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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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.

Foreign Aid vs Cancer

I should say from the outset that I do not believe a centralised, taxpayer-funded, government-provided healthcare system is the optimal way to deliver healthcare to a population, though I do appreciate the reasons behind the founding of the NHS, and acknowledge that it does deliver generally satisfactory results when compared with other systems, including the various times throughout my life when I have used the service.

I think that the American “best healthcare system in the world!” method is far worse, and that having a concentration of the world’s best medical facilities does not make up for the fact that these world class resources remain off limits to the vast majority of the population with insufficient insurance coverage to pay for them. I also believe that while ObamaCare fixes some of American healthcare’s most egregious flaws (the huge number of uninsured and the ability of health insurance providers to screw their customers), it leaves other problems (the link between health insurance and employers, for example) totally untouched.

Anyway. Since we do have a national health service in Britain, and that consequently healthcare spending must compete with the myriad of other government and departmental priorities from education to national defence, I would hope we could all agree that since the NHS isn’t going anywhere any time soon (being a realist), it should be made to work as efficiently as possible, the levels of spending on it should be justified in terms of tangible outcomes, and equally that the monies which are spent on other areas, to the detriment of healthcare spending, should be able to be justified by the government of the day.

What does all of this have to do with foreign aid, and the money that the British government spends on aid to developing countries?

Well, as right-leaning blogger Guido Fawkes reports today, Prime Minister David Cameron has just been schooled on this very point as he participated in a radio talk show for LBC:

 

In this video clip, David Cameron is confronted by a caller who (while details of the case are clearly lacking), appears to be in great distress because the additional course of treatment for her cancer is not covered by the NHS, and consequently the potentially life-saving treatment is  unavailable to her. He responds, of course, in meaningless soundbites and platitudes, but the look on his face – much as when Gordon Brown was confronted with the realisation that he had called a prospective voter a “bigoted old woman” on a live microphone – says it all.

Indeed, it is very hard to argue against the caller’s point at all.

There can be no justification that I can think of – none – for giving £1.5bn in aid over five years to a country which spends $31.5bn USD on defence, which has a space programme nominally more ambitious than that of the donor country, and which has explicitly stated that it does not want the funds. None.

And when the government takes such an active role in providing healthcare – not just regulating the system and ensuring universal access, but actively providing the care itself through a national health system – politicians will always be ambushed in this way by citizens who feel that the government’s misprioritisation of resources has let them down.

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.

Dare Mighty Things

At 10:31PM Pacific Coast Time on 5th August, NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover is due to touch down on the surface of Mars after a journey lasting more than a year. Curiosity will be the largest, most powerful and versatile exploratory devices ever sent to Mars, or to any other planet. The engineering and scientific ingenuity underpinning this endeavour are quite astonishing, as is compellingly shown in this short video produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

 

While some parts of the multi-stage Entry, Descent & Landing (EDL) phase have been well tried and tested before on numerous missions to Mars or on spacecraft returning to Earth, the “Skycrane” – the final step of the process – has never been used before. The justification for resorting to this method makes perfect sense (landing directly with rockets would kick up too much Martian dust which could damage the Curiosity Rover) and the engineering seems sound, but I just sure hope it works.

When the time comes, it will be possible to view live updates from NASA and the Curiosity Mars Rover here.