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To Boldly Go
Presented for your consideration: Philae, the Comet Lander that travelled four billion miles to find a nice, quiet place to sleep. The trip cost the European Space Agency 1 billion pounds sterling to send the mother craft, Rosetta, whipping around the Solar System for 10 years - only to end up in the shadow of a rock, quickly shutting down to save power. Now it sits hibernating. Shouldn’t someone at the ESA have piped up and said, “Why don’t we pack some triple A batteries, just in case? – Whenever I and my family head out of town, we always take some extra batteries with us because you can never be sure about what might happen.”
Really, what do you pack when you’re headed into space? How can you have all the answers when you don’t even know all the questions?
I watched the movie Interstellar when it came out, and it brought up this same basic problem. Sure it’s great to say that people are such great innovators that we can make it up as we go along, against all odds, without dying before we reach our target rock. If it takes two minutes to start-up the warp drive engines and William Shatner demands that it only take ten seconds, then all the laws of physics are broken at his command and Scotty comes through AGAIN! – against all odds – in a movie.
If we do reach our objective, how long will that rock allow us to exist on it before it snuffs us out – like Comet 67P snuffed out Philae? What a silly, unforeseen tragedy. Perhaps it would have been better if Rosetta had missed Comet 67P completely and flown wildly out into space. At least the space team could have comforted themselves by saying, “Next time we’ll know to shift our equations by .003% - we were that close.” Or if it had fallen apart upon impact they could have said, “Next time we’ll need to increase the thrusters by .005% - we were that close.” But to shut down because it bounced into a shadow, well, it shows that the number of things that could go wrong is infinite and unknowable. It shows how unprepared we are to conquer the great Out There.
If technology is fragile – and it is – then the Earth creatures who make technology are even more fragile. On October 31st, 2014, a Virgin Galactic spaceship crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing Michael Alsbury, the co-pilot. It seems to have been a simple mechanical error: the opening of the rockets ‘feathers’ was supposed to be a two-step process, with the co-pilot pulling a widget at Mach 1, then pushing a wadjet at Mach 1.4 to slow the SpaceShip down. However, the feathers deployed after the first step, not waiting for the second and the darn thing shook itself to death, dashing everyone’s hopes in a brilliant fireball, and killing a man along the way. In a blog post in the Alaska Dispatch News, Sir Richard said everyone involved in the project was “deeply saddened.” “All our thoughts are with the families of everyone affected by this tragic event.” “Space is hard – but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together.” Space is Hard? If Rosetta travelled 4 billion miles in 10 years, and the nearest star is 40 trillion miles away, then it would take an object 10,000 years to travel to Alpha Centauri. That’s hard.
In science fiction it’s possible for a wizard to pull out a wand and make it possible to travel unfathomable distances. In the Star Trek franchise, the Vulcans brought Earth incredible technology after seeing Zeframe Cochrane’s first human warp-speed flight. Perhaps that’s one reason we’d like meet aliens who have already obtained interstellar flight: we don’t want to be tied to this rock and they could offer us space flight on a silver platter. In the movie Interstellar, the ‘aliens’ throw Earthlings a lifeline by placing a stable black hole by Saturn, quietly urging humans to step through to the other side. If you want to see a few of the ways it’s possible to die racing into The Final Frontier’s waiting arms, this is a good film to watch. Spoiler Alert! – (by the way, I don’t think it’s possible to escape death today by throwing yourself a rope ten years in the future. If you die today, there is no future you to save you today.)
In exploration’s earliest times, how many hundreds of thousands of explorers died: in ship wrecks; on mountain passes; at the end of spears, arrows, clubs; at the bottom of gullies; in some animal’s tummy? It is true that those people would still be dead today if they hadn’t decided to wander away from the tribe and become a meal for a saber-tooth tiger, but we’ll never hear about those unfortunate voyagers – we only hear about the tiny fraction of one percent who somehow made it through against unbelievable odds.
All I’m attempting to say is: before we shoot people towards other planets or stars, we’d better be darn sure about what we’re doing, how we’re going to get there, how long it’s going to take, the dangers they’ll be facing and how to overcome them, and how to bring them back alive. The will to survive, the flying by the seat of our pants, only goes so far in The Final Frontier’s cold embrace. We need to find the line between fearlessness and stupidity – unless humans are expendable…and perhaps we are, at least as individuals.
Perhaps I could propose a new motto: To slowly (and reverently) go where no one has gone before. Perhaps it’s not as catchy, but it might be closer to the truth.
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