23 July 2011

"Nothing learned, and everything forgotten!"

"Tragic failures become moral sins only if one should have known better from the outset. In that regard there are two big differences between us and eleventh-century Anasazi Indians: scientific understanding, and literacy. We know, and they didn't know, how to draw graphs that plot sustainable resource population as a function of resource harvesting rate. We can read about all the ecological disasters of the past; the Anasazi couldn't. Yet our generation continues to hunt whales and clear tropical rain forest as if no one had never hunted moas or cleared pinyon-juniper woodlands. The past was still a Golden Age of ignorance, while the present is an Iron Age of willful blindness.

From this point of view it's beyond understanding to see modern societies repeating the past's suicidal ecological mismanagment, with much more powerful tools of destruction in the hands of far more people. It's as if we hadn't already run that particular film many times before in human history, and as if we didn't know the inevitable outcome. Shelley's sonnet "Ozymandias" evokes Persepolis, Tikal, and Easter island equally well; perhaps it will someday evoke to others the ruins of our own civilization."

p. 337, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, © 1992, 2006. Jared Diamond.

08 July 2011

See that fire in the sky...

As I write, the space shuttle Atlantis  is speeding at 6500 miles per hour through the Earth's atmosphere.  Moments ago I watched it launch, using a high-definition feed from NASA. Today marked the last flight of NASA's space shuttle program, and I for one will miss it. I think myself privileged to have grown up in the 1990s, at a time when human spaceflight was an accomplished fact and the future of it seemed bright. I visited space centers and saw the presence of the International Space Station as a comforting promise of a brighter tomorrow -- a tomorrow in which Earth was united and at peace. Shuttle launches were a regular event, so ordinary that the news media largely ignored them except in the case of disasters like Columbia.  The destruction of Columbia bothered me: how could I have not known that this ship was taking off from Earth, entering space, docking with a space station, and then landing again? How could such an astounding technical accomplishment go by unremarked by everyone until something went wrong?

Ever since then I have followed the shuttles' launches, sometimes changing my desktop background on the day of an actual shuttle launch. I have also followed the accomplishments of Europe's space program, and to a lesser degree the operations of China, Japan, and Russia. Russia deserves more notice, especially given that their Soyuz craft will be solely responsible for transporting astronauts to the ISS. I've known for some time now that the shuttle program was scheduled to cease in 2010, but took some comfort in the idea that this was necessary to retool the shuttle bays and yards for the next generation of spacecraft. Given the economic downturn, that seems unlikely. I am not distressed, however, for I view the future with a historian's eyes. I know progress is not an unbroken road, that sometimes there are bumps and we must pause to collect ourselves before proceeding.  This may be one of those times, but in the decades to come humanity will continue its exploration of the cosmos.  In fact, it won't stop even with the loss of the shuttles, for there are other space agencies -- like the European Space Agency, which has landed probes on Titan. I tend to relate to the shuttles more easily, though, given their size and appearance, which spoke to the potential for actual space ships more effectively than probes or the Soyuz craft.

Prometheus, they say, brought God's fire down to man
And we've caught it, tamed it, trained it, since our history began
And now we're going back to heaven, just to look him in the eye
And there's a thunder cross the land, and a fire in the sky

Gagarin was the first, back in 1961, when like Icarus undaunted, he climbed to reach the sun
And he knew he might not make it, for it's never hard to die,
But he lifted off the pad
And rode a fire in the sky

Yet a higher goal was calling, and we vowed we'd reach it soon
And we gave ourselves a decade
To put fire on the moon
And Apollo told the world,
We Can Do It If We Try
There was One Small Step, and a fire in the sky!

I dreamed last night of a little boy's first spaceflight
It turned into me watching a black and white TV
There was a fire in the sky...
I'll remember until I die
A fire in the sky! A fire in the sky!

Then two decades from Gagarin, twenty years to the day
Came a shuttle named Columbia to open up the way
And they say she's just a truck, but she's a truck that's aimin' high
See her big jets burning! See her fire in the sky!

Yet the gods do not give lightly of the powers they have made
And with Challenger and seven, once again the price was paid
Though a nation watched her falling
Yet a world could only cry..
As they passed from us to glory, riding fire in the sky!

Now the rest is up to us,
And there's a future to be one
We must turn our faces outward
We will do what must be done
For no cradle lasts forever,
Every bird must learn to fly
And we're going to the stars, see our fire in the sky! 
Yes, we're going to the stars -- see our fire in the sky
I'll remember 'til I die, a fire in the sky....