Falcon Heavy Takes Flight, Rebooting Human Ambition

At a time when distracted Western governments and decaying institutions are incapable of providing visionary leadership, with society increasingly split along partisan lines, it took the vision of a private citizen to remind us what real ambition looks like

“Ad astra per aspera”, reads one of several memorial plaques to the crew of Apollo 1, three brave NASA astronauts who died in January 1967 when the oxygen in their capsule ignited during a routine launchpad test midway through America’s audacious bid to put a man on the moon. A rough road leads to the stars.

But since 19 December 1972, there has been no road to the stars of any kind, no road anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit. The final Apollo missions were scrubbed due to their enormous cost, public apathy and perceived lack of return on investment, and while the Space Shuttle and International Space Station served as holding accomplishments of a kind, one cannot escape the conclusion that we have gone backwards, and not only as it relates to space travel, in terms of our willingness to embrace big challenges or dare mighty things.

Various politicians in recent years have proposed vague and (to varying degrees) fanciful plans for a return to manned spaceflight beyond Low Earth Orbit – George W. Bush had his own plan to send people to Mars, never likely to happen while he was busy bungling the War on Terror, while Newt Gingrich promised a moon colony by 2020. But this was always fanciful thinking – the fact that NASA has not had a permanent director in over a year reveals the truth about exactly how much the US government currently prioritises space exploration.

Thus in recent years it has fallen to private companies (as well as the Russians and Chinese) to keep the hope of future manned spaceflight alive. We are able to fill the sky with myriad commercial and military satellites, but the normally insatiable human appetite for exploration seemed in recent years to have dimmed.

Matthew Continetti makes this point in a piece for the National Review:

It was precisely this dream that seemed jeopardized by President Obama’s 2010 decision to cancel our return to the moon. Not only did America cede the final frontier to Russia and China. The policy lowered our sights. It tempered our dreams. Certain possibilities, such as Americans on the red planet, appeared to be closed off.

NASA’s robot explorers, who have traveled to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the asteroid belt, are scrappy and intrepid. They have told us much about the solar system. But they are not very exciting. They make for good copy in Discover and Scientific American, but they do not quicken the pulse or exhilarate the imagination. Only a vision of the human future in space can do that.

This sense of decline finally started to change with the launch of the SpaceX rocket Falcon Heavy on Tuesday 6 February, a machine half the size and power of the Saturn V rockets used in the Apollo missions but far more efficient and able to carry significant payloads into orbit, and beyond. Meanwhile, NASA’s own next-generation Space Launch System is lagging behind and not due to carry its first manned mission until the highly optimistic date of December 2019.

I found the video of the Falcon Heavy launch – much like the footage of the Apollo missions – profoundly moving. I’m a child of the 1980s, and became an adult in the 2000s. And I can name no human accomplishment which has taken place in my lifetime remotely comparable to the moon landings. Nothing even close. Since the Apollo missions we have betrayed that legacy, hugging our own planet and never venturing beyond low-Earth orbit within the lifetimes of most people on this planet. Some even question whether the accomplishment was real, or if it wasn’t all just deception concocted in a TV studio.

The America of 1969 was not without its challenges and issues. The preceding year had been particularly difficult, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and the Vietnam War protests. Yet despite these trials and difficulties, still the United States accomplished great things, launching (and safely recovering) the first men to ever set foot on another world. We, by contrast, seem overwhelmed by challenges which are no more insurmountable than those we faced in the 1960s.

Humans need vision and purpose. The prevailing political debate in the West implies that we must be concerned with “equality” (of outcome) above all else, that the guiding star of humanity should simply be ensuring that everyone has equal slices of a pie. But equality of outcome is a state of being (and an undesirable one at that), not a destination. As a society, we need to be part of something, to belong to a collective endeavour. Religion has long served that purpose, but is now a diminishing influence for many, while intersectional identity politics threatens atomisation rather than building unity.

President Kennedy once said “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. He was addressing a country and a people who wanted more than simply to protect their own perks & privileges – people who asked what they could do for their country, not what the government could do for them.

Our leaders don’t speak like that any more, because there is no longer any political reward to be gained from calling us to a higher, shared purpose. Atomised and highly individualistic, we couldn’t care less about discovery or common endeavour, or anything that doesn’t directly help us to pay a deposit on our London flat or New York apartment.

It’s easy to blame politicians for our societal and cultural drift, but in truth we get the leaders we deserve. And the reason we are lead by identikit drones who waffle on about “Our NHS” and act like making the trains run on time is God’s highest purpose, or ignorant blowhards who spew empty promises to “Make America Great Again”  is because we reward the people who do so. We are overly self-absorbed.

There is no ambition in our politics anymore, only petulant demands from voters and cowardly pandering by politicians. Young people in particular are (rightly) idealistic – but what, aside from the utterly misguided forced equality advocated by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, is remotely idealistic or ambitious about our politics today? Almost nothing. In Britain, the Conservative government wouldn’t know ambition if it slapped them in the face, while in the United States the “elites” and the “deplorables” are too busy trying to paint one another as Hitler to stop and try to achieve anything remotely tangible.

In 2018, Britain has voted to leave the European Union, and we stand at a unique moment in history. But rather than seizing this opportunity to earnestly debate the meaning of democracy and self-determination at a time when the world is more knitted together than ever before, instead we obsess about personalities and repeat worn-out half-truths and talking points from the referendum campaign.

Rather than starting a serious discussion about the future of the nation state, the challenges it faces and how to preserving meaningful democracy as we move toward whatever comes next, instead we obsess over whether or not the new settlement will put money in our pockets or make us poorer in the short term. The short-term Politics of Me Me Me pervades everything, to the extent that we laugh at and dismiss people who dare to talk about higher ideals.

But this is about so much more than just Brexit; you can agree or disagree with the wisdom of leaving the European Union. This is about the energy, ambition and vitality being sucked out of our politics and gradually replaced over the years with a greedy, grasping self regard. It’s about having no higher purpose (or common purpose) than the fleeting pursuit of pleasure.

That’s why the Falcon Heavy launch, the work of SpaceX and the ambition of Elon Musk struck such a chord this week. The launch of this rocket creates a link to past accomplishments in human spaceflight and reminds us of a time when we set our sights on higher things, when we sought out rather than shunned the difficult challenges, despite the technological deficits we faced. And having witnessed nothing but retrenchment and lowered expectations from government in the intervening years, it fell to a private company and its own commercial ambitions to provide us with that sense of wonder and possibility that we no longer seem able to channel through government or civil society.

 

I look at the historic footage of the Apollo landings, magnificent accomplishments which took place decades before I was born, and ache to live in a time when we as a society cared about something more than our bank balances and social status; when we aspired to goals greater and more noble than mere “tolerance” and “equality” among atomised, self-interested individuals.

Each one of us has in our pocket a computing device more powerful than that which sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, those brave pioneers, to the moon. What are we doing with the near-limitless intellectual resources at our disposal? With the kind of wealth and purchasing power that only aristocrats and industrialists enjoyed a century ago? And yet with all these advantages at our disposal, for what accomplishments will we be remembered fifty years hence?

We are better than the current depleted state of our national ambition suggests. I don’t know how we rediscover or rekindle the spark, but we urgently need to do so. Western society is drifting, as evidenced by the furious obsession with social justice and identity politics in an age of unrivalled riches and opportunity, by our failure to stand up for small-L liberal Western or Enlightenment values at a time when they are under attack on all fronts, and by the shrinking of our political debate into a question of what the government ought to do for us rather than what we can do for our countries, and for the world.

On January 27 1967, three brave American astronauts died during a routine test of their space capsule. They gave their lives for a higher ideal and paved the way for us to later set foot on the moon. As a society, as a species, we need to once again be worthy of their sacrifice, and the bravery of those who followed in their footsteps. Otherwise what the hell are we all doing?

 

Falcon Heavy maiden flight

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Thirty Years After Challenger, Who Now Inspires Us To Dare Mighty Things?

Whether we meet triumph or disaster in our national endeavours, our politicians – and their words – are no longer up to the job of inspiring us to move forward

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat”

– Theodore Roosevelt, 1899

Thirty years ago today, the NASA space shuttle Challenger exploded in flight shortly after takeoff, killing the crew of seven.

Responding to the tragedy, which was witnessed by millions of people on live television – including many schoolchildren, for one of the astronauts was to be the first teacher in space – US president Ronald Reagan addressed the nation. He said:

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and, perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s take-off. I know it’s hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

[..] There’s a coincidence today. On this day three hundred and ninety years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today, we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Two decades earlier, and another tragedy. On April 4 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was been shot and killed by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee.

On hearing the news, Robert Kennedy, then junior senator from New York, addressed a crowd of people in the open air in Indianapolis, saying:

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

My favorite poem, my – my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

[..] And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Now think about the last great British political speech you remember.

And don’t mention Hillary Benn huffing about Britain doing “our bit” to defeat ISIS in Syria, because competent and well delivered though it was, if that now passes for a great political speech for the ages then we are all ruined.

Need some more time to think?

Challenger Shuttle Memorial

There is no poetry in our politics any more. There is barely even decent prose, judging by the inauthentic passion of Ed Miliband or the randomised utterances of someone like Sarah Palin in America. In place of poetry – the kind of language which is only possible when we focus on ideas, goals or aspirations bigger than ourselves – we have dull, technocratic language about the performance of our precious public services, and overwrought emotional language either detailing how something makes us feel, or demonising the other side (the Evil Tories).

Imagine if David Cameron responded to some future aviation or exploration disaster by talking about slipping the surly bonds of Earth and touching the face of God. Just picture it. He would be laughed out of office – or at least mercilessly pilloried in the press – for speaking in what we would now consider to be such a pompous way. At best you might tease from him a few careless, cookie-cutter lines about the families of the victims being in our “thoughtsnprayers” (or just thoughts now, more commonly). But nothing big picture. Nothing that encourages us to look beyond ourselves for one second.

That’s because in our society today, there is nothing bigger than the Self. We are the gods of our own lives – or at least we often think so. And politicians, painfully aware of this fact, talk down to us as though we were children, always seeking to catch our eye with flashy pledges of “what’s in it for us” rather than what is necessarily good for the country, or for human liberty and progress.

Vote Labour and your NHS waiting times will go down. But don’t worry, we’ll get them to pay for it through higher taxes. Vote Conservative and your taxes will go down, and if that means fewer public services for them, so be it.

Now I’m certainly not suggesting that taxes and public spending are not important issues. But when even the Conservative Party can fight the 2015 general election on an offensively paternalistic manifesto promising “a plan for every stage of your life“, can we really deny that we have become a nation of consumers rather than citizens, more interested in who will deliver the most goodies for ourselves and the people we like than who will best steer the ship of state through challenging times?

That’s what we now expect from our prime ministers today – not a world leader, but a lowly Comptroller of Public Services. No call to arms in service of a great national goal. Nothing remotely inspirational at all. Just a checklist of things promised to us in return for our vote. I’m not assigning blame for this depressing chicken-or-egg state of affairs. But this is how our politics now works, more than ever. Less asking “what you can do for your country”, and much more emphasis on “what your country can do for you”.

Even the coming EU referendum – when the British people have a vanishingly rare opportunity to reconsider the very way that we are governed, the way we face the world and deal with the challenges and opportunities of globalisation – is being treated by the main campaign groups on either side as a parsimonious matter of saving or incurring relatively trivial sums of money, with rival (and equally ludicrous) numbers being batted back and forth by the rival camps.

Vote Leave asks us to imagine freedom from the EU in dismal terms of saving enough money to build a new NHS hospital every week, as though that trumps the democratic right of the British people to live in a sovereign country, while Britain Stronger in Europe attempt to bribe us with a gimmicky calculator purporting to show how much our shopping bill will go up unless we remain part of a European political union.

It’s all so tediously depressing and uninspiring. Is it any wonder then that political apathy is on the rise, and that those of us who remain engaged increasingly opt for virulently anti-establishment parties like UKIP or the SNP? Or that with the decline of moderate religion and our failure to confidently express and transmit British values through our culture, some disaffected young Muslims, rootless and yearning to feel part of something bigger, are stealing away to Syria to fight for ISIS?

I’m a political blogger, and for my sins I sit and listen to far too many political speeches by cabinet ministers, shadow ministers and other establishment types. And to begin with, I thought that I would judge a speech according to whether it felt in any way inspirational, transcendent or like a genuine attempt to rally people toward a goal beyond their own personal enrichment and the state-sanctioned smiting of the hated “other”. A speech which, regardless of its political leaning, might set the pulse racing a little with possibility.

Well, four years later and my pulse continues to flatline. I haven’t heard a genuinely good speech yet – as in one that you might actually remember six months later or recite a key passage from – at least not one hailing from the three main parties. If anybody believes that they have heard one, please send me a link or transcript and I will be forever in your debt.

Maybe I’m just romanticising the past. Maybe in thirty years’ time when Ed Miliband’s kid is running for the leadership of the Labour Party, we will all look back on Ed’s fifteenth personal relaunch speech or David Cameron’s 2015 general election stump speech and hail them as bold, visionary masterpieces. Maybe.

But I strongly suspect that in the year 2046, anybody wanting to listen to listen to a great British political speech – with the exception of those made by firebrands like Margaret Thatcher – will have to look back in time almost a century, and certainly past the haunted late years of the 2010s.

 

Downing Street - Podium - Lectern - Press Conference.jpg

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Best Thing Of The Day

As Commander Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut serving aboard the International Space Station, prepared to leave space and return to Earth – quite possibly for the final time – he released this excellent cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, featuring vocals and guitar which he recorded while floating in zero gravity on board the ISS:

 

As Andrew Sullivan says, not a bad voice for an astronaut.

Best Thing Of The Day.

SEMI PARTISAN SUMMARY

CULTURE

Slate magazine thinks that fastidious chefs are doing it wrong and that everyone needs to relax when it comes to worrying about the perfect oven temperature to cook their masterpieces – because the perfect oven temperature is a myth. Apparently some people pay people to “calibrate” their ovens every year, a waste of money given the fact that ovens heat above the set temperature and allow it to cool below before reheating, and the fact that different parts of the oven will maintain different temperatures to the area with the thermostat. This is a total vindication of my “make it up as you go along, don’t measure things and see what happens” philosophy of cooking.

Neil Armstrong is recovering well from heart surgery according to a report from NPR. Armstrong, the first man on the moon, now aged 82, recently had heart bypass surgery according to his wife. Neil Armstrong is an outspoken opponent of recent cutbacks to the NASA budget, recently telling Congress: “For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable”.

PoliticalOmnivore writes a smart review of David Frum’s first novel, “Patriots”, which I am currently also reading. Frum, a leading American and Canadian conservative intellectual, and former Bush administration official, has written an excellent novel which provides an insider’s glimpse into the seedy underside of Washington D.C., and the way that recent political trends (the Tea Party etc.) are influencing the behaviour of the thousands of political operatives working in D.C., serving the powers that be. I will be publishing my own review of “Patriots” on this blog in the coming days.

Another piece from Slate, scolding us for admiring the physiques of the female Olympic beach volleyball competitors, rather than their athletic skills. Justin Peters, the author, makes a fair point, though I think he goes a little too far in referring to Boris Johnson as an “asshole couch dweller”.

The astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station have a unique perspective on the London 2012 Olympic Games, writes astronaut Joe Acaba on his NASA blog. He writes: “I think watching the Olympics reminds us that we share one planet and that we can respect one another no matter what our differences, yet at the same time we can be proud of who we are and what we represent”.

A moving memorial from The Economist to recent failed missions to Mars, against the background of the recent success of NASA’s Curiosity rover in landing successfully on the surface of the red planet.

 

BRITISH POLITICS

The same left-wing blogs who so viscerally oppose the idea of unpaid internships, or the government’s welfare-to-work plans for unpaid work experience in exchange for benefits, are apparently posting recruitment advertisements for people to work as interns in a “voluntary” capacity. Blogger Guido Fawkes calls them out for their blatant hypocrisy.

<< Nothing else worthwhile to report on British politics. The Olympics eclipses everything… >>

 

AMERICAN POLITICS

A rare voice of sense in today’s Republican party, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md) has spoken out against the hysteria and apocalyptic language being used by some of his GOP colleagues as the budget “sequester” – the compulsory draconian spending cuts designed to kick into effect if the two parties could not agree a comprehensive spending deal – comes closer to becoming a reality. Appealing to the better nature of lawmakers, Bartlett says: “We need to stop with all the superlatives about the thing and be rational about it and involve the American people on it. It’s their country. It’s their kids that will have to fight the next war. They have a right to be involved, don’t they?” Hear, hear.

The Economist ponders the difference between “buying a little social justice with your coffee and buying a little Christian traditionalism with your chicken”. Their conclusion: “… the best arena for moral disagreement is not the marketplace, but our intellectual and democratic institutions. We hash out our disagreements, as best we can, in public deliberation. The outcome of this deliberation becomes input to official policymaking, which in turn determines the rules of the game for business.”

Tim Stanley, writing in The Telegraph, cries a river for Mitt Romney over the recent harsh campaign ads that the Obama campaign has unleashed upon the Republican nominee-in-waiting. Pulling the partisan blinkers firmly into position over his eyes, he conveniently skips any mention of Republican “death panel” talk, or GOP intransigence on striking a bipartisan deal on the budget and deficit reduction. According to Dr. Stanley, “… we can also detect a strategy for winning that runs counter to liberal faith in his powerful personality. In short: hope and change are out; divide to win is in.”

A Perfect Landing

NASA’s Curiosity rover sends back a picture of Mount Sharp from the surface of Mars.
Picture: NASA

Amazing news. NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, successfully and safely landed on the surface of Mars in the early hours of the morning EST on Monday 6th August.

The New York Times summarises:

In a flawless, triumphant technological tour de force, a plutonium-powered rover the size of a small car was lowered at the end of 25-foot-long cables from a hovering rocket stage onto Mars early on Monday morning.

The rover, called Curiosity, ushers in a new era of exploration that could turn up evidence that the Red Planet once had the necessary ingredients for life — or might even still harbor life today. NASA and administration officials were also quick to point to the success to counter criticism that the space agency had turned into a creaky bureaucracy incapable of matching its past glory.

“If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space,” John P. Holdren, the president’s science adviser, said at a news conference following the landing, “well, there’s a one-ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity, and it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”

Among the various images that have so far been received by NASA and released to the public, two are so remarkable that there are hardly words to describe them. Firstly, this picture, captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, of Curiosity making it’s landing on Mars, with supersonic parachute deployed:

Curiosity, supersonic parachute deployed, descending to surface of Mars
Photo: NASA

I believe that this is the first ever image of a human spacecraft landing on another planetary body ever taken from this perspective, from above, by a satellite orbiting that body – certainly I have never seen a comparable image from the Apollo missions either landing on the Moon or returning to Earth. It is amazing to watch the human-made Curiosity spacecraft, so small in the vastness of space but representing the very pinnacle of our technical and engineering ability, operating precisely according to the commands of scientists many millions of miles away, and executing a landing on another world.

Also astonishing is this 4 frames/second low resolution video taken by Curiosity, covering the period from heatshield separation to landing on the Martian surface:

 

We can look forward to many more pictures – panoramic images in colour and in higher resolution – in the coming days, though some accomplishments will have to wait awhile:

Over the first week, Curiosity is to deploy its main antenna, raise a mast containing cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser and other instruments, and take its first panoramic shot of its surroundings.

NASA will spend the first weeks checking out Curiosity before embarking on the first drive. The rover will not scoop its first sample of Martian soil until mid-September at the earliest, and the first drilling into rock is not expected until October or November.

Hopefully the initial success of this mission represents a firm step toward an ultimate manned mission to Mars, with all of the resulting benefits to humanity that it would bring.