Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Weekend Post - Aiming for the stars

As a child, the biggest thing that sparked my interest in science was space travel. I was born in the mid-1960s and the first manned Moon landing was just two days after my fifth birthday. One of my first memories is seeing grainy black and white TV footage of men in spacesuits clomping around on the Moon’s surface, playing golf, driving rovers around and collecting rocks.

What impressed me just as much as the science was the engineering. Watching a Saturn V rocket launch is still an astonishing sight, even though you can only now see it on YouTube. This rocket remains, 40 years later, and at nearly 3,000 tons, the largest and most powerful rocket ever launched.

As a result of this I, like millions of others, became a fairly traditional space and astronomy-obsessed kid, forever getting science books for Christmas and birthdays and watching whatever TV shows I could find on the subject.

That’s probably the biggest single achievement of the entire American space program. I admit that they reached space and the moon, I admit that they placed satellites around the planet and I admit that they put the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the greatest technological achievements of the last century, up there. But what I think was even more important was the way the whole program inspired people to be interested in science. Throughout the world you’ll find people of my generation who studied science because of the example the space program gave us. With a little luck we’ve been able to pass that inspiration on to our children and to theirs as well.

The good news these days is that the media, particularly international TV, is full of programs that discuss and educate people about science. They cover everything from A to Z, from astronomy to zoology.

The problem is that for every program dispensing scientific knowledge there seems to be another spouting hogwash. Whether it’s American nutcases chasing Bigfoot, alternative health fanatics selling bogus cures or fraudulent psychic “detectives”, they’re all promoting ignorance, superstition and fraud.

Unfortunately much of the excitement has been lost from space exploration in recent decades. With the exception of two tragedies with the Space Shuttle program, much of space exploration became rather routine, perhaps even dull. It also coincided with the growing realization that space exploration was an incredibly hazardous endeavor. Human beings really aren’t meant to be in space. We haven’t evolved to cope with the vacuum, the incredible heat and incredible cold, the blistering radiation and the distances involved. The depressing truth is that humanity is highly unlikely ever to venture very far from Earth, the scale of the challenge is so immense.

Of course you can get a sense of that original excitement from missions like the recent mission to Mars. Right now, as you read this, a robotic vehicle called Curiosity is exploring Mars, zapping rocks with it’s laser, measuring and photographing everything it encounters. It’s magnificent but we have to admit that it’s not quite the exciting as the space program of the 60s and early 70s.

Image c/o NASA
I was prompted to remember those days of space exploration by the recent death of Neil Armstrong, the commander of the Apollo 11 mission and the first human to walk on the Moon. Unlike so many so-called contemporary celebrities Armstrong was a shy, retiring man who never sought fame. He seemed content just to have contributed towards a great human achievement. In one obituary of him he was quoted as saying:
"I think we're going to the moon because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It's by the nature of his deep inner soul... we're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream."
That comment is a perfect epitaph for a good man, someone who represented progress for those of my generation. Armstrong and the rest of the space program were great examples of human nature, of the desire to explore and face challenges. But that’s gone now. The challenge for the scientific community is to come up with a new topic that inspires the next generation. It might be new forms of nuclear power production, the fight against global warming or the next evolution in agriculture.

Whatever it might be it’s essential that it inspires kids to take an interest in the only thing that can save humanity from itself. Science.

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