Monday, 20 July 2009

We were there

I didn’t realise until tonight that this was the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing,* which risks being remembered in the same way we remember other anniversaries like the Woodstock festival, or the “malaise” speech, or even the Berlin Wall coming down.

This event holds an altogether calibre than any of those things, or indeed anything else in history. This was the first time that humans – or any species on Earth, or anywhere else that we know of – travelled through space to land on an alien world. That world may be barren and uninteresting, but that only makes the footprints we left there eternal, a reminder to anyone coming by in a million or billion years from now, “We lived here, and we made it this far. That was the kind of people we were.”

Sorry if this sounds melodramatic, but I’m serious – there was never anything like it, and may never be again. That deserves a moment of remembrance.

I hope that we can pull together enough energy to reach further -- to go to Mars, cast CFCs or some other greenhouse gas into its atmosphere to warm it, and introduce life, if there is none there already. I would love to not see our species keep all its genetic eggs in one planetary basket. Or, those few trips to the Moon might be all there was.

For some reason, even before I remembered the date, The Girl asked me about this very thing:

“Will you and I go into space someday, Papa?”

Oh, I wish, I said, but it takes a lot of work to get someone into space, and we’ve only been able to do it a few times.


Well, I said, it’s quite far to go, and it’s straight up. You know how tired you get even after climbing all the steps. It’s much farther up than that, and there are no steps.

“If I could go, I would want to take a candle, because it’s so dark.”

It is dark, but there are stars, I said, deciding not to go into the issue of air in space.

“I’d like to meet some aliens!”

So would I, I said. But even if we can’t meet them, maybe someday we’ll talk to them.”

“How can we do that?” she asked.

Well, I said, the same way we talk to people on a mobile phone – we can send signals.

“But we don’t even know their house number!”

True, I said – we'll have to call different stars, and see if there's anyone home.

“How will they even know what we are saying?”

Good question, I said. They probably don’t speak English – but two plus two is four everywhere, and everything in the universe is made of the same stuff we are. So we have something in common.

“Do you think someone is listening?” she asked.

I suspect someone is, I said. Maybe someday we’ll hear from them. I hope so.

Moon rise over Australia. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

*I started to write "moon walk," but ... um ... no.


lagedargent said...

My dear Brian,
You really amaze me. Isn't the low-carbon, more fickle, tomorrow's world you're preparing for, going to lack the means and the drive to land people on the moon, not to speak of Mars, by a long shot.
NASA must have concluded long ago, that there wasn't anything to gain from further 'moon walking', or they would've done so. They shifted their focus to Mars for reasons of securing new funding.
And funding space projects may have a very low priority in the decades to come, if not forever.

Brian Kaller said...

It does sound like a departure from my usual, so let me clarify.

The budget for the search for extraterrestrial life -- in the United States, at least, and I'm not aware of searches anywhere else -- has been $114 million over the last quarter-century. That's an average of $4.5 million per year, or one-and-a-half pennies per American per year, and far less per inhabitant of the world.

The gross world budget in 2000, if you believe Wikipedia, was 41 trillion dollars, or more than nine million times SETI budgets combined. SETI is a grain of sand on the beach, and not every grain will be swept away.

If I had my wish, I would have us devote our remaining fossil fuels -- and whatever energy we can get from bio-fuels, nuclear, wind, solar and human labour after fossil fuels run out -- to the projects that are most important -- feeding and educating as many people as possible, keeping the Internet going, and a few other things.

As far as I am concerned, the possibility of having another home for our species should something happen to the Earth, or to find out if we are alone, should rank up there. Feel free to disagree.

By the way, the first piece I ever wrote about dwindling resources was for my high school newspaper in 1986, when I criticised a mission to Mars when there were so many hungry people in the world. I didn't want there to never be a mission to Mars, though, just one in 1986.

lagedargent said...

I know you know of John M. Greer, so I suppose you're familiar with his view on the future of the internet. To quote a snippet from his May 13, 2009 post: "There may well still be an internet a quarter century from now, but it will likely cost much more, reach far fewer people, and have only a limited resemblance to the free-for-all that exists today."
Though I hate to think of losing the luxury of having the knowledge of the world at my finger tips, chances are that he's probably right.

I don't begrudge you your dreams of keeping the internet alive, and of starting an exodus to the moon and to Mars, I only state that we've been living way beyond our means for the better part of a century now, thanks to an abundance of extremely cheap fossil fuels; that our tail-winds recently have turned to head-winds, and that from now on humanity will have to tack, and will drift by the streams of financial collapse, social turmoil, and scarcity.

As Mr. Evans-Pritchard wrote in the Telegraph last Saturday: "The West cannot support its gold-plated state structures from an aging workforce and depleted tax base." One of those structures is education. As you may know better than I do, the Irish educational system is to be clipped: "Education must be cut 8pc. Scores of rural schools must close, and 6,900 teachers must go. 'The attacks outlined in this report would represent an education disaster and light a short fuse on a social timebomb', said the Teachers Union of Ireland.".
And in cash-starved California the Governator is doing the same, and those are only the "cheer" leaders. The real game has still to begin.