulps fell away and short fiction has become an artisan ghetto of sorts, but that’s a function of changes in media consumption patterns rather than a direct response to the space race fizzling out. [image by jurvetson]

So, nice try, Ted… but if you’re going to wrestle a topical straw man you might want to dress it up a little more convincingly next time, eh? 😉