Ground Control to Major Tom…

Look at any area of scientific research, from medicine to nuclear physics, and you will see that all have made such significant progress over the last 50 years. From computer science, in an era in the early 1960’s when the like of IBM’s president stated “The world would not need more than 5 computers”, and at a time when the average computer filled a room the size of a sports hall, to where we are today, with a mobile device capable of remarkable feats like chasing a Pokemon in an augmented reality world (sic).

But you only have to look at that era, from the time when Kennedy laid down the challenge of going to the Moon, assigning the first of the Apollo contracts to MIT’s research lab, to design and develop the Apollo computers that would take us to the moon on Apollo 8 through to Apollo 17. It was a remarkable feat of human engineering, driven by people who were literally inventing the art of software engineering as they did it.

Margaret Hamilton
MIT Software Engineer who worked on the Apollo Guidance Computer

Then you look at human spaceflight, in the context of how humanity has “moved forward” in the past 50 years… To me it seems like this is the only area of human endeavour where we have in fact moved backwards. In 1968 we went to the Moon on Apollo 8, with a rocket the like of which has still not been replicated, and it was done using the computing power of an average, modern scientific calculator to do so. We drove on the lunar surface from Apollo 15 onwards, and the scientific research from those lunar rocks is still being conducted to this day, 45 years later, with some of the most precious (and expensive) material on this planet.

Then you think “How have we gone backwards so badly?” Yes, we were in a political space race against the USSR, yes, the USA committed a vast amount (relatively) of its GDP to NASA and the Apollo program, but just look at the benefits; Almost 30,000 product spin-offs are claimed to have come from the work on the Apollo program alone. The software engineering that went in to the AGC and the DKSY interfaces later went on to help form structured programming the like of which is still in use to this day. The development of the microprocessor (NASA at one point were buying up almost every microchip in the United States) and how it advanced so greatly, to where we are now… celebrating in many respects the mediocrity in human spaceflight.

Since 1972, we have not been farther than an average car could drive in around 8 hours from the surface of our planet. Yes, in robotic exploration we have done remarkable things, such as Viking, Voyager, Cassini, New Horizons all the way through to the recent arrival of Juno at Jupiter, but in human “exploration” at this time, the United States are still 1-2 years away even having launch capability. It begs the questions, how on Earth could we have let this happen?

U.S Govt spending on military and defence is in the trillions of dollars over a 5 year period, while NASA only gets around $19 billion a year to do everything on the agenda. Is there a chance that we have got our priorities wrong by spending vastly more money on death and destruction than on exploration and science? A science which inspired and continues to inspire so many people, and advancing our knowledge as a race.

How is it that we can get excited about an astronaut playing a guitar in space, when 47 years ago, we got “bored” of the Moon landings? It makes no sense. When I go to public events with my space memorabilia, the look on people’s faces (especially children) when I tell them that they are holding something that went to the Moon is incredible. And yet, even to this day, despite being one of the dozen or so people who went to the Moon, and even having a famous Toy Story character named after him, getting people to even recognise Apollo astronauts for what they did is challenging.

A funny quote that is often repeated is that Tom Hanks, the actor who played Astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, is more famous than Jim Lovell himself. Our celebrity obsessed culture, which delights in a “z list” celebrity showing parts of their anatomy on Twitter, seems to simply not get what true greatness, heroism and endeavour really is.

My mission in life is to help change this. So that when next we venture out beyond low Earth orbit, hopefully in the next few years, we never again drop the baton, and get bored of spaceflight. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have changed the dynamic hugely, but getting excited about a cartoon character version of a robotic lander is not what we should be doing. We should be exploring, we should be pushing the limits of human capabilities. We should be doing more.

 

Richard

 

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