After Apollo: Where will we be in another 40 years? - Embedded.com

After Apollo: Where will we be in another 40 years?

Today, precisely 40 years ago, the Apollo 11 Moon Landing missionlaunched from Earth to the moon, marking what everyone thought would bea brand-new frontier that the U.S. – and mankind in general – would beactively investigating, developing, exploring and eventually settling.

(EETimes has put together a special digital on line edition thatwill go on line Monday, July 20, the day Apollo 11 landed on the Moon,celebrating that event with a variety of stories and commentary aboutits impact on the electronics industry, in particular, and mankind ingeneral. To receive your copy of the Apollo anniversary edition, go tothe to EETimes Digital Edition Sign Up Page and register.)

I have a lot of memories about the Apollo moon landing programsince it coincided with the first arc in my career as a science writer- starting with the Apollo 11 Moon Mission in 1969 and ending withApollo 17 mission in December, 1972, the last mannedmission to the Moon.

Soon thereafter I left the California Institute of Technology andshifted my interests to some of the beneficial results of theinvestment in technology to reach the moon – semiconductor electronicsand microprocessor technology – taking a job as an editor forElectronics Magazine.

On the day of the Apollo 11 landing I was the ABC TV News Studiosin New York City, watching it with a group of other science journalistswho, as I was, attending Columbia University on Sloan-Rockefellerfellowships.

Jules Bergman, the ABC Science Editor, a former Sloan RockefellerFellowship recipient, had invited us all to the studio to watch thelanding from there. He tripped on the scaffolding leading to the mockupof the lander, just seconds before he was to go onto the air. Hemanaged to get up the stairs, in pain, and start the broadcastdescribing the astronaut's activities on the surface. What I rememberin the hours and days afterwards were the excited conversations aboutwhat was going to happen next.

Already future landings and explorations were being planned.Following the “G” missions of initial landings on the mood forpreliminary work, there were the longer “H” exploratory missions. Thenfollowing that were more targeted days or weeks long “I” missions withthe aim of setting up experiments and investigating likely futurelanding sites. Finally the “J” missions, preparatory to setting upfacilities for long-term facilities for even longer pre-colonizationstays.

But the mission I remember most was the last one to the Moon threeyears later: Apollo 17 in December 1972. Just days before the launch Iwas in a motel room near the launch site in Florida withCaltech-trained Harrison Schmidt, the first geologist to step on themoon. I was there to interview him for a feature story I was doing forthe Caltech Engineering and Science Magazine, where I was associatemanaging editor.

He had a lot to say about a civilization's need for frontiers tostay vital. We talked a lot about the United States, the nationalcharacter of which was defined by the almost century long movementtoward Western frontiers.

He referred constantly to Arnold Toynbee's seminal workson the life and death of civilizations and the historian's perceptionthat the civilizations that lasted the longest and were vital andcreative were the ones with frontiers to explore and expand into. Suchcivilizations started to die when they not only lost physical orintellectual frontiers to explore, but also the desire to do so.

He hoped that the end of the Apollo program would not end theUnited States efforts at continuing manned exploration of outer space,the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and Mars and that other more ambitiousprograms would start up.

That did not happen. While U.S. has had an active program ofunmanned exploration of the solar system, it has been 40 years since -other than brief stays in the space station in near earth orbit – theU.S. or any other government has had an active manned space explorationprogram.

It is as if after Christopher Columbus first landed in the newworld in 1492, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, and theEnglish, chose instead to continue to explore the world by hugging thecoast lines they were already familiar with.

What happened instead was that within five years the Spanish andPortuguese were actively exploring the Americas, five years after thatthe English, Dutch and French were sending ships across and 30 yearslater there were already active colonies in operation and active tradebeginning.

Now 40 years later after Apollo 11, the U.S., as well as theEuropean Union, Japan, and mainland China are all talking about mannedexploration initially of the moon and later Mars.

Whether it will happen or not, depends on how much attention isgiven to those who think that spending “out there” is a waste and thatmoney should be spent here on Earth. This view dominated at thebeginning of the 70s, when the U.S. had so many other important thingsto worry about: the mess in Vietnam, the continuing Cold War betweenthe U.S. and the USSR.

A point Schmidt made then – equally valid now – was that unlike warwhere there was real waste and a lot of stuff was built and thendestroyed, in a manned space program, the only thing spent “out there”was the cost of the rocket, the fuel and the lander launched from earthor earth orbit. Everything else was spent here on earth creating jobsand the technology that has resulted in the electronics industry as weknow it today.

We also talked a lot about William James, – Henry James thenovelist's much more talented brother (anda much, much better writer ) – a leading scientist andphilosopher in the late 1800s whose essay on the need for a “moralequivalent 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 forcivilizations and nations and their citizens to compete aggressivelyinstead of going to war – a physical, real world “larger purpose” toaim for.

If we all had not been so “practical” and focused on such earthlyconcerns as such as war do you think we could have spent the last 40years much more usefully, creating jobs and technologies necessary togo out there and indirectly seeding new innovation and technology hereon earth?

Even in its much abbreviated form, the un-manned space program ofexploration of the planets has resulted in scientific insights thathave helped us understand the nature of this complex dynamic andevolving climactic and weather system on earth. We now call it Gaia, aterm first coined by scientist James Lovelock,who figured out the almost cybernetic nature of weather systems whileunder a NASA contract to decipher the first measurements we weregetting from the early Mars landers and orbiters.

Where will we be 40 years from now? Will we be on the moon and Marswith viable colonies and regularly mining the asteroids for resourcesand taking advantage of the near unlimited solar and other powerresources? Or will we still be ” metaphorically speaking ” hugging thecoastlines of Europe and Africa and Asia, afraid to venture out ontothe vast oceans?

BernardCole 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 inthe Techrite Associates editorialservices consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Call him at602-288-7257 or send an email to bccole@acm.org.

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