I've previously mentioned that this decade would be one of 40th space anniversaries. Next Friday, April 12, is both a 41st, and a 21st anniversary of notable space events.
On that date in 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a Russian, became the first man to go into space, and into orbit.
It was the height of the Cold War, and the Soviets had already beaten us to launching the first satellite. The fact that they also beat us to putting a man into orbit (a feat we wouldn't match until John Glenn's flight the following February), combined with dismayingly regular failures of our rockets, simply added to our national frustration.
Later that same month was the disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, compounding our sense of technological inferiority with a lack of military and political will as well. In an effort to both arrest this growing sense of technological impotence, and to distract from the Cuban fiasco, Kennedy made a speech to Congress on May 25:
I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
This speech, resulting at least partly from Gagarin's flight, set us firmly on the road to the Moon, launching the Apollo program and also setting into place the institutional structure of NASA and Space As A Government Program that, ironically, now holds us back.
But Yuri couldn't have foreseen any of this — he was just a lucky fighter jockey who got to be the first person to see the earth from above, with no borders or countries — just oceans and continents and islands, with a sunset and sunrise every hour and a half. But he was enchanted:
Circling the Earth in the orbital spaceship I marvelled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world! Let us safeguard and enhance this beauty — not destroy it!
He only flew into space the one time, and seven years later, in March 1968, his luck ran out, as he fatally crashed his Mig-15.
But last year, on the 40th anniversary, a student at the California Institute of Technology named Loretta Hidalgo decided to celebrate his achievement. With her friend George Whiteside and others, she organized a world-wide party, calling it Yuri's night. Individual parties were held in many of the planet's major cities, and linked through video and the internet. Young people (and some not-so-young people) danced the night away all over the globe, in celebration of the first human venturing off the planet.
And as I mentioned, it was another anniversary as well — 20 years to the day after Gagarin's flight, in 1981, the first Space Shuttle was launched. It wasn't planned to coincide with the Gagarin anniversary — it was supposed to launch on April 10, but a computer glitch delayed it for two days, thus inadvertently providing a double anniversary.
Anyway, last year's first event was a spectacular success, and next Friday, they're going to do it again. So go to the web site, find the nearest party, put on your dancing shoes and help celebrate the first man and first reusable spacecraft to enter space.
Lunar Zion Redux
Ken Layne's Fox News column on Tuesday had a novel proposal for resolving the conflict over Palestine — move the Jews to Baja California. It's actually not as wacky as it sounds — the Zionist movement considered many locations before settling on present-day Israel, including Uganda, Libya, Iraq, Angola, Canada, Australia, Madagascar, Siberia, and even the southwest United States. In fact, a settlement of several thousand was established in Texas just before the first World War.
But you know me. When you're a jackhammer, everything looks like concrete, and when you're a space geek, every terrestrial problem has an extraterrestrial solution. So I'd like to reprise a proposal that I made on this very weblog back in October — let's establish a Jewish state on the Moon.
They've got to be getting tired of the flying shrapnel and body parts to the point that anywhere else would look good. It's territory that no one else is claiming (though the 1967 Outer Space Treaty actually precludes national sovereignty claims off planet, but the Israelis couldn't get anyone who mattered any more upset with them by breaking it).
And judging by the Palestinians' current rate of technological progress (as demonstrated by their haphazard success in killing people with crude suicide/homicide bombs, a simple-minded technology if ever there was one), it will be many decades or centuries before the Palestinians develop space travel themselves to follow the Israelis out there.
If we help them with transportation, it will create the mass market that we need to drive down space transport costs, and develop the technology that we need to conquer the space frontier. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Asteroids Of The Gods
Some people have been bugging me for evidence that asteroid impacts have actually had an effect on humanity in the past. I replied to them that it was certainly conceivable that the biblical flood and other mythical catastrophes could have been the result of such an event.
Someone via email pointed me to this article at Space.com from November that says exactly that.
I seem to have inadvertently stirred up a hornet's nest with my side comments about creationism last week (which were by no means the main point of the column). Here's an example from reader Jehoiada Ben Enoch:
You said the impact is taught as the prevailing theory. I will remind you that theory is not the same word as fact. In science, theory is the best explanation for something which has yet to be proven. In evolutionary biology, "fact" means the most widely excepted theory. Not that these things are written in stone.
Well, I'm one of the few defenders of evolution who will cheerfully admit that it's a theory. However, unlike evolution opponents, I don't find that a problem. I think that gravity is a theory as well. Or Newton's Laws.
There's nothing wrong with theories. They are the stuff that science is made of.
Theories explain facts. The ones that most successfully explain facts, and are falsifiable, survive the scientific review process. Those that don't and can't, do not. To a scientist, (to the surprise of anti-evolutionists) "theory" is not a dirty word.
It's not obvious to me how one would falsify a creationist theory, any more than one could falsify the theory that the entire universe was created ten minutes ago, complete with memories. It might be correct, but what experiment would one perform to prove it false? Similarly, the theory that God created the earth, complete with fossil evidence that it took billions of years, may be valid, but it fails the test of Occam's razor — it is not the simplest explanation. Any of these beliefs may be valid, but they're not science.
I even got a snail-mail letter from an Edward Morgan (and I thank you for your Christian blessings, sir), desperate to give me a scientific way to validate the supposition that the earth is only a little over six thousand years old, as supposedly stipulated by the Bible. Unfortunately, among other problems, it was based on Newtonian mechanics, which Einstein showed was invalid for the cosmological computations that he envisioned.
But I think that Jesse Brawner best summed up the thinking of the creation supporters in writing:
Keep it up and you will do well until you leave this life--then you will change your mind about God and the Bible. Anyone can say anything about the unknown making your beliefs sound good to a lot of people, but yours is not much better than the scientific theories that preceded yours, which are now obsolete.
Getting back to the subject of avoiding asteroid impacts, reader Donnie Buie writes in agreement:
It's always human nature not to invest money into something that is deemed unnecessary at the time. Hindsight is always 20-20. Why did it take the Exxon Valdez debacle to start double-lining ship's hulls? Duh, didn't they think about the potential for disaster beforehand? Where I live, it usually takes about five people to be killed at dangerous intersections before they invest money into traffic lights. People become complacent whenever they see no reason to worry. Does Sept 11th come to mind or Pearl Harbor? It usually takes a disaster before the money and common sense starts to flow. The list goes on...
Both Michael Blake and Dave Clader pointed out, correctly, that the "Ray Charles is God" syllogism from the letter writer last week was badly broken. They're correct, and I knew that, and shouldn't have endorsed it so heartily. It was cute, but not logical.
And finally, one of the reasons that I write this dreck:
I have greatly enjoyed finding your columns, and spent considerable time following links. On that topic, I want to thank you profusely for a link in today's column: the L-5 Society. I was a member, and a local chapter member/officer at the University of Oklahoma, where I was an aerospace engineering student.
The conference in Houston in 1983 was probably the high point of my involvement. My wife and I met and talked with Gary Hudson, Robert & Virginia Heinlein, Poul Anderson, G. Harry Stein, Jerry Pournelle, Newt Gengrich (how about Window Of Opportunity) and more folks who I don't remember off the top of my head. It was an awe-inspiring time (and as a student, cost much more than I could afford at the time).
It kept me dreaming the dream for a long time after (and still, in my quiet times even today.) I read the article in the link. It almost brought a tear to my eyes--it was like reading the eulogy of an old and dear friend of whom you had lost track.
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Webblog, Transterrestrial Musings.