space exploration

And the View from Today

Last Monday, I wrote about the way National Geographic had dealt with the wonder of the moon landing when it happened, and felt the same wonder that readers must have felt back then, the same sense that nothing was impossible, and that the future was truly on the way.

But then 50 years passed.

Much of society, in the meantime, have become jaded to the fact that the moon was reached, and look at it in purely economic terms, or view space exploration as a waste of resources hat could be used for whatever pet social project people favor. It seems incredible to me, a mean and miserly way to consider humanity’s greatest achievement, something only minds with small horizons should be capable of, but I’ve seen it often enough that I’m no longer surprised when people say things like that.

In light of this, one might think that Ad Astra‘s edition dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the landings (which I was also given at the ISDC) might contain a certain amount of bitterness, a sense of betrayal by the rest of humanity.

But I forgot who I was dealing with. People who love space exploration are, above all, believers in the invincibility of the human spirit. Not for them reproach or recrimination; this magazine is a wonderful celebration of the past, sometimes a reminder of the fact that we still have work to do, and an affectionate look at the true heroes involved.

If you never read another issue of ad Astra, this one is worth your time. It teaches you how to look back in admiration. Which is the only way to think of the past.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is a look at a future in which humanity has not only conquered the stars but become bitterly divided between those who live a physical existence and those who live only in uploaded versions of themselves. It will make you question what it actually means to be human. You can check it out here.

More ISDC Goodies

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Humanity’s greatest achievements are the moon landings. Nothing comes close. It’s literally (as well as figuratively) on another plane to everything else we’ve ever done. It was a statement of intent, that we are not going to live and die as a single-planet species doomed to irrelevance.

Since the landings, of course, the misguided souls who believe that we need to focus on Earth first have, unfortunately, stunted humanity’s growth, but a new generation of explorers are now focused on important stuff again… and they’re rich enough not to care if someone whines, which governments sadly could never do. Spurred by this, governments have been forced to put space front and center again, and we have a new space race.

But when I went to the International Space Development Conference in 2019, it was poignant to see what the last thing humanity has to be proud of actually is. They gave me a reprinted copy of the article in the December 1969 Issue of National Geographic that reported the Apollo 11 landing, complete with the original covers.

We should have something better by now. But the closest thing we currently have going for us is that the last time there was no human being in space was on October 30, 2000. Hopefully, that will be the last day in history in which the human race is chained to a single ball of dirt.

So I reread this Nat Geo excerpt. It’s an emotional experience. Sometimes, the fifty-odd years that have passed seem to have blunted the importance of the event in daily life. We forget that a quarter of the humans on the planet were watching the Apollo 11 mission. Everyone in the world stopped what they were doing when the landing occurred. Baseball games were interrupted so people could sing patriotic songs. Foreign leaders were glued to the TV. We just can’t imagine, in 2020 what it was like for those who experienced it.

That emotion and sense of something incredible happening hits you with full force as you read the fifty-year-old coverage. Thanks to this reprint (more than 60 pages), I lost hours watching moon landings one after another. 11. 12. 14. 15. 16. 17. Each different, and each the most important thing any human has ever done except for the others.

If you’re too young to understand, try to get a copy of the magazine (no one throws away National Geographics, so they should be cheap) and read the coverage from people who appreciated just what they were seeing, unsullied by years of earth-first dullards and pessimism breaking the human spirit. It will be an eye-opening experience into a world where anything seemed possible. It was possible, but people who hate seeing others spread their wings have worked against it since.

It’s the only way you’ll truly understand the new space age which is coming.

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer from Argentina whose critically acclaimed Siege deals with how humanity can evolve and still find itself at the brink of extinction… taken there by its own offspring. You can check it out here.

Ad Astra Again

For someone who’s never been a paid member of the National Space Society, I’ve received a reasonable number of editions of Ad Astra, the Society’s magazine.

It’s all because of being a science fiction writer, of course. SF writers, as a breed, are usually kindred spirits to NSS members (except for those writers who specialize in whiny near-future pessimism). We look to the stars and believe that humanity is essentially awesome and that we’re going to be facing the challenges of life in space sooner rather than later.

So some of my activities get me into positions where copies of Ad Astra come my way.

The first time was back in 2008. As a total unknown, I entered a contest for an antho called Return to Luna, sponsored, in part, by the NSS. As one of the winners, my story “Ménage à Trois” was published in the resulting book. Part of the prize was a year-long membership in the NSS, and I received a year’s worth of the magazine.

More recently, I scored second place in the Jim Baen Memorial contest, and got to go to the Award Ceremony in Washington in 2019. The ceremony took place within the framework of the National Space Society’s annual convention, so I got another chance to grab copies of Ad Astra. (As an aside, the story which came second was eventually picked up by NewMyths.com and should be available to read in their December 2019 issue by the time this post is published. So if you’re curious, go ahead and have a look).

Since I was given a copy of the Winter 2019 edition of the magazine, I read it.

And I loved it. Not so much for the specific information it contained or for any spectacular achievements in writing or graphic design (It looks decent but not hyper-polished) but because of the sheer optimism it exudes. It’s nice to feel surrounded by people that, when faced with a difficult problem say “what if we try this?” instead of shrinking from the challenge. The kind of people who believe the only true failure is the one you don’t learn from.

In a world where people seem to respect pessimism and seem to celebrate those who remain within the accepted limitations imposed by society while not overreaching, Ad Astra rekindles ones’ faith in humanity. We aren’t just a bunch of angsty whiners; some people are still looking outward and striving for greatness.

I’ve gone on record saying that I think the moon landings are humanity’s greatest achievement, and that we’ll never do anything more important than that until we leave Earth. This magazine is my proof that I’m not alone.

Hopefully, I can win a few more of these as time goes on. If not, I may just have to join the NSS!

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose book Siege looks forward into humanity’s far future where the challenges of space colonization and posthumanism come into sharp focus and are faced off against humanity’s unconquerable spirit. You can check out the well-received novel Siege, here.

The Last Frontier in Art

It’s no secret that we like art here.  For our readers entertainment, Classically Educated has visited museums, discussed modernist movements and generally illustrated our posts with art that strikes our fancy.

It’s also no secret that we believe space is where humanity’s eyes should be focused, and that any argument for “fixing Earth first” can only seriously be expressed by people who combine shortsightedness with an appalling lack of imagination.  Nothing in the world denotes a person with limited intellectual faculties than someone who believes that money should be removed from space exploration because there are poor people right here who need our help.

So, a combination of two things we feel passionate about should be an incredible journey, right?

The Art of Space by Ron Miller

Well, in the case of The Art of Space by Ron Miller, I have to admit to mixed feelings, although this is more due to my own prejudice than any failing of the book.

The problem is twofold.  In the first place, I was brought up on book covers and illustrated space books as a child and, to a lesser degree, the covers of the pulps.  This was the kind of art I was expecting to find in page after page of this book.

Secondly, I like to gaze at space art as an escape, not necessarily to study technique or see what fine artists were doing in the genre.  This book is much more a history of the evolution of the different types of space painting (painting of planets, space vehicles, etc.) than a gallery of images intended to create a sense of wonder.

Does it have wonderful images in it?  Yes.  Covers as well, of course.  But this is a book perhaps left to the person who studies art for art’s sake who, for some reason is looking at space as a subject.  As an art aficionado, I clearly have a huge blind spot when it comes to what I want from space art.

I can’t seem to leave my populist inclinations aside in this particular genre (so much for my supposedly unassailable elitism) and seem to prefer the garish fascination of pulp to the much more refined visions in this book.

Oh, well.  Nobody’s perfect.  If you can get past that, this is a really good book.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Incursion has the most garish cover of any of his books.  Ironically, he’d asked for something more subdued and was overruled by his publisher.

Humanity’s Greatest Achievement – and How it Relates to Science Fiction

I did a double take and had to look at the phrase again. I was sure I’d read it wrong. But no, there it was:

“…that exercise in futility.”

I almost threw the book away.

You see, this particular phrase was referring to the moon landings. It was calling the friggin’ moon landings an exercise in futility (and how sad is it that Apollo XIII is a more popular Google search than Apollo XI?). And this wasn’t a tract in some misguided critique about government spending, created by people with limited intellect for other people with limited intellect. It occurred in a book of collected speculative fiction, in a science fiction story of all things.

Moon landing Astronaut

I had to lay the book aside and think a little. When I was growing up, science fiction fans were absolutely convinced that there was no future for humanity other than one which took place among the stars. There were technical difficulties, of course – FTL travel being the main hurdle, and generation ships being the response – but there were no doubts. Humanity would continue to explore, continue to expand, as it had always done. Just ask Asimov.

And then, at some point, seemingly in the nineties although adults might have been infected earlier, attitudes changed. Suddenly the moon landings were no longer considered mankind’s greatest achievement, and many people failed to see them as the first step in the colonization of the solar system. Of course, most of these people were irrelevant. They were people with their “feet firmly planted on the ground” (as they themselves would admit with pride). To the SF world, that simply meant that they were just another unit in the plodding herd of sheeple, a group completely devoid of both intelligence and imagination.

But sheeple, like other cud-chewers, are good for one thing: breeding. And by processes both biological and philosophical, the mindset which holds that we should focus on earth and forget “useless, expensive adventures, whose cost would be better spent on practical things” is spreading. NASA is an emasculated joke. ESA and the Russians are trying, but they’re strapped for cash as well as short-sighted.  The Euros are clipping spending (after decades of utopian spending in other areas caught up with them), and private space exploration is just getting started.

Fortunately the Chinese seem determined to become the world’s most important nation (and they seem to be smart enough to realize that space exploration is an important part of that primacy, much more than the social reform the west insists on).

It has gotten to the point where even Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s smartest man, feels he has to intervene directly in order to nudge wayward humanity back onto the correct path.

So how does all of this relate to science fiction literature?  And, more to the point, what would I say to other SF writers out there?

In answer to the first question, I’d have to say pretty directly, in fact. Probably the easiest way to get humanity back on the ball is to bypass the parents directly and restore the fascination with spaceflight in the teens and children, who are naturally attracted to it anyway. We can safely ignore the whining that says that SF literature is dying (read any of Dozois’ Summaries, and you’ll see that a hell of a lot of stuff is being printed in the genre), but what we do need to do is move the genre back to its roots.

Let’s explore the future once again, and get those kids away from sparkly vampires and steam-powered airships (if anything is an exercise in futility, it is the sparkly vampire story). I also don’t feel that many media tie-ins are doing their bit, despite their popularity. Alastair Reynolds has already taught us that there is extremely good money in deep space stories, so what are we waiting for? There are agents and publishers waiting for your take on the genre.

We tend to minimize the power our words have to change society’s conception. But great literature has always shaped the world we live in. Cinema is already dominated by the speculative genres – now all we have to do is to turn this into a tool for good. It’s our turn to herd the sheeple, so let’s get to it!

 

This post was originally published – in a different form – in the Apex blog in 2010.

The Pale, Small, Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot

If anyone asks what the most important words ever spoken by mankind are, you have our permission to use the following four: “Houston, Tranquility Base here.”

We are assuming here that they will limit you to around four or five words.  If you have more, you can continue the phrase, but it kind of ruins the subsequent argument, because part of the fun is seeing if the recipient knows what you’re referring to.

Pause for those still trying to figure it out…

The next words are, of course, “The Eagle has landed”, which concludes the first non-technical phrase spoken by men on the moon (it seems the first actual words were “contact light”, which was an instrument reading and nowhere near as fun).

Eight words, and easily the most important ever spoken by a human.

Many people will disagree with this.  And those people will fall into many groups, but mostly, they are people with a serious lack of a sense of proportion, created by various subjective readings of the world.

Let’s dismiss the easiest group first.  The lunatics (in an ironic turn of phrase).  This is the group composed of people who insist that mankind hasn’t walked on the moon, that it was all faked in a Hollywood basement.  This same group will also tell you that astrology is a science, just like math*, that a bunch of Templar-influenced Illuminati run the world (see here for our other thoughts about this), and that you should really stop limiting yourself to what science says is correct, as there are so many things science just can’t explain.  Then they’ll recommend a homeopathic doctor.

Lunar Footprint

While you’ll never be able to make thinking beings out of this group, you can at least make them think a little by asking them why the Soviet Union never denied the moon landings.  If that doesn’t work, just send them here; with any luck they’ll spend so much time attempting to refute the overwhelming evidence that they won’t annoy you again.

The other group are more insidious.  They are articulate, educated people who have lived their entire lives under the mistaken assumption that there are more important things to do with public funds than explore space.  These people will, with perfectly straight faces, and a look of concern, point out that there have been many more important words spoken in history.

“There have been declarations of war,” they will say.  “Declarations of peace.  Announcements of the curing of a disease.  Even Bell’s ‘Mr. Watson – Come here – I want to see you,’ changed the world more thoroughly. Hell,” they will say, “have you forgotten Churchill’s speech about the many and the few?  Or the founding sparks of the French revolution? Civil rights announcements!  Friends, Romans, Countrymen! Are you actually serious?”  They are likely quie agitated at this point.

Sadly, many intellectuals feel this way.  That’s bad enough, but so do a lot of people who aren’t intellectuals, which in this case is worse.  You see, the great mass of voters are basically the group that has kept humanity on the ground.  Do you really see the people supporting space exploration when the alternative is more health benefits?  Neither do I…  the solid salt of the Earth isn’t noted for being particularly far-sighted.  This doesn’t stop governments with billions of dollars to spend from listening to them.

And yet, what all of these people are forgetting is that every single one of the “acceptable” candidates for “humanity’s most important words” have one thing in common.  They were all spoken on one single planet far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy which orbits a small unregarded yellow sun.  It is where most of human history has transpired, but it is also the prison of humanity until we can break the chains.

Just by being spoken on a different world, Armstrong’s phrase immediately overcomes them.  Look at it from a wider angle, and it becomes clear: the universe is huge, Earth is inconsequential, and the occurrences on its surface are clearly less important than those in a wider area.  Anyone who feels that humanity’s future is on the planet needs to get an urgent transfusion of ambition and the capacity to dream.

Fortunately, for the first time in decades, the future of meaningful human exploration is actually looking up.  China, of course, is planning to go to the moon, to follow its unmanned rover with manned missions, and to do it soon.  They don’t really have to worry about popular opinion, fortunately, plus, the program seems to actually have plenty of support.  Hopefully they’ll ignite the west, the Russians and the Indians.

But things are also looking up in the West.  The Russian space agency has recently completed it’s first craft built with no Soviet technology, and space tourism is still booming.  Getting humanity into space means getting people into space… and space tourism programs are doing that in relatively good numbers.

Martian Surface

Virgin Galactic is another venture that is definitely going to help.  As private companies take more people into space, costs will go down (strange that governments never seem to manage that), and more people will go into space.  It’s exciting to see this starting, and all the spaceports being built… with places as unlikely as Scotland leading the charge.

Even the US, primary culprit in the stumble on the road to space, is developing a better spaceflight roadmap.  Not only has it contracted out many lift operations to private rockets (SpaceX and Orbital Sciences currently fly to the International Space Station – and both are developing manned vehicles), but even the NASA itself is developing a new manned program, wonder of wonders.  They seem to want to harness an asteroid, bring it a bit closer to earth and send people out to have a look.  Seeing how dormant NASA has been since the shuttle era, it’s nice to see something that ambitious being seriously developed.  The launcher and capsules are in advanced testing stage and are BIG.

The ultimate prize for having perspective, however, must go to Mars One.  This Dutch company has understood that, while humanity as a group will always have to succumb to the whims of its most plodding members, there will always exist individual humans who have a bit more vision.  This company is planning to start sending humans on one way trips to Mars in 2024. They had 200,000 volunteers for the first call – and they are pretty realistic about how to fund the efforts.  One can only hope they succeed.

Perhaps, with all this private activity in space, we can soon hear words that are more important, on an objective scale, than Armstrong’s.  After all, staying on one planet simply dooms us to insignificance on any valid scale.

*This was an exact phrase said to the editor of this site.