Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Space, your time's up!

I know I haven't written in a long time. Been busy (yes, that's always my excuse! :( ) And I kept thinking I would do a review of "The Immortals of Meluhas" and a post on a Reading session I went to, then a post on the big questions in Life and then on "The Virtue of Patience". I hope I will do them some day. But today, I thought  that my "To-do" List is always growing and I might as well post what I am thinking about right here right now..

So I was reading this article about Space Travel (Shared by Deepak) which talks about the end of the space age and I thought I would write about it. I don't know how many of us noticed when the NASA closed down its space shuttle program. It was the day when I felt that it was going to be the end of the charms of seeing the stars and imagining the vast beautiful (empty or dark-matter filled) space and dreaming of space travel. Of looking into a telescope and imagining man would be there soon. But even if you didn't fantasize all this, if you just noticed the news, this article is worth reading. It is very logical (and as most logical things, negative in some sense), so I do hope its predictions do not come true. But then, even the best of wishing cannot change the logical course of action*. Or could it??

The first question the author  asks is, how far do you think man has traveled since 1980. It is a very good question to start with, simply because most people think that we have gone at least as far as the moon. Man did step on the moon once, didn't he? So we must be at least that far. But apparently, that isn't true. We have not gone anywhere beyond 0.1 times the Earth's radius post 1980!!

One might wonder why. Why not space travel? The answer lies in asking the reverse. Why was space travel funded in the 60s in the first place?? Nations thought then that they were going to colonize the moon. And there was a cold war going on. It made sense to invest in anything that helped you grow more powerful. Today it might just be too costly. Besides, today, there are no real superpowers. The developed nations worth anything at all are not leading the political game. (European countries, Australia, and so on). The only nation in a pseudo-superpower position is the US. And its economy is so hollow you never know when it shall collapse. There are a few potential powers- India, China mainly. But neither is developed fully today. There is no government today that would want to fund space science. Nobody can afford it. And if anyone could, there is no specific reason to. Besides, people are busy fighting terrorism and oil wars and the like- why would anyone burn their pocket to spend on something that wouldn't solve any problem for them?

The author also brings up some interesting points about the scientific challenges, assuming we get the funding. Rocket science is, well, ROCKET SCIENCE! It is not a fun filled cake-walk (or moonwalk, if you please). The challenges are many. The ROI is bleak. Fuel prices are ever-increasing. And NASA's action makes other countries think even harder about venturing into (this) space. Yes, we might not see a space race ever again.

We might, but chances are higher we might not. There was the day of assembly-line, the day of automobiles and then the day of rockets. Today is the day of iTechnology. It does not mean we don't use assembly line or automobiles anymore. Just that we may not innovate them a lot. Those paths may never again be broken, however well trodden. Already, not many students opt for astrophysics majors. And Star trek terms don't ring much of a bell to the Angry Birds Generation. It may be hard to accept, but the day of the large is over. It is the day of the nano. And continuing the philosophizing, I wonder, am I going to live to see the day silicon dies a death? Shall I be writing that the day of my favorite digital electronics and smart devices is gone? As always, only time can tell...

And oh, there was this line in the linked article- "Some future poet or composer, perhaps, will someday gather it all up in the language of verse or music, and offer a fitting elegy to the age of space." I hope I do. Watch this space.

* Aside, there was a similar line in The Selfish Gene - which made me simply love Dawkins oh, I need to write that review as well. And it really is too good a book to miss!


  1. "I don't know how many of us noticed when the NASA closed down its space shuttle program. It was the day when I felt that it was going to be the end of the charms of seeing the stars and imagining the vast beautiful (empty or dark-matter filled) space and dreaming of space travel."

    You seem to suggest that the closing down was a landmark event. It is not. The space shuttle program's shuttles were built in the 70's and they've become rather ancient and will be replaced by newer shuttles. (It's a different story that these newer shuttles aren't yet fully designed.)

    Unmanned vehicles are still being launched pretty regularly and manned vehicles will soon come back.

    NASA's funding is pretty dependent on the government in power and all it takes for space research to go full steam once again (even if, as you claim, it has stagnated) is an enthusiastic president.

  2. @ Yazhini: Ah, yes! This was exactly the comment I was looking for. I did think I sounded a little over-negative in my predictions in this post. So now I have a chance to correct it. :)

    Closing down the space shuttle program wasn't a complete landmark event. but it did mean something. Besides, if you notice I did not say people will stop sending shuttles. Just that the idea of humans traveling to space might not happen in the near future. Manned vehicles might come back eventually, but there is a good probability they might not, simply for political reasons.

    As for the enthusiastic president part, unless some astrophysics guy becomes one, I doubt anybody else would think the costs are justified. Again, considering the current political/economic scenario.

    Of course, I could be wrong. And in this case, I would be happy if I am. :)

  3. Nice article...
    I agree it is not viable from an economic standpoint but humans are explorers. They constantly expand when resources run out. For example, when we run out of oil on land we explore seas and when we are about to run out of new sources on sea we have started exploring under ice caps for oil. Similarly when we run out of natural resources on earth we'll find it economically viable to explore moon. So I guess its too soon to write an elegy...

  4. @Shankar: Fair point. This is among the things that the link I shared discusses.
    I agree that humans will HAVE TO explore space once they exhaust all resources on Earth. However, there is a lot of exploration left to be done on Earth, so space might not be a viable option in another 50 years. Or maybe another 100.
    Maybe I should not write an elegy. More of a bye-bye-i-might-not-see-u-again-in-MY-lifetime! :)


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