Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The End of Space

Last month the final space shuttle mission ended with Atlantis touching down in the dark of night, a fitting image for the end of the U.S. manned space program. It doesn’t seem to register much on the national scale of issues to be concerned with, but it has been hanging on me for a while.

As a kid, I watched all the Star Trek episodes (on a tiny black & white TV, I didn’t know Star Trek was in color until 1976), and followed the US space program with the idealism and enthusiasm of a kid that believed that space “colonization” was just around the corner.

I watched in awe when the 1969 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Space Odyssey showed a gigantic spinning space wheel in orbit, as a shuttle slowly docks with the massive station as classical music plays in the background. On the station, the lead character makes a ‘telephone call’ to his daughter from orbit, on a video phone that seemed so far ahead of its time, yet now is commonplace.

The infinite possibilities offered by the Apollo moon landings from 1969-72 gave a lot of us idealists the impression that space travel was the next frontier, and that all other space ventures were variations on that theme of exploration, and “advance” of the human condition in some way. This has always been problematic of course, and Gil Scott Heron deconstructed the situation the best on his song “Whitey on the Moon.” I was thrilled to hear that song, but I was also still excited about the prospects of human space flight.

In the stoned out 70s I got into the psychedelic music. Jimi’s “Third Stone From the Sun,” Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place” and of course the Mothership Connection. I remember when George Clinton chanted “We have returned to claim the pyramids” and it seemed like an outerspace encounter was right around the corner. If you count the cosmology of P-Funk, and their “specially designed Afro-nauts capable of funkatizing galaxies” it seemed like this kind of thang was gonna be hella cool.

This was still years before the blockbuster Star Wars film would come out and deposit a space based mythology on a new generation. But I never doubted as a teen that we would all at some point have a chance to touch the sky, and look down upon the round home of earth from above it.

In college I hustled my way into Cal through a math/science recruitment program as an Astronomy major. I was way into space by then. I went so far as to go to the ROTC office and ask point blank if their program had a pipeline for the space program. For someone that grew up in anti-war Berkeley and had actually participated in anti ROTC protests, that was an extreme, very creepy event, that also put an end to my lofty space ideas.

After that, I settled on more terrestrial pursuits, like playing the funk.

“A Slow Death”

From the first space disaster the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 to today, the US space program has been bleeding a slow death, and the landing of Atlantis was basically the final curtain. It is not the complete end, because private enterprises, and other countries, especially Russia today and most likely China in the future, will be taking this space exploration thing to the next level, presumably to Mars. Maybe in my lifetime. Maybe not.

Maybe we shouldn’t care, but as one science fiction writer put it, space travel ensures our immortality as a human race, in case something calamitous should happen to our home planet earth, we would still be out there. Maybe we don’t deserve to outlive our planet, but that is for another blog in another century I figure. But it may never come to that.

One of the hitches to all the science fiction I watched, and all of the heavy lifting the early space program did, was in the real world of human spaceflight, they had a helluva time getting off of earth, out of earth’s gravitational pull. That problem has yet to be solved, and the costs and dangers have not really been improved in 50 years of trying.

Another sad turn of events is the fact that it still takes months and months to get from one planet to another. The moon is just a few days away, but Venus and Mars, take many months, and Jupiter or Saturn we’re still talking about years. Either way you are in for a long haul.

I was really intrigued watching the intro to the film Avatar, when they said a crew took 6 years to get to the star where the lush, jungle moon Pandora was located. That was compelling science fiction, and will probably lead to even more in the sequel, when we can presume a 12 year round trip to and from that place.

But if one does the math - and it gets wild here – this is a big problem. If we assume that Pandora is located orbiting the nearest star to us, Alpha Centauri, which is 4.5 light years away, and it took 6 years to get there, then we are presuming that the spaceship was capable of traveling at 3/4ths the speed of light. Not accounting for all the relativistic effects (a 6 year flight experience on the ship, but at home decades would pass), there is a presumption that humans can get going to speeds near light speed.

This is so far from human capability right now. At the rate of our fastest ships known to man, it would take 10,000 years to reach the nearest star. Period. The idea that human spaceflight is in our future is not just years away it is starting to look impossible.

But I’ve started to look at some other issues. What if there were some forms of bug life in our solar system? This brings up the question of contamination. This one goes back as far as HG well’s novel “War of the Worlds” in 1898. In that tale of Martians attacking earth, the invaders finally succumb to the germs that abound on our planet, as there was no immunity to them.

In a similar vein, scientists have had to face the prospect that if and when we come across a potential bed of biomass, or even organic molecules that might become life forms one day, it is logical to reason that there is no way we could go and scoop a spoonful of this stuff and analyze it without dropping a few molecules of our own germs on them, potentially creating a ghastly hybrid creation like the movie The Thing.

This issue already has the scientific community in a bind. There was a recent discovery of a pristine underground lake beneath Antarctica. It is such a pure specimen of million years old ecology that there is a conundrum with sending a probe down into it. We would presumably contaminate the lake with 2011 DNA. As a result, scientists from all countries of the world have agreed to a moratorium on exploration of the lake until a fail safe means of examining the lake without contaminating it can be found.
This has implications because a similar situation is in Saturn’s moon Titan. An icy surface is believed to have an ocean underneath it, possibly heated by the moon’s core. This is the most enticing possible home for extra terrestrial life we can reasonably reach. But how do we send a probe down there without mixing earth microbes with the life there? Or does it matter?

Either way the idea of ‘beaming down’ to a planet getting dirty and like Captain Kirk, getting it on with the alien females and then leaving the planet like nothing was done, well, that is a myth of major proportions.

So there it is, we not only are not flying into space, may never know space travel, and have major questions about what to do if an when we find even other microbes, let alone animate life forms – or Pandora-like humanoids… But some of us are dreamers, and we must dream.

So what about all of the visitors we seem to keep getting? All of the alien abduction stories, the many many unexplainable lights in the sky all around the world, maybe we are being visited. All I can say to that is, we must surely look like a population unworthy of membership in the galactic community, And if we don’t qualify for membership, I hope we’re not roadkill on some galactic superhighway, As I’ve said before, I hope they like The Funk.