Global warming and the moon landings

This NYT story about moon landing “sceptics” provides some interesting evidence on the broader phenomenon of anti-science thinking on climate change, AIDS, UFOs and other issues. The moon landing case is of particular interest in a number of respects
* There is no real ideological or interest group motive for scepticism beyond a generalized suspicion of governments and scientists
* The style of argument is virtually identical to that of the other cases mentioned above. As the NYT notes

Ted Goertzel, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has studied conspiracy theorists, said “there’s a similar kind of logic behind all of these groups, I think.” For the most part, he explained, “They don’t undertake to prove that their view is true” so much as to “find flaws in what the other side is saying.” And so, he said, argument is a matter of accumulation instead of persuasion. “They feel if they’ve got more facts than the other side, that proves they’re right.”

* The claim seems transparently absurd, but actually, it’s not much different from the other cases. All of them require that thousands of scientists and government officials should, for venal or sinister reasons, promote claims they know to be false that they should have fooled millions of other people qualified to examine such evidence, not to mention the public at large, but that, nevertheless, a minority of people with no particular qualifications or expertise should be able to detect the imposture.

Of course, the occasion is the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, and the NYT also has a piece by Tom Wolfe berating the US for its loss of interest in space exploration once the moon race had been won and the Cold War wound down. Wolfe’s title is “One Giant Leap to Nowhere” and he concludes by calling on NASA to resume its true mission of building a “bridge to the stars”, but a more sensible assessment would be “A Bridge Too Far”. What has become painfully evident in the decades since the moon landings is that the stars are far out of reach, probably forever.

In 1969, when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, the breaking of the sound barrier was only two decades in the past. From the Wright brothers to Apollo, the history of human flight had consistently seen the impossible made reality. The fact that physics presented the speed of light as an absolute limit seemed to be just another of the barriers that had been so consistently broken.

But, once you accept that spaceships will never travel at more than a small fraction of the speed of light, it becomes obvious that the trip to the moon is pretty much at the outer limit of what human space travel will ever achieve. To be sure, with a big additional effort, we could send a flight to Mars, and even establish some kind of base there, but as Wolfe himself says, in the absence of some grander goal, such a trip would be “Just more of the same, when you got right down to it”. After Mars, there’s no plausible targets left in the solar system for a mission involving a landing. Of course, humans could fly long distances before returning to Earth but where is the benefit beyond what’s already been done in low earth orbit?

Beyond the solar system, the 4 light years to Alpha Centauri represents a gap we are no closer to bridging than we were in 1969. For comparison the moon is about 1.3 light seconds away, and Mars at closest approach about 3 light minutes. And there is no reason to suppose that there is anything at Alpha Centauri to make the trip worthwhile if we were to go. We have yet to discover any planet in our neighborhood likely to be more habitable than Mars, and no reason to expect any within hundreds of light years. People of my age (and those a bit older, like Wolfe) may have dreamed of travel to the stars, but it is not going to happen.

47 thoughts on “Global warming and the moon landings

  1. Isn’t there some theory in physics that says you can travel through a black hole at the speed of light and emerge somewhere else (far, far away) in the universe?

  2. I agree that the prospects of travel to the stars are dire. But Lorentz contraction has some interesting implications. In theory a traveler could travel any distance in their lifetime. Suppose that the distance to a star (in light years) is d, and a travelers lifetime is l. The traveler could get to the star in their lifetime, even if d > l. But an observer on Earth would still observe the traveler to take more than d years to get there.

  3. Why do we think that current science is final? Newtonian physics lasted 150 years (with updating by Laplace and others) before it was shown to be incorrect, and it’s still a pretty good approximation for putting people on the moon, building bridges etc. Physics today has some significant holes, otherwise the string theorists wouldn’t be getting away with proposing one untestable hypothesis after another. Will the speed of light as a limit be essential to future science?
    All of that said, sending people to the stars, whether they need to reproduce in the spaceship or not, looks mildly pointless and a waste of energy compared with the development of a post-fossil-fuel economy.

  4. UncleM, there may be a theory that you can pass through a black hole and emerge somewhere but it isn’t confirmed by any observation, and you’d still have to get to the black hole to try it, and you might emerge somewhere you definitely don’t want to be as a cloud of neutrinos. Or not. I’m not gonna try it unless it happens by accident.

  5. Barry Brook & I & others had a long discussion on this a while back at Brave New Climate on Fermi Paradox, i.e., Where Are They?
    This includes Stoss on energy requirements for sending a 1 or 2-ton probe to Proxima Centauri at .1C, i.e., ~5 days of current world total energy production. Gliese is discussed as well.

    I claimed:
    “The only possible long-term (even hundreds of thousands of years) civilizations are those with high-tech capabilities, including space technology capable of fending off dinosaur-killer asteroids. From past history, the latter’s arrival (in our case) is almost guaranteed, sooner or later, but no one knows when. When it comes, the extant civilization must be able to detect it coming soon enough to divert it, or else. “Powered-down” civilizations with 1900s energy levels can’t do that, i.e., as much as some people might like to “go back to nature”, it’s not a long-term solution. The worry is that if civilization ever collapses from that state, it never can get back.”

    I don’t know whether this effectively requires a moderate level of human-based space travel, or whether good instrumentation and robots are good enough. Hopefully, the latter are adequate.

    But as for interstellar travel (or even communication), not only is the speed-of-light an issue, but the *energy* requirements are worse, as per Stoss above. Over the next century, fossil fuels are going to (mostly) go away, one way or another [either by getting burnt, or by being left in the ground.] At that point, having used up most of our planet’s easy energy capital, we’ll be running on energy income, i.e., renewables of one sort or another.

    One can only hope that after the likely forthcoming dip (this century) from Peak Oil, etc, that there are enough renewable sources with high-enough EROEI to increase the planet’s total primary energy production and (if population levels off or dips), even the energy/person. If there aren’t, then the total energy seems likely to stabilize someplace above tress+other biomass and below the current level. The latter seems unlikely to support much spaceflight.

    In business, this is equivalent to VC-funded startups: they get some big chunk(s) of money, but they’d better invest it well into continuing revenue generating products/services. If they waste it, they’re gone, which is one of the reasons for the Dot-Bombs a few years back.

  6. I agree with Wolfe that we are morally obliged to see that intelligent life doesn’t die with our planet (assuming that we are alone). But let’s not be too literal regarding ‘travelling to the stars’ – it doesn’t mean sending off breeding colonies of humans in rockets. The (serious) literature is full of proposals on how to spread our post-human descendants across the universe. That said, I’m not sure how a little bunny hop to Mars would help in that endeavour.

  7. I think we’re all forgetting Venus, which might possible to actually terraform as compared to Mars which is too small to hold a human useable atmosphere. Venus might be good practice for greenhouse meioration too. 🙂

  8. What is your problem..Quiggins!? Not expert enough on all things planetary,you have to quote people from overseas like Rutgers University people who think that somehow the thinking of those who don’t believe what they see on TV,and that is where most people saw the Moon Landing,if that is what it was,are some sort of faithless creatures in human endeavour.When even the quality of the people mentioned shows that endeavour,including the man hit in the face by Aldrin.You and your over generalising types,because the problem remains with the typecasting,that enters the main stream media,the same people who will do you in too,if it doesn’t serve their interests.So I asked,cynically perhaps, Merkel at Lavatus Prodeo what powered the laser used to hit the reflectors on the Moon,and basically where are these reflectors mentioned by him,and others in the latest photos released by NASA.!? Merkel,an intelligent person obviously only used the Wiki stuff to bring up the laser thing, that, then shows to him, apparently, the Moon landing took place.Do I have to say I have a degree in Laser firing!? Or could I say, that if you are going to put down others with your tertiary educated manner and self-importance make sure basics can be clearly seen rather than obscured by the apparent self belief in the expertise of others,because, you make think,somehow your a expert too.As for all the other conspiracies you claim they are as some sort of unintelligent acceptance of self delusion of those who hold deep mistrust for what they are told,well , would you buy a car off a sales person who refused to give you some matters of detail about car matters that you knew were very doubtful in presentation,for your own reasons!? Rutgers did not go near,how those people who are very suspicious of the moon landing being real,connected all the dots. The pattern.Worship at your own fountain of perpetual self-indulgence about what is objective,and one day soon you will be turfed out.

  9. People disbelieve the moon landings. Others believe it’s feasible to colonise Mars. It’s a toss up which are more deluded.

    The high Andes and Antarctica both have more going for them than Mars and I see no rush to colonise them. Any space colonies will be utterly dependent upon Earth for almost everything, from funding to the high tech materials, equipment and expertise even modest space habitations require to be safe. Any analogy with historical colonising new lands down here don’t apply – no fresh water will fall from the sky along the journey, no hunting or dropping fishing lines out to supplement supplies, nothing edible or even alive to exploit and not even anyone to raid and steal off or to take back as slaves! That’s hard.

    I like a good SF story but I know it’s fiction.

  10. Buzz Aldrin is a climate skeptic.

    To quote:
    But while trying to spread the word about the possibilities of space, Dr Aldrin said he was sceptical of climate change theories.

    “I think the climate has been changing for billions of years,” he said.

    “If it’s warming now, it may cool off later. I’m not in favour of just taking short-term isolated situations and depleting our resources to keep our climate just the way it is today.

    “I’m not necessarily of the school that we are causing it all, I think the world is causing it.”

  11. @James

    Arthur C. Clarke was long one of my favorite science fiction authors, but you know, sometimes distinguished/elderly scientists agree with younger ones, and sometimes they all might just be right. I know some elderly/distinguished (i.e., Nobel laureates) scientists, and they still seem pretty sharp, and aggressive about what might be done without violating things like Conservation of Energy.

    I’d love for FTL-drive to exist, but I’m not holding my breath. [Among other things, if there was even one Earth-compatible species in the galaxy that was expansionist and had FTL-drive, it seems likely they’d be noticeable.]

    First, get me some workable Maxwell’s Demons; then we can talk about FTL, although I’d settle for total mass conversion and .9c.

  12. I find the idea of a lunar outpost being set up as a lifeboat for humanity and its knowledge a quite compelling one. I mean, a really big asteroid or comet hit is going to stuff up civilisation completely, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how long it would take to recover. (Especially if such a strike kicks off global climate change that we may have already helped initiate.)

    Although we now have digital knowledge spread out all over the place presumably making it harder to lose completely, I still expect that it is just good insurance to having a centralised, off-planet place to keep a core of it (as well as genetic and biological samples that may be of use to the rehabilitation of the injured planet.)

    Mars is too far away for that role. As far as I can see, its one big advantage for colonisation is water (and CO2), but if underground ice is found on the Moon, it’s not that much different.

    The priority should be to find water on the Moon, as well as caves or other natural features suitable for conversion to shelter. (Living underground is going to be the easy way to get protection from radiation.) Finding alien artefacts buried under Tycho would be a side bonus!

    By the way, I strongly recommend the documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon”, which has started showing on Movie Extra on Foxtel.

  13. Maybe the moon landing was the Best Ever but I am still amazed at how so much good quality and cost effective food can be delivered to all places at all times…and how I and anybody else can fly to Melbourne for $69…just fantastic

  14. The energy requirements for humans to get to Alpha Centauri are astronomical. As in virtually impossible. In fact, “running the numbers” on ideas like this one is an exercise that Robert Park indulges in for his physics students. The basis for the computation is that the humans have to be able to get from A to B in a reasonable amount of time – say 20 or 30 years – and this is where the energy requirements blow out.

    BTW I can recommend Robert Park’s books on Voodoo Science, Superstitions, and Quantum Physics (undergraduate text).

  15. The Moon Landing was a great motivator for pouring money into science. It’s funny how reporting on science has become a sad parody of what real science is like.

    The Moon Landing was a great adventure however.

  16. In the style of Charles Stross’ “Accelerando”, why send up big heavy human forms? Why not project uploaded intelligence? 🙂

  17. Listen guys….why are we talking about the 40 years anniversary of the Moon Landing when we could be talking about the 40 years anniversary of?????????


    Im going to the Basement!

  18. […] and finds magic ways to cross the boundary. I am taken in. Still, it might be more likely that as John Quiggin observes: . . . once you accept that spaceships will never travel at more than a small fraction of […]

  19. Very interesting analisys of global warming denial. It’s amazing how some people become such fanatics, out of touch with reality.

  20. Honestly, John, I think you’re being overly pessimistic about the long-term future space travel here.

    Once you discard the assumption that chemical rockets are to be used, interplanetary travel becomes a lot more feasible.

    For orbital launch, there’s all manner of alternative schemes (discounting the space elevator, which relies on the existence of super-strong carbon nanotube composites which may or may not ever be manufactured). For interplanetary travel, there are various nuclear-powered space drives, and, of course, the solar sail – which might be too slow for crewed travel but would be a very handy way to shift bulk freight around.

    As for interstellar travel, one thing that makes the energy calculations a whole lot more feasible is if you use a magnetic sail to slow down at the other end rather than your intiial propulsion system.

  21. Pr Q says:

    What has become painfully evident in the decades since the moon landings is that the stars are far out of reach, probably forever.

    People of my age (and those a bit older, like Wolfe) may have dreamed of travel to the stars, but it is not going to happen.

    One day the Sun will evolve into a Red Giant. If humans want to conserve conscious life in the universe they will need to build a space Ark to get anthropomorphic life, or the program for it, out of harms way.

    So giving up the notion of celestial travel is equivalent to abandoning the search for cures of complex but lethal diseases. In effect a death sentence for descendants. Giving it up for a bad job even before even having made a proper start is hopeless in more ways than one.

    No doubt its highly unlikely that the technology for such a venture will become viable in the next century or so, never mind the prohibitive cost. But it is unscientific, not to mention small-minded, to deem it impossible under any conditions.

    This article explores the feasibility of alternative propulsion systems that are currently feasible. It concludes that a nuclear pulse propulsion unit would be able to propel a craft to our nearest celestial neighbour in under a century.

    In conclusion, if you were hoping to travel to the nearest star within your lifetime, the outlook isn’t very good. However, if mankind felt the incentive to build an “interstellar ark” filled with a self-sustaining community of space-faring humans, it might be possible to travel there in a little under a century if we developed nuclear pulse technology.

    So your descendents may touch down on a planet closely orbiting Proxima Centauri, but unless we make a breakthrough in interstellar travel (and science fiction becomes more like science fact), we’ll be stuck with long-term, pedestrian transits for the foreseeable (and distant) future…

    Obviously such a craft would have to be a self-sustaining ecology of some sort, a true wandering star. That all sounds far-fetched but not beyond the realms of possibility in say a millenia. Not a long time scale by cosmological standards.

    Ultimately space travel is a form of time travel because of the multi-generational length of such transits. So the best insurance for such long bets is to increase the life-span of humans to encompass the duration of such journeys.

  22. John Mashey: Oh, I’m not holding my breath either. I don’t believe we’ll get any form of apparent FTL any time soon, as in, within the next 1000 years. But there’s still a huge gap between “within 1000 years” and “never”.
    On the “where are they” argument, I’m inclined to believe that apparent FTL is probably uneconomic for most civilisations, because of Stross’ arguments about bandwidth. Also, I’m not sure what we’d look for. SETI focusses on searching for electromagnetic signals, but any civilisation with apparent FTL travel or communication spread across multiple systems wouldn’t be using light-speed signals. So SETI wouldn’t find them.

  23. If we had the interstellar ark, there would be no obvious reason for it to go anywhere. Presumably any old spot would do, and the energy from a distant red giant would suffice.

  24. Daydreaming about what might or might not be possible in a thousand years time is pleasant, but not especially relevant to the question of whether we should devote real resources in our lifetimes to human space travel.

    I’m not willing to lower my living standards now in order to marginally advance the time when such things just might be possible. Rather, I need convincing that such a lowering will pay off in higher living standards (broadly defined – its true that “where there is no vision the people perish”) in my or my children’s lifetime.

  25. Monkeys can’t build skyscrapers. Maybe that is a good analogy to why humans might not reach the stars.
    Some of the discussion in this thread assumes that humans are actually quite smart and can work anything out. Maybe we can’t.

    The human mind is in many ways a weak, flawed piece of meat, prone to delusion (see original post), misconception, base urges, and incorrect ideas. In particular, we are prone to the delusion that we understand what’s going on. I remember being 17 and thinking I knew so much stuff. Now, at double that age, I am quite literally appalled at how little the me-at-17 knew in contrast to what me-at-17 thought he knew. Maybe when I am 68 I will again be struck by how much I thought I knew at 34 but how little I in fact knew.

    The area of knowledge where humans have been making progress in the last 30 years is in information processing, and also in understanding the human mind. Long way to go though.

    Maybe humans won’t reach the stars, but I don’t think we are smart enough to decide whether it is intrinsically possible or not. Maybe some augmented “human” or artificial intelligence of the future will work it out.

    For the record, I don’t think we’ll see true AI or mental faculty augmentation any time this century, despite some of the futurologist predictions and media releases you see. I think the best we’ll see is sensory augmentation (hearing already happening, sight etc).

  26. For mine, the schedule feasibility question is key. There is simply no way that a mission to Mars (staffed or not) can realise benefits for humanity in any reasonable time frame if ever. It therefore can’t compete in opportunity cost terms with doing anything that realises even a minimal benefit on “reasonable time frame” line. What each of us thinks a reasonable time frame may differ — personally I’d be willing to extend it to the end point of the lives of all the people that might meet all the people I might live long enough to see, which would put the end point of the time line at about 2258 +/- 20 years (assuming 100-year lifespans). That’s far enough into the future for technology to change enough for the calculus to change of course, but that is currently speculative. And as to places that involve distances greater than Mars, it’s even sillier. The best case scenario for a round trip of 200 years makes it hard to imagine that anything you could bring back here would be adequate.

    And of course, where does one find someone old enough to be a useful space traveller but young enough to still be in shape to report back at the point when he or she makes it to the destination? Is it even ethical to decide in advance to sire a child in space who will never meet another human being? One does have to wonder.

    At the broader question of utility applies. How reasonable is it to expend any resource on this when it surely does come at the cost of finite resources that could be applied to resolve more pressing problems here on Earth? It is said that at one point in the Apollo program NASA was getting 4% of US GDP. In modern terms that’s about the cost of the Iraq adventure so far — each year. I’d want to see some very serious benefits in the here and now down here on Earth for that. Sometime after we manage to raise the life chances of the least advantaged 3 billion on the planet to parity with the top 4 billion and have stabilised the climate and still have enough left over for what amounts to a fireworks display, let’s revisit the question. Until then, this is reckless stupidity.

    I’m just astonished that feasibility has disappeared from the dominant commentary on this question.

  27. If we had the interstellar ark, there would be no obvious reason for it to go anywhere. Presumably any old spot would do, and the energy from a distant red giant would suffice.

    And there’d be a great reason to build such an ark and move out of the splash zone if we headed for a serious catastrophe, like the sun going red giant (5.4 billion years) or a side effect of the Andromeda-Milky Way collision (3 billion years), or maybe some unknown unknown on a lesser time scale like a very large astronomical object passing too close or a close star going supernova and smoking our solar system. Based on the last century or two you’d expect that given say a million years we’ll have either wiped ourselves out or transformed into a Borgish something capable of massive engineering feats (while still subjected to the laws of physics.)

  28. So far ,Global Warmers and those who accept that man landed on the Moon just over 40 years now,cannot even get round to thinking,why this 40 year mark was really a time for celebration.[We had a toothpaste with an advert that suggested it was University tested!Then.]Because if you tie in all people of non-accepting the official type of story,then you can tie in those who accept the official story.So why does the Moon matter and the Eclipse have another potential to be part of a longer term plan,by sections of the American Republic!Say Cheney..whose been around for years,and has seen to be able to change his mind about almost anything,and still seems to be able to make an economic killing with his palindrome mate Soros!? I think,in the days of the Moon landing,as throughout history,ignorance becomes a chance to take over an enemy,and a famous eclipse represented that win long ago.What the Quiggins and buffoons like Dr.Karl will never realise,because they assume once they make a statement about the failure of others reasoning,that is then indisputable,and there will never be a little bit of information that proves they are cowardly wrong.If Indian Scientists are not ready to accept that Global Warming has anything to do with the Himalaya loss of snow and glacier retreat,etc., whilst the above buffoons keep the chorus line,repeating their Gore like apnoea,about the Scientific profession, and ,other ways that prefer the slavery of self indulgence,rather than the freedom of being a human being..then simply this site is a complete bloody insult..and I make that statement for purely historical reasons.A tipping point if you like.If they cannot even determine why they are wrong in calling people Conspiracy theorists,or believing conspiracy theories,then they will never understand a thing or have ever understood a bloody via Google and seek the size of the world page there then go to Renses main page,and find the best one yet,if you like,of why the moon landing seems so much like a film setting that only Kubrick could of done it.And Karl cannot debunk his thoughts quickly Wiedner,because even when he may refer to others,that doesn’t leave out, matters.As a challenge a Smart Arse at the ABC Lismore said something about knowing someone from Switzerland in film matters before he made totally smart arse comment before Karl presented.

  29. Phil, maybe you should keep that stuff about Kubrick and the moon landings under your hat – don’t the aliens hate us enough already?

  30. “this site is a complete bloody insult”

    Feel free to avoid the insult in future, Philip. You can apply at the front office for a full refund. In fact, today only, we are offering double your money back if not completely satisfied!

  31. NASA is one of those big government programs designed to burn taxpayers money. In this regard I’m glad I’m an Aussie it isn’t my money being burnt. I like the pictures but wouldn’t pay a whole lot for them.

    I tend to agree with JQ regarding the physical barriers presented by space. This is a bit tragic because accessible frontiers have in the past generally been good for the promotion of human freedom. Leaving civilisation and starting out fresh has been an option for much of history but not really any more. Sea-steading is an interesting idea but not quite the same as the wild west or stellar travel on the Millennium Falcon.

  32. I find it intriguing that Kubrick patently prided himself on the scientific accuracy of “2001: A Space Oddessy” relative to other sci-fi movies.

    However, it is clear he either did not understand or deliberately ignored the energy issues. It was probably the former. To this day we have not built an orbiting space station of anything like “2001” dimensions. The Shuttle is a very poor cousin of the sleekly imagined PanAm spaceship. And we have no moon base. Cripes, we haven’t even been back to the moon since 1972. The reason of course is the energy cost of lifting all that stuff into orbit.

    Even allowing for great scientific advances, energy will continue to be the limiting factor. One blogger above pointed out the issue of the enormous energy costs to get a craft anywhere near the speed of light for interstellar travel.

    My opinions for what they are worth.

    1. There might be more than one intelligent life form in the universe.

    2. They will never meet each other.

  33. then simply this site is a complete bloody insult

    Not to mention the complete bloody insult to English grammar that is the comment this quote came from.

  34. Energy is a difficulty but it comes down to motivation and return. For example, the energy cost of a real “2001” Jupiter mission ship would only be a fraction of the energy cost of the US road system. At the time when 2001 was made, Space was considered our next natural frontier and worth doing despite the cost. After a while the shine wore off. Perhaps it was easier and cheaper to make space movies. They used less energy, had reliable narratives (kinda) and looked better too.

  35. What about David Bowie’s explanation of the Fermi Paradox?

    There’s a Star Man
    Waiting in the sky
    He’d like to come and meet us
    But he think’s he’ll blow our minds

  36. If we build a big enough rocket for an interstellar target, I can volunteer a certain blogger for the test run…

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