Saturday, September 29, 2012

Impossible things


For years now, I've been a fan of Failblog. With the possible exception of Mark Steyn's punditry, it does a better job of blending the sublime with the ridiculous than just about any other site out there.

But I had to take issue with this photo:

Actually, not so much with the photo as with where it was posted: under "Win".

It's not a "win", people. Sure, it's a great picture of SST ENDEAVOR...but it's a picture of America's last operational space shuttle being delivered to a museum.  To put it another way, a couple of weeks after Neil Armstrong died, and 40 years after a human being last walked on another planet, America parked its last manned space launch vehicle forever.  The US government couldn't build a Saturn V rocket right now if it tried.  Think about that; it's like saying Chrysler couldn't build a 1968 Plymouth Fury.

Okay...maybe that's a bad example. They probably couldn't.

What that picture really signifies is that America is out of the manned space travel business, which - given that every other space programme in the world has only ever been a half-arsed attempt to copy America - is pretty much the same as saying that mankind is out of the manned space travel business.  Sure, there are robots on Mars, and lots of stuff like Cassini flying around the solar system (and out of it) - but even in the unmanned realm, the most extraordinary successes, like Voyager, are decades in America's past.

Maybe the death of manned space travel was inevitable. Is exploration really a necessity, or is it a luxury? Should the brokest nation in the history of human civilization not place its priorities elsewhere - like, for example, getting its fiscal house in order before spending billions to shoot a select few to tromp around Mare Tranquilitatis again (or, heaven forfend, Olympus Mons)?

Or is manned space travel one of those activities the ancillary civilizational benefits of which outweigh the costs? Is it le beau geste - the technological, the emotional, the moral equivalent of Caesar standing alongside the Rubicon and saying Alea iacta est? Is it a challenge that draws us onwards? Do we need a destiny to strive for?

I don't mean to suggest that we should aim for L5 colonies and lunar settlement and Martian terraforming; not just now, anyway.  But we need that challenge. Carl Sagan, a prisoner of the Cold War, used to say that a human future in space was our only defence against the possibility that we might destroy ourselves. I'm not that apocalyptic about it; I simply think that we need a challenge. Without a challenge, a civilization stagnates and festers. From a challenge comes shared purpose, and from shared purpose comes a sense of destiny.  For England, it was Empire; for America, it was serving as the democratic ideal. Hell, for the Soviets it was world socialism (at least until the West's economic karma ran over their dogma).  Bottom line, we need a goal; something unusual, something glorious even, to strive for. We need something inspiring to work towards. Not a mishmash of feel-good sociocultural gobbledegook of the sort peddled by Obama and his band of free-spending vandals and wastrels; not pastel sunshine, happy unicorns, or (as Steyn puts it) a "far distant horizon where educated women and fire-breathing Imams frolic and gambol side by side around their Chevy Volts". That's an image of America as a low-rent rest home, where the disabled half of the population squats in cheap wheelchairs staring blankly at Honey Boo-Boo while the other half spoons pabulum into their mouths.  That's not a vision, but a nightmare; a purgatory of cultural senescence that is far more destructive (and, terrifyingly, far more likely) than the shower of plasma and neutrons that had Sagan quaking in his boots.

No, we need something more than that, a greater purpose to draw us onwards; something grander and more inspiring to work towards than the vital goal of sacrificing the livelihood of the present to achieve a statistically immeasurable decline in the rate of increase in sea levels. We need something to struggle for that's not merely difficult, but that's impossible.  Why impossible? Because we're humans, that's why. Isn't "you can't do that" the most annoying thing you've ever been told? Doesn't it make you want to head right out and do "that", whatever "that" might be?  Doesn't the word "impossible" just...well, doesn't it just piss you off?

The White Queen famously told Alice that she sometimes believed six impossible things before breakfast.  When Rev. Dodgson wrote those words, balloons were common, but human flight was an impossibility.  Half a century later, courtesy the Wright brothers, it was not only possible, but routine; but rocket-powered flight was impossible.  Ten years after that, thanks to Robert Goddard, rockets weren't impossible anymore, and ten years later they were being used as weapons of war; but pushing a human past the speed of sound certainly was. Twenty-two years after Goddard, the sound barrier was broken by Chuck Yeager, but putting a man into space and bringing him back was impossible.  Fourteen years after Yeager, man was exceeding the sound barrier by several factors, and Yuri Gagarin went up and came back; but it seemed impossible that man would ever walk on the Moon.  Only eight years after Gagarin, Neil Armstrong took that first historic step.  That was forty-three years ago.

That's five impossible things, and we're just getting started.  We've visited every planet in our neighbourhood and our robot servants are patrolling the most promising one, looking for signs of water and life. Our emissaries, bearing our greetings, are on their way out of the solar system - the most primitive and inefficient form of interstellar communication imaginable, but the first one we could achieve, and so we did it.  We did it.

The shuttles were great, but enshrining them is like enshrining a bus or a dumptruck. They were not the tools of glory. Those will be the next ship - the one that takes humans to Mars, or to the asteroids, or to Ganymede or Europea or Titan. Or somewhere else.

So yeah, it's a nice picture of Endeavor.  But Endeavor was a UPS truck. It was a service van.  I want to see the next Flyer, the next X-1, the next Saturn V.  I want to see the next Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.

Endeavor is what was.

I want to know what's next.