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.