I’ll close my coverage of the Apollo 11 anniversary with thoughts from Marc Millis. I was startled to discover, fifty years after watching the first landing on the Moon, that the anniversary seemed almost elegiac. So many expectations that have yet to emerge, so much energy still waiting to find an Apollo-like focus. Marc has likewise been ruminating on the Moon landings and here offers a way of placing them in context. Such an effort invariably means invoking the long view, one I found challenging to sustain because of my own freighted memories of 20 July, 1969.
But I think Marc is right in looking for longer, more stable arcs of development and trends that the rush of daily activity can obscure. The former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project, Millis is also editor (with Eric Davis) of the book Frontiers of Propulsion Science (2009) and the founder of the Tau Zero Foundation. He has been developing an interstellar propulsion study from a NASA grant and recently returned from Europe, where he worked with Martin Tajmar’s SpaceDrive project at Germany’s Technische Universität Dresden.
by Marc G Millis
Anniversaries have a way of making us reflect. I was 9 years old during the first Moon walk. That event, and the steady progress that preceded it, profoundly affected me. Its power was more than just the amazing new technology and the mind-blowing fact that humanity was no longer constrained to this planet. I was also struck by how it affected the world.
For days following of the landing, the world was one. We were human beings sharing an amazing, peaceful, intellectual, human achievement. This achievement interrupted the usual gloomy news of war, social injustice, and the specter of imminent nuclear destruction. It showed us a side of humanity that made us feel good and cast hope for a better future. After centuries of humanity’s dreams about the Moon, we did it.
I broke out in tears when I recently heard the replay of the transmission: “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” I recall, in that moment, how the future of humanity changed. All the way up to that point, we were not sure if touching the Moon was just fanciful wishing. After that point, it was fact. We knew, then, that humanity could accomplish great things – when we set our sights toward doing great things.
Instead of revisiting the real motivations for Apollo, I want to share the effect it had on an impressionable child. From my naive and idealistic 9-year-old view, I assumed that our national leaders had deliberately designed the Space Program as a catalyst for a sustainable modern Renaissance. I saw the Space Program as the grand challenge that would drive technological progress, extend prosperity and improve humanity. It gave the citizens a future they could look forward to. It gave us frontiers to conquer rather than the alternative of conquering each other.
On the individual level, it gave students a reason to excel in their studies and the prospect of meaningful careers – reasons to avoid drugs and debauchery. It made so much sense; healthy, exciting and positive. And the fact that the Moon landing was done as promised and on schedule – that fact made our national leaders look competent and trustworthy. Impressive stuff.
A year prior to the Moon landing, the movie 2001 a Space Odyssey showed us a vision of such a future. It included commercial shuttles taking passengers to an orbiting space station – complete with hotels and passport control. Moon bases not only existed, but there were several of them. The producers hired suitable aerospace professionals as consultants so that all of these things were envisioned plausibly – and it worked.
The dramatic contrast between the silence of space and the sound of breathing inside a spacesuit is etched in my memory. The portrayal of the difference between microgravity and artificial gravity (and vacuum and air) was convincing. The characters behaved in a manner consistent with their roles. The total effect is that 2001 cast an image of what the future could be, and based on the pace of the 60s Space Program, I expected it was the future that would be.
Fast-forward to now. Despite the painful demotion of the Space Race after Apollo into something more like a subdued slog, progress accumulated. A half century since Apollo, thirteen nations (or groups thereof) have space programs, including a few rich guys with their own launchers. Over 4600 spacecraft are in Earth orbit and about 150 farther beyond. Our satellites have saved countless lives with hurricane warnings, are keeping an eye on the health of our environment, and have enabled a level of world connectedness through communication that I hope fosters sustainable peace. We’ve seen planets and moons as never before. We’ve listened to the winds on Titan. And the tally of strange new worlds (exoplanets around other stars) has surpassed 4,000. One thing we still don’t know is if there is life beyond Earth.
Eclipsing nationalistic survival (and curiosity), the most common motive driving space development is now profit, where more than ¾ of space activities are commercial. Financial institutions have taken notice, seeing a market of $350 billion and growing. Bank of America Merrill Lynch sees the space industry reaching $2.7 trillion in 30 years. Combinations of government agencies and businesses – some collaborating, some competing – are embarking on Moon outposts with Mars as the sequel, plus the infrastructure to keep it all growing.
The scale of activity envisioned in 2001 might actually come to pass, but perhaps closer to 2041. It’s no longer a matter of “if it can be done,” but “when will it be fiscally prudent.” The age of rocket science, which was once just science fiction, has given way to engineering and business.
In the 1960s, when Moon missions were becoming reality, fiction about practical starflight emerged from science fiction magazines and novels into television and movies seen worldwide. Compiling ideas from decades before, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek put it all together in a positive future vision, where the incredible power of starships would be used by a responsibly mature society, where minorities and people from various cultures were included. In that future, you could explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations. And once finding a new civilization, you could magically fix its silly social injustices in just a one-hour episode, while having time for romances with aliens. Inspiring stuff.
Moon missions were once derided as unrealistic fantasies at a time when the hot activity was advancing the emerging aircraft industry amidst two world wars. Of course, this does not mean that all science fiction will become real, but it does means that many of tomorrow’s realities appear impossible today. We just don’t know which of these are genuinely impossible and which suggest nothing more than an absence of imagination. This also means that pioneering work typically starts small, as minority efforts amid preoccupation with the era’s dominant activities.
Looking back to what made Apollo possible – that transition point when rocketry matured from art and fiction to become a science — that point was reached when Russian mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky derived the “rocket equation.” Following its math, the scale of the challenge could be conceptualized and achieved. Coincidentally, this was the same year the Wright Brothers flew the first functional aircraft. In 1903, rocketry became a science, and air flight became engineering. A mere 66 years later, rocket science matured to engineering, and humans walked on the Moon. And now a half-century after the landing, spaceflight engineering has matured to business, and is on the verge of being available for recreation.
Image: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Russian pioneer in aeronautics and astronautics. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
It is tempting to view interstellar pursuits in the same paradigm as the modern space industry, a sequence of expected and profitable next steps. While there is certainly some fertile ground in that notion, the complete challenge of practical starflight is at a much earlier stage, where it still benefits from thought-provoking science fiction and the pioneering science that precedes what can be engineered.
About three decades after Star Trek debuted, the fiction of faster-than-light (FTL) flight entered the sciences the same way rocketry did – with equations that revealed the scale of the challenge. Specifically, this fleshing out of the mathematics includes Morris-Thorne traversable wormholes (1988) and the Alcubierre warp drive (1994). Then came NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project in 1995, which lasted until 2007 (though funding ended in 2002).
Instead of advancing technology within the limits of known physics, the NASA project sought further discoveries in physics to lay the foundations for new, breakthrough technologies. This inquiry encompassed the possibilities of FTL, non-rocket spacedrives, control of gravitation, and other related ambitions. A comparison of these ambitions to the lingering unknowns in physics was compiled in the 2009 book Frontiers of Propulsion Science. Its intent was to identify which research questions are attackable and relevant to these grander goals, showing the incremental steps that could begin today to chip away at the long string of unknowns.
Will the fiction of practical starflight eventually become reality? If I were clairvoyant, I could answer that question, but I’m not. What I do know is that, even if such ambitions turn out to be impossible, we will gain more in the attempt than by waxing pedantic or only working on what’s financially profitable.
It is my hope that progress will continue along all these fronts and improve the human condition. The next steps toward the Moon, Mars and recreational spaceflight will usher in a new era, a suitable name for which will probably be conceived years later. It’s certainly no longer a “space race” with only one finish line. It is the beginning of a new stage of humanity.
I also hope, amidst this ongoing activity, that we remember to support pioneering attempts to learn how to protect Earth’s habitability and take us to the stars even if they are not in the short run economically profitable.. And lastly, I hope that all these things will usher in a new Renaissance, if not by design, then by consequence, where the best aspects of the human character prevail to make our future not only sustainable, but also deeply exciting.
One closing thought. Idealism is one thing, but we must also consider the reality of human character. Progress in the 1960s was fueled by fear for survival and the urge to retain power, the most powerful motivations on the Maslow hierarchy of needs. The advances made while extinguishing those fears have now made it possible for people to personally profit from space, and even flaunt their status. In addition to commercial satellites, we’ve got rich guys creating their own space programs with a bit of “my rocket is bigger than your rocket” bravado.
I must confess that I thoroughly enjoy the swagger of throwing one’s shiny red sports car into space. Wherever humanity travels in the future, we will bring all of our human character with us, the good and the bad. It is my idealistic hope that, amid the self-serving motives that are fueling our current space age, we may also learn how to mobilize for the greater good.