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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.)

  7. 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.

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

  9. “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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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

  15. 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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