Friday, January 11, 2019

Aquaman: Is Space No Longer Enough?

Even as China's Chang'e-4 moon mission begins to explore the Dark Side as an extension of previous research by other nations and in anticipation of manned landings by Taikonauts, skepticism seems to be growing about extraplanetary plans involving human presence.  Recently former astronaut William Anders, who took the iconic "Earthrise" photo while in Apollo 8 lunar orbit, remarked that the view of our living planet struck him as a stark contrast with the barrenness of the inorganic moon.  He has lately been outspoken in his criticism of NASA's priorities in putting "boots on the moon" as a prelude to colonizing Mars.  Anders' crewmate and commander on the mission, Frank Borman, has reportedly voiced similar views regarding unreasonable expectations for our species in hostile and exorbitantly expensive space environments.  One can suppose that this prise de conscience on Borman's part is not just a recent change:  he turned down the chance to take Scott Armstrong's "one small step" in order to work on airline problems closer to home and enjoy the pleasures of aircraft building and ranching.  These are not just theorists or speculators, but men who have been out there.

Having just seen Aquaman, John and I were struck by a certain similarity in general views reflected in this engaging and well-done film, which takes place entirely on and under the Earth's solid/liquid surface. An ongoing theme in Aquaman is the failure of Atlantean technology on a wide level.  This is not new in portrayals of Atlantis, if we consider George Pal's 1961 Atlantis, the Lost Continent as an example.  There we already encountered Atlantean hubris gone wrong in the form of biological tinkering and destructive lasers anchored in a hierarchical, slave-driven economy.  The wonders of civilization quickly prove to be a dangerous illusion that can only be dispeled by the obliteration of the very ground it stands on.  Aquaman sets out from a common point of departure but carries the projection further into the 21st century.  Post-Atlantean humans have not only followed the technological bad examples of the Atlanteans, but have enlarged the assault by poisoning the Atlantean seas with pollution.  Naturally, the lords of the deep respond with a massive tsunami that vomits up a tide of plastic and debris onto the land, along with the mighty navies humans have constructed in their arrogant attempt to conquer the seas.

What, one may ask, does this fishy tale have to do with the conquest of space?  The answers are not far below the waterline.  Deep ocean and deep space have always, after all, represented the twin abysses that confront the human imagination, one up and one down.  We are, as Pascal so brilliantly posited, trapped between the two infinities, failing to grasp the dimensions or the lessons of either of them.  As De Gama, Magellan, Columbus, Gosnold, Cabot, or Cartier set off across the water, NASA, Roscosmos, CNSA, ESA, JAXA and others now contemplate the colonization of distant lands in the form of whole new planets.  Once again, the greed for rare materials and untold riches underlies the quest.  Yet these new worlds offer no lush forests, rich harvests, exploitable natives, or even air to breathe.  This time, colonization means the onus of supplying everything is on our own shoulders.  No Squantos or Dahomean queens are waiting to comply with our demands and needs.  The differences between the objectives and the place we are leaving, despite the still unsolved and growing problems of the latter, are mind-bogglingly daunting.  This is as obvious to the hybrid Arthur Curry as it was to Anders and Borman in Apollo 8.

In the film, the answer, the ultimate power, the healing holy grail lies in the form of the ancestral trident which is all that lies between the human race and annihilation, as Curry/Aquaman seeks to reconcile his dual natures, his own genetic two abysses of surface humanity and Atlantean DNA.  His own spirit quest requres that he descend into the depths below the depths to challenge an unspeakable monster.  This hero journey, falling within the parameters of Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces, recalls other journeys of extraterrestrial sci fi, not least of which is the plunge into the Gungan suboceans in Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace.  Visually, the reverberation is undeniable.  And here once more, one encounters a transition from the limits of science to the arcane powers of the supernatural.  Like the ambiguous influences of the Force, the previously evil might of the Trident morphs into a life-saving, beneficial element in the hands of the Chosen One who manifests himself to claim his true birthright and redeem humanity in the process.

The pre-apocalyptic situation of the human race is as apparent in Aquaman as it is in Elon Musk's urgent desire to transplant the seeds of a dying civilization to Mars.  However, our astronauts often remind us that what we still have is more precious than the shimmering image of a reconstructed existence abroad that seems to offer, in the words of Vauvenargues, the products of a perfected civilization.   Intuitively, we sense that technology alone never has and never will provide a worry-free world, whether the one we live on now or any within reach above or below.  Superstitious fantasy may not suffice to bestow on us the Trident we need to save our species, but the powers of the Imagination  just might, assuming that we can apply them in a forsightful and humane way that prevents irrational tech from sinking us where we stand.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Busy Month in Space

A great deal has been going on in space over the past 30+ days.  Just yesterday, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spaceplane made its most successful flight to date, reaching an altitude of over 80 kilometers, which qualifies it in NASA terms as having exited the atmosphere.  Virgin Galactic is something like the old X-15 program in that it ascends under a duel-fusilage jet airplane for the first part of the trip, then separates and mounts to the target altitude on rocket power through parts of the ionosphere to thin on oxygen for ordinary jets.  Unlike X-15, Virgin Galactic's mission is lucrative rather than scientific,  eventually to charge a quarter of a million dollars a pop to transport high rollers into suborbital space.  Over a hundred space pigeons have already anteed up.  It may seem that Branson's scheme, along with such other ventures as the Bigelow Space Hotel that is being tested on the ISS, is little more than astro-tourism attached to the flames of late-stage capitalism.  Yet science fiction writers like ourselves have already incorporated more ambitious astro-tourism into our stories, and we believe that Carnival Cruises to Mars and the Outer Planets may not be just a pipe dream, depending on what transformations happen down here on Earth over the next half-century.

Going a bit farther out, the vehicle carrying China's Chang'e-4 moon lander has reached orbit and seems poised to touch down on the Dark Side for a historic first.  Previously missions have orbited the Dark Side without landing, since the Moon's tidal locking necessitates a communication relay via a dedicated satellite, which China pre-positioned several months ago.  Some parties see this as a dangerous expansion in the same terms as China's occupation of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, but with the nation effectively shut out of most space activity by potential partners, they have little choice but to go it on their own, or else (unrealistically) give up on space exploration.  Chang'e-4 does carry an international payload, with components designed in Germany, France, and Britain as well as their homeland, which suggests that China, which has already been quite active in launching satellites from other nations, will continue to welcome cooperation outside the atmosphere, and hopefully inside as well.

Reaching still farther, two significant asteroids are about to be probed by shadowing spacecraft: Japan's Hayabusa-2 approaches closer and closer to Ryugu before attempting to set its lander on the unusually uneven surface and collect samples, while NASA's Osirus-REX readies itself to gather an even bigger scoop of the "primitive" carboniferous Bennu.  Hayabusa-1 has already succeeded in bringing back material from another asteroid for study and the results of the two currently active missions promise to add greatly to human knowledge of the Solar System's small fry.  While NASA seems chiefly interested in both asteroid mining and employment of asteroids in future Mars missions, another even more important application of these explorations is to enable Earth to defend itself in the future from possible asteroid collisions of disastrous proportions.  Recent geological work on our planet, permitted in part by improved satellite sensing, has shown in the last few years that such collisions have been even more numerous than previously thought, especially because of the discovery of an as yet mysterious crater beneath the surface of the Antarctic ice.

One step beyond, NASA's Insight lander has touched down just days ago and begun to send images that will soon be joined, if all goes according to plan, by a deeper analysis of the Martian subsurface than any obtained to this date.  This type of data is essential not only to the eternal question of what type of life, if any, developed on the Red Planet in ancient eras and whether any traces may still linger today.  Moreover, an eventual human landing, foreseen for the 2030's or beyond, requires a greatly enhanced picture of the planet's environment before it is deemed feasible to permit even the shortest currently envisioned stayover of at least two years, given the restrictions imposed by relative orbital trajectories.  While there are persistent rumors of ultra-fast engines being developed that would greatly shorten travel time and make human landings more amenable, for now work proceeds on schedule on the RS-25 engines for the SLS rocket that would power at least the preparatory steps for the great leap envisioned by the likes of Bradbury and Heinlein.  Once again, though, the key factor in success may be the cooperation of the peoples on Earth to fulfill the enormous logistical needs of Mars travel at the same time as we deal with the staggering challenges of overpopulation, famine, climate change, and war.  It is not impossible that a private individual like Elon Musk or a coalition of individuals may be able to bypass global problems to make the first moves.  What would have happened in the Age of Discovery without Prince Henry the Navigator, Isabella of Castile, Francois I, the overseas companies of Holland and England, or the Czar's intrepid Cossacks daring to forge ahead beyond the most practical and guaranteed interests that held others back?  Will the transnational or the individual achieve more than traditional regimes can hope?  Jules Verne's isolated geniuses like Robur the Conqueror and Captain Nemo were far ahead of their time, but ultimately succumbed to failures from within and without.  

Meanwhile, in the lonelier expanses beyond the last known planets of our system, another old traveler named Voyager 2 has left our vicinity to venture into what NASA has termed interstellar space, joining three mechanical predecessors.  Technically, it is still in the realm of Sol, since it has yet to even enter the Oort Cloud of comet-like debris that extends more millions of miles into the cosmos.  Stephen Hawking, before his untimely passing, expressed doubt about whether it was a good idea to advertise humanity's whereabouts with these "notes in a bottle."  Waggish wits on Facebook joke about aliens becoming indignant at pictures of naked bodies and musical tune lists cluttering up their galaxy.  One hopes at least that our artefacts don't wind up as target practice for a Klingon warship or morphing into homicidal AIs as they did in various Star Trek stories.  Chances of any encounter for these flotsam are of course in the range of hit-or-miss carried to an almost infinite power.  On the other hand, prospects of a directed probe sent toward the Centauri systems would loom more and more possible, should a major breakthrough in propulsion technology occur.   Just what could or should be probed begins to take on philosophical, if not pressing, importance.

Of course, not every month will be as exciting as this one has been.  Still, it is within the range of imagination that sometime at least one may be quite a bit more exciting.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Launching Tonight: Bepi-Colombo Planetary Probe

Tonight at the Kourou spaceport in Guyane (French South America) the European Space Agency in association with JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, launched an Ariane 5 rocket carrying the Bepi-Colombo probe, the first interplanetary vehicle devoted uniquely to the planet Mercury.  Passing vehicles have previously flown by the world nearest to the sun, but this one is specially designed for the grueling environment of Mercury, which varies from over 400F to nearly minus 300F on the dark side.  Long thought to be  tidally locked, Mercury does rotate, with boiling metal pools turning into ice fields. This makes the possibility of a habitable "twilight zone" between the two extremes virtually impossible.  However, I remember as a child reading a comic book where space travelers had colonized this narrow ring around the planet and dealt with its unbelievable extremes.  It was one of my first impressions of science fiction and remains fixed in my imagination.  Let's hope for more astounding revelations from this adventurous mission.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Why Americans Ignore Space Science

     This morning I was interested to find several references in foreign news services to the docking of Japan Space Agency's Kounotori 7 space freighter with the International Space Station.  I had heard nothing about it.  I consulted CBS, ABC, NBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe.  Not a word.

     Such ignorance illustrates the reason why most Americans are woefully ill-informed of developments in space.  As with the Olympics, American media simply ignore any international item that does not directly concern our narrow national concerns, especially military ones.  The media in this country pay scant attention to science in general.  Whereas quality information services such as Deutsche Welle and BBC have whole sections devoted to timely reporting on science, American media frequently have none, or at most a tiny "faits divers" department that reprints out-of-date notices.  In Germany, even small local papers have a well-documented department devoted to scientific matters.  Germans, for instance, are likely to know that the current mission commander on the ISS is a German astronaut.  However, even when American media rarely mention this important person, they usually forget to specify that he is not an American.

     The science ignorance is not astounding, considering that American enterprises seldom require or even encourage scientific knowledge among their personnel.  University majors in "broadcast journalism" generally avoid science, concentrating more on the details of makeup, camera angles and fashionable dressing to the exclusion of such "hard" subjects.   US journals, dependent on sound bites, distributed official news releases, and snippets from our single wire news source, systematically avoid in-depth reporting of any kind -- and complicated explanations of matters scientific altogether.

     Unfortunately, the majority of my countrymen would dismiss my interest in Kounotori 7's success as worthless attention to a minor, routine little space delivery.  Yet it is precisely the accurate accomplishment of "routine" activity that makes space exploration possible.  The fact that such activity is increasingly international is important.  Deutsche Welle recently discussed the revelation that there are now 70 space-faring nations, whose cooperation is vital to increasing human knowledge.  Kounotori contains, among other things, an experimental mini re-rentry vehicle that may open a plethora of options for space operations.  Hayabusa 2's current activities on the asteroid Ryugu may be even more far reaching.

     Those in the worldwide sci fi community need to maintain open investigation of the best international news services in order to keep abreast of the rapidly changing developments that affect our reading, writing, and curiosity.  Unless there is a rapid and fundamental turnaround in the way American media operates (and this is unlikely), such a global viewpoint must inform our imagination into this increasingly old century and the ones that will follow.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

BRICS countries are really coming in on the blog

But so far there is one exception

Where are our friends from South Africa?

Come and enjoy our sci fi fest

Friday, September 21, 2018

Happy to Have New Viewers from Japan Today

Especially with the Exciting Achievements of JAXA up on asteroid Ryugu

There's a Lot to be Proud of!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Welcome to new visitors from Bulgaria, Chile, and Argentina!  Follow the blog to stay informed about new posts as they are added.