Tag Archives: apollo

The Future of Humanity, part 1: so last century

When in the 1960s and 70s technology seemed to jump forward with new inventions and discoveries practically every week, with the crown of course being the first manned landing on the Moon by Apollo 11, it looked like it would only be a short two decades until we would have humans live in a  permanent Moon base and we would reach Mars shortly thereafter. Assuming that the movie 2001 by Stanley Kubrick tried to reflect the honest expectations of technology minded people we would have a mission to Jupiter on the way by that year. There was no doubt that the Space Shuttle might be the beginning of cheap access to space and people would soon move into giant space habitats as envisioned by Gerard K. O’Neill. Of course nuclear power had come out of favor in the 70s after an accident at Three Mile Island and even more so after Chernobyl in 1986. Surely the nuclear arms race between the two super powers contributed its share. But for the optimistic technologists nuclear fusion was just around the corner – fusion power was also of course the energy source many SF authors based their spaceship propulsions on.

SF literature eagerly foresaw easy space travel aboard huge and quite comfortable vehicles. Encounters with countless alien races were described – sometimes humans were enslaved or driven into the underground often they prevailed (due to their ingenuity or unintended actions). Sometimes they even made friends with the aliens. Encounters with aliens presumed that travel between stars was possible. Ways had to be invented of how to travel many lightyears in reasonable timeframes (without the effects of time dilation). Although there were stories which made time dilation their theme (Poul Anderson – Starfarers). The other type of long distance space travel was done in so-called generation ships – whole societies living on huge star ships, on their merry way at sub light speeds for many generations. Also one German SF series which has been appearing in weekly pulp booklets since 1961 called Perry Rhodan was practically expanding the human empire by thousands of lightyears every week. About four years into the series humans had already traveled back in time to meet their ancestors and were traveling to Andromeda, the closest neighboring galaxy, in about as much time it took Apollo 11 to get to the Moon and back. Funny enough all this was done with cryptic computers printing out course directions on punch cards. The robots of course were as intelligent as needed. And really, this brings me to…..

….computers. When I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s computers were these ominous machines in big buildings that had to be ‘fed’ with punch cards (aha!), only to be operated by experts. I saw the very first computer in person at a friend’s house in Germany in late 1981 – a Commodore PET. Only two years later I bought my very own first computer – a Commodore 64. In early 2010 I am writing this on an iMac, which runs about 3,000 times faster than the C64 and has 64,000 times the RAM, while I listen to music streaming through iTunes and the computer crunches numbers for SETI@home and Einstein@home. Officially 2010 will be the year the US Space Shuttle will be retired after almost 30 years. No human has gone back to the Moon after Apollo 17 returned in December of 1972. We have put a space telescope in orbit (the Hubble) and started building the International Space Station in 1998 which will be completed this year. NASA has launched a good number of highly successful unmanned missions to Mars and the outer planets – and a few not so successful ones. But where is all the space stuff we were promised 30 years ago?

Science for the non-scientist

I am a frustrated, castrated, suppressed mathematician, physicist, rocket engineer. I was born in 1960. Ok, Sputnik, was three years earlier. But when in 1968 Apollo 8 traveled around the Moon my granddad had already started giving me science books for birthdays and Christmas. The books about the U.S. space program were my favorites. From that time I have kept many notepads full of childish doodles of spaceships and astronauts.

When, on July 20 1969, just three days before my ninth birthday, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon I was the only one in my family who staid up late to watch the live broadcast on German TV.  Consequently, I learned all I could about the US space program. I knew all the Astronauts by name and had see-through drawings of the Saturn V internalized. There was no doubt in my mind (and my parents’) that I would become an Astronaut, a rocket engineer or at least a pilot of some sort.

At one point in my teens puberty set in, the last two Apollo missions were canceled and surplus materials used in Skylab and somehow all talk of going to Mars next, or setting up a permanent moon base had gone away. Not only did the first girl I fell in love with not care for me but I was old enough to be asked “So, do you know what you want to be when you grow up?” At that time I started to realize that this question was somehow linked with money. While I had always been interested in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics I just wasn’t able to get good grades in these subjects.

Around age 14, by sheer coincidence, I started playing guitar and just a few months later I played my first gig and got paid for it. Not much but enough to encourage me to pursue music. My interest in science and engineering never went away, With proper guidance I might have finished Gymnasium and gone on to study – University was free in Germany, for crying out loud! But I went the artistic way. I kept some sort of contact with my scientific interests by subscribing to various magazines. TV shows about technology were still my favorites and I developed an appetite for the literature called ‘Science Fiction’. In the course of my late teens and early twenties I drifted away from pure science – while my ex-classmates became doctors, chemists and biologists – and was consuming SF pretty much exclusively. While I actually started supporting myself by teaching guitar lessons and playing gigs and recording sessions every once in while the old science connection stirred in me. But there just didn’t seem to be a way to change professions (in retrospect of course I can see many junctures at which it would have been easy to switch, old people can be so much wiser.)

In 1983 I had my first practical exposure to a real computer. A Commodore 64, when I started to work part time at a friend’s computer store. There the old passion surfaced again. Learning programming, first Basic then Assembly, was such a blast. Again, I could have easily switched careers. At that time computer knowledge was in demand. Again I missed the boat and struggled on as a mediocre musician. At least computers became a big part of my everyday life and that kept the old interest in science and technology alive.

In the mid 80s I started to become interested in more, shall we say, esoteric topics. I had discovered books about past-life regression, reincarnation, UFOs. While I don’t know if I ever really believed any of this I still consumed large quantities of books dealing with these subjects. This phase lasted roughly about 10 years until after I had relocated to the US. Out of a melange of SF books and metaphysical literature I had been reading in that decade came the strange realization that:
#1, somehow there wasn’t much of a difference between the Science Fiction and the books about reincarnation, conspiracies, etc,
#2, the metaphysics books had vastly different and conflicting views from each other about reality and I started wondering where exactly these authors had their information from
#3, I had been an Atheist for most of my life and slowly I came to the conclusion that believing in UFOs and many other ‘unproven’  supernatural claims actually falls in the same category as Religion: You believe because you have faith and not because there is evidence

Within a short few years I started reading pure science books again and started a subscription to Scientific American. And now, as I am working the exercises from the ‘Idiot’s Guide to Geometry’ and am learning about the Scientific Method I realize that I still want to be a Scientist, engineer or something like that.

And that finally brings me to the point of this blather: How can someone who is not a PH.D. contribute to Science? How can you help building a base on the Moon and landing a man on Mars without working for NASA? Ok, I can always contribute money to the Planetary Society or the Mars Society. But that’s not really what I mean (although I am a member). How can I contribute, without being a physicist, an engineer or a billionaire? Are there more people like me out there. People who were very interested in Science for a while and then the needs of a job and family forced them unto a different path?

It now seems to me that one of the biggest things would be a community for people like me. Not quite geniuses and not quite idiots.