Neil Armstrong and Futures Past

I was two months old when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and 43 when he died, and inbetween those two events the future changed. When Armstrong landed, a human future in space seemed inevitable — we’d landed on the moon, after all. How long could it possibly be until we had moon colonies, space stations where thousands lived, stuck by centrifugal force to walls which were their floors, and a second space race to Mars? Why, not long as all, it seemed, and so I lived the first decade of my life breathlessly waiting for the moon colony and all the rest of it. And also drinking Tang because, hey, I wasn’t quite ten, and Tang was pretty awesome when you’re that age.

Four decades on, we never did get the mechanistic, physical future required for those moon colonies and space stations. In point of fact that future was expensive, and once the “landing on the moon” bragging rights were taken by the US, we apparently lost interest. Gene Cernan was the last man on the moon, and he left that orb in December of 1972; we’re coming up fast on the 40 anniversary of his departure, and more people seem to know about the Mayan Apocalypse than that particular anniversary. Yes, it makes me sad.

I don’t mind too much the future we’ve gotten so far. I like the Internet, and my cell phone, and my television bouncing to me from space, and all the other things that have come from what has essentially been the less expensive path of least resistance. I think the things that NASA has done with its robotic craft, which are now on Mars and over Mercury and pushing through the heliopause at the very edge of interstellar space, are nothing short of miraculous. This future has been pretty good for me. But I don’t think this future had to be exclusive of the future that Neil Armstrong seemed to herald, and for which he was our icon; maybe we could have had both, had our will to go to the moon been matched by a will to stay and build there.

We can still go back to the moon, of course. We can still go and build and stay and use the moon as our first stepping stone to other worlds. Anything is possible. But for me Armstrong’s death forever closes the door on a certain possible path the we could have taken, the one where that first small step and giant leap was not essentially taken in insolation, but was followed by another step and another leap, followed by another, and so on, one right after another, without pause and without interruption. Even when or if we return to the moon, we will never live in Neil Armstrong’s future.

I wonder how Armstrong himself felt about that. He lived down the road a piece from me; people I know had the honor of meeting him and described him, in so many words, as one of the best of men. Back here on Earth he did not seem to go out of his way to call attention to himself, and while he encouraged people to keep alive the spirit of exploration and service that he exemplified, it doesn’t seem that he spent a lot of time beating a drum in public. For all that, I read that when he was 80, he volunteered to be the commander of a mission to Mars, should anyone want him for the job. I would guess he wanted to live in Neil Armstrong’s future, too. I’m sorry for him he didn’t get to.

120 thoughts on “Neil Armstrong and Futures Past

  1. I must quote Jerry Pournelle, “I always dreamed I’d live lond enough to see the first man on the moon.I never dreamed I might live long enough to see the last.” I hope he isn’t right.

  2. Well said indeed, it’s been a sad weekend. With four of the twelve moonwalkers gone and the rest in their late 70’s and early 80’s, I wonder if we’ll see a day in the not-so-distant future when we will no longer have among us those who have walked on another world. Won’t that be a sad day for us and a disappointing commentary on our society’s will? (Minor typo in paragraph 4, “in isolation” I think it should be?)

  3. Just so long as we don’t find Moon Nazis there (sorry, I just watched “iron Sky” last night and am still trying to decide what to think about it)…

    Seriously, I do hope we will end up expanding out into space – this world is becoming too crowded, and there is nothing for the adventuresome type to do anymore – there are no new places to explore, no frontiers to seek, no place to run to escape from people anymore. Time will tell…

    And hey, Tang is still pretty awesome… :-) Especially if you make it with club soda O.O

  4. From his obituary in The Economist: “He spent his final years on his farm in rural Ohio, flying gliders in his spare time (it was, said the supposedly emotionless engineer, the closest humans could come to being birds).”

    I find that image both sweet and sad. I wish he’d had the opportunity to strap on a pair of Storer-Gulls and fly the Bats’ Cave in Luna City.

  5. Obama to Neil Armstrong: “You didn’t walk on the moon… someone else did that”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  6. @scorpius – really? was that a necessary response to the eulogy of a man who did something amazing?

    What makes me really sad is that so many people today have said “Neil who?” or “What did he do anyway?” Even NBC announced the death of Neil Young and not Neil Armstrong before they corrected it.

  7. Someone else (a lot of them) DID build the ship that he flew to the moon. Maybe we’ll do that again in my lifetime. I fear we might not.

  8. Neil Amstrong to everybody: “I was certainly aware that this was a culmination of the work of 300,000 or 400,000 people over a decade and that the nation’s hopes and outward appearance largely rested on how the results came out.”

  9. The only comment that some people can make is a political comment. And the only political comment they can make is a snarky one against the evil other party. Pity the life that contains nothing positive, don’t condemn it.

  10. Neil Armstrong to everybody: “‘That’s one small step for a man.’ I paused, and for a split second, I thought about how many people had worked their entire lives to make this possible. Moreover, how lucky I was to be here. ‘One giant leap for mankind.'”

  11. The Sixties were an unusual time when few North Americans thought about hitting the wall. The USA fought an expensive war in SE Asia, rolled out LBJ’s “Great Society’s” huge list of expensive Social Programs, and blazed another expensive (but heretofore unrepeated) Wagon Train path to the Moon. I’m not sure if that means we were motivated or just had money to burn back then, but each time I drive by yet another starter castle, it makes me think I know where the money went.
    When we go back we’re going to have pay. Not just money but attention because last I heard there were still no tow-trucks in space. You fail to rotate your tires, you die. Our Situation is also weird in that most places in near space are far less interesting than Death Valley or the Dry Zones in Antarctica and who really wants to live there? We are mightily stuck looking out at an enormous desert before the next interesting place. Could our isolation be a primal fitness test that ensures we’ll only get elsewhere when we’re mature enough not skip daily teeth flossing or even more practically, to recycle all our trash?

  12. Scalzi, this is beautifully written. Walking on the moon does tie in with a certain nostalgic wistfulness for me. Us children of the sixties grew up with Easy Readers like ‘You Will Go to the Moon’, and it’s hard to get past the expectations they engendered.

    As to Tang being awesome, as many a Texas grease-monkey has said, ‘Even the astronauts get a lil ‘Tang.’

    @MomDude: Thanks to Scalzi, my new words of the day are insolation and heliopause, which through checking Dictionary.com, lead to heliosphere, which lead me to a better understanding of the term ‘solar wind’.

  13. I wonder if there is an alternate reality where we kept going to the moon and beyond. Sort of like a Gernsback Continuum, but based in the 60s and 70s vision. Hopefully without the Rollerball side of things.

  14. John,

    Well said. Almost the mirror image of “one small step for a man”, in that one man’s death here is symbolic of the death of an era.

    That said, we do appear to get at least one more try as a species. Maybe Armstrong’s passing was just the end of government space flights. We are at the beginning of the era where the private sector gets a chance.

    On the one hand, I’ll miss the romance and pride of seeing my country’s flag planted in space. I’m just a bit older than you, and when I was growing up, aspiring to be an astronaut was about the highest calling a kid could think of. It’s sad that, in the end, it does not look like the sheer joy of exploration was enough to get our species all the way out of the Earth’s orbit. I’d hoped we were better than that, but so far not.

    On the other, it seems to me that latter-day NASA has developed an institutional sclerosis that could use a private sector kick in the shorts. Even if you disagree, budget concerns will make NASA seem a luxury in the near future. Government space flight is a dead man walking, but if space can find a way to pay for itself, then it’ll do just fine as a business.

  15. Thank you.
    I was just going into high school when the moon landing happened. I miss the hope, excitement, inspiration and wonder that event gave us. I’m hoping to see it again. After all, “Hope springs eternal.”

  16. I watched that landing along with most of the rest of the world that could get in front of a television set or radio.

    Words can not describe.

    The only issue I have with the future we got instead of the one implied by Apollo is that it is an inward-looking one rather than an outward looking one. Robots are great and should be used for a lot of what we are using them for, but people need to get back out there and we need to do it before we run out of the will power to do it.

  17. You have to hand it to him, Kennedy really knew how to to apply economic stimulus with the Moon project. Lots of people wanted to become scientists and engineers as a result. I did.

    I was 14 when Apollo 11 finally landed on the moon and it was the culmination of all the intermediate accomplishments, from the Gemini missions to the earlier Apollo missions, that we followed intently. In between missions we’d go out and build our own rockets and propellants and fly them, or perhaps fly is too strong a word.

    I look around at work and a lot of us engineers who came up around that time are preparing to retire and there’s not so many young enginneers coming up behind us as you might think.

    And while I think the privatization of space is good and necessary, I still wish we had the big national goal that would attract more young folks to math, science and engineering. It seems more people want to play one on tv then be one in real life.

    yeah, give Kennedy credit, he understood what stimulus was all about

  18. When I read about the death of Neil Armstrong, I dug out “The Space Race is Over” by Billy Bragg and listened to that on repeat for a while. To me, that song sums up the real tragedy of the whole thing:

    “[...] the space race is over
    and it’s been and it’s gone
    and I’ll never get to the moon
    Now that the space race is over
    And I can’t help but feel
    That we’ve all grown up too soon.”

    I was born (as my nick’ implies) in 1971. There were moon landings in my lifetime. My partner was born two years later, in 1973 – there have been no moon landings in his lifetime so far. And to me, that’s the tragedy. For a brief while, the dream flourished. For a brief few years, humanity could dream of going beyond, travelling further than just the visible horizons. But now, it seems like the dream has died.

    The small group of men who have walked on the moon are old men now – as they die (as they inevitably will) we lose another chunk of the dream of going beyond, going of travelling to other stars, seeing other planets. The dream is a childish one, I’ll willingly admit that. But I’ve given up my other childish illusions and dreams (I accept that Father Christmas is a marketing myth; the Easter Bunny doesn’t hide the eggs; religion is myth with theatre added and the gods probably don’t exist). I don’t want to give up this one.

    I hope that one day, humans will start thinking not-so-seriously (as in “not with their bean counter hats on, but rather with the Spaceman Spiff explorer hats firmly in place”) about space exploration. I hope that the optimism and hope that grew out of the space race will flourish again. I hope we’ll be allowed to dream of distant stars and strange worlds, and what they’d look like to us once more.

    Maybe we’ll walk on the moon again, as a stop to stretch our legs between the Earth and somewhere else. I hope so.

  19. My thoughts on this.

    I never thought that we would go to the moon and then just stop, When I was a lad, I dreamed of the day that 2001 would come. I didn’t believe that the “2001” movie was a documentary, but I did hope that (by the turn of the millennium, when I would have been 47 years old) there would be manned orbital platforms/space stations and that, though expensive, I might be able to actually go to an orbital hotel.

    I figured we would have some sort of Moon-base by now, even something rudimentary like the ISS, and that there would be some sort of prospect of living/working off the surface of this rock.

    I am saddened by this. I briefly met Neil Armstrong in the mid 70s when he was in Europe doing some sort of junket, and you could tell that he hated the meet & greet even then. Also met Fred Haise a decade or so ago when he was guest speaker at a conference in Orlando. I worked with some of the east coast hackers (term of affection) who worked on the Apollo guidance computers — discovered this when I noticed an Apollo-11 placard on the wall in a friend’s study.

    I never really understand how our moral and intellectual compass moved from “ask not what your country can do for you”, “we do this because it is hard” and “one small step for (a) man” to “hurr durr, let’s piss off the libs”, creation “science” and idiots who post delight that Armstrong is dead (read the comments on some of the YouTube videos if you want to see the mental shallows that make even our tame trolls look like deep intellectuals).

    My son is 30. He does not dream of America in space. He dreams of maybe getting health coverage one day and being able to retire before he dies.

    How far we have come. What a shame it is in the wrong direction.

  20. It’s sad for us that Armstrong has died, but he had a long and good life. What more can anyone ask for?

    As for lunar colonization, I’ve got to point out the archeological record: whether it’s the Arctic peoples or the ancestral Melanesians, it took a long time for people to figure out how to live in our most hostile frontiers, whether it was the Arctic for the Eskimos predecessors, or the islands of the Pacific for the Polynesians and Micronesians. An atoll is a hard place to live if you don’t know what you’re doing and bring a bunch of things with you, and the Arctic is no easier.

    There’s no reason why space should be any different. We haven’t even properly colonized Antarctica or the Atacama, or the deep oceans yet (in the sense of making self-supporting settlements in either place). Why do we feel so upset about not having people on the Moon right now? Like those ancient Melanesians, we can see those distant islands, even visit them second hand. But we don’t know how to live out there yet. Maybe we’ll get there, maybe we won’t. Fortunately, we now know a bit more about what the challenges are, thanks to men like Armstrong.

  21. Well said John, and heteromeles, I think your comment is well thought out. I tell my astro students that we COULD have colonies on Mars now (the moon is a steppingstone to nowhere except in the symbolic sense) except for a lack of will. The colonies might not be self-sustaining yet, but they’d be there and people would be learning how to live there.

  22. As a boy of ten, I watched the moon walk live, absolutely enthralled. Soon I was reading science-fiction novels, dreaming of space travel. I still dream.

    Neil Armstrong is a man Americans should be intensely proud of. The world would be a better place if we had more humans like him.

  23. I’m older than you, John, I was 18 and filled with the certainty that 18 year olds have; I knew that it was just the beginning of our journey into space, and I would be visiting the moon in a decade or so, tops. I was wrong.

    My father was career RAF, aircrew, and aircrew are indisputably weird to the rest of the world, but I really didn’t, and don’t, care because they are not weird to me. Aircrew value ground crew, because ground crew are the people who let the aircrew fly. Neil Armstrong would have entirely agreed with Obama’s comment; only someone who’s never sat in the cockpit of a fighter jet could delude themselves that this all came miraculously into existence waiting for someone to press a button.

    And yes, I have sat in the cockpits of some nifty planes; daughter’s privilege of high ranking aircrew, though privilege stops at allowing me to play with them. Scorpius making a fool of himself Is just another idiot who wouldn’t recognise the right stuff if it bit him on the ankle, and couldn’t even begin to comprehend what Neil Armstrong was.

    Meanwhile the Republican party is diligently searching for the US flag planted by Armstrong on Mars, apart from the ones who believe that he didn’t go to the moon either and it was all a hoax.

    But for me it is this:

    Per Ardua ad Astra, Neil Armstrong, Ave atque Vale!

  24. @Megpie –

    My favorite song regarding the melancholy of this future which passed us by is Hugh Blumenfeld’s “Shoot the Moon”

    If I’d been ten years older, I might have been tripping on Yasgur’s farm
    But I probably would have been a Phantom flying over Viet Nam
    In a dream of altitudes where the blue turns black
    And never looking back
    At the pieces on the ground

    But I saw the choppers rise out of Saigon’s fall
    And my fingers traced the writing on the long black wall
    And I knew there’d be no spaceships in my future
    I guess I was born a little too late, or way too soon…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phQXvbPqJNM

  25. Scorpius – Its better to keep you mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and prove you are.

    Having worked at NASA I can assure you nobody went into space on their own. Great men like Mr. Armstrong stood on the shoulders of many great engineers, the efforts of thousands of technicians and workers and the financial support of millions of American tax payers. Each of those 3 benefited far in excess of their input, the taxpayers most of all.

    I was nine that day in 1961 when Alan Shepard became the first American in space. I watched a string of men who were my heros follow him: Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra, Cooper. It seemed to me that all things were possible. I followed every Gemini launch and hung on every achievement. At 17 I sat transfixed on a sweltering summer night to watch the grainy black and white images of Mr. Armstrong stepping on the moon knowing that the future knew no limit.

    Then it all went so horribly wrong. We became a nation more interested in our own individual self than in our nation or our species. I will not live long enough to see any other planet visited by people. The Chinese say they want to go to the moon but really they do not appear to have the fire to make that happen. Its sad to actually be able to see a diminished future.

  26. On a totally frivolous note — take a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Pour chocolate syrup over. Sprinkle with Tang. A taste of the 60’s!

  27. Look at it this way: we didn’t get the future where we all live in very cool space colonies and we go to the moon for vacation or whatever.

    We also didn’t get the future where we battle mutants for the last cans of non-irradiated food because the U.S. and the Soviet Union nuked each other out of existence.

    I guess you could say we split the difference. I’m ok with that.

    Let me share with you one optimistic detail: In Niven and Pournelle’s 1980 “Oath of Fealty” (not a great book I admit, but an explicit, detailed vision of the future, which few writers dare to undertake) there is a service where you can know just about anything by just asking, but you have to pay for hideously expensive implants in order to access it.

    We now have it for free (depending of course on how you value Wikipedia or the Internet. And to be sure the information you get now isn’t guaranteed to be accurate in any way).

    But I think that people envisioned the information in our present and thought it would always be expensive, and in fact it turned out to be free, and I feel hope.

  28. My parents let me stay up and watch the landing and it was absolutely amazing. Armstrong was a team player–the pointy end of the team, to be sure–but he knew that step was the cumulation of an entire nation’s effort.

    I miss those days for our country and hope to see them again, but it’ll take a lot of selfless team players like Armstrong to get them back.

  29. When I heard Armstrong had died, I was earwormed with “Rooty Toot Toot for the Moon” for the rest of the day, except that somehow it was sad even though it was the same song.

    What Armstrong did (as the public face of the thousands of people who worked to make it happen and the millions who contributed their tax dollars to make it possible) was make the moon from a mere object in the sky into a place. A place where it was, briefly, possible to go. I don’t think anyone who grew up after that happened can fully realize what a profound change that was.

    And scorpius, the reason you can’t see the stars (or the moon) is that your bridge is in the way. And I for one hope I never see another comment from you on any topic (in the same sense that I hope a madman in a blue box will take me away on adventures; it would be wonderful, but I don’t expect it).

  30. I was very small when Armstrong landed on the Moon, but I sort of thought of him at the time like our Christopher Columbus for modern times. So did many of my contemporaries; as the quote went in _Apollo 13_, “Imagine if Christopher Columbus came back from the New World, and no one returned in his footsteps.”

    It turns out Armstrong may instead have been our Leif Ericson: the one who reached the new world, went back, and had no followup from Europe for nearly 500 years. As long as Europe survived, and improved in its standard of living, technology and ambition, though, it was only a matter of time before Columbus crossed over and began what would be a sustainable trans-Atlantic connection.

    I’d love to see people walking on the moon or other worlds again sometime. But, in the scale of Earth’s living history, 500 years is a fairly small slice of time. If we can keep our habitat and civilizations on Earth going, clean up our messes, and improve our standards of living and technology, going back to the Moon and beyond is also just a matter of time, I believe. Personally, I’d rather have a 500-year wait to establish a sustainable route from a sustainable Earth civilization, than a 60-year wait to send a few more people out on an unsustainable mission on a costly mission from a civilization that hasn’t learned how to make its own use of Earth’s resources sustainable.

    In the meantime, I’m happy to cheer on our robots, as they explore more and more of the solar system that I hope we’ll one day spread out into ourselves. And I’ll also cheer on all the folks here whose efforts to make Earth sustainably hospitable should also help us learn how to make much smaller settlements in much harsher parts of the universe more sustainably hospitable as well.

  31. Diana writes:
    …but you have to pay for hideously expensive implants in order to access it.We now have it for free…

    Yes, and iPhones grow on trees… And aren’t implanted, only grafted to ears… ;-)

  32. I think it was in second grade (1956?) I made a test-pilot costume for Halloween; I wanted to be an X-15 pilot. I changed target to Astronaut when those were invented, and that dream only dimmed when I hit my high school growth spurt and I topped out at 6’4″; I knew the height restrictions would go away as we built bigger spacecraft. …. That summer, I was in USMC Boot Camp. Our DIs marched our company out into the sands and had us erect a mess tent, and we tried to watch the landing on a little Sony TV one of them had brought. Things went better after I jury-rigged an antenna and we all got to watch. One of the great moments of my life, heck, our lives. We were walking on the moon! (Well, a human was.) We were on our way to the stars.

    If there was ever a man I wanted to be … I could not have chosen a better.

    Rest in honored peace, Neil Armstrong. You showed the world the best that we could be.

  33. We have failed Neil and the tens of thousands of brilliant minds that put him and 11 other great men on the moon. I find it horrific that we are afraid to put people into space but find it fully acceptable to kill innocents. Imagine the good we could do for both science and those innocents if we took those killing dollars and instead spent them on feeding, educating and exploring.

  34. Well said as always, John. I was but a babe of 14 months for that landing, bu my parents made sure I was sitting up and watching the TV when it happened.

    Any Armstrong tribute planned at Chicon?

    Romula: depressing, indeed. I think the title text from that XKCD warrants repeating:

    “The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space–each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.”

  35. I am going to hideously enter space-policy-historian-wonk mode here for a second…

    NASA has never completely made a necessary transition from an engineering-driven organization – which is all about figuring out how to do hard things – to an operational one, driven by need to do things with existing technology.

    What happened to Apollo was not that it was cancelled, but that NASA was told in the late 1960s (even before Apollo 11 landed) that they were going to have to do with a much smaller budget going forwards forever (eventually about 3x smaller; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA_budget ). They sincerely wanted to keep doing a whole lot of flights and colonize space. To do that required, they figured, a fully reusable very operational space shuttle, and they geared up to develop one. After doing the preliminary plans they found out that it would cost about $10 billion then-year dollars to achieve sufficient reusability and capability. They were told by OMB they could only have five billion dollars.

    In retrospect – at that point, with that budget envelope, it would have been cheaper to abandon R&D and to simply keep flying Saturn I and V rockets with Apollo capsules. Probably, developing a new Saturn I variant with a first-stage single F-1 rocket motor would have saved costs there, but only enough development that cost savings actually justify. We could have continued with moon landings, built a larger Skylab-modules-connected space station, and eventually flown long-duration Apollo capsule based missions to asteroids with those launch vehicles. We’d only be flying at half the Apollo landings peak rate, but that would have kept a continuous ongoing exploration program.

    We are still seeing vestiges of the overly-engineering-centric organization (and surrounding political environment). Officially, the Space Launch System (a new Saturn V sized rocket) and Orion capsule are the future NASA manned spaceflight program. The SLS is a somewhat all-new launcher because the previous all-new launcher that used Shuttle boosters turned out to not have enough payload for a fully loaded Orion capsule, which is about 2x too big. (and 1.25x larger than the launcher it was supposed to fit on). All of this is being maintained now due to congressional interference and over the explicit wishes of the NASA administrator and President, who want to just use the commercial spacecraft that are now coming online. Congress is insisting NASA continue to develop SLS and Orion but simultaneously shrinking its budget. This will end poorly.

    Fortunately there are three, possibly four credible commercial manned spacecraft coming online now, all of which cost a tiny fraction of Orion+SLS per flight. And much of NASA is committed to using them. If Congress lets them. This may – finally – allow us to start incrementally working outwards again. Elon Musk, who owns most of SpaceX, explicitly wants to develop manned lunar and Mars missions with his company and hardware.

    Neil Armstrong unfortunately objected in the last few years to the way things were shaking out with the budget and programs; he felt NASA should do the Orion capsule and launcher, and lead with its manned lunar program. It could have been done if NASA kept a 0.75% share of GDP for its budget; it’s currently trending below 0.5%. Perhaps it should be. But it isn’t… The federal budget’s going sideways and down, more is not likely. NASA is lucky to be templated flat and not declining in future budgets.

    We’ll probably have people on the Moon again, not that long from now. It’s fundamentally not that hard to do. We can go back. We have people willing to make it happen. But it’s not going to happen like Apollo did. Hopefully this time it will be a sustainable path.

  36. I’m not quite old enough for Neil Armstrong to be my defining astronaut. For me, the space program ended in 1986, when Christa McAuliffe died in the Challenger disaster. I was watching it live, w/ the rest of my class, and I remember a feeling of finality, of doom, that this was where it ended.

    A schoolteacher was killed, carrying the hopes and dreams of a generation, and the door closed. America lost her nerve, and the Rogers Commission nailed the lid shut.

    I don’t know who was at fault, or why, or how. I don’t think any of us middle school kids really cared about the reasons. We just knew that this was the end, and our dreams of being farmers in the sky would never happen.

    I hope, I hope and pray to gods I don’t believe in, that mankind will again, someday, brave the dark. That we will hurl ourselves upwards, naive and unprepared, into the abyss.

    The Destiny of Earthseed
    Is to take root among the stars.

  37. What we need is to find Gold in them there rilles and craters. Then we won’t be able to stop the flood ad Astra.
    BTW if we were to measure the man who is Armstrong by the number of pictures we have of “only him” on that first visit to the moon, I think you will all be surprised. They are almost all of ‘Buzz’ Aldrin.

  38. I’ll let the comment below I made on YouTube several years ago stand….

    “I was five years old when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in 1969. I believe that event was the one thing that defined my life, and who I would become. I spent over 15 years in the Air Force, what I did and where I served does not matter…I am over fourty now. We should have been to Mars by now. We are not. We must go back……. and carry on.”

  39. Well said. After hearing the news, I queued up “When We Left Earth,” the very good documentary on the NASA missions that originally aired on the Discovery Channel. What struck me is how good a pilot Armstrong was – he saved Gemini 8 and basically landed on the moon as the lander was running out of fuel. If any of you have not seen that series, I highly recommend it.

    Our modern-day space program is impressive, but the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts and the folks at NASA who backed them up were an amazing bunch of people. I was born a few months before the last moon landing, but grew up devouring every bit of information about those missions that I could. When I got the chance to meet John Glenn a few years back, I geeked out like you would not believe. Such smart people who did incredible things. Hope we can tap into their sense of adventure again someday.

  40. @mintwich – I was 18 months old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. 16.5 years later, the Challenger exploded on my 18th birthday, with my mother’s 2nd cousin (Christa McAulliffe) onboard.

    I agree with you that the explosion of the Challenger was truly the end of the “space race” and the day that America lost her nerve.

    The current landing of the Mars Rover is a beginning .. a renewal of hope and dreams. Maybe someday we’ll send humans out into the vast beyond again. I hope I’m alive to see that day. I think it would be pretty amazing to have been alive for the whole scope of it!

  41. I’m seeing $18.4 billion for NASA’s FY2011 budget (nominal dollars), and the CIA World Factbook says that the 2011 GDP is estimated at $15.09 trillion. So unless I’ve made some kind of silly goof, that means NASA’s budget is currently about 0.12% of GDP. Significantly down from the 0.75% of GDP that it had during the Apollo era.

    Technically it’s true, as georgewilliamherbert says, that NASA’s budget is “currently trending below 0.5%.” Yes, 0.1% is less than 0.5%, but that’s an awfully loose bound.

  42. Neil Armstrong was a great man, and by many accounts also a very, very good man – a rare combination. And it was hugely important to send people to the moon.

    That being said, it is also important to look at the record of Manned Spaceflight in the four decades since he went there. Not much accomplished, not much at all. We live in an era in which the Curiosity Rover can travel to Mars and execute a seemingly ludicrous series of maneuvers to deploy an array of instruments, to be directed from here on Earth. We may have seen no men on the moon in 40 years, but we’ve seen plenty of space exploration – essentially none of it done by humans.

    I’m enthusiastic about genuine Space Colonization – the establishment of (nearly) self-sufficient communities beyond this ball of dirt. We need to study heavy lifting, biospheres, and automated resource gathering to make this dream a reality. But we’re a long way from that dream, and nearly as long from any part of that dream that could usefully be furthered by putting more people in space. Yes to Space Exploration, Yes to Space Colonization – but for the foreseeable future, No to the Tinned Monkey Project.

  43. @ Kara: I’m so sorry. It’s probably no comfort, but millions mourned with you. In the months before Challenger, Ms McAuliffe became a mother/sister/niece/cousin/aunt/teacher to most of the country, just as Neil Armstrong was father/brother/nephew/son/etc. Most of us never knew either, or any of our astronauts, but I believe we hold them in our hearts, nonetheless.

    At least, those of us who are huge geeks, weened on Star Trek and Tang. But i’d rather be a hopelessly romantic space geek, than pretty much anything else. Except, maybe, a farmer in the sky.

  44. @Kara,
    The tragedy of the Challenger disaster wasn’t that seven brave men and women died. It was that seven brave men and women died for nothing – that if they’d completed their mission, nothing would have come of it, at tremendous monetary expense. Heck, one of them was there for purely symbolic purposes. I don’t mean to diminish the astronauts in any way – they are tremendously accomplished people, who have made it through rigorous screening to perform the tasks assigned to them, often under extreme circumstances. But the tasks assigned to them are not worthy of them, nor are they worthy of us as a nation.

  45. I should really add that it takes nothing away from Armstrong’s feats or life to say that, if Kennedy had not assassinated, there was a high probability that the entire Apollo mission would have been scrubbed during his presidency. I think that, in some part, we went to the Moon as a memorial to Kennedy. While he was alive, he faced intense pressure from Congress (among others) to cancel Apollo, because it was seen, correctly, to be as much a PR stunt as a serious scientific mission. It was that space race with the Soviets, that sort of thing.

    We won the race, and that’s what we paid to do. The US never really put the money down to colonize space during the Space Race. While I think NASA has made a large number of preventable mistakes, I don’t lay the end of Apollo at their feet. The Saturn V was a dragster, not an RV, and like James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger sub, the Apollo spacecraft were designed for limited exploration, no more.

    Much of our space exploration has been to be “the first to go to (fill in the blank)” right out of Ye Olde Age of Exploration. If we were serious about colonizing the Moon, we’d have that place so wired that we could do citizen science on the regolith. We’re only starting to get there.

  46. when I listen to Leslie Fish’s “Hope Eyrie” these days I tend to get depressed. The lyrics say that Apollo is the event that declares that humanity will make it, yet they seems optimistic these days.

    SpaceX can supply the space station, but it is nearing end of life. I haven’t heard about another.

    What else is there for commerce besides tourism? Maybe those guys enthusing about asteroid mining can make something happen otherwise I’m not seeing the revenue opportunities for making commercial space work.

  47. @Warren

    And that’s the real reason the space program is floundering. After reaching the moon, there was no comparable goal available that had such symbolic power. And after budget cuts, as george said, there wasn’t enough money to do anything that would rivet a whole generation to their tvs. NASA was sick as hell before challenger and after? Well we all know which future we’re living in.

    There is also one other factor why we don’t go into space, and it is one born of seriously harsh facts. Exploratory space travel and space colonization will cost human lives. After Challenger and Columbia, NASA has become risk averse to the point of ridiculousness. Colonization, throughout human history, always starts as a incredible drain on resources and life, just check some of the statistics on the early Jamestown colony if you don’t believe me, they’re absolutely horrifying with most people’s life expectancy under (and I’m working off memory here) 10 years (I want to say 5 but I thought i’d give myself a decent margin of error), and often far less what with disease and so forth. Now a lot of the historical factors that caused the death toll in Jamestown were unique to its position and situation, but space colonization will operate in an incredibly harsh environment where you die if your clothes get torn (that’s one factor I can think of off the top of my head anyway). If we sent people to the moon today to start a colony, we’d have a really good chance of sending them off to die. Considering the fallout from the Challenger and Columbia disasters, No one high enough up to authorize such a move is willing to, cause they’d get lynched (metaphorically) after the likely fatal ending of the project. And that’s why we send robots instead of people. We don’t have the money or the will to sustain the human and material costs of our first steps in space colonization.

    Conversely, the tiny private sector space program might be better at dealing with this problem. If there’s one thing corporations are good at its reducing people to dollar amounts, and that harsh cost/benefit approach might be what gets humanity off earth. Or not, as the initial investment is so steep that only a non-profit governmental organization can afford to it, as they don’t have to show investors a profit every 3 months.

    Either way we’ll see, but I doubt I’ll be able to go the moon for a vacation before I die. Which stinks, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has always been one of my favorite books.

  48. I actually got to meet Neil Armstrong back in 1994. I was 19 and bullshitting my way through the Oshkosh Air Show on a totally fraudulent press pass. It’s one of my favorite life experiences and Armstrong remains one of my few personal heroes that I’ve actually managed to meet. If anyone’s curious I just reposted the Neil Armstrong story to my book review blog: http://tinyurl.com/8w9h7xx

  49. Sometimes, Scalzi, you make me feel =so= old. I turned sixty a week or two ago, and I can remember vividly what happened in 1969, the summer after I graduated high school, the summer we landed on the moon (when I was sixteen and you were two months old).

    I had a summer internship at NASA Ames, working in the exobiology division on experiments that would go on Viking, so that may have something to do with why I remember the landing and the thrill and the words and Armstrong, but … geez. Now I feel older than dirt. ;-)

  50. Let us never forget the ANTI-hero in all this, that small minded, short-sighted, vision-deficient guy who pretty much shut the Apollo project down. Richard M. Nixon. The man who sold the future. Down the river.

  51. Sadly, I just learned of this from the lo(c|-qu)al wannabe-paper — which tries to explain why the Meedja signally failed to raise any sort of blip, citing Neil’s demonstrated preference for privacy [check] and how there was “extremely little footage which might to used” [*spit*] to frame news of his death. FFS, this man made a piece of history — can The Meedja not find one single worthy clip / sound byte / interviewee to mark his passing?

    I had last read of an upcoming heart surgical procedure and remember hoping that Neil might hang in long enough to make the ghost of George Burns worry about his stats. I still recall with fondness his interview in Life, and in particular this picture with (paraphrased) caption: 

    [Bottom right]  Neil lights up a rare stogie. “I smoke one a month,” he said, “but sometimes I forget to.”

  52. Dana, Apollo missions beyond 17 were canceled before Nixon’s election: a combination of (1) budget pressures, (2) “we barely dodged a bullet” worries after Apollo 13, and (3) waning public interest — we’d won the “race” set forth in 1961, and more victory laps offered diminishing returns. I hold no brief for Nixon, but “shutting Apollo down” would have happened under any administration.

  53. I also immediately thought of Billy Bragg’s song when I heard Armstrong had died. Then I thought of The Sundays’ “Static and Silence.” Great bookends on the dream of the Apollo landing.

    Will they fly or will they fall?

    And the world is watching with joy

  54. My son and I watch the Great North Sky
    And gaze in great wonder
    Tell him the story of Apollo
    And he asked “why did they ever go”
    It may look like some empty gesture
    To fly all the way just to come back
    But don’t offer me a place out in Cyberspace
    ‘Cause where in the Hell is that at
    Now the Space Race is over
    It’s been and it’s gone
    And I’ll never get out of my room
    Now the Space Race is over
    And I can’t help but feel
    That we are all just going nowhere…

    Apologies to the Barking Bard for any manglings I did to the lyrics from memory.

  55. Delurking from the Antipodes to say thanks, really nice piece. I was eight in ’69 and it’s one of the standout memories of my childhood, that landing. (Also Tang – I remember Tang, even here in NZ. It was… well, tangy. And a quite scary colour.) I’ve just watched the movie Apollo 13 again (for the umpteenth time) – every time I watch it, it reminds me how good we can be – humanity, I mean. All that ingenuity and courage and sheer bloody-minded nerve. Inspiring stuff. Thanks, Neil.

  56. I think we will eventually return to manned exploration, and eventually begin off-planet colonisation. Trouble is, “eventually” is a bit of a variable here. I don’t think “eventually” will happen until we get an asteroid hit on Earth to make us sit up and panic (maybe a sufficiently near miss, as in literally grazes our atmosphere, but that is doubtful unless it is really dramatic in its effects). If that happens then you can bet those rich movers and shakers will be scrambling to authorise rapid launchers and colonisation efforts just so they can be assured of saving their own skins. It’ll take making the risks of being a large target hanging in outer-space a personal one.

    Until that happens, we’re going to be stuck here because we are all subject to bean counters with no romance in their souls.

    Neil and all those who worked with him (the other astronauts, the ground control, the people who made machines, the families of those people who gave them strength…and all those who came before just to get the tech and society into that ready state) showed us the possibilities, and opened the door. For that I thank Neil and his comrades, that glimpse into a wider world, I just we had the courage to take that second small step to follow him. I’m ashamed for my generation for not having the backbone to do so.

  57. My daughter is currently studying Stellar Astrophysics and Planetary Science at Georgia Tech. She spent the summer analyzing data from HiRISE. She spent last summer in Moscow studying Russian (right before NASA made it a requirement).

    It’s not over yet, y’all. There are thousands of brilliant, determined, strong, fast and sneaky kids out there who are looking up from their homework assignments and realizing that three hours have gone by since the last time they looked up.

    Don’t write them off.

  58. Reblogged this on The Undiscovered Author and commented:
    I’m grateful to see John Scalzi’s commentson the passing of Neil Armostrong. I’d been beginning to think that maybe the Science Fiction community had somehow missed this sad passing of an era. I didn’t comment immediately because I didn’t think I had anything meaningful to say. When Neil visited the moon my parents weren’t even legal yet, and I was nowhere yet near Planet Earth. By the time the last man left the moon, I was still no closer, for all practical purposes.
    But after reading Scalzi’s post, I realize I do have something to add.

    The achievement of Neil Armstrong and his fellow Apollo Astronauts and those who supported him is one unparalleled in history: mankind has not come close either before or since. Think about that: the greatest human achievement in history was done and gone and practically forgotten by the time I was born. Nothing, since then, has come even close. Sure, we’ve built on the shoulders of giants. But our dreams have been small dreams.

    The human race is capable of some truly amazing things: Armstrong’s achievement is proof of that. And we’ve done a lot to make my childhood’s future something that is starting, bit-by-bit, to actually feel like the future. But the greatest disappointment of our future-present is the failure of manking in general and the US in particular to live up to the promise of Armstrong’s achievement.

    It’s telling, in our modern day, that we’ve become so fractious and divided that we no longer have any shared dreams. We no longer look forward to a some brighter future. We no longer believe our best days are ahead of us. Instead, you have half our country trying to claw its way back to some imagined (pre-Apollo) golden age and the other half trying to hold on to the gains we’ve made as a society since then. In this divided time there is no room for the future. There is no room for bigger dreams.

    In some ways the half looking backward is right: there was a brighter age in our past, but it shouldn’t have been that way: our brightest age should have been still in our future yet to come, with our present always brighter than our past.

    There’s a way we can get back to that “future past”. There’s a way we can get things back on track. But we have to stop looking backwards to do so.

  59. Ah man. Such sad news.

    It’s so weird to me that we had that huge burst of space exploration, sending people to the moon, and then… nothing. Glad to see at least the robot exploration is getting really sophisticated. We’re still learning stuff about our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, and our universe. I hope we find a way to get people up there again soon.

  60. RIP to a decent man who did extraordinary things.

    “We pray for one last landing/ On the globe that gave us birth/ Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies/ And the cool, green hills of Earth.”
    Green Hills of Earth by Heinlein.

  61. Neil Armstrong was a great man, and the Apollo missions were astounding feats of engineering.

    The problem is that with our current level of technology, monkeys-in-a-can makes no sense. Did not then, does not now.

    Would anyone commenting or reading these posts really like to be on Mars right now, with the kind of kit that you’d expect to have in a realistic 2012 setting?

    You’d be trapped in a tiny bunker with at most a couple of dozen other people. You would have seen these people– and no other people– each day and every day for years, both on Mars’s surface and during the trip there. It is very likely that some of your comrades would have died (messily) in accidents by now; accidents that, had they happened on Earth, would likely be no more than minor inconveniences.

    You’d be wondering if you would be next. In the back of your mind, you would know that at any time you could be a few minutes away from death due to catastrophic loss of atmosphere. You’d be hoping that the next delivery of canned foodstuffs from Earth would arrive successfully, and not miss Mars completely (either by failed aerobraking or by unfortunate lithobraking). Meanwhile, stuff you need to survive keeps breaking down or wearing out because the planners of this mission back on Earth had next to no idea of the actual conditions people would face on Mars.

    Talk about a high-stress workplace.

    Instead, we’ve got the information gathered from Voyager, Sojourner, Huygens, Opportunity, Curiosity, and many other probes. These probes have let us discover far more about our Solar System than manned missions ever could– and far more safely. It is possible that the information that these unmanned probes give us might allow a safe off-Earth population some day in the future. But that time is probably centuries away (if ever it comes).

    Most of this comment is taken with Charlie Stross’s helpful post in mind.

  62. @Scorpius: From what I’ve observed, Armstrong would have agreed with the spirit of that out-of-context Obama quote many people can’t resist using as a bludgeon.

    He was humble about his role in history. See, for example, his 2005 interview with CBS’s Ed Bradley, where he talks about not deserving all the attention, and how circumstance and the work of thousands of others (in addition to his own…he was modest, but not foolish) placed him in that role. It’s a different and more honest take on success from those who are born into millions or a political legacy and then claim to be entirely self-made men or women.

    I think he saw further, in both a literal and a figurative sense, and more clearly than most of us do…or choose to do.

  63. I’m not sure vast amounts of money invested to go into space and explore is worth the expense right now. We are heavily in debt, we need to pay for the new health care plan (I am in favor of this), and we have other issues. The return on investment is not there.

    I think part of it is that the technology is not far enough along to make it worth the investment and probably won’t be for a long time.

    That being said, Neil Armstrong will be remember for centuries in American History.

  64. I personally believe that, at this time, robotic space exploration provides more benefits than human space exploration. The most often cited benefit of human space exploration is that the technology developed spins-off (to use NASA’s phrase) to the earthbound population. The robots, like Curiosity, that are developed for space exploration are able to spin-off just as many technological developments as a human space flight, with a better cost/benefit ratio. (I think that it is more likely that technology is actually driving the robotic exploration, but that would make the case for human space flight even weaker.)

    Another benefit often cited for human space exploration is the inspiration for students to study science. I think that the robotic exploration can be better for inspiring young scientist because kids can now build their own robots at a low cost. At our college, we are working with local middle school and high school robotics teams using LEGO Mindstorms kits. The cost of a LEGO kit is less than half the cost of an iPad.

    The only benefit that robotic space flight will never replicate is producing heroes like Mr. Armstrong. However, and not to take away anything from Mr. Armstrong, heroism does not require space flight to exist. The past eleven years has made America more aware of the everyday heroism that exists.

  65. @Guess – The money spent on NASA is a pittance. How about this return on an investment – The flawed mirror on the Hubble Space telescope required inventing new imagining techniques to be able to read the flawed image data coming in before the repair/ servicing mission went up. These new techniques were then used to make it easier to detect breast cancer in mammogram imaging. http://ipp.nasa.gov/innovation/Innovation41/HubbleFights.html No way to plan for that benefit and the crazy part is that if everything would have gone according to plan then we wouldn’t have had the health benefit. This says it better than I ever could: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/08/why-explore-space.html

    I’m going to go talk to my kids about an America Hero and all the other American Hero’s who got him there and back safe and sound. Over a glass of Tang of course.

  66. @dragon: Every individual line item in the budget can be broken down to a pittance. Inside medicare, you have individual items that money is spent on. This is a common argument. So no matter what people try to cut you get ‘but what we like is a pittance’. Obama agrees with me. He is not spending a lot of money on NASA anymore.

    Getting a few other technologies from the investment in space does not mean there is a return on investment. That investment is based on ‘overall returns to cost’. There are much more efficient ways to spend government R&D money than NASA.Its cheaper to let other countries spend money on it, then once they figure it out we backward engineer it and copy them. This is what many countries do to us.

    I also stand by my statement that the current level of technology does not justify the costs we spend on space. It is more efficient to spend R&D money on other areas and wait for this to catch up.

    This is in no way an attack on Neil Armstrong.

  67. It’s always worth remembering that we have colonized space pretty effectively, given how much our lives now depend upon satellites for communications and wayfinding.

    That said, JReynolds is right. I can even provide a scenario for when we’ll colonize space. On Earth, we’ll have the following things:
    –Functioning closed ecosystems are normal. People can live in (say) Antarctica on what their greenhouses produce alone, just as they can anywhere on the planet. Many of the stupider things we do in the name of modern agriculture (think water wars, massive monocultures, massive soil erosion, massive nitrogen losses to water supplies, phosphorus shortages, etc) are embarrassing fragments of history.
    –We’ve got really good, really light radiation shielding. Nukes will not be considered a problematic power source, because we can basically put one next to a nursery school without worrying accidents, no matter how catastrophic they are.
    –We’ve got really good rocket motors, or similar high performance, high efficiency engines that outstrip what we have now by several orders of magnitude. Moreover, these engines can be built by a properly equipped village, rather than by, say, thousands of people working in a megacoporation with massive government subsidies.

    –or– we get machine uploads, and someone wants to ride a probe out into the wild black yonder.

    This is the basic colonization point: colonies of uninhabited lands* don’t succeed unless the parent culture already has all of the tools, techniques, arts, crafts, and sciences that the colony needs to survive. The three I listed above are the show-stoppers for colonizing another planet. There are a couple more for interstellar colonization.

    *Note here that I’m talking about settling a land that doesn’t have humans in it. European colonization of the Americas, Australia, or New Zealand doesn’t count, because people were already there. Polynesian colonization of New Zealand does count.

  68. @Guess –If you never invest in the technology it will never advance to the level where you want it to be. The only way to advance the technology of space exploration is to, you know, actually explore space. Step by step, discovery by discovery. Waiting for it to somehow magically “catch up” will leave you waiting forever. My take on your plan is that it will give us more of the same type of lost future we have had for the past four decades. Sorry, I’m just not going to buy into that line of thinking.

  69. JReynolds: Would anyone commenting or reading these posts really like to be on Mars right now, with the kind of kit that you’d expect to have in a realistic 2012 setting?

    If I was in my 20’s (i.e. healthy and single), I’d go.

    You’d be trapped in a tiny bunker with at most a couple of dozen other people. You would have seen these people– and no other people– each day and every day for years, both on Mars’s surface and during the trip there. It is very likely that some of your comrades would have died (messily) in accidents by now;

    You’re describing combat, something people survive every day.

    And yeah, PTSD, but a couple dozen specialists on a mission to mars would probably get quite a lot more psychological care and management than half a million troops would get when shipped overseas for war.

    And like some people are drawn to the military for the “adventure”, I think if NASA or someone announced they were looking for a couple dozen people to go to mars, I think they’d get swamped with tens of thousands of legitimate applications.

    Guess: We are heavily in debt, we need to pay for the new health care plan (I am in favor of this), and we have other issues. The return on investment is not there.

    If there was oil on the moon, you can bet we’d figure out a way to get there. But just because it’s not profitable doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. If you insist on tying to to sttrict economic measures, It might be justified as a form of stimulus for the economy. As such, it wouldn’t make any individual a profit, but it could be better for the country as a whole, based on the positive effect it has on the economy.

  70. I grew up with Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestell. Was just finishing grad school when the Eagle landed; I stayed up to watch it on a friend’s tv. I still get a lump in my throat thinking about it, and want to cry when I realize I’ll never the the like again.

  71. 70+ comments and I have to be the pedantic Physics professor to point out the old centripetal versus centrifugal (fictitious force) discussion. (grin) There is no force pushing you into the wall/floor. Rather, in a circular motion system, your inertia would want you to continue in a straight line, except the curving floor gets in the way and pushes you inward so that you stay on the circle. — As always this typical Physics professor rant is rendered perfectly by xkcd. (double-coordinate substitution grin)

    Also, upstream is a comment that Apollo 17+ missions were cut after Nixon’s election, referencing having gone to the moon and Apollo 13… all of which happened after Nixon was in the White House.

    As for me, I’ve been in front of the television for all of the manned space program. And I was already scheduled to give a talk at WorldCon/ChiCon on seeing Neil Armstrong’s footprints. Get off my zero G lawn!

    Dr. Phil

  72. Years ago I got the opportunity to discuss this with Dr. Asimov. He lamented our lack of progress just as you did, and he gave me his predictions for the future of human space flight…

    Moon Colony? Late 21st Century.
    Mars Visit? Late 21st – Early 22nd.
    Attempt at interstellar travel at our current pace? 300 – 500 years.

    I know all of this sounds very pessimistic, but with the way our politics is going currently, I tend to agree.

  73. I’d like to offer a point-by-point rebuttal to Guess, but when I read something like this:

    Getting a few other technologies from the investment in space does not mean there is a return on investment.

    I realize that this argument perhaps hasn’t been thought all the way through. Also: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/04/14/what-value-space-exploration/

    This is in no way an attack on Neil Armstrong.

    Of course not. It’s just an attack on everything the man believed in and stood for. Totally different.

  74. Around ’88 I was in DC for a meeting and afterwards went to the Smithsonian. I started crying when I saw SpaceLab on exhibit like we’d never go there out again. But I take tremendous hope that the International Space Station is still manned. Maybe we don’t have people on the moon, but we still have people in space.

    Movie budgets keep going up. I’ll predict that within the next ten years someone makes a movie in space, or puts a “reality” show on a space station, or the like.

  75. Sharon, I remember seeing a Gemini capsule at the Smithsonian and thinking, Jesus Christ, my clothes dryer is roomier than this thing.

    as for Asimov’s predictions, yeah, and I think he’s being optimistic about mars. We need fundamentally new power sources before interstellar will happen, so maybe that will never happen.

  76. “Apollo missions beyond 17 were canceled before Nixon’s election”

    Actually, the three moon landings that were canceled were all cut in 1970 (Apollo 20 in the early part of the year, and then 18 and 19 in September), well after Nixon took office. Whether they would have remained in the program under a different president is debatable, but Nixon at one point was even in favor of canceling 16 and 17.

  77. I keep thinking about the alternate universe where we didn’t go into Iraq, and we spent two weeks worth of that money fixing every bridge and highway in the US (yes, those costs are comparable), then spent the rest on the space program.

    I don’t actually know enough to figure out what we’d have by now, but I bet we wouldn’t be relying on Russia (who are looking more and more like an enemy IMO) to get to and from the ISS.

  78. Some of the comments about the cost of NASA budgets remind me of “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
    There seems to have been almost a step backwards since the sixties and seventies. I think there’s a parallel to Concord, which used to seem to me to be the prelude to routine supersonic travel…
    Similarly, I think human-lifetime-scale interstellar travel will be rather unlikely. It is a little sad.

  79. @ Andy

    “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”

    Yes, this. Maybe as a child, I was overly influenced by Carl Sagan, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov–although I cannot believe that that is a bad thing–but I would be thrilled if my tax dollars stopped going to wars, and went to the stars, instead. It’s not about the ROI. It’s about dreams and hope and curiosity.
    So what if McAuliffe was simply “symbolic,” as someone wrote, upthread? Symbols are powerful. Symbols move hearts and nations. A flag is a symbol, and so is a cross. Symbols are real and meaningful. They remind us that our reach should exceed our grasp. Why not reach for the center of the universe?

  80. Xopher: I don’t actually know enough to figure out what we’d have by now,

    If we had continued to pursue space the way we pursued the moon, I think we would have put a base on the moon to mine rock and shoot it into orbit to build one of those donut shaped, spinning space stations that would be at least a couple miles in diameter.

    A space station that big would need a lot of mass, and if we were planning on building a moon base anyway, might as well build it first and use that for most of the mass for the station. Getting mass from the moon to a station orbit would be cheaper than from the earth to station orbit. Not just because of the lower gravity, but because it doesn’t have any atmosphere, so you could use something like a railgun or maglev on the surface of the moon to accelerate the mass to escape velocity, instead of chemical rockets.

  81. I admired Armstrong because my father is a pilot, and pilots are awesome, and Armstrong more or less epitomized pilothood.

    On the other hand, I think the whole “why hasn’t the US gone back?” question is best understood through the paradigm Tom Wolfe used in The Right Stuff: single combat against the Soviets. The US got there first; they “won” the Space Race, and after 1988, there weren’t even any Soviets anymore, so it all became a moot point. No reason to go back to the moon if there isn’t some hated rival nation trying to either get there first or rack up more landings than you.

    That said, since I’m 37 and therefore of the age where “space” means “space shuttles blowing up” to me, I’m not so interested in space exploration. The idea of widespread commercial space travel is especially horrifying; if you don’t know what “dead peasant insurance” is, look it up, and spend some time reading about how corporations actively fight safety regulations in other dangerous professions (like coal mining, fishing, or forestry), before you start talking about what a great idea it is. Corporate space travel means lots more dead astronauts, period. And considering that 5% of everybody so far who’s ever been to space died doing it, that’s appalling. (But don’t worry, I guess the companies might compensate the families a little bit if someone sues.) Since I’ve also worked in occupational health and safety and know that safety is almost *always* the first casualty of “economic reality,” I don’t trust corporate space travel as far as I could spit a Sputnik.

    Besides which, I have cerebral palsy — mildly, but badly enough to keep me out of every military in the world — so I never felt connected to space the same way you able-bodied people did. Also, not being American, the jingoist aspect kind of missed me. You guys might get excited about stuff that makes your national dick hard, but the rest of us either roll our eyes or wonder what the hell trouble you’re going to cause *now*…

  82. @Interrobang, I know this may go against a lot of received wisdom, but….Americans are not, in fact, strangely aggressive robots powered by infusions of gunpowder, beer and mozzarella sticks. They are people! And, like people in much more enlightened, civilized countries (i.e., yours), they come in a variety of ages and have a variety of opinions, even about things like the space program. Some are old enough to actually remember Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. Some are not. Some think of space exploration as a symbol of America’s superior tech and smarts. Some think space exploration was all fine and dandy while we were in the Cold War, but is kind of obsolete now. Some think space exploration is cool as a concept. (Many are aware that other nations also have space programs!) Some think that we should continue to explore space, but should not prioritize manned space travel. Some wonder if we are mistakenly choosing to spend money and human capital on space exploration instead of more pressing concerns. Some think that we should begin to colonize other planets, or create orbital habitats, to escape a damaged Earth. (Also, it’s a little puzzling to hear a claim that, in a discussion full of geeks, everybody other than you is so “able-bodied” that their interest in space is an outgrowth of knowing they are not disqualified, physically, from being astronauts.)

    Most of us, regardless of whether we’re Americans, can admire Mr. Armstrong for both his contributions to scientific progress and his humility, and be sad that he is no longer with us.

    @Eric: it’s like a toddler who craps on the floor because he knows that when he does, Mommy pays lots of attention to him. You extinguish the behavior by remaining calm and not giving the desired feedback.

  83. Space travel and politics are inextricable. We only went to the moon in the 60’s because rockets can carry bombs as well as people, and if the USA could stick the landing in Tranquility then they could easily drop-kick Moscow. Apollo was a message to the commies. Once delivered, the greater story didn’t matter.

    But millions of children never forgot. We of a certain age grew up with the moon landing as a personal experience, and we believed in the hope that it represented. A hope for a future without restraint, one where any aspiration — no matter how patently absurd — could be achieved by striving, sweat, invention, and simple will. We knew the impossible was possible because we’d seen it done. By men like Armstrong and all those who put him there.

    I’m sad to acknowledge that dream seems to have died. Space travel is expensive, and no one wants to foot the bill. I’ve read everyone who argues that we can bootstrap with private enterprise, but it’s a fantasy. We’re stuck here, down at the bottom of our little gravity well, until a generation arises who can see past the price tag.

  84. @jack*, I don’t understand “see past the price tag”. It would be really, really stupid to ignore that there is a price tag. That’s very different from insisting that there be a measurable, hard profit from investment in space exploration (the “ROI” mentioned upthread), but it’s foolish to say, dude, space is cool, throw ALL OF THE MONEY at it.

  85. @mythago, do you think that “ALL OF THE MONEY” is perhaps a bit of a straw man?
    Here’s a good explanation from another blog that anyone with an interest in the science part of SF should read:
    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2012/08/07/with-all-the-suffering-in-the-world-why-invest-in-science/
    That’s perhaps the best answer to the poem you link to, and shows the problem with trying to put a dollar value on research or exploration. The journey from the microscope to the modern medicine that provides the cure to that bite, took perhaps 300 years and wouldn’t have happened without investments in science. How exactly do you propose they evaluate that ROI?

  86. @ Interrobang

    Besides which, I have cerebral palsy — mildly, but badly enough to keep me out of every military in the world — so I never felt connected to space the same way you able-bodied people did. Also, not being American, the jingoist aspect kind of missed me. You guys might get excited about stuff that makes your national dick hard, but the rest of us either roll our eyes or wonder what the hell trouble you’re going to cause *now*…

    Said the blinkered sanctimonious prick. News flash: more than half of Americans are not guys. I feel sad for you that you cannot appreciate the human spirit of discovery and exploration unless you personally have a shot at being the person at the helm. I feel even sadder that you think understanding the universe and our place in it is somehow American jingoism. While we and the rest of the world are cooperating on the scientific exploration of outer space, pooling knowledge, resources and talent, you can go file the law suits against Virgin Galactic. Have fun. Oh, and better avoid cars and airplanes, what with all the insurance being taken out against dead peasants. Better yet, don’t leave the house; life is too dangerous.

    @ mythago

    That’s very different from insisting that there be a measurable, hard profit from investment in space exploration (the “ROI” mentioned upthread), but it’s foolish to say, dude, space is cool, throw ALL OF THE MONEY at it.

    I think you might have NASA’s budget confused with the DOD.

  87. Most folks never thought we would send humans to the moon and then just stop sending humans any farther than near earth orbit. And Scalzi’s elegaic mood gets the tone just right, methinks. But it turns out we never thought human space exploration would shut down because back in the 1950s and 1960s, we (meaning humans) just didn’t know enough about the biology of space travel.

    Ugly biological fact #1: outside the earth’s magnetosphere, galactic cosmic rays blast through your body, imparting enough energy to produce some very ugly cancers if you’re exposing long enough. Some of these GCR’s impacted the vitreous humor of the Apollo astronauts with so much energy that they generated visible flashes. Yow. Bathe yourself in that for 18 months during a Mars trip, and you’ll be dead of cancer by the time you get there.

    Ugly biological fact #2: microgravity produces the effects of rapid aging. Bone density loss, muscle generation. No one predicted this. In fact, Heinlein et al. predicted exactly the opposite. Turned out not to be the case. Microgravity proves lethal in prolonged doses. After 6 months on the Soviet space station Mir, even after constant treadmill exercise, cosmonauts had lost dangerous amount of bone density and their muscle tone was so poor they had to be wheeled out of the capsule in wheelchairs because they couldn’t walk in normal earth gravity. Bad news.

    Ugly biological fact #3: rotating capsules to generate artificial gravity induce such severe Coriolis forces that if an astronaut turned her head rapidly, she’d suffer a stroke. Ugh.

    Ugly biological fact #4: Mars has virtually no magnetic field, so galactic cosmic rays blast into the surface instead of getting channeled to the poles (as on earth). Even if we could send humans to Mars without killing ‘em from microgravity and muscle loss and cancer from the galactic cosmic rays, the sleet of GCRs on the Martian surface would quickly prove lethal. (and let’s not even talk about Mars’ lack of an ozone layer and the consequent vicious UV radiation on the surface there.) The Martian explorers would have to build an underground bunker and hunker down there to survive. Oops.

    Sadly, humans just aren’t biologically equipped to travel outside the earth’s magnetosphere. Perhaps if we can genetically engineer ourselves to resist GCRs, or possibly if we can develop the nanotech to repair the cellular damage, or perhaps if we can timeshare our minds with mind-uploaded highly sophisticated robots or cyborgs, we can back on track with a program of manned (in some sense) exploration of the solar system.

    Until then, it’s robots as far as the eye can see. Oh, and as for terraforming…Kim Stanley Robinson pretty much ignored the problem of Mars’ lack of magnetosphere, so don’t bet on green Mars or blue Mars populated by humans anytime soon.

    ‘Twould be nice to dream those old dreams of humans on torchships zipping around to domed bases on Mercury or Mars, but the reality of biology basically killed those 50s and 60s manned-space-exploration dreams dead.

  88. Oh, and for those folks arguing that’s a matter of politics or money — well, yes, but really, at a deeper level, it’s physics.
    To get into near-earth orbit takes a grotesque amount of energy using chemical rockets. The rocket equation is a bitch. Even with a multistage rocket, you’re still faced with an exponentially smaller payload than the fuel you have to expend to get into orbit. If and when we get a space elevator, the amount of energy we’ll have to expend to get into orbit will drop to the approximate cost of electricity to power an elevator to climb 120 miles up. (We’ll still have issues with radiation exposure during the space elevator trip, but not major ones because even 120 miles up we’re still well within the earth’s magnetoshere.)

    But the energy cost to travel to, say, Mars, well…that’s another matter entirely. The lowest-energy Hohmann transfer orbit takes a loooooooooong time. To get their faster is extravagantly wasteful of energy. So you’ve got a catch-22 with Mars trips: and remember, Mars is the nearest planet where humans won’t get crushed by incredible pressure and fried by a surface temperature as hot as boiling lead (Venus, anyone?). To get beyond Mars to, say, Jupiter or Saturn, means an exponentially greater energy expenditure, and consequently an exponentially greater transit time.

    As for travel to the nearest star, the energy requirements are hallucinogenic. To be honest, the only practical way of sending humans to another star within the probably lifetime of a human civilization would involve mind-uploading to an extremely dense storage medium (Stross’ “memory diamond” or something nearly as dense) so you can blast a grain-of-sand-sized payload at perhaps 10% of the speed of light toward some other star system. Then use nanotech to build gametes and grow human bodies and download the human minds from the sand-grain-sized starship at the destination solar system. Boosting a honking great Battlestar Galactica spaceship to any appreciable fraction of lightspeed in any reasonable time just isn’t on with any power source physics currently is aware of. And please don’t bring up antimatter: how do you generate the antimatter you’re gonna use for fuel? That takes energy, and enough of it to shut your entire civilization down.

    The politics and money are really just side effects of the brutally difficult physics of boosting a spaceship massive enough to contain some humans to either a destination beyond Mars, or beyond our solar system. You can argue with the politics or the finances of space travel, but in the end, you just can’t argue with the physics. The rocket equation and Einstein’s special theory of relativity always tend to win that argument.

  89. @mclaren ‘physics and biology make space travel expensive and difficult’ — well thank you for the duh. I think we all know that.

    The expensive and the difficult are sometimes worthwhile. That’s the question.

  90. @mclaren “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuW4oGKzVKc
    I think your Coriolis force “fact” is just flat wrong and started to crunch the numbers, but there’s an easier example – ever been on a fairground ride?
    Also, some of the other problems you mention are possible to overcome already, while the memory uploads, etc, are not yet realistic.
    But mostly I do suspect it’ll be robots.

  91. @ mclaren

    Ugly biological fact #3: rotating capsules to generate artificial gravity induce such severe Coriolis forces that if an astronaut turned her head rapidly, she’d suffer a stroke. Ugh.

    Depends on the size and rate of rotation. This is only a hazard if you rotate a module as small as current space station mods up to one gravity. There’s no reason to assume a full gee is necessary to prevent decalcification, muscle-density loss and other microgee hazards. Nor would a module that small be large enough, without some pretty sophisticated bionanotech, to maintain a viable self-sufficient ecosystem capable of supporting long-term human life. Since the point is moot until the costs of orbiting drop to a price where it isn’t for robots and government science only, this seems unlikely to be even one of the more insurmountable hurdles.

    If and when we get a space elevator, the amount of energy we’ll have to expend to get into orbit will drop to the approximate cost of electricity to power an elevator to climb 120 miles up.

    Beanstalk-type space elevators are orbitally unstable. Tether propulsion is the economical road to orbit, but rotating tethers that either pick capsules off mountains and sea platforms or (more likely, IMHO) spaceplanes out of the atmosphere. The end of the tether can move slow enough that the rendezvous is no more challenging than in-air refueling, less so since the tether is much less subject to atmospheric turbulence than a fixed-wing aircraft. Riding a rotating tether is also much cheaper than climbing a beanstalk.

    We’ll still have issues with radiation exposure during the space elevator trip, but not major ones because even 120 miles up we’re still well within the earth’s magnetoshere.

    The biggest hurdle to a space elevator of any kind is micrometeorites impacting to the ribbon, not the passengers (the passengers can move up and down, not so with the ribbon). A comprehensive debris tracking and (probably laser-based) deflection system is a prerequisite, though that will soon be necessary even for unmanned orbital industry.

    The lowest-energy Hohmann transfer orbit takes a loooooooooong time.

    Elliptical transfer orbits are for supplies. Send astronauts by VASIMIR.

    To get beyond Mars to, say, Jupiter or Saturn, means an exponentially greater energy expenditure, and consequently an exponentially greater transit time.

    At which point photon sails are faster.

    To be honest, the only practical way of sending humans to another star within the probably lifetime of a human civilization would involve mind-uploading to an extremely dense storage medium (Stross’ “memory diamond” or something nearly as dense) so you can blast a grain-of-sand-sized payload at perhaps 10% of the speed of light toward some other star system.

    Dyson’s astrochickens will almost certainly be the first interstellar probes. But Bussard ramjets are the only way to star travel. First you built antimatter factories in orbit of the sun. Then you store enough fuel onboard the ramjet to accelerate it to and decelerate it from the local interstellar medium’s breakeven ramjet speed. Or you use much less efficient inertial confinement fusion under the breakeven speed, which means a much larger ship, but also much less infrastructure and no waiting for solar antimatter factories to trickle out fuel.

    @ jack*

    ‘physics and biology make space travel expensive and difficult’ — well thank you for the duh. I think we all know that.

    You think everyone who reads Whatever’s comment threads is up on the details? Even smart people can’t learn everything. Some people learn subject X, others subject Y, and here we can share. mclaren was contributing to the discussion. Your snide reply did not, IMO.

    The expensive and the difficult are sometimes worthwhile. That’s the question.

    I don’t think you grok the problem. The engineering challenges make the problem fundamentally beyond the current scope of the art. To quote Heinlein, You can’t railroad until it’s time to railroad. Scientific and technological achievement depend on prior art. The prior art for human colonies beyond low earth orbit is still mostly in our future.

    If our host will indulge me, I’d like to quote most of a comment I posted on Robin Hanson’s blog Overcoming Bias:

    “Most of any asteroid is stuff of which Earth already has in abundance. There’s still plenty of rare earths in many because it’s a lot easier to break up an asteroid than dig metals out of the planetary crust, so even a fraction is a platinum mine, and some asteroids have a lot higher fraction of valuable elements than others. But a lot of the stuff in an asteroid is the kind of stuff you’d want to get into orbit, including the sort of stuff out of which you’d make an ablative heat shield.

    “The simplest plan is to place an asteroid at the Lagrange-1 point where the Earth and Moon gravities cancel out. Mine the valuables, wrap or spray them in heat shields manufactured on-site, and drop them in the desert or shallow ocean if they’re small enough not to cause tsunamis.

    “My personal guesstimate is that it will be the late 21st Century before we see the first asteroids moved into cislunar orbit, and the process itself will take a couple decades. The missions will be fully robotic. I doubt self-replicating nanomachines will be ready for prime time by then, and I have my doubts that they’ll ever be able to operate in vacuum, but a team of ordinary macroscopic robots should be able to build a fuel refinery, mine and factory. Early moon colonies might be manned for political reasons, but I doubt we’ll see those until around the same time. I’d guess very small Mars research colonies by mid-22nd Century, but probably 23rd Century before domed agricultural colonies.

    “All in all, I think it will take a few thousand Earth years to colonize the solar system, megayears to seed the galaxy. I’d love to see it and participate; but if I do it will almost certainly be as what Robin calls an Em. I don’t think it will never happen unless our technological civilization totally collapses. Technology advances apace and our reach extends concomitantly, making space colonization a more economic prospect as costs fall. But the people who thought back in the 20th Century that we’d have moon settlements by now were extremely overoptimistic and severely underestimated the technical engineering challenges. I’d like to point and laugh with the rest, but a lot of those starry-eyed optimists invented the modern world, and it seems imprudent to laugh at the giants on whose shoulders one stands. Now that we’ve done a few decades of operating machines and astronauts, we have a much better understanding of just how large the tasks entailed. John von Neumann was right after all: robots first, humans second…perhaps with Ems in between.

    “Does that make me a space enthusiast? Are the only choices never or tomorrow? All hail the era if instant gratification, where you’re either a naysayer or a space cadet.”

  92. @Andy: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” This JFK quote sounds inspiring, and it doesn’t change the fact that manned space missions to moon wasted a great deal of money that could have been spent far better on other projects — fusion power, space elevator research, materials science research (we need radically stronger new materials even stronger than buckycables to make a space elevator work), much more money for robotics in harsh environments AKA space probe robotics. Pointless spending on feel-good projects like whacking golfballs on the moon remains pointless no matter how good it makes you feel. Ronald Reagan made people feel good, and there’s a now a general consensus that his policies of endless military spending and denial of reality and embrace of religious craziness and vast deficits and cuts in social programs are responsible for America’s current decline. See the article “Was the space shuttle worth it?” for a consideration of the opportunity costs and other issues surrounding the space shuttle and the ISS.
    It remains a fact that no valid new science was done on the ISS, at a cost of somewhere around a trillion dollars all told. The space shuttle was largely an earth-orbit insertion vehicle for U.S. military surveillance satellites (the launch bay of the shuttle was the exact size of a KH-11 surveillance satellite) and the only worthwhile science the shuttle did was done by payloads like the Hubble, which could have easily been lifted in orbit by much cheaper unmanned launch vehicles. Manned moon missions did essentially no worthwhile science that couldn’t have been done by unmanned probes, and the tragic deaths of the two shuttle crews and the Apollo 7 astronauts on the ground can’t be justified except on flimsy grounds like the dubious propaganda value of manned space missions. Does anyone actually believe that the Soviet Union wouldn’t have collapsed if Americans had never sent a man to the moon?

    @Andy goes on to aver: Also, some of the other problems you mention are possible to overcome already… Great. Could you please cite the peer-reviewed scientific journals showing how these problems have been solved? Also please point us to the NASA or other reports showing the data on actual manned space missions in which these problems have been overcome.

    @Gulliver offered: Tether propulsion is the economical road to orbit, but rotating tethers that either pick capsules off mountains and sea platforms or (more likely, IMHO) spaceplanes out of the atmosphere. Splendid. Please explain to us what materials we’ll build these rotating orbital tethers with using known materials technology, how their rotation will be powered and controlled with current technology, and how all those megatons of tether components will get boosted into orbit and assembled and debugged to the point where they operate correctly. No bolognium or unobtainium, please: existing technology only.

    @Gulliver continues: “Bussard ramjets are the only way to star travel.

    Several problems with the Bussard ram. Larry Niven has pointed out that the magnetic fields required are so intense that they’re lethal to organisms with nervous systems. Then there’s the little problem of boosting the Bussard ram vehicle to 6% of lightspeed in a reasonable period of time (1,000 years won’t cut it) and with a reasonable amount of energy (shutting down our civilization for 200 years to provide the energy won’t cut it either). Lastly, there’s that little snag that

    “…the field lines of the magnetic field contract at the inlet funnel, the charged particles will not want to go inward, but rather will bounce outward away from the vehicle. In effect the magnetic scoop will be a magnetic bottle trapping the mass in a wide cone in front of the vehicle, but never getting close enough to be injected for fuel. ” Source: Problems with interstellar travel, university of oregon website.

    Oops. Looks like the Bussard ramjet isn’t the magic ticket folks had hoped it was in the sixties and seventies.

    @Gulliver goes on: “First you build antimatter factories in orbit of the sun. Then you store enough fuel onboard the ramjet to accelerate it to and decelerate it from the local interstellar medium’s breakeven ramjet speed.” Do we have any working examples of commercial antimatter factories operating today? No? Seems as though it takes billions of electon volts and enough energy to power a large city just to general a few picograms of antimatter using current particle accelerators. Can you point us to some peer-reviewed articles in engineering periodicals that blueprint how to build these hypothetical antimatter factories using currently available materials and technology? No? Hm. Well, I can suggest an interstellar drive: all we need is a bunch of E. E. Smith’s “element X” which allows total conversion of matter to energy with no harmful side effects like gamma rays. Unfortunately, we seem to be as short on element X as on working antimatter factories…

    Gulliver’s excerpt from his crosspost seems reasonable. I’m on board with fully-robotic asteroid mining, fully-robotic terraforming of nearby planets like Mars using comet chunks maneuver into new orbits along with genetically engineered algae & bacteria, and so on. None of that involves or requires manned space travel, though. A post-scarcity economy based on asteroid mining seems quite doable within the next couple of centuries, but once again, doesn’t require sending ugly bags of mostly water into space on top of giant chemical bombs.

    However, when Gulliver claims that “technology advances apace,” we run afoul of observed reality. History shows that technologies along with basic science appear to have followed a sigmoid curve: trees don’t grow to the sky. For details, see John Horgan’s book “The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age” (1997), Hubert Dreyfus’s book “What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason” (1992) and Gunther Stent’s book “The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the Coming End of Progress” (1969). Tyler Cowen has recently covered the same ground with his e-book “The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will(Eventually) Feel Better” (2011).

    If you doubt that progress has slowed to a crawl of late over the 80 years as a result of the basic limits of physics and mathematics, ask yourself this little question: how many new technologies have come out of quantum field theory?

    Answer: zero.

    Okay, how many new technologies have come out of quantum chromodynamics and the Standard Model of physics, our greatest achievement yet in physical science?

    Once again, the answer is: zero.

    All our current technologies come out of quantum theory (semiconductors, lasers, LEDs, integrated circuits, possibly quantum computers, etc.) and special relatively (atomic power, nuclear weapons, medical radioisotopes, synchrotron radiation crystallography) and general relativity (ring laser gyros, GPS, gravity-density navigation). At present no known technology can reach the energy scales required to generate or manipulate quarks (quantum chromodynamics) or reliably manipulate the fields of virtual particles which serve as the carriers of the electromagnetic field (quantum field theory) to do exotic things that can’t be done with current technology.

    Right now we need new power sources with orders of magnitude more specific impulse than any known, and also with orders of magnitude more thrust than any currently available if we want to do things like colonize the solar system with humans in any reasonable time frame. (Photonic drives have wonderful specific impulse but woefully weak thrust. Fusion drives are bolognium siince we can’t even get tokamak fusion plants to work ont he ground in a carefully controlled ideal enviornment, much less get controlled fusion drives working in commercial reliable spacecraft in a much harsher and more unpredictable environment outside the earth’s atmosphere.)

    Right now we need new materials with orders of magnitude higher Young’s modulus than any materials known. Even cables made of woven buckysheets don’t seem to have high enough tensile strength for beanstalks or orbital tethers.

    Alas, there’s just no sign of these exotic new power sources or materials in any known physics.

  93. mclaren: And please don’t bring up antimatter: how do you generate the antimatter you’re gonna use for fuel?

    I’ve been working on a fuel system that relies on antipasto and pasto.

  94. @mclaren – The economics article you linked to is propaganda, not really science, talking about money “forcibly extracted from taxpayers”. LOL!
    It’s also a little frustrating that you gave a bunch of largely unsupported assertions and then when I pointed out that some of them can be overcome (with an obvious example of where you seem to be wrong), suddenly you demand “peer-reviewed scientific journals”. But this is pretty basic physics: To understand radiation shielding, motion of particles in fields, or rotating frames of reference, you don’t really need to look in a journal; a basic undergraduate level textbook would help you out.
    Note that I said “are possible to overcome already” not easy: A giant spinning station/ship with lots of radiation shielding would then be heavier and then…
    Anyway, you’ve mixed some things where you’re right (huge energy costs, interstellar difficulties) with alternative solutions (memory uploads, nanotech-built-bodies) that are probably more difficult at the moment than a manned Mars mission . If we put the money in, I would suspect a man on Mars could be done in 10 years (but won’t be), whereas some of your other ideas will probably take far longer, whatever we throw at them. – Although we should be pursuing those too!

  95. mclaren: manned space missions to moon wasted a great deal of money that could have been spent far better on other projects — fusion power

    Thanks for the chuckle. We’ve been “20 years from fusion power” for 40 years or more. With just the money we’ve been spending on fusion power research in real life, we can already find people complaining that its a waste of money and what good will it do and yada yada yada.

    They’re complaining about fusion power research money exactly the same way you’re complaining about humans-in-space projects.

    One of the funny things about research is you never know what you’re going to get.

    But here’s one thing you’re clearly overlooking in pursuit of your research utopia: If the government had spent all that money on fusion power for the last 40 years and didn’t have any fusion power to show for it, do you think people would continue to support putting all our research money into it? No.

    Welcome to the political process. Sometimes people will support stuff because it’s never been done before and because there is some chance of success. When Kennedy said lets put a man on the moon, he had just seen the U2 rocket scientists who came to America after WW2, he’d just seen them fire a rocket far bigger than the U2 up into the atmosphere. So, he knew it was plausible on some level, he knew we had a chance of succeeding within some objective measure within some specific deadline.

    Fusion power? Like I said, we’ve been “20-years away” from fusion power for the last 40 years. You don’t bet a nation’s hopes and dreams and aspirations on something that has been out of reach for half a century. People want to be able to hit some measurable milestones once in a wihle.

  96. @ mclaren

    Please explain to us what materials we’ll build these rotating orbital tethers with using known materials technology, how their rotation will be powered and controlled with current technology, and how all those megatons of tether components will get boosted into orbit and assembled and debugged to the point where they operate correctly.

    Most likely the load-bearing ribbons will be made from atomically-precise multi-walled nanotubes. Rotation would be driven by angular momentum. Attitudinal trimming and what little acceleration the lower tethers would lose to drag from the upper atmosphere would most economically be driven by imparting a small electric charge along the tether and exploiting the magnetic dynamo with the Earth’s magnetosphere. The tethers need only mass kilotons and could be orbited by rockets with Saturn V lift capacity. A better way would be to orbit several ribbons on smaller launch vehicles, unreel one, hoist the others along it and join them until they met the load-bearing requirements plus safety margin for their own mass and attached vehicles.

    Larry Niven has pointed out that the magnetic fields required are so intense that they’re lethal to organisms with nervous systems.

    Then it would make sense not to send organisms with ion potential-based nervous systems, or at least not actives ones, and to shield the vulnerable parts of the vessels from EM radiation. Since the likelihood seems exceedingly small that any interstellar voyagers among our descendants millennia from now will be travelling in organic form, I doubt organic nervous systems will be a consideration.

    Then there’s the little problem of boosting the Bussard ram vehicle to 6% of lightspeed in a reasonable period of time (1,000 years won’t cut it) and with a reasonable amount of energy (shutting down our civilization for 200 years to provide the energy won’t cut it either).

    High-school physics. It would take 212.5 Earth days to reach 18,000 kps at a constant acceleration of one-tenth of a standard gee, conceivably within the means of nuclear pulse propulsion, well within that of antimatter/matter annihilation.

    I would love to go into possible solutions to pusher-plate ablation and any of the other 1,000 engineering problems NPP presents, but I have school and work to attend to.

    Since it won’t be our civilization that reaches for the stars, it won’t shut down our civilization. I seriously doubt anything less than a Type I civ could build a starship, and I suspect a partial Type II (though probably a lot closer to I than II) is needed to build one that can make more than one one-way trip (i.e. bigger than a laser-sailed Dyson astrochicken).

    …the field lines of the magnetic field contract at the inlet funnel, the charged particles will not want to go inward, but rather will bounce outward away from the vehicle. In effect the magnetic scoop will be a magnetic bottle trapping the mass in a wide cone in front of the vehicle, but never getting close enough to be injected for fuel.

    Then don’t rely on a purely static field geometry. Designs of such are decidedly outside of my field of study, however.

    Oops. Looks like the Bussard ramjet isn’t the magic ticket folks had hoped it was in the sixties and seventies.

    Wouldn’t know; wasn’t alive; don’t care. Magic is for superstitious fools, almost as useless as futurism and astrology. I prefer to subscribe to the laws of physics and leave the megaengineering to our descendants who will railroad when it’s railroading time.

    Do we have any working examples of commercial antimatter factories operating today? No? Seems as though it takes billions of electon volts and enough energy to power a large city just to general a few picograms of antimatter using current particle accelerators.

    Hence the solar orbits, von Neumann factories, and patience. Still, I think nuclear fusion is a better prospect, but I’m not a space systems engineer; I’m an erstwhile software engineer studying applied physics.

    Can you point us to some peer-reviewed articles in engineering periodicals that blueprint how to build these hypothetical antimatter factories using currently available materials and technology?

    None that I know of. Why, were you planning on trying to build one in the near future?

    Well, I can suggest an interstellar drive: all we need is a bunch of E. E. Smith’s “element X” which allows total conversion of matter to energy with no harmful side effects like gamma rays. Unfortunately, we seem to be as short on element X as on working antimatter factories…

    Incorrect. We have not created a few picograms of element X because there is no element X as far as we know.

    However, when Gulliver claims that “technology advances apace,” we run afoul of observed reality. History shows that technologies along with basic science appear to have followed a sigmoid curve: trees don’t grow to the sky.

    I see. You buy the End of Science arguments. Well, let’s say I have rather more confidence in human ignorance than human mastery of nature. And that’s not a knock, everyone must begin in ignorance and learn. I’ll believe we’ve exhausted the fundamental possibilities of science and engineering when I see it. The lack of new applications for QFT and QCD is hardly a comprehensive measure of human discovery and innovation.

    Even cables made of woven buckysheets don’t seem to have high enough tensile strength for beanstalks or orbital tethers.

    That depends how high you intend each to elevate you.

    Fusion drives are bolognium siince we can’t even get tokamak fusion plants to work ont he ground in a carefully controlled ideal enviornment, much less get controlled fusion drives working in commercial reliable spacecraft in a much harsher and more unpredictable environment outside the earth’s atmosphere.

    I’m not sure what bolognium is, but sixteen paragraphs ago you were saying funding for the manned space program would have been better spent researching fusion power. You seem to conflate currently impractical with never gonna get it. I’d chalk it up to your belief in the end of fundamental science, but you agree with pursuing things like bionano when we’re further from terraforming Mars (or aresforming colonists) than we are from building a space tether.

    Don’t get me wrong. You raise plenty of valid questions. But the notion that we’re approaching the end of fundamental science…I’ve heard that conceit before.

    Predicting the future is as fun an intellectual workout as it is a useless enterprise (horrible pun intended).

  97. To bring this back to what our magnanimous host John Scalzi wrote: “Four decades on, we never did get the mechanistic, physical future required for those moon colonies and space stations. In point of fact that future was expensive, and once the `landing on the moon’ bragging rights were taken by the US, we apparently lost interest.”

    The point I’ve been making is not that the future of manned moon colonies and space stations is expensive so much as impractical given any technology we know. Moreover, there’s no evidence that Americans have lost interest in space — as the huge public reaction shows to congressional efforts to shut down the Hubble space telescope. Rather, Americans have lost interest in sticking humans on top of giant chemical bombs that tend to burn and fricassee people (Apollo 7) on the way up, or on the way down (2 space shuttle re-entry mishaps) as opposed to sticking robots in those chemical bombs. We should recall that lots of the robotic Mars probes we’ve tried to send to the Red Planet blew up or burned out or zipped off on a wrong trajectory out into space. If those had been human astronauts, we’d have cancelled our Mars exploration missions by now. But they were robots, so who cares? We build more robots and send ‘em off again. Robots are cheap. And so what if we lose a few? As opposed to you…you know…humans.

    It seems to me that this is the real reason that manned space future never happened. Not money, not politics, but simple practicality. Suppose we had all the money in the world and all the political consensus you want to send humans to Mars — would we still be sending ‘em if we’d lost as many humans as we’ve lost robot space probes so far? I think not.

    Greg avers: “Thanks for giving me a big laugh” about my suggestion that ‘twould have been better to spend money on big projects like fusion power instead of manned spaceflight. Let’s think about this, Greg. There’s a huge difference twixt fusion and manned spaceflight: if you get fusion power to work, you transform the world utterly. But if you get manned spaceflight to work what can you do that can’t already be done (and probably much better) by robotic space probes?

    See, I’m down with everyone who urges us to mine asteroids and terraform Mars and all that good stuff. My point is just that we don’t need humans to do that stuff. Not even with the current generation of robots…we can already rendezvous with asteroids using current tech. So nudging ‘em isn’t much of a stretch, and if you can nudge asteroids into near-earth orbit, more robots can mine ‘em. And robots keep getting better as these tough outer-space jobs. Unlike humans, which haven’t improved their vulnerability to microgravity or galactic cosmic rays in the last 60 years.

    Moving on to Gulliver, he helpfully explained that the materials we’ll use to build these hypothetical rotating orbital tethers is “most likely…load-bearing ribbons…made from atomically-precise multi-walled nanotubes.”

    Okay. That’s bolognium, right there. “Bolognium” is mythical fairy-dust that’s stronger than steel and lighter than air. The problem with bolognium is it’s not a real engineer practicality. Making atomically precise multi-walled nanotubes is something we can’t do right now on a scale of more than a few hundred atoms, and right now we need an atomic force microscope to move the atoms. That’s not a technology that you can use to generate hundreds or thousands of kilometers of multi-walled nanotubes.

    If you want an analogy from computer science, did you know that the U.S. military currently has gallium arsenide CPUs that run in the Teraherz range? Yes, Teraherz. They’re used in the black boxes on our jet fighters to spoof energy radar with things like multimodal reflection sorting. (You analyze the enemy’s radar pulse and spit ‘em back at the enemy, then move your stronger pulses to generate a fake image of your jet fighter. The enemy radar sees the weaker reflections which are the real ones as ghost images, clutter, basically. ) So where are our Terzherz-speed home computers? Nowhere. Because GaAs semiconductors are so hellishly hard to build and have such a low production yield that they cost a fortune. So we can’t use ‘em for practical computing tasks, and that’s been true for 40 years now. Same deal with Gulliver’s bolognium. Just because we can create structures one atom at a time doesn’t make such structures an engineering practicality.

    So I’m still waiting for a practical scalable process using existing technology, as requested. Instead, we got bolognium.

    When I asked how the rotation of these spinning orbital tethers will be powered, Gulliver explained “rotation would be driven by angular momentum.” Sorry, that doesn’t cut it. Now we’re into Romney-esque levels of evasion.

    Some explanation: rotating orbital tethers come in several different varieties, and it’s not clear which type Gulliver is talking about. One variety of rotating orbital tether dips into the earth’s atmosphere and air-breathing vehicles meet it and transfer payloads. That kind of momentum-exchange tether, called a rotovator, won’t work with any known existing materials, and it also requires much more energy to power than any practical energy source we know about, because the stresses on the tether from the earth’s atmosphere and also the temperatures and air friction will be extreme. To quote from the Wikipedia article on rotovators:

    “Unfortunately an Earth-to-orbit rotovator cannot be built from currently available materials since the thickness and tether mass to handle the loads on the rotovator would be uneconomically large.”

    Not just uneconomical, but not possible given existing materials. So I assume Gulliver wasn’t talking about an earth-to-orbit rotovator, but instead a different kind of momentum-exchange tether that spins in orbit and dips down to just above the earth’s atmosphere.

    See, that’s where Gulliver is being evasive. Because the big problem we have right now with manned space travel is climbing out of the atmosphere. The rest we seem to have pretty well under control, inasmuch as no astronauts have been killed except when, you know, re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, or trying to exit the earth’s atmosphere. That’s the hard part.
    And this type of exoatmospheric rotating beanstalk doesn’t solve that manned spaceflight problem at all.

    So Gulliver’s answers aren’t looking so good. But let’s see what else he has to suggest — maybe things start to look better for manned space travel.

    Gulliver sidesteps the problems with the Bussard ram by saying that humans won’t be using it. He seems to imply that futuristic superintelligent robots will take those interstellar trips. Well, okay, but since we’re talking specifically about manned space travel here, that doesn’t help us. Then Gulliver goes on to claim it’s simple high school physics to accelerate that Bussard ram vehicle up to 6% of lightspeed. Simple mathematically, but not so simple in engineering terms. Gulliver suggests nuclear pulse engines. Do we have any nuclear pulse engines of that scale? We’re talking about acclerating thousands of tons (the Bussard field has to be many kilometers wide, so you’ll need huge amounts of equipment to generate that 10 million Tesla magnetic field over such a huge area) to 6% of lightspeed. No answers from Gulliver about how we do that in practical terms. If you run the numbers on a nuclear pulse engine capable of accelerating a few million pounds to 1/16 lightspeed, your eyes will pop out of their sockets. Sorry, but we’ve got to do a little better here than “simple high school physics.” It was simple high school physics after all to shoot a chemical rocket to the moon, but look how long that took and how much engineering was required. And here we’re talking about accelerating millions of pounds instead a couple of tons — and to a velocity thousands of times faster than the Saturn V.

    That’s beyond our known engineering right now. We don’t have power sources or materials that can do that.

    After admitting that he doesn’t know how to build those mythical antimatter factories, or even if they are within the realm of engineering practicality, Gulliver responds to my objection that it’s just not true that “technology advances apace” without limit by asserting “I see. So you buy into those end of science arguments.”

    This brings up a crucial misunderstanding. It’s important.

    We don’t have to posit the end of fundamental science to recognize that all technologies have inherent limits imposed by physics.

    Consider the steam engine. Steam power has inherent limits imposed by the maximum temperature of steam, the mass of water molecules, and the possible strength of the walls of steam engines. You can’t build a steam engine powerful enough to send a Saturn V to the moon no matter how far fundamental science advances because steam power simply lacks the energy density and specific impulse. Same goes for human flight: a steam engine simple cannot power an airplane. But a gasoline internal combustion engine can.

    Fortunately, we discovered new and better power sources than steam engines. But with nuclear fission we seem to have reached the end of the line. We don’t know of any practical energy source with greater power density or more specific impulse. Antimatter engines are bolognium because, as Gulliver admitted, he doesn’t know how to build one (or even if it can be built) and neither does anyone else. John Scalzi was talking about real manned projects using real technology, no bolognium, and John pointed out the public seems to have lost interest. My answers is that public lost interest in manned space travel for the same reason the public lost interest in building increasingly huge clipper ships after diesel engines appeared on the scene. Sure, if we had antimatter factories we could send humans to Jupiter, and probably relatively cheaply. But we don’t have antimatter factories and no one knows if they can even be built. So throwing in hypothetical technologies we don’t have, and no one knows are even possible, is like saying “Well, we’ll just use teleporters to teleport ourselves to Jupiter!” That would also be cheap and simple. We just have no evidence that we can build a teleporter in the real world as a practical engineering project.

    Gulliver ends by asserting that I’m making the mistake of confusing “currently impractical” with “never gonna get it.” This might offer a valid argument except that it’s the same failed reasoning used by Heinlein and Niven et al. These guys looked backwards at the exponential curve of increasing speed and increasing power in our technologies and extrapolated it forward. That turned out to be a mistake. As mentioned, our technological growth curve tuned out to be sigmoid rather than exponential. We hit a plateau. That’s not due to an end to fundamental science but rather because there are limits to the strength of molecular bonds, limits to the amount of energy that can be released by any known practical physical process (black holes can theoretically be used as energy generators of fabulous efficiency, but, like antimatter, black holes are in short supply here on earth, and we know of no practical engineering method of generating ‘em).

    Let me end by comparing the current situation with the viewpoint from Heinlein’s era. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, these guys figured, hey! It’s simple physics, we use nuclear power to generate mad specific impulse, water is the propellant, we’re good to go, what’s the problem? If you read Heinlein’s Destination Moon novella, you realize his spaceship is a single-stager using nuclear power and water turned to steam as propellant. It lifts off to orbit from the ground. Whoops.

    As we now know, that just doesn’t work. Heinlein wrote about old people who paid big money to retire to the moon because microgravity extends you life. Whoops. As we now know, that just doesnt’ work either. We now know that microgravity is harmful, and if extended long enough, fatal.

    None of these problems have anything to do with limits on fundamental science. But since Gulliver raised it, let’s go there. Where are the big new conceptual breakthroughs comparable to the discovery of evolution, quantum theory, special and general relativity?

    The one effort to extend fundamental science in a big way over the last 40 years, string “theory,” has broken down because it has utterly failed to make any scientifically testable predictions. That bodes ill.

    Horgan et al. have pointed out that all the evidence right now shows that fundamental science will continue to clear up the details, but we’re not going to change the big picture of those basic insights. Waves are particles, mass is energy, space-time bends as a result of matter, organisms evolve because descent with modification occurs at the molecular genetic level. These are facts. We may refine ‘em, but, as Asimov pointed out in his great essay “The Relativity of Wrong” that doesn’t invalidate or render scientifically false that big-picture knowledge as we refine it.

    At this point, with Asimov on my side, you’re in a pickle, Gulliver. Because it’s really really hard to win an argument with Ike Asimov about basic science.

  98. @ mclaren

    Making atomically precise multi-walled nanotubes is something we can’t do right now on a scale of more than a few hundred atoms, and right now we need an atomic force microscope to move the atoms. That’s not a technology that you can use to generate hundreds or thousands of kilometers of multi-walled nanotubes.

    You asked how they’d be built and I gave you my best guess from current materials science. Of course we can’t build them right now. You’ll also notice the conspicuous lack of space tethers. If it were within the means of current technology, we’d be building them. It isn’t, so we’re not. It ain’t rocket science.

    So I’m still waiting for a practical scalable process using existing technology, as requested.

    Then you better hurry on up and keep waiting. Existing technology is what we use now. Tomorrow is anyone’s guess. I gave you mine.

    So Gulliver’s answers aren’t looking so good.

    So sorry to disappoint you. And I really appreciate being called evasive.

    It was simple high school physics after all to shoot a chemical rocket to the moon, but look how long that took and how much engineering was required.

    Yes, and?

    That’s beyond our known engineering right now. We don’t have power sources or materials that can do that.

    No kidding, Sherlock?

    After admitting that he doesn’t know how to build those mythical antimatter factories, or even if they are within the realm of engineering practicality,

    You say that as if I had ever said otherwise. Perhaps we have a misunderstanding that may be partially my fault. When I say X will probably be used for Y in reference to things as far beyond current capabilities as space tethers and Bussard ramjets, the fact that it’s a wild fucking guess is implied because I’m not a deluded madman who thinks he can predict the future.

    Sure, if we had antimatter factories we could send humans to Jupiter, and probably relatively cheaply.

    You seem kind of hung up on this whole sending humans thing. I’m not sure where you got this notion that I was arguing for restarting manned space flight, but I’m not. I consider the ISS a colossal waste of NASA’s ever shrinking budget.

    But we don’t have antimatter factories and no one knows if they can even be built. So throwing in hypothetical technologies we don’t have, and no one knows are even possible, is like saying “Well, we’ll just use teleporters to teleport ourselves to Jupiter!”

    No, it’s really not. One requires unknown engineering. The other requires unknown physics. I trust you grasp the disfference between an engineering impracticality and a physical impossibility. Engineering can find other means. Circumventing the laws of physics, not so much.

    These guys looked backwards at the exponential curve of increasing speed and increasing power in our technologies and extrapolated it forward. That turned out to be a mistake. As mentioned, our technological growth curve tuned out to be sigmoid rather than exponential. We hit a plateau.

    As you mentioned. I don’t accept that human knowledge fits on some neat little 2D graph. You’re making the same oversimplification the singulatarians make, that the limits of knowledge are knowable, and therefore their rate of discovery predictable. You can graph all the progress curves you want, and you still won’t be able to predict the future.

    At this point, with Asimov on my side, you’re in a pickle, Gulliver. Because it’s really really hard to win an argument with Ike Asimov about basic science.

    mclaren, you made some predictions, I offered some counter-proposals. I’m not arguing with you because there is nothing to argue about. The future is not the present. Moreover, what our decedents do and how they do it will more likely than not be influenced by disruptive changes in human knowledge and technology. If you want to believe there are no more game-changing surprises to turn over, I think you’re wrong about that, but only time will tell.

  99. mclaren: At this point, with Asimov on my side,

    So, famous lurkers support you in email?

    Let’s think about this, Greg. There’s a huge difference twixt fusion and manned spaceflight: if you get fusion power to work, you transform the world utterly.

    Well, the problem as I see it is you can’t wrap your head around one very important hurdle: All government research is political. To get people to support the idea of research, they have to be willing to support it. (or, you convert the constitutional democracy into a technocratcy/dicatorship, but lets assume for the moment you don’t have the chops for that.)

    Otherwise, why are you here on Whatever when you clearly should be stumping for your ginormous Kickstart project for Fusion Power??? In fact, I double-dog dare you to do a fusion power kickstarter project.

    I can imagine someone doing a robot-moon-shot kickstarter project and actually getting the coin and backers to make it happen. Fusion? not so much. But my all means, use Kickstarter to launch your fusion project and prove everyone wrong.

  100. @ Gulliver:

    Perhaps we have a misunderstanding that may be partially my fault. When I say X will probably be used for Y in reference to things as far beyond current capabilities as space tethers and Bussard ramjets, the fact that it’s a wild fucking guess is implied because I’m not a deluded madman who thinks he can predict the future.

    Ha, yes, this! Has there ever been an accurate prediction of the future? The true geniuses invent the future; they don’t even try to describe it (HT: Nicola Tesla). The unintended consequences of a single, incremental, technological advance are too profound for our meager brains to encompass. IMHO, obviously.

  101. @ mintwitch

    Has there ever been an accurate prediction of the future?

    Occasional lucky guesses notwithstanding, the average accuracy of prognostications drops off in proportion to the length of time and the scope of impact.

    The unintended consequences of a single, incremental, technological advance are too profound for our meager brains to encompass.

    It’s even worse than that. Prescience isn’t even a matter of brain power or computability, but of fundamental knowability. The complexity of a casual network scales exponentially in proportion to the number of interacting elements (elements with a stronger casual correlation can be thought of as the bulk property of more fundamental elements just as the Brownian motion of individual air molecules gives rise to jet streams). That’s what complexity theory is all about. And while we can’t create a perfect model of the physical world, we do know that it’s chaotic. Knowledge of the future must by definition be part of its past, and so will perturb it. This isn’t a problem for relatively stable short-term phenomena such as predicting when I’ll eat dinner. The number of elements influencing that decision are relatively small and the number with a strong causal correlation are few indeed. But the only thing we can say for certain about the far future is that it will obey the laws of physics.

    Which is not to say that forecasting the far future can’t be a fruitful enterprise as long as it’s treated as what it is – a thought experiment performed in a simplified model of reality that behaves differently than reality itself. Approached with an appreciation for its limits, it can be a useful sandbox for exploring possibilities.

  102. mintwitch: Has there ever been an accurate prediction of the future?

    Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon before the decade’s end might be considered a prediction. Just because he had the power to make it come true shouldn’t disqualify it as such.

    The true geniuses invent the future; they don’t even try to describe it

    Most inventors invent something to solve an immediate problem. Almost no one foresees the ramifications that invention will have on society. We can look back in time with hindsight and see the “Caesar’s Palmtop” problem, some technology that would clearly transform the world in one way or another but the story is stuck in older technology and older societal structures. But we can’t seem to see that same issue when looking forward into the future. We put a name on it like “singularity”, but that’s not unlike inventing the term “Quasi Supernormal Incremental Precipitation Inducer” because we don’t like to say “Rain God” any more than we like to admit that we simply don’t know.

    The genre “Steampunk” is essentially a pre-industrial-revolution society with all the inventions of the industrial revolution. As if the internal combustion engine would not affect society.

    Einstein did not predict the effects of writing the President and encouraging the US to try and create an atomic bomb. He called it his biggest regret afterwards. Of course, he might have learned from history if he had noticed that Alfred Nobel thought the invention of dynamite would achieve peace through deterrence.

    Inventers invent. But they don’t get to control how their inventions are used and they don’t get to control how their inventions affect the world. For the most part, they have no idea what the impact of their inventions will be.

  103. Now we’ve got lots of people picking up the goalposts and moving ‘em.

    Mintwitch exults: “Ha, yes, this! Has there ever been an accurate prediction of the future?”

    Yes, plenty. Tsiolkovsky made reasonably accurate predictions about near-earth space travel. Chemical rocket fuel specific impulses were known, multistage rockets turned out to work, so it worked out pretty close to the way Tsiolkovsky predicted.

    Jules Verne made amazingly accurate predictions about travel undersea but he got lucky — we needed nuclear power to accomplish what Captain Nemo achieved in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You can’t travel that far or stay submerged that long with diesel engines and batteries: but with nuclear power not only can you travel huge distances in a sub, you can stay submerged beacuse you can use the electricty generated by nuclear power to break down seawater into oxygen and hydrogen and breathe the oxygen.

    It’s really not a valid argument to move the goalposts and claim that the shining mechanistic manned-space flying-car future envisioned by Heinlein and Niven and Clarke and the robotic humanoid machine AI future envisioned by Asimov failed because “no one can predict the future.” Lots of science fiction got it very close to exaclty right. The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner seems eerily familiar; Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison is almost a documentary of the near future we’re heading into.

    No, the problem is that the science fiction writers of t he 40s and 50s and 50s thought technology would continue up an exponential curve — Heinlein even says so in a 1954 science fact article in Galaxy magazine. Alas, wrong everywhere…except microelectronics. The computer did continue to climb that exponential performance curve long after cars and planes and power plants and all the rest had crapped out and plateaued.

    Gulliver claims that he doesn’t buy into the manned spaceflight stuff. Perhaps. (I thought he did.) But our host John Scalzi laments the fact that the shiny technofuture touted by the Golden Age skiffy writers seems to have little appeal to today’s Americans, and I pointed out that perhaps this is because those Golden Age skiffy writers went gaga for manned spaceflight and Americans aren’t stupid — we now know better. So seems to me I’m addressing Scalzi’s original point.

    But once again Gulliver is begin evasive, methinks. Because if you’re touting all sorts of alleged vast unknowable breakthroughs in future teach, well, that suggests much better materials and power sources than we have today, and that would make manned spaceflight possible. So by positing one (big tech advances) you are really positing the other (colonization of the solar system).

    My problem with much of current science fiction is that to get big space-opera plots, the authors basically have to posit wild off-the-wall new physics. As in, for example, Greg Bear’s 1991 novel Anivl of Stars. Fake matter with no mass, the ability to turn matter into antimatter, and so on. Not possible with today’s understanding of physics. So Bear just makes up a bunch of new physics based on the (wildly unproven) hypothesis that our universe is a digital simulation and we can learn how to “hack” the code to it.

    If you stick with known physics and possible engineering, you wind up with Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children. ‘Cause humans can’t travel in space.

  104. @ mclaren

    Gulliver claims that he doesn’t buy into the manned spaceflight stuff. Perhaps. (I thought he did.)

    I think that if our technological civilization doesn’t collapse, that at some indeterminate time in the future (almost certainly on a scale no shorter than centuries) self-aware beings descended from us will probably settle the solar system and just maybe the galaxy. Even if these beings are in part or predominately organic, I strongly doubt they will by then still be the same species that now calls itself human. So if by “manned spaceflight” you mean some sort of conscious pilot running the show, then yeah, I’d be pretty surprised if a technological civilization remains confined to a single planet without regressing to a pre-industrial state. But if by “manned spaceflight” you mean H. saps in pressure suits and cans, then you’ve been assuming wrong.

    But once again Gulliver is begin evasive, methinks.

    That hurts, right…here. #sarcasm

    My problem with much of current science fiction is that to get big space-opera plots, the authors basically have to posit wild off-the-wall new physics. As in, for example, Greg Bear’s 1991 novel Anivl of Stars. Fake matter with no mass, the ability to turn matter into antimatter, and so on. Not possible with today’s understanding of physics.

    Hence the fiction in science fiction. If you have a problem with it, there are perhaps a couple dozen SF books you could read before rock solid gave way to merely hard SF. Personally, I like a bit more variety. But if you feel there’s a dearth of diamond-tough SF, you could always write some yourself. Personally, I get enough of that from my schoolbooks.

    If you stick with known physics and possible engineering, you wind up with Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children.

    Good book. He’s got a sequel forthcoming which follows humanity’s mind children into interstellar space at much slower-than-light speeds. I can’t wait to see where he takes it. Stross, however, is, in real life, less sanguine than even you about our future in space. And before you tell me how the Saturn’s Children characters aren’t us, remember where they got the templates for the original robots minds.

    Also, while I’m the first to sing the praises of Stross’s stories, neither he nor many other SF authors are particularly preoccupied with accurate futurism. Stross, as much as any thinker, shows an excellent appreciation for the pitfalls of making concrete predictions about what will or won’t happen in humanity’s future.

    Futurism’s credibility is somewhere between astrology and weather forecasting.

    Finally and on the off chance you care, I don’t know whether or not you do it on purpose to try to get on people’s nerves, but addressing someone in the third person while conversing with them, even in a crowded room, is rude.

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