Interstellar: exploration or extinction

It has been a long time since I visited these pages… far too long.
I had when I last wrote here, many varied and detailed plans for a new, brighter (ironically more regularly updated) blog site. And I hope that eventually I can return to those ideas and make them a reality, because I really do miss this. But, as those foolhardy enough to have been reading this blog since early 2011 will know, my mind has the boundless energy and restlessness which so many tracksuit-wearing gym-goers seem to have applied to their physical bodies, but which has long eluded my own decrepit husk of an excuse for one.
As such, new ideas, new games, new books, new addresses, projects, toys and adventures are ever vying for an audition to stand, however briefly, on the crumbling stage of 3 minute farce which is my attention span… before being kicked out into the wings to make way for a man on a Segway, juggling flaming sea-sponges.

So, why now?

Well, I will give you a brief update on my ever-changing circumstances (many of which will relate to – and serve as updates for – previous blog posts) a little later. But, more importantly, I want to talk to you once again about a subject very close to my heart. An issue far too often ignored or dismissed, but about which I nonetheless feel very strongly indeed.

It should be made clear that, although I have had the itch to return and update you on progress several times over the last 2-3 months, this post was prompted by several coinciding events which, each in their turn, brought this issue once again to the front of my mind, and I thought I might quiet “the voices” by listing those events here.

The first is that, by the end of today, my wife and I will, more than likely, have an actual definitive, unalterable date for our permanent return to England… though I should more properly say: My permanent return, and my wife’s (hopefully) permanent migration to.

The second is that sleeplessness (what else?) has compelled me once again to the pages of the various works of Dr. Carl Sagan; not only one of my favourite authors, but (in my opinion at least) one of the most enlightened and brilliant men the 20th century ever gave us.

The third is that in 4 days from now (Nov 12th, 2014), one of the exciting firsts of human space exploration, which Dr. Sagan foresaw and wrote about at length but sadly did not live long enough to witness, will actually happen. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta Spacecraft, after travelling 4 billion miles over the span of 10 years, finally caught up with comet 67P/C-G in August, and will send its Philae lander down to the surface on Wednesday.

If you wish to follow the event live on Wednesday, you can do so at www.esa.int. In the meantime you can watch a wonderful short film, inspired by humanity’s first landing on a comet, here.

The fourth is that I have been playing extensively, and making many YouTube videos about, Elite: Dangerous over the last 3 months; a game for which I waited 3 decades, and about which, more later (if you can’t wait until later… more here)

Lastly, and perhaps most poignantly, this week sees the release of my most anticipated film of 2014: Christopher Nolan’s, Interstellar – which I wrote a brief preview of at the beginning of this year, in my 2014 film preview (it might be interesting to revisit my previews and see how accurate I was in my predictions).

The reason I say “most poignantly” is because, although I will not be going to see the film until next week, I understand its central theme to be the very concern which drove me back to these pages. A subject on which I have touched several times before; that of Interstellar travel, and the absolute necessity for it.

Amongst the above listed reasons are my personal heroes. From the realms of astronomy and space exploration: Carl Sagan; filmmaking: Chris Nolan; and video-gaming: David Braben. All of them – Nolan, apparently; Braben, so far as I can tell; and Sagan, definitely and outspokenly on many occasions – share/d my concerns about space exploration; namely that the necessity for it does not seem to be widely accepted or understood.

That’s the second time I’ve referred to it as a necessity (actually the 3rd or 4th if you read my earlier blog posts. Particularly this one), and I absolutely, whole-heartedly and as loudly as the internet will let me, refuse to apologise for doing so.

Again and again I have heard the same tired old arguments against spending large amounts of money on spaceflight and space exploration…

The first comes most often from that percentage of the human population who seem not to concern themselves with life outside the confines of their local pub, or the studios in which their favourite reality TV show is filmed, and it usually goes something like this:

“What d’ya wanna go t’space for? I mean what’s the point?”

The second is usually (though not always) from the demographic I think is most diametrically opposed to the first; those intellectuals who concern themselves almost entirely with metaphysics, and start conversations with such openers as “Wasn’t it Sartre who said…” and so on. Their argument goes something like this:

“Why should I care?”

The third comes from those of a religious disposition, and ranges from:

“I just try to be a good Christian/Muslim/Jew etc.”

to

“Accept Christ and you will all be saved.”

and at the more extreme end…

“HERETIC!”

The fourth group constitutes perhaps the largest and most often encountered percentage of space-exploration naysayers, and their argument at least tends to be the most rational. It goes something like this:

“Aren’t there far more pressing concerns right here on Earth?”

To answer each of these groups in turn, in the fewest words possible, I would have to say…

Group 1: “Are you a moron?”

Group 2: “Do you think I’m a moron?”

Group 3: “Are you a Mormon?”

Group 4: “No.”

However, since brevity is as foreign to me as a second anniversary is to an iPhone, I shall now give slightly more carefully considered responses.

Group 1

G1: What d’ya wanna go t’space for? I mean what’s the point?

SK: Have you ever looked up at the night sky? Did you know that all those little twinkly bits in that really big black thing above your head are gigantic nuclear reactors… many with their own system of planets? And did you know that, though we can only see about 10,000 from Earth, with the naked eye, there are actually about 400 billion of them in our galaxy alo…

G1: …

SK: Are you texting?

G1: …

SK: Can’t you concentrate on what I’m saying for five m… wait… are you texting ME?
What does ‘UR borin m8’ mean?

G1: …

SK: Oh for crying out loud! Go on inside then. X-factor starts in 5 minutes. Here’s a ball of string to keep you occupied during that long wait.”

So… no help there then. What of group 2?

Group 2

G2: Why should I care?

SK: Fair point. But all the great art and literature you DO care about (or claim to) will be lost if SOMEONE doesn’t. No humans will remain to read  and appreciate it. All the Peruvian yoghurt farmers you are always banging on about trying to save will perish anyway when the planet is inevitably over-populated, or the magnetic field which protects them (and us) from the intense radiation of the sun is decimated by a coronal mass-ejection.
Still don’t care?

G2: Nope

SK: Okay. Can’t say fairer than that. I don’t much care about  homoeopathy, and locally grown, organic gooseberries to tell the truth, so I guess we’re both content.
By the way; I found a brilliant article about how to get Quinoa out of your beard while I was looking up Quasars on Google. If you’re having trouble reading it… take off the ridiculous fake glasses! Your eyesight is fine.

Never mind. To each their own. I figured it was a losing battle, but there might be some hope for that group as fashions inevitable change.
Onto group 3… I guess… *sigh*

Group 3

G3: I just try to be a good Christian/Muslim/Jew etc.

SK: Er… yes but…

G3: Accept Christ and you will all be saved!

SK: Erm… okay… I’m not entirely convinced that’s true, but let’s say that it turns out you’re correct, and there really is a magical being who created everything… doesn’t the endless space, full of countless worlds and wonders make your creator seem even more magnificent than you first thought?

G3: …

SK: No? You want your magnificent God to remain confined to this tiny, tiny, insignificant corner of the universe?
Y’know… I think that’s probably for the best.
Incidentally, I will be celebrating Christmas, and my love of it has everything to do with cosy happiness and goodwill, and nothing to do with your god, beyond both his and Santa’s shared love of beards.

By the way… I found this great article on how to get Quinoa out of…
…what’s wrong?

G3: HERETIC!

SK: Get your foot out my door. I have Satan on speed-dial

Oh well. I didn’t expect that one to end well, if I’m honest. Man, am I gonna look stupid when the Tribulation comes.

I think there is hope for group 1. As long as we start setting our reality TV shows on space stations and asteroids, they’ll sell the idea for us, and tell us it was their’s in the first place. And as long as we put a Starbucks up there, selling organically-grown coffee… group 2 will turn up whether we want them to or not.

But let’s turn our attention to Group 4.

“Aren’t there far more pressing concerns right here on Earth?”

I stand by my original, simple answer: NO!

But allow me to expand upon it…

Are the starving of the world more important?

Not if they are wiped out by asteroid strike, coronal mass-ejection, super-volcanic eruption etc. before we figure out how to feed them all, no.

Shouldn’t we be trying to put an end to poverty, rather than pursuing science-fiction?

Absolutely we should! But you can do both at the same time. In fact, the answers to many of these earthly problems have been, and are still being, addressed by the human exploration of space and its derivative technologies.
Besides… what’s the point of saving people from poverty if we ignore all the very real dangers which could wipe us all out at any moment?

It’s too dangerous!

It certainly is dangerous sometimes. Last week alone there were two accidents (it’s worth noting that this was the single busiest week for spacecraft accidents in the history of human spaceflight); Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed, killing one person and injuring another… and an unmanned Antartes rocket exploded as it left the launch-pad. However, although I wouldn’t even risk spilling my beer to stop a bar-fight, I would risk my life without question to advance human space exploration. And judging from the 200,000 or so applicants who signed up for the chance to earn a one-way ticket to the Red Planet, with the Mars One project (this project plans to send people to Mars, starting in 2023, but will not be bringing them back), it seems that plenty of other people are willing to risk their lives too. If you’re not, stay at home. No-one is forcing anyone to risk their safety. All the people who have so far gone into space have jumped at the chance, in spite of the risks.

It’s too expensive!

Yes, it certainly is expensive. But the US military budget is approximately 30,000 times more expensive.

We need to put a stop to war!

Definitely. And I can’t think of a better way to do that than focussing the attentions (not to mention the money) of humanity on something much bigger, brighter and more exciting out there.

We need to stop over-population!

How?
Other than sterilising the whole of humanity, and dooming it to extinction anyway, how exactly are you planning to police such an action? That snowball is already out of control folks. There are twice as many people on this planet now as there were when I was born, 40 years ago.
On the bright side… they call it “space” for a reason.

The tools of human spaceflight are bound to be perverted into tools of war and destruction, or have some other long-term negative consequences for humanity!

Yup. Very likely. Wernher von Braun’s rockets were used to bomb London during WWII, and there has been fear and speculation for some time in the world of astronomy, that the technology necessary to deflect earth-bound asteroids could just as easily be used to push one TOWARDS us.
But here’s the thing… the technological developments of humanity have often had un-forseen consequences no matter WHERE they come from. In fact many of the solutions to the very earthy problems this group confronts us with, end up being the things that group 2 sit in their coffee houses complaining about a generation later.
2 solutions to the problems of world hunger and food shortage for example, have resulted in 2 of the biggest scare-stories in the modern era.

The need for cleaner, non-toxic refrigeration technology led to the development of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Considered completely safe because they were non-reactive… we later discovered that it was precisely that inert property which led to them destroying our protective ozone layer (a problem, I hasten to add, which was only discovered – accidentally, and with the support of NASA – through studying the atmosphere of Venus).

The development of GM crops… an ingenious solution, or so we thought, to the problem of world hunger. Here were crops that thrived where others could not; allowing millions of acres of food to be grown on land which would previously yield none… but people gathering outside the headquarters of Monsanto with catchy slogans and placards would probably tell you that didn’t work out quite as we had planned either.

The advancement of technology often has drawbacks… but it has so far saved millions more lives than it has cost (sorry, Group 3, was I staring?).

So, what of that final, tired old argument closer:

You’ve been reading/watching too much science-fiction?

For this one I shall simply answer tired old rhetoric with tired old rhetoric:

Science-Fiction writers have been writing about visiting comets and landing on them for well over a century. On Wednesday, you can watch it happen.
Right up to the late 19th and early 20th century, most physicists believed that rockets could not function in a vacuum.

Look… we can argue backwards and forwards all day long about “what ifs”, so let’s stick with something that we can guarantee.

At some point in the future, an asteroid or comet big enough to wipe out all life on Earth WILL hit this planet.

This is not speculation. It is a mathematical certainty.

Less than 2 years ago, Russia had a near miss of underwear-changing proportions when a meteor just 15 meters across exploded over Chelyabinsk. This happened in the same week that astronomers were busy watching how closely we had been missed by the very much larger Asteroid, 2012 DA14. Twenty short years ago, Jupiter was hit by Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, leaving a scar the size of our entire planet on its surface.

Asteroid & Comet impacts are just the most likely threat. Super-volcano eruption, Coronal mass-ejection… pick your apocalypse. I’ve said it many times before: Mother Nature is a cold-hearted bitch! She cares not one iota what the human-race has struggled through, or how much history would be lost.

Dr. Sagan, in Pale Blue Dot, reckons:

“There’s something like one chance in two thousand that [a globally catastrophic asteroid collision] will happen in the lifetime of a newborn baby… for commercial flights the chance [of crashing] is one in two million.”

He puts it better, and certainly more succinctly, than I ever could when he states the case for space-exploration by simply stating:

“Exploration or extinction”

So make your choice. Every single day that passes without such a global catastrophe brings us one day closer to the day when it DOES happen.

I hate fear-mongering, and I am not suggesting for a second that we all build bomb shelters and tell your Priest/Psychiatrist/Chemist that you have secretly always had a fetish for Eskimo-porn before it’s too late. Living in perpetual fear of what MIGHT happen is no existence at all (I can hear my wife laughing as I write that). There is one group that I left off the list, and it is populated by those people who live in a constant state of disappointment; constantly whining about how evil humanity is and how we all deserve to die for the things we’ve done to penguins. I left these people out because there really is very little point in arguing with them. Yes, we have done, and are still doing shitty things all across the world, and yes, some humans would undoubtedly continue doing shitty things on other worlds, and in other times. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath-water… just try to be one of those people who does nice things, and to discourage others from doing bad ones.

My own interest in space travel has little if anything to do with the threat of asteroid impact, mathematical certainty or not, but if that doesn’t sway you, just go outside on a clear night and spend half an hour with your phone turned off, looking up at those twinkly bits. You may surprise yourself.

xl1XYq8

In other news…

I am nowadays working as an audio-book narrator, and will be pursuing similar work when returning to the UK next year.

I have made several Elite: Dangerous gameplay videos for YouTube in the last 3 months, and will continue making more, as the BETA stage of development draws to a close, and the game approaches its retail release date: 16th December, 2014.

braben
This game has exceeded all my expectations so far, and there are grand plans going forward from release. One of my videos was featured in one of the game developer’s recent newsletters. It should go without saying that I was very proud indeed, and my wife and I had a lot of fun making it. If you’re a fan of either Quantum Leap or Elite: Dangerous, you should check it out, HERE.


That’s it for now. I will try to be back soon, but given how this post started, and considering that I will shortly be relocating to another country, don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from me for a while.
You can still keep up with developments by watching my videos, or following me on TWITTER or FACEBOOK.

Until then (although this may make little sense to those who do not regularly read my posts) consider this:

Bending over for the soap would not be necessary in zero-gravity

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2 comments on “Interstellar: exploration or extinction

  1. Firstly… I still can’t get over 4 billion miles. I can’t. 4 BILLION MILES!!!

    Secondly, I think that one of the arguments against humans going out there is that we’ll wreak the same havoc in the rest of the universe as we have here. The issue with that one is that human beings will keep screwing things up, and then find solutions at the same pace as they screw up new things. I don’t think we’ll ever attain any state of higher wisdom in which we do no harm and all live in peace and harmony, probably because we’re an animal in perpetual motion, both on this planet spinning through space and in our own development, as a species, and as individuals. But I have a naive hope that if we one day find planets that have no life yet, but can be terra-formed, we can save Earth as a wildlife sanctuary. Then maybe we can watch over centuries as other species sort out their hierarchies. It would perhaps answer the question “what would have happened if we weren’t around?”

    I can’t even begin to speak of all the countless, exciting reasons behind space-exploration. I also humbly suggest we keep working on exploring our own oceans. Every time we find a life-form that we didn’t believe could exist in such conditions, every time some plant does something wonderfully freaky, or another animal does something unexpected, we learn something new about ourselves, about our position on a much greater scale, and about our insignificance. When we have to question previously held beliefs, we learn, and we move forward. Space exploration helps us move forward in more ways than one.

    Like

  2. Thanks, wife.

    I have to disagree about humanity. I think a day will come – though certainly not for several hundred years – when we stop wrecking everything.
    The other thing is… I am getting a bit tired of people banging on about how humans wreck everything, and how we are evil to all things… as though we are likely to be the only beings in the whole of the universe that do this. There seems to be this assumption that we alone are the epitome of evil.
    I’m sorry to say that isn’t even true on our planet, let alone the wider universe. Beavers, to take just ONE example, do MASSIVE damage to forests and the wildlife that inhabit them.
    What we ARE though… are the only creatures doing serious damage that have recognised, and are now trying to do something about (albeit slowly) the damage we have done.
    So, yes: Of course we will learn. We already are doing.

    Like

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