Richard Fernandez hits on something that bothers me about the mindset of the country: No Country for Young Men
The big giveaway is we as a civilization don’t want to go to the planets any more, because the old don’t want to go anywhere. Imagine clambering into spaceships! The very idea gives us the shivers. Only the young and immortal travel to places where they may never be able to get Ibuprofen…
And in consequence the future, rather than beckoning to us, envelops us like a shroud. America which was famous for optimism, has sold its birthright for a mess of Obamacare and Obamaphones, like an old couple that have given up sweeping and tending a house that grew too big now that the kids have left.
It overstates a bit the part about us not wanting to go to the planets any more, given the number of robotic exploration missions in progress and planned for the next 5-10 years.
What bothers me is that he may well be right about our desire as a nation to settle space. Sure, we have people like Elon Musk and Robert Bigelow and Jeff Bezos routing around the traditional (ie: old) model of manned space being the province of civil agencies and military bodies. But while there is plenty of interest and enthusiasm in industry and advocacy/activism circles for what they’re doing, I don’t get the sense that there is any sort of broader interest in or optimism for the long-term goals that these new players could enable – namely, space settlement.
Instead, the old conflict between robots and humans is cited, as if “exploration” were the sole reason for the existence of everything beyond Earth – look at it, take samples perhaps, but don’t otherwise touch it. “Robots can do a better job exploring.” “Robots are cheaper to send out to do exploration.” “Robots are less risky.” But robots aren’t humans and thus can’t be settlers. The mindset Fernandez describes would seem to cover this – the “geriatric culture”, as he puts it, would naturally prefer safety over risks, and that which fits in their fixed-income budgets to a venture whose costs and benefits can only be guessed at in advance.
This mindset also helps explain the despicable attitude of people like Patrick Stewart who believe that humans should just stay home, sitting in the corner of the universe until they’ve thought about what they’ve done. The argument is that, because we’re so wicked and naughty as a species, we don’t deserve to travel to and settle other worlds – we should be grounded until we learn to behave better and clean up all our messes. What is this if not the thinking of a punitive parent or grandparent, aimed at putting wayward youth into its place?
As Fernandez hints, this is a cultural problem that leads us towards stagnation and decline while others (whose motives and philosophies may be anathema to our own) fill the gap. If we as a nation choose living in the constrained present instead of looking ahead to (and working to fashion) an expanding future, it doesn’t mean others will feel compelled to do the same. It just means we get left behind.
Popular Mechanics asks the question, but doesn’t look too deeply for alternative answers.
It’s a pretty interesting study, just looking at the different sizes of possible “classic” generation-ship missions and how to both ensure survivability (against unexpected problems en-route) and maintain genetic diversity (necessary for adaptability to unknown conditions en-route and at the destination). Small starting populations, obviously, aren’t as robust and end up significantly less diverse – the threshold seems to be around 10,000, and the ideal is around 40,000.
Which, hey, if you’re able to send a generation ship at all, making one carry 40,000 (or as suggested, several ships each carrying part of the whole for better redundancy) is probably the least of your problems.
Of course, there is a way to make it work with a much smaller crew and still have all the genetic diversity you could ever need: frozen embryos. Or perhaps, by the time such a mission became feasible, genomes stored as data and “reconstituted”.
Given the number of times this has been used in science fiction, I’m a little surprised that they didn’t at least mention it as alternative fix (even if it was not part of the study).
I just finished re-reading Dune for perhaps the fourth time, and am about two-thirds of the way through Footfall for I think only the second time. Both are good, of course, but they seem to have held up in different ways over the years.
I think the last time I read Dune was around 2003, and for whatever reason it seemed like a different telling of the same story this time around. I hadn’t noticed before that most of what seems to make Paul seem like a “super being” is the result of native intelligence and agility maximized through Bene Gesserit training. There is a Nietzschean element to it, of course, in the sense that twenty millennia of selective breeding seem to have re-centered the bell curve of native abilities a bit to the right among the elites (thus the recurring discussions over who is “human” or not). But what impresses is not some inborn advantage over the ordinary mass of humanity (talent or natural gift) but the various avenues through which they train themselves to apply the small statistical advantages they have (skill). Even when Paul obtains prescience, it seems to be more of a curse than a useful tool, and doesn’t really impress one with its exotic or godlike nature. It simply makes Paul fairly good at extrapolating where his actions in the present will lead in the future.
All of which actually makes the book just as interesting as the “superbeing brings corrupt galactic empire to its knees” story I had remembered reading – it’s more nuanced and sophisticated in this take, because unlike a cliche superbeing Paul can actually fail, and the story hinges on his application of understanding and skill rather than unlikely magic superpowers.
I don’t think I’d re-read Footfall since I first read it in 1986 – the summer after Challenger, whose loss dated the book before I even got to read it. The story was published in 1985, and the bulk of the action appears to take place around 1994-1995, which means the world situation and technology are remarkably out of synch with what happened in reality over that span of time.
Rather than make it hopelessly dated, these things make the book an interesting window on how the world looked back in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s of the novel, the Soviet Union (and with it the Warsaw Pact, the Iron Curtain, etc.) was still seen as a permanent feature, having not disintegrated over the period 1989-1991 – yet concern over the loss of the satellite countries and buffer republics in the chaos of the invasion haunts the Soviet characters, and anticipates the disintegration that actually happened (albeit peacefully and under far different circumstances) in that period.
Computers were still at the IBM PC level, and the internet is not an (overt) element in the book at all – which is amusing, since even if they couldn’t be expected to foresee its privatization in 1993, the internet existed in 1985 among the very defense institutions featured prominently in the book, and was designed to survive the sort of communications disruptions inflicted on Earth by the Snouts.
What are particularly interesting, though, are the relationships between and actions of the various characters. One forgets when surrounded by the fruits (and nuts) of modern feminism and Progressive identity politics and such what fiction was like before those ideologies became ascendant in the late 1990s and early 2000s…and more to the point, before those ideologies corrupted so much of mainstream science fiction and turned it into a hackneyed propaganda mill grinding out politically-correct stock heroes and stock villains and box-checked tokens in place of realistic characters with realistic mixtures of virtue and fault who respond to the situations of the stories based on who they are (individual natures) rather than what they are (identity group membership).
It’s an amusing concept, but it suffers from an annoying voiceover and the sense that there’s just a bit too much earnestness behind the attempts to be clever.
What if the rest of the alien universe was terrified of humans?
NASM has what looks like a fascinating exhibition of select images from the MERs: Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars
I’d love to see NASA eventually issue a series of Full Moon-style coffee-table books, giving the highlights of each of the rovers.
Not sure what he says in this clip because watching interview videos makes my skin crawl, but I’m sure it’s something interesting:
Elon Musk On Colonizing Mars
On the other hand, the blurb alone on this one made me chuckle:
Here’s How Elon Musk Can Tell If Job Applicants Are Lying About Their Experience
Heh, I tried this with some of the dashcam timelapse video from my Iceland trip (using the Deshake plugin for VirtualDub), with similar it’s-gonna-make-me-chunder-but-it-so-cool-I-can’t-look-away results:
Remastered, Stabilised Apollo 16 Footage Of The Lunar Rover Looks Just Beautiful.
Would have been easier on the stomach if they’d cropped to a full frame instead of using floating borders, but you gotta admit, it’s beautifully crisp video.
Very cool: Hybrid Machine Combines Milling and Additive Manufacturing
By using laser deposition to build up the part, while employing milling throughout the process to machine critical features as the part is taking shape, the machine can produce a component through additive manufacturing while also producing it to its completed tolerances within the same cycle.
And it does pieces roughly twice the linear dimensions of commonly-available sintering-based machines.
Not that long ago, people were speculating on the applications of 3D printing in lunar or martian settlements, or on board the ships going there and back. At the rate things are going, we’ll be printing the spacecraft themselves soon.
Since we’re building our prototype in our conference room and my garage, we won’t have to be concerned about this – A Rare New Bacterium Thrives In Spacecraft Cleanrooms:
Just because we haven’t found this weird little guy elsewhere doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in nature. “We find a lot of bugs in clean rooms because we are looking so hard to find them there,” says Parag Vaishampayan, a microbiologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who described the microbe in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. “The same bug might be in the soil outside the clean room but we wouldn’t necessarily identify it there because it would be hidden by the overwhelming numbers of other bugs.” He says Tersicoccus phoenicis could live in caves or deserts, where it could survive on almost no nutrients, as in the cleanrooms.
This is an interesting point…how can we ensure planetary isolation if we can’t ever be sure that we’ve killed all the hitchhikers, because we either make incorrect or incomplete assumptions about what will kill them all or (in the extreme case) our knowledge/assumptions about what actually constitutes life blinds us to their presence? If your methods that should kill all bacteria don’t do so, and lead you to discover oddball extremophile-like species previously hidden from you, how do you know that when you’ve successfully eliminated those something else won’t appear (the competition having been removed), or that there isn’t something you simply can’t see?
Those who have read Niven/Pournelle/Barnes’ Legacy of Heorot will readily recognize some potential problems here.
Which is not to advocate for absolute isolation – rather, we may have to accommodate ourselves to the reality that contamination will occur no matter what we do so long as we interact with other planets. It’s certainly going to occur if we send settlers, but will occur with any probes as well. If we discover signs of life on Mars, for example, we may never know with certainty that they aren’t the result of cross-contamination (barring some truly bizarre differences), the knowledge that something could however improbably have survived spacecraft sterilization inducing a form of Observer’s Paradox.
An excellent essay on the decline of competence: Sultan Knish: Government is Magic
The essay is worth reading in full, along with the additional related points and examples in the comments, but this part sticks out for me:
Competence is built on the unhappy understanding that things won’t work because you want them to, they won’t work if you go through the motions, they will only work if you understand how a thing works and then make it work by building it, by testing it and by expecting failure every step of the way and wrestling with the problem until you get it right.
Is this not one of the core principles of engineering? Good engineering is not defined by how positive and nurturing your work environment is, or how diverse your team/organization is, or whether you’re compliant with the latest revision of some ISO or CMMI standard, it’s defined by whether the product of that engineering performs or fails at its intended task.