Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The old dream of the new frontier

Warm late spring here in the South of the Midwest. I wandered by a small second hand bookstore in between two talks of the local conference I am attending. I am beginning to feel that kind of "conference saturation effect" that gets me from time to time and makes me want to run off as fast as I can and get away from all of that. There are two things that usually help in such cases, taking long walks and browsing in bookstores. The bookstores restore the equilibrium between the written word and the oral expression. Verba volant scripta manent. The walking gives me a sense of space and freedom, of being able to follow my thoughts while wandering randomly at the slow soothing pace of walking through a big city. Walking gives me a feeling that's quite similar to reading, that too leaves me in control of the tempo, as opposed to the unbearable feeling of being trapped sitting and forced to listen to somebody talking and talking and talking. Thinking and walking as opposed to sitting and talking.

There isn't much around here, alas, as far as bookstores go. The situation with walking isn't much better, with streets mostly designed for wheeled access only. There is a small second hand bookstore in a relatively pedestrian-friendly couple of blocks not far from the campus. It isn't great: the science section is nearly non-existent as was to be expected, but I still manage to find, for a couple of bucks an old paperback copy of the book "Colonies in space" by planetary scientist Heppenheimer, written in the mid seventies and dedicated to JFK, in recollection of his famous "new frontier" speech.

This is the stuff of our (personal and collective) childhood dreams, with some wear and tear and watermarks and yellow pages, but nonetheless still so real.

Before Skylab and Saljut, before Mir and the ISS, the author talks about the concept of space station as a yet unrealized but technically feasible dream. The motivation he proposes as what will make the need for space stations compelling enough to make the dream come true is as docking stations for spaceships on longer missions to the planets. In reality, we saw them built as laboratories in space, and perhaps not a few now wonder what the main purpose of the extremely costly and much delayed ISS really is. Did we lose perspective now or did we dream too easily before?

The book was written when hopes were still running high, but reality was catching up with them fast and hitting hard at the dream. After the landing on the moon, NASA presented to Congress an ambitious plan of missions to Mars, space stations, permanent settlements on the Moon and all. They had high expectations: after all they had just managed to put people on the Moon. They expected to be rewarded for that magnificent success. That is not at all what happened. The plans were shot down. All that remained was, at first, a space station plus shuttle package, and then, when even that was cut, only the shuttle program as we came to know it, "a project in search of a mission" (as a critical congressperson of the time put it). Partly financed by the military, who wanted to meet their own agenda for the use of nearby space, and strictly confined to earth orbit, the NASA manned space program became what we now know (save of course for the robotic exploration of the outer planets, which survived the budget cuts and gave us the magnificent success of the Voyager missions). The Apollo program was cut just at the time when it began to produce interesting science and the rest is history.

The book was written at a time when planetary scientists were still trying to stir the conscience of people and gain support for the exploration (especially manned exploration) and colonization of space. The production and transmission of energy from space to the earth was produced as a viable justification for this enterprise. Concrete plans, technically feasible, along with financial estimates and time lines for realization are presented in the book.

Amidst cities in space, spinning wheels with cities and agricultural facilities glued to their inner wall, zero g sex, cargo rockets and all that, I find in this old paperback a package with all the stuff of my childhood and early adolescence dreams neatly spread out in front of me. It feels awkward to think back and wonder whether I would at all be doing what I am doing now had it not been for these dreams. I am not into any space program, of course, nor in any subject of science that can be considered any close to that, but still there is something in my inner motivation that feeds back onto this original aspiration of humankind to venture out in space. It is not the dreaming alone (I am sure that from the dawn of humankind we have been dreaming of reaching out to the stars). It is rather the technical feasibility of that dream that made it so wonderful at the time when I was growing up.

With NASA sinking into more and more inefficient shuttle flights, the Soviet space program was the one that continued to get things all right for quite some time after NASA began to resemble Disneyland more than a research institution: Soyuz ships, cargo Progress, space station Mir.

Next they would have had ... would have ... Well, yes, we went from talking about space flight in the future tense to the "would have been" mode. The dream that could have come true. The recent surge of propaganda in the US administration about reclaiming the moon sounds shallow, and only appears to be a scheme to further cut the real science from NASA (or at least what's left of it).

The development of science and concrete planning for future science that happened in the 1960s is extraordinary. Much of it was, of course, Cold War related, but, while at a later stage it was the military budget that siphoned out all the capacity for research and development of both superpowers, in those early stages there was much initiative, inventiveness and concrete investment of resources that went to actual science.

We would have had cities in space, rotating inside-out planets with self-sustaining agriculture inside and solar energy power, power satellites converting and delivering solar energy in microwave beams to the earth surface, replacing fossil fuel consumption, we would have had mining facilities on the Moon and manned missions to Mars and the outer planets and their satellites. We would have had dreams that feed further dreams. Perhaps we have lost our childhood as a technological civilization by now and that is what made us abandon the dreams.

As the Pink Floyd song goes: "The child has grown, the dream is gone, and I have become comfortably numb..."

Space colonization (Wikipedia)
Space Colonies (NASA)
Heppenheimer, Colonies in Space (National Space Society)
The Planetary Society
O'Neill, The High Frontier