After Apollo: Where will we be in another 40 years?Today, precisely 40 years ago, the Apollo 11 Moon Landing mission launched from Earth to the moon, marking what everyone thought would be a brand-new frontier that the U.S. - and mankind in general - would be actively investigating, developing, exploring and eventually settling.
(EETimes has put together a special digital on line edition that will go on line Monday, July 20, the day Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, celebrating that event with a variety of stories and commentary about its impact on the electronics industry, in particular, and mankind in general. To receive your copy of the Apollo anniversary edition, go to the to EE Times Digital Edition Sign Up Page and register.)
I have a lot of memories about the Apollo moon landing program since it coincided with the first arc in my career as a science writer - starting with the Apollo 11 Moon Mission in 1969 and ending with Apollo 17 mission in December, 1972, the last manned mission to the Moon.
Soon thereafter I left the California Institute of Technology and shifted my interests to some of the beneficial results of the investment in technology to reach the moon - semiconductor electronics and microprocessor technology - taking a job as an editor for Electronics Magazine.
On the day of the Apollo 11 landing I was the ABC TV News Studios in New York City, watching it with a group of other science journalists who, as I was, attending Columbia University on Sloan-Rockefeller fellowships.
Jules Bergman, the ABC Science Editor, a former Sloan Rockefeller Fellowship recipient, had invited us all to the studio to watch the landing from there. He tripped on the scaffolding leading to the mockup of the lander, just seconds before he was to go onto the air. He managed to get up the stairs, in pain, and start the broadcast describing the astronaut's activities on the surface. What I remember in the hours and days afterwards were the excited conversations about what was going to happen next.
Already future landings and explorations were being planned. Following the "G" missions of initial landings on the mood for preliminary work, there were the longer "H" exploratory missions. Then following that were more targeted days or weeks long "I" missions with the aim of setting up experiments and investigating likely future landing sites. Finally the "J" missions, preparatory to setting up facilities for long-term facilities for even longer pre-colonization stays.
But the mission I remember most was the last one to the Moon three years later: Apollo 17 in December 1972. Just days before the launch I was in a motel room near the launch site in Florida with Caltech-trained Harrison Schmidt, the first geologist to step on the moon. I was there to interview him for a feature story I was doing for the Caltech Engineering and Science Magazine, where I was associate managing editor.
He had a lot to say about a civilization's need for frontiers to stay vital. We talked a lot about the United States, the national character of which was defined by the almost century long movement toward Western frontiers.
He referred constantly to Arnold Toynbee's seminal works on the life and death of civilizations and the historian's perception that the civilizations that lasted the longest and were vital and creative were the ones with frontiers to explore and expand into. Such civilizations started to die when they not only lost physical or intellectual frontiers to explore, but also the desire to do so.
He hoped that the end of the Apollo program would not end the United States efforts at continuing manned exploration of outer space, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and Mars and that other more ambitious programs would start up.
That did not happen. While U.S. has had an active program of unmanned exploration of the solar system, it has been 40 years since - other than brief stays in the space station in near earth orbit - the U.S. or any other government has had an active manned space exploration program.
It is as if after Christopher Columbus first landed in the new world in 1492, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, and the English, chose instead to continue to explore the world by hugging the coast lines they were already familiar with.
What happened instead was that within five years the Spanish and Portuguese were actively exploring the Americas, five years after that the English, Dutch and French were sending ships across and 30 years later there were already active colonies in operation and active trade beginning.
Now 40 years later after Apollo 11, the U.S., as well as the European Union, Japan, and mainland China are all talking about manned exploration initially of the moon and later Mars.
Whether it will happen or not, depends on how much attention is given to those who think that spending "out there" is a waste and that money should be spent here on Earth. This view dominated at the beginning of the 70s, when the U.S. had so many other important things to worry about: the mess in Vietnam, the continuing Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR.
A point Schmidt made then - equally valid now - was that unlike war where there was real waste and a lot of stuff was built and then destroyed, in a manned space program, the only thing spent "out there" was the cost of the rocket, the fuel and the lander launched from earth or earth orbit. Everything else was spent here on earth creating jobs and the technology that has resulted in the electronics industry as we know it today.
We also talked a lot about William James, - Henry James the novelist's much more talented brother (and a much, much better writer) - a leading scientist and philosopher in the late 1800s whose essay on the need for a "moral equivalent of war," inspired Kennedy's "peace corp."
What was also needed, we agreed, and which the space race provided, then and now, is an "economic equivalent for war," as well as a "psychological or emotional equivalent of war" - a way for civilizations and nations and their citizens to compete aggressively instead of going to war - a physical, real world "larger purpose" to aim for.
If we all had not been so "practical" and focused on such earthly concerns as such as war do you think we could have spent the last 40 years much more usefully, creating jobs and technologies necessary to go out there and indirectly seeding new innovation and technology here on earth?
Even in its much abbreviated form, the un-manned space program of exploration of the planets has resulted in scientific insights that have helped us understand the nature of this complex dynamic and evolving climactic and weather system on earth. We now call it Gaia, a term first coined by scientist James Lovelock, who figured out the almost cybernetic nature of weather systems while under a NASA contract to decipher the first measurements we were getting from the early Mars landers and orbiters.
Where will we be 40 years from now? Will we be on the moon and Mars with viable colonies and regularly mining the asteroids for resources and taking advantage of the near unlimited solar and other power resources? Or will we still be " metaphorically speaking " hugging the coastlines of Europe and Africa and Asia, afraid to venture out onto the vast oceans?
Bernard Cole is the Editor of Embedded.com and responsible for design article submissions to Embedded Systems Design Magazine. He is also site leader of iApplianceweb and a partner in the Techrite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Call him at 602-288-7257 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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