Sunday, November 8, 2015

2001, a Fitness Odyssey

The fitness odyssey part is my most recent blog, 2000.

But really, the title was a lure, a reference to one of the most iconic movies ever made, 2001, A Space Odyssey. I was a big science fiction fan, lapping up Isaaic Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and many others. I leaned more towards the 'hard' science fiction, and really enjoyed Hal Clement and Larry Niven.

For those of you with a shaky grasp on recent history, the USA was putting men on the moon during this period. (Men on the moon!!!) The era seems a little bit like a dream now. Mankind had been dreaming of flying, and men on the moon for generations out of mind. Then it was done a few times and people got bored, and decided it was too expensive.

I want to explore those two topics, bored, and expensive.

Humans have a nasty streak in them. We like to watch failure. There is no end of examples. The fail army videos document people doing stupid things without the first thought of what could go wrong. What gets shown on the news, the winning race car moment, or the huge crash with parts flying everywhere? Millions of people travel every day by aircraft completely uneventfully, and everybody obsesses about the extraordinarily rare failure.

When the USA started the space program there were any number of drivers, pride and showing up the Soviets being perhaps the main ones. But there's a reason why 'rocket scientist' entered the language as code for someone really smart. When airplanes crashed, we can usually pick up the pieces and discover what went wrong. When a rocket fails, it happens very quickly, very violently, and the results are typically metal confetti. There isn't much left to learn from.

They decided that having human remains mixed in with the metal confetti wasn't a propaganda win, and took steps to limit the human losses. The word is telemetry. They started building instruments to understand what was happening, and sending the results to the ground. Sounds simple. Yeah. In our world, kids can build balloons that go to the edge of space, take video, and parachute back to earth. For a time that was the pinnacle of scientific endeavor, with some of the smartest people trying to figure it out.

Another thing, rockets themselves. It is not intuitively obvious how to build a pressurized metal tank to be as light as possible, and yet withstand the many stresses involved, some of them unknown when they started working on it, and still fit in a vehicle that flies at supersonic speeds. The answer to that, is also the answer to transporting soda from manufacturer to consumer. Who knew?

All that technology filtered out into the world. Someone has probably written a book on how the various space program discoveries changed our world. Satellite communications is still revolutionizing our world, with GPS being only a recent example. And we've already touched on pop cans, with the savings in gas from hauling cans instead of bottles being enormous.

No Saturn V rockets blew up on the launch pad with people on top of them. 12 people have walked on the moon, and when you consider all that could have gone wrong the missions were essentially uneventful, Apollo 13 aside. People watched that one! People started saying, another mission to the moon, ho hum. The minor issues along the way were dealt with because they'd made plans to deal with it, and every other conceivable failure. But the public didn't see that. It was a triumph of science, technology, and planning, and the public didn't get it. Sigh.

Kennedy's speech where he set the goal of a man on the moon in a decade is one of the most breath-taking leaps of imagination by a politician ever. And then when it was done, they didn't know what to do with it. People started looking at the cost as an absolute number of dollars, and wondering what they were getting. Never mind that it was a trivial percentage of the overall budget. Never mind that it almost certainly paid for itself in spin off applications. Never mind that there other, far larger expenditures that were a complete and total waste of money, with the Vietnam war coming prominently to mind. In two ways, the space program spending was cheap. One, as a way of inspiring people to sciences, and two all those spin off technologies.

More recently NASA has been sending robots to various parts of the solar system. I have my imagination boggled every time I read about them. The distance to Mars varies depending on where the planets are in their orbits, but it's several hundred million kilometers. NASA landed Curiosity 2.4 K from the target after after a trip of 560 million Km. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity were expected to last 90 days. Spirit lasted more than 6 years. Opportunity is still operational, 11 years later, or more than 45 times its design lifespan. We now know that Mars had water, and very possibly had life. If one of the rovers should come across an actual fossil, it will be the biggest news day ever. Proof that life has existed elsewhere a long time ago, makes it much more likely it exists now, perhaps in the ocean on Europa.

New Horizons is a mission to Pluto. Imagine this, launch the space craft, fly past an asteroid, fly past Jupiter on a gravity slingshot orbit, and do a pass 12,500 Km above Pluto, take pictures and send them back to earth, all from a distance better measured in multiples of Earth's distance from the sun. Plus have the time of closest approach with minutes of the calculated time, after nearly a decade of travel.

Those things don't happen by accident. They are the result of 500 years of science and data driven exploration of our universe. A great many smart people have worked hard to further our understanding and creating the world we live in. It distresses me a lot when people dismiss it as 'science, what do we need it for, faith is more important'. People that are deliberately blind to the data are unfit for any public role in government. While I don't say that everybody should be a scientist, I do say that everyone should have an appreciation for science, and it's role in creating our amazing world.

Before science, surviving child birth was something for everybody involved to celebrate. Various diseases that we consider easily preventable ravaged humanity, killing hundreds of millions. Communication was no faster than a man on a horse carrying a letter. Getting enough to eat was a major challenge for almost everybody.

So where are we now? Nobody has walked on the moon, or even orbited it since 1972. Some of my readers weren't even born then. The moon landings are ancient history to them, like rotary telephones.  Not only did politicians cut spending to the space programs, now it's fashionable to deny science entirely. Most USA politicians deny human caused climate change. There is a whack-a-doodle crazy movement that is against vaccines. Some people doubt the moon landings even took place, which boggles my mind. (Faking it would be MUCH harder than actually doing it, and it's one of the most difficult things humanity has done.) Here in Canada we had a tyrant Prime Minister that realized the best way to get his ideological way was to suck the data out of the argument, thus the abolition of the long form census and muzzling scientists. Deposed now, thank you sensible voters!

Back in school I read about the Roman Empire. It's fascinating, and anybody that thinks what's happening now is new and unprecedented hasn't read enough history. I didn't understand how putting on the famous games would distract people from important things, like a lack of bread, or political corruption. But today, with newspapers full of what celebrities are or are not wearing, and professional sports, I now understand. What's a moon launch, where all will go well and another person walking on the moon, ho hum, compared to, to, a celebrity nipple slip on the red carpet! Oh my! There's another million papers sold, or views, or however they count such things now.

I own a DVD copy of 2001, and watched it recently. Much as I decry the too fast cuts in modern movies, I found it very slow. Almost unwatchably slow now. You can only admire the stunning effects for so long. We don't quite have a computer as smart as HAL is, but Siri is working hard at it. Our iPads are almost as good as the newspad on the ship. Considering it was made in the mid-60's it's an astonishing picture of our future. I only hope trips to Jupiter by humans are in fact part of our future. I'll settle for a moon colony in my lifetime.

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