A recent edition of The Economist (2011 Jly 02, Vol. 400 #8740) caught my eye: End of the Space Age? I thought we hadn't really started it yet, having got a little off course after "somebody" killed Apollo with its Saturn V industrial base and knowhow;[mony] and after Nixon's dictum that out to low earth orbit (far inside the Clarke belt) is out as far as anybody would ever need. I think today, the answer to "End of the Space Age?" is either No or Yes, depending upon when you ask it, and upon where. And upon what your context is; thus, this apparently simple question is really hard and to a remarkable degree, it bears upon America's presence in future human achievement, or absence there.
Which America's absence from the future seems expectable now, as today's Obama and Congress and Washington generally, turn away from America's needs, affairs, and future; toward dirty ideological combat and infighting (and, one suspects, to busily lining large personal pockets). Reading the news from America brings a picture of deeply embedded and central national decay, with striking parallels to history[cmur]. But also, a core generator of these times' troubles, is a few loud religious and ideological bigots who are of all us Americans, the least American of us.
And what they have brought us to, if "Yes, the Space Age is dead at its conception," is wholly true and America turns inward and does space no more, is that natural human, ecological, and astronomical realities move on. Reality gets along just fine without our participation. (But not necessarily to our benefit. Climate change or climate snap, maybe? A new global extinction event, even?[glex] Or, with less excitement, economies like India and China quickly excelling America's aging and stiffened economy?) And over a not so much longer period, us humans who had a shot at long-term relevance over larger space than our solar system, could find that a few among us, chose for all of us, a terminal Baxter culture[bxtr] as a long slow end of us.
Things move fast these days, so an end to human possibility really could be at hand. (Do think about Baxter's illustration[bxtr] that the end of human possibility and the end of humanity, could be separate events timed several millennia apart.) Those many among us who know by faith that a supernatural Big Daddy created all this visible universe and our local world within it just 6000 years ago, and will be back any day now to reward the appropriately faithful, will disagree with what I say here in my Adra. But anyone who looks at reality, at the work and technology we need today to extract resources from today's Terra, sees immediately that if we had to restart tomorrow from some level we had crashed to, to build up our world systems again, we couldn't do it.
But if the question's answer turns out (thru no political process I see working these days in Washington) to be "No, the Space Age is slightly moribund just now but we'll get past all this," then us humans may, after all, realize our potential by expanding out to our local Solar System (and eventually, far beyond it). The Economist has a very good topic there. Yet maybe our Space Age is not killed after all, but just (badly) bent. Then, whoever can rustle up a little weakly founded hope, may choose to work toward that hope. (See all Adra here.)
However, much to do -- by who? Where? In America; or over in China or India or somewhere else far from America? Central Africa, even? People can surprise you: Who knows what Terra's next human generation, coming on scene right now, will accomplish at maturity? I see a measure of careful hope in that. But over shorter time a temporary, provisional answer is apparent and I know exactly where it originates.
This short-term choice, which could become our Terra's long term reality, will be Made in America. We cannot farm it out to somewhere overseas to do the work cheaper. We can't halt this task and step away from it. A choice will happen. The choice will happen here. Some wag commented, "If you want to go out to space, study Mandarin." I'd rather that in decades to come, those words aren't seen as wise and true. But whatever of today our future looks back at, this national choice about going out to space will be Made in America.
Beware small questions with small answers. One of those may connect to other and larger matters. The connections may reach far beyond what you thought when you opened your topic. Farther than you like, even. It's that first step that does it to you. For instance --
A few decades ago the then manager of the then to-be American Space Shuttle project came up to MIT and did a talk in the Aeronautics/Astronautics Department. His topic was Shuttle design and engineering with an eye to what he was going to do, and how. There is no time like the beginning of it, to hear the thinking of the principal people who are going to build something like that. So I was there, and during an audience participation period I asked a question about his proposed Shuttle engineering.
"Are you going to do this Metric or English?"[dme]
"English," he said, and something happened at that moment: the whole room seemed to silently and invisibly, bounce. In my view, that audience response reflected that that was a wrong answer. Wrong, in two ways.
It was wrong firstly, from an engineering design point of view. Designing parts and the machines they go into, calls for technology with a touch of art. Around this world there are two measurement systems for such work: metric and English (also known as 'Imperial'). Design work in either of these applies a granularity effect: sixteenths and fractional inches; or millimeters and decimal parts or multiples of millimeters. This usage connects very closely to the manufacture, checking, and testing of these parts.
Which has the immediate effect in the engineering design room, that work done in either system is converted only with error-prone difficulty, into the other. But metric is world-wide; English is local principally to America. Since the Shuttle was to be designed English in a metric world, with one word, the Shuttle to come was labelled, "Warning! Added cost and unending trouble." As anyone could see and the audience saw it. Thus the audience response.
This basic incompatibility between the world wide metric system of measurement and the local American English measurement runs from the very small right out to the very large. These two measurement systems coexist badly. Examples abound. Find, for instance, the 'Gimli Glider,'[gigl] in Canada in 1983. And a much more costly instance is, of course, the loss in 1999 of the 'Mars Climate Orbiter.'[mclo]
And the Shuttle choice was "English." Wrong!. I have never heard why that choice was made. I believe no engineer or scientist made it (but many struggled to minimize its hurtful consequences). I suspect that after enough research, I'd eventually find a politician at the bottom of it, but all that is off topic here. This detail, this choice against reason and good practice, to do the Shuttle to English not metric measure, supports a reasonable estimate of America's future.
Here are a few other notes about that estimate. Some people question if America should ever need to get out to space (Nixon saw low earth orbit as out far enough). Many simply ignore the fact this world uses metric measurement for very good reason, and that America's failure to go metric several decades ago, made American measure incompatible with the rest of the world.
Others among us resist change. Today the metric system of measurement is world-wide -- except America. That illustrates it. As does today's American promotion of wars ("Cowboys and Indians") and today's American resistance to accomplishment where today's world most needs it: human settlements off-Terra. What does one reasonably make of this when estimating what the future will amount to?
This 'Metric vs English' topic serves to introduce what I see as 'the American disease,' I think it's a bad part of today's American culture. It's like 'hubris' out of Classical Greece, if a few millennia later in the story of our human species. Now, things people do almost always have multiple roots; but I believe this American disease is a tap-root of much waste and grief over decades.
And to immediately find it in action, listen to Washington. As you listen, recall a few recent wars, What did they cost? What did they return to America generally and to yourself personally? What future do they prepare for our children and for America into the far future? There is a history being made here. Washington's monkey jinks and pockets lining come to perspective in today's world both as an epithet and as a book title[ugam] from the Vietnam time today's time so closely resembles.
Space age ended? Listen to today's political PR that is so well and loudly distributed. In 2011 September, Washington announced a new space project.[pcyc] Again. "Exploration," not settlements. This time it's a new booster to fill the void left after the old Saturn V was terminated with Apollo in the later 1960's. That was done then to save money for the ongoing (Vietnam) war. This latest new program's projected price: $35 billions. Expectable duration, until it's shut down, likely after the next American Presidential turnover. The cost of it would not be much compared to today's war, military, and "security" costs.... See the quote from Harris (in 2001) at Adra's top.)
Readers of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy will recognize we have a serious Seldon crisis right now right here; but no Hari Seldon nor Second Foundation to help us past it. We face a binary choice. We do; or we don't, go out to space. Moving ahead to space settlements offers immense possibility, an open future without visible end. Conservatively staying home for more wars (the Republicans seem to be working toward that now) and resisting change in today's world, is deadly and probably terminal. How will we come out of this? One way, or another?
Space settlements seem a difficult objective, but today's news signals settlements are much easier to do, than to deal with America's terribly ingrown (and apparently severely corrupt) politics. Old wisdom says, the Devil cannot abide humor. Such humor is around today as distilled popular wisdom set into short, succinct text pieces.[joke]
Can America choose to pick up again its tools for science and space that have been discarded, wasted, and ignored? While in recent decades, trillions of dollars, thousands of American lives, ten-thousands of other lives, and much social corruption and degradation are paid out for no public good? Maybe America can change its course, but if I hope for that and work for that, I hardly expect to ever see it.
[mony] Re: Money and elastic evaluations.
A fatal flaw in America's progress out to space is that the work's life-blood, money, is managed by politicians. Not by engineers nor academics nor by anyone interested in the future. And those politicians are in their business for reasons little connected to America's well-being, but they make choices we all must live with. (Or try to.) See the Harris quote at Adra's top.
History illustrates this and its consequences: see the demise of SETI's predecessor and SETI's poverty today; see the great Apollo program cut-off in mid term; see the water-filled hole in the ground that was the Superconducting Supercollider site; see today's Shuttles in museums not space (the Shuttles were experimental: learning curve strangled then cut-off -- to "save money"); see the DCX, a single stage to orbit vehicle successfully test-flown, etc etc. See the pattern, same for all: each startup brought in many bright young people and mature workers and it built up knowhow and industrial bases for its work. Then each, before it had reached its goal and could grow into its next phase, was cut-off, terminated: the people discarded to seek new careers elsewhere; the industrial base dissipated at pennies on the dollar; costly and unique flight hardware set out on lawns and in museums to show (they say) how great America is. ...Great?
(Ask a politician to hear, that's "economy." Ask someone working at the future to hear of terrible waste and loss. America's price paid for this political bungling and mangling of science and engineering may even, over coming decades, exceed the heavy costs of America's immense military; its wars; their consequences. Why does that go on? See The Golden Tripod here in Adra. Then, go search cyberspace on "hodgies," a current American military slang whose consequences, in the curiously different Mideastern cultures, may last for centuries to come. Like "Crusader!")
(If you want another reality than the above illustrates, you'll have to make it somehow.)
(I expect nothing of this paragraph, first written in 2011 December, is news to anyone reading it; but I include it for completeness. Namely: look at the recent Savings & Loan debacle; at the more recent 2008 crash rooted in real estate market manipulation; at the still more recent amazing theses advanced by John Corzine regarding the apparently untraceable disappearance of $1.8 billion from his company, MH Global. These things are historical record here in America. They ought to tell you something about how today's America works, if you intend to reach out from this America into space.)
Thus the Apollo program, America's great hope for the future, was killed by politicians seeking to finance the (then) Vietnam war at any cost. Today, we see a series of wars clawing America's future from science and space and to supporting the military and its actions, but the very much smaller cost of going out to space is said to be much too costly.
Politicians often talk about (other people's) money, and when they do that, they haven't much credibility. But today a whole new verbal acrobatic serves in the news. It's about the cost of space research.
Today's politicians talk intensely but to little good effect, about money. They seem not to have realized yet, the immense possibilities in space for business, for a frontier, nor for human survival of the expectable planetary scale disaster. Thus Washington's discussions center around (large amounts of) money. In these discussions, military costs and returns (if any) are valued completely differently than costs and returns of space and science generally. It's typical of the poorly schooled American public that most people don't notice these shifty standards, which are certainly not mentioned in the news they hear and see.
The Washington view of money defies rational understanding. As it's made to do: Science and space costs. Wars cost. It seems that by political Washington measure, the value of a dollar given to the military is very much greater, than of a dollar spent on research and space. By that reckoning, strangling Apollo to "save" money for the then Vietnam war, was ...good to do. By that reckoning, wars not finished yet properly lead to new wars; and the thoughtful observer may read current, early-2012 news, to see the new wars developing.
And by that reckoning, huge military and "security" costs are good to do, whatever their effect upon American life; but the much smaller costs of science and space, are not supportable. Amazing.
It's puzzling when viewing the above, that wars impose terrible human and social costs upon the world regions where they happen, and those wars corrode and destroy the economies that promote them. (For instance, the corrosive effect upon America of its militaries adventures, not to say of the damaged and broken personnel and their careers returned to American society.) Unlike science and space, wars return no value and degrade American stability and robustness in the face of an uncertain future. Which even today, returns sinister vibes to us about what it might become.
The doings of today's "Transportation Security Agency" nestle convincingly out there with the military. General rule: Where you see secrecy and the public is shut out of public business, there is certainly corruption and looting under it.
[cmur] Are We Rome?
A topic such as Cullen Murphy's here, would once have seemed remote to complete irrelevance to any space work. That was back when reasonable people believed getting out to our local solar system was only a science and engineering challenge. But time has shown that of the hard work to reach out beyond Terra, the engineering and science, are the lesser part of it (and largely done a half century ago); that ignorance, religion, political corruption, and an incredible military black-hole that pre-emptively grabs all available money, are the character fixing, serious and difficult, progress freezing blockage. Elsewhere in Adra I make the point that if today's America were a space-faring nation, we'd be there now.
Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? (2007) is a readable, informed, and relevant look at today's America that is made as we see it, by Washington. Since Murphy published this book, Washington has got worse, but that's another topic. The book belongs at the top of any today space worker's reading list along with Frank J Turner's 1893 paper on the role of the frontier in the development of the American character.
On this topic see also, Robert Winter-Berger, The Washington Payoff (1972). Thus as you look under the intense PR about America's greatness and world standing, and find America's decline so clearly mapped out where anyone can see it who looks, you need not feel surprised. But this reality offers incentive for you to think about what, in America's bad intellectual and economic environment, what are you going to do with your life that could have a power of lasting benefit to your children and to your human species?
[glex] 1883 extinction near miss?
For those among us who feel no sense of urgency about possible large incomings from space, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," and maybe the evidence is there but not recognized. Or for some reason from religion or politics, it is ignored. (Today's Republican antics vs science and climate change are off topic here.)
We get occasional reports from astronomers concerning asteroid and comet bodies that pass near us, i.e., inside Luna's orbit, but it's good to remember the astronomers haven't caught them all -- and they aren't going to. Is there a Really Big Surprise out there in our sky somewhere? We don't know the details, but the only reasonable answer to it is, "Yes, and we'd best prepare now for it."
Our solar system did not magically become a friendly place when us humans evolved in our lucky, local lifespace here. It is not finished now with violent change. In recent years, planetary systems evolution has become a recognized academic research topic, based upon observed data and computer modeling. Astronomy researchers and theorists expect known local history to repeat itself over time: destructive, world-changing meteor or asteroid impacts here on Terra will certainly happen again -- sooner or later. ...When?
Whoever thinks about this topic of natural astronomical process changing or terminating our human world, may choose to pass over the recent Tunguska event and to ignore that big meteor crater in Arizona. And to imagine nothing significant has happened over the past few million years. It looks like such a summary conclusion would be -- wrong.
Because, for example, us humans and our world were lucky around 1883 August, and evidence of that event that didn't happen, is saved in records and astronomical photography by the late-19th Century Mexican astronomer, Jose Bonilla. And it appears this event nearly everyone missed would have amounted not to a meteor strike like today's tourist attraction in Arizona; nor another Tunguska, but to more than 3,000 Tunguskas around our Terra over about two days. Try searching on 'Bonilla 1883 comet' to find out more on this topic.
And more recently, late in 2011 there was news of an asteroid soon to pass between Luna and here on Nov. 8. A TV news report about it says, if that asteroid came in and impacted us, we'd see a crater 1700 feet deep or a tsunami up to 70 feet high. Among other consequences. And while astronomers are cataloging all they can find of these nearby asteroids, we cannot know for sure they will find the one that will come in and impact us, nor that if they do, we could muster the resources to divert it.
Some astronomical objects don't get cataloged because nobody sees them. These would include objects in some galactic not local orbit, just passing by, which could come in from any direction. These would include strange quark objects which could pass through our Terra or our Sol as though these were a thin gas. That anything of this sort is anywhere around that concerns us is unlikely -- but of non-zero probability (which grows over time). So it could happen here.
Which answers the above question, "...When?" with, "Any day now, but we don't know which one. Since we've been lucky maybe we'll go on being lucky. Maybe." Which to any rational person thinking about our longterm human future, isn't good enough. It places early settlements off-Terra as our #1 objective as people and as institutions (i.e., far above any more wars). Not much these days is sure and certain, but this is: that our human future, our children's place, is much too valuable to us to be left wholly to risk and chance and to someday sure disaster, here on Terra.
[bxtr] How might our human world end?
At a past time our human world did not exist; at some (hopefully far) time to come, it is gone without a trace. How could that happen? Simple: thru processes we know today, working over time. Stephen Baxter wrote a science fiction short story about this. Nobody should be thinking about future space settlements who has not read Baxter's The Children of Time. And thought about the deep truths in it. See: Asimov's Science Fiction, 2005 July; anthologized in Gardner Dozois (ed.), The Year's Best Science Fiction, 23rd (2006).
Is it possible, that long slow crash Baxter sees? Yes, and Baxter makes a key point that is central to it. Modern technology makes killing many humans easy; but to kill all of them, is difficult. Then the survivors multiply and there you have a lot of humans again.
But -- what kind of humans? Flowering cultures that embody new imagination and richness? Not likely. And in what changed environment? Today's natural Terran resources are depleted and what remains is costly and difficult to reach. If our today Terran world systems were broken and crashed, rebuilders working in fragmented and local economic systems, could not reach what remains. (See for example, those immense deep-water drilling platforms in service now. Think of mining under mountains as done today, by removing the mountains.)
If we discard our 'Space age,' what happens then? I see a future developing in the character of today's present. Over-population and shortages; migrations; wars. In a weather context of severe and destructive climate change. (Maybe climate snap, even.) We would come at last to a fading distribution of people living nasty, brutish and short lives. A Baxter culture.
[dme] Designing in Metric vs English.
My question's vocabulary here was that of people working in science and engineering. It expands to "Will you design and build the Shuttle and its thousands of parts, using metric measure (meters, millimeters, etc) or English measure (fractional and decimal inches; feet and yards, etc) for dimensions of its parts?" But ...why is that important?
Even the best engineering student, upon arriving in the engineering design part of a productive factory, will experience surprise as one of the checkers comes by and analyzes his new work. At the center of this topic of correct design is that a part must be made and tested; and the arithmetic of manufacture and checking is granular. In English measure, multiples of a sixteenth inch (about 62 thousandths) are much used. In the decimal metric measure, multiples of 1 or 100 mm are much used. Thus dimensioning in either measure, does not convert nicely to the other. That is why for the Shuttle, English measure in a metric world, was seen by all in that conference room as a surprising Big Mistake.
There is another reason why English measure in a metric world was a big mistake. It's called "metric mixup," and a search on that phrase will return some interesting hits. Those hits will include stories such as the Gimli Glider;[gigl] or of the lost Mars Climate Orbiter.[mclo] Among others. And so the Shuttle done English, is a story with large practical consequences.
The Shuttle was proposed as a world resource. It was to carry out to orbit, and fetch back. science and engineering equipment originating in many different countries. That called for a Shuttle made to metric measure. But early in the work, when the option existed to get it right, someone stipulated the Shuttle would be built to English measure. Bad choice, twice over.
But the Shuttle was made vulnerable to metric mixup in its most basic design and for every bit of metric-designed instrumentation and cargo it carried. The consequences were increased cost to manufacture, test, and to ensure readiness for space; increased risk of metric mixup (Murphy's Law) in later flight; and finally, it proved something was very wrong with the American commitment to space.
It was a bad choice because it made conversions necessary between metric and English measure for many hardware components. Obviously, for the English Shuttle to carry metric hardware, some of its hardware must be made partly to each system. This two-systems thing is fundamental bad engineering. It pushes costs up; it makes manufacture and testing harder to do; it increases failure rates. No good reasons exist to make any space hardware to English measure, but bad reasons appear instantly once the idea is proposed.
Metrology is a fun and useful topic that connects closely to all today's measurement systems and that opens an invigorating new dimension to those interested in history, science, or engineering. I have never seen this topic mentioned in schools and only happened upon it thru hearing a talk by Donald Kingsbury. See Kingsbury's introduction to metrology in his Appendix C to his book Psychohistorical Crisis (2001). (Also! This work, Kingsbury's sequel to Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, features a device called a 'fam.' Fams aren't here, yet; but early models of such a utility may appear as soon as two decades from now.)
[gigl] The Gimli Glider.
Thru a series of errors and misunderstandings in 1983 July 23, a Boeing 767-200 passengers jet flying over Canada with 61 passengers aboard, acquired lasting fame as the Gimli Glider. A metric mixup led to the plane running out of fuel at an altitude of about 40,000 feet. Fortunately, the pilot liked to fly gliders in his off hours. Flying his plane as a very large glider, he landed on a closed runway in Gimli, Canada.
For details, visit Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gimli_Glider, and take your time to read it. (For more reading, search on "metric mixup."
[mclo] Loss in 1999 of the Mars Climate Orbiter.
The Mars Climate Orbiter made a good trip out to Mars, and then behind Mars, it disappeared. (1999 September). Investigation revealed that small corrections to the Orbiter's movement thru space, had been based upon orbital observations from one station which (for reasons I haven't seen anywhere) provided those critical observations in English not Metric units.
[ugam] American hubris.
During and after the Vietnam War period, the national news offered many examples of very unhelpful social activity. See, for instance, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, The Ugly American (1958).
That a book like this exists is worth thinking about. People remember things! Up to recently in the Middle East, "Crusader!" was an epithet. For good reason, one may today believe "American!" has displaced it.
Why is that? Think of Abu Ghraib; think of "terminated with extreme prejudice" or more recently, "extraordinary rendition;" think of the way news has of percolating unofficially through a society -- and becoming a part of it that is passed from one generation to the next. Think of a relatively new military slang term: "Hodgies."
(Try a search on this "Hodgies," just the one word. It will return few hits, for some reason. It's worth while to think about why you see the result you see.)
Which informations suggest a key point: that America having spent (estimates vary and Washington numbers are unbelievably low) some six or more trillions of dollars doing wars over there in the Middle East, has lost it completely. If Washington is as wise as they will tell you, why was not a small part of those trillions put to foresighted settlements and to a human culture out there?
As the Vietnam war continued and continued, many people who had not previously noticed the term "ringer" became very aware of it. Local governmental offices experimented with political-control application of grand-jury law. When the Vietnam War finally died (or was wound down), a social sense of insecurity and failure remained. So at last, Bush fabricated pretenses (and sacrificed Colin Powell) to start the Iraq war. This was accompanied by manic social ferment which included the appearance of a Hummer car. Just like those rolling across desert sands in Iraq. This story goes on....
Which story illustrates today's American hubris that ferments and promotes America's remarkable military budget, which if halved, would be the world's largest. And without much notice, this American hubris has turned up in the American language, although you may need to search to find it. Consequences of today's military activity are easy to guess. For example, an old epithet in the Middle East was "Crusader!" I don't look for my local news to tell me if "American!" has replaced it there; but I feel no need to ask.
Here is another example. To see a pointer to where today's America may be going, search in cyberspace on "hodgies." (You won't find much; and you will immediately see why that result.) Then ask yourself, "Is this telling me something of how today's America is not a space-faring nation?"
See also a small vocabulary item of immense significance: "hodgies" [notes pointer: observations] in military vernacular today. Which is a strong indication those trillions of dollars thrown out to the Middle East are lost.[notes pointer: long memory]
[pcyc] The American Presidential Cycle.
Americans who are trying to do things in space, of hard necessity, watch the 4-year Presidential election cycle very closely. (I expect the Chinese do, too.) That is because space work has proved far less technology dependent, and far more politics dependent, than anyone imagined a few decades ago. A large project that is started in one Presidential administration, is at serious risk for termination in the next administration. (See again, the Harris quote at Adra's top here.) For instance, Kennedy started Apollo and Nixon killed it; Bush started Constellation and Obama killed it; now Obama seems to be starting a new heavy-lift booster and who thinks that project will survive the next President? (Who may be a Republican whose agenda includes starting another war.)
[joke] Humorous parallel.
"A CEO, a tea partier and a union guy are at a luncheon together. After lunch the waiter brings a tray of 12 cookies to the table as dessert. The CEO reaches over and takes 11 of the 12 cookies for himself. He then looks at the tea party guy and says, be careful: that union guy is trying to take your cookie." (Thanks to KL in usenet/rasff.)