Moments of awe

>> Friday, April 20, 2012

These are things I will never see in person. Well, odds are good nobody alive today will see them. They were still saying we'd be living up there when I was born; I was born only a handful of years after Kubrick and Clarke posited we'd have space stations and moonbases by 1999, ships capable of reaching Jove by 2001, years that seemed both unimaginably far away and very close.

It wasn't unreasonable, not at all: 1903, a coupla Ohio boys on a North Carolina beach get a powered glider to stay up in the air longer than gravity thinks it ought to, 1927, Lucky Lindy hops cross the whole Atlantic without stopping to stretch his legs, top off his tanks and squeegee the bugs off the windshield. By '39 the Germans have jetplanes going. '57 the Soviets page the whole human race with an orbiting beachball. Fifty-four years between just barely getting something to stay in the air and the launch of the space age. Clarke and Kubrick gave the human race thirty-four years to get past the asteroid belt, about the same length of time it took to get from the powered-glider stage to the turbojet-kissing-the-stratosphere stage. Fair enough.

The only thing being there's no reason to send anybody out there, except to say you did it. Let's be honest. Other things happened, radios got more powerful and computers got smaller and smarter. Why do you send a man out to do a machine's job except you want to expose him to almost-incomprehensibly lethal environments to do the same kinds of things a plucky solar-powered scooter could do just as well and for years longer than you could supply a human. Sending anything out there makes whole worlds of sense--if you think knowledge is inherently valuable and beauty a worthy goal.

(Of course people like to discuss the "commercial applications" of space exploration. Which is a red herring tossed down a rabbit hole, is what it is. Maybe advances in materials technology would have happened anyway and cheaper, too, or maybe they wouldn't, but it's a mug's investment to gamble a treasure room on the hypothetical chance you'll get back something worth orders-of-magnitude less than what you put in. The reason to go is for truth and beauty, because there are things we have to know that can only be taught surrounded by vistas that stun.)

I'm saying, I think, that there are things I will never see in person but it's alright because I can see them vicariously, and for this I am grateful. That I am grateful to the NASA folks who made it possible for our robots to obtain the images Sander van den Berg assembles into the scenes above, time-lapsed and epic, these things I will dream of. That I am grateful and greedy, because I don't really want humans to leave footprints all over Mars quite so much as I want the equivalent purchase of hardware landing on comets and looping round Pluto and looking in the windows of former neighbors' where they lived a thousand years past.

(H/t io9)


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