Category Archives: outer space

On Goals / (I’m back)

Freeman Dyson’s piece on Steven Weinberg’s recently published collection of writings was a beautiful and informative exploration of science, history, and politics1,2. One quote, about the differing goals of the Russian and American space programs, struck me in particular. Perhaps I found it so intriguing because it highlights a an ever-present conflict in my own life: short-term vs. long-term goals. An excerpt:

“[American] unmanned missions to explore the planets and stars and galaxies have made us truly at home in the universe, while our manned missions after the Apollo program to land on the moon have been scientifically fruitless. Forty years after Apollo, the manned program is still stuck aimlessly in low orbit around the earth, while politicians debate what it should try to do next.

…In Russia you do not go into space to do science. You go into space because it is a part of human destiny… Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the schoolteacher who worked out the mathematics of interplanetary rocketry in the nineteenth century, said, “The earth is the cradle of the mind, but we cannot live forever in a cradle.” It may take us a few centuries to get to the planets, but we are on our way. We will keep going, no matter how long it takes.

If you think as Americans do, on a time scale of decades, then unmanned missions succeed and manned missions fail. The grandest unmanned missions, such as the Cassini mission now exploring the satellites of Saturn, take about one decade to build and another decade to fly. The grandest manned mission, the Apollo moon landing, ended after a decade and could not be sustained. The time scale of a decade is fundamentally right for unmanned missions and wrong for manned missions. If you think as Russians do, on a time scale of centuries, then the situation is reversed. Russian space science activities have failed to achieve much because they did not concentrate their attention on immediate scientific objectives. Russian manned mission activities, driven not by science but by a belief in human destiny, keep moving quietly forward. There is room for both cultures in our future. Space is big enough for both.” (my emphasis)

Here’s to moving quietly forward.

1. Dyson, F. (2010) What Price Glory?, The New York Review of Books LVII-10: 8-12
2. Weinberg, Steven. Lake Views: This World and the Universe, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

On What’s Possible

“… it’s just over fifty years since the launch of Sputnik. This event started the “space race,” and led President Kennedy to innaugurate the program to land men on the moon. Kennedy’s prime motive was of course superpower rivalry — cynics could deride it as a stunt. But it was an extraordinary technical triumph — especially as NASA’s total computing power was far less than that of a single mobile phone today.” (my emphasis)

This is how we’re investing our technological capital?

1. Rees M. Science: The Coming Century. The New York Review of Books LV: 41-44, 2008.