Friday 2 September 2022

Artemis’s Sacred Satellite.

Hubris: Looking in wonder at the Moon is one thing, dumping yet more human junk in the lunar dust is another. Inexorably, the vast fossil-fuelled civilisation that has made the space exploration programme possible, is heading for the edge. The human species may, briefly, escape the grip of its planet’s gravity, but only at the cost of jeopardising its long-term survival.

NASA’S GIANT ROCKET may have finally lifted-off the launch-pad by the time you read these words. Or, it could be inching its way back to the outsize shed it came from – for repairs. I hope it’s the latter. Artemis is a jealous goddess: we should leave her moon alone.

I didn’t always feel that way. There was a time, long before I started shaving, when I was a huge fan of the Apollo programme and looked forward to the day when an American astronaut would execute – as the man destined to make it said – “one giant leap for Mankind”.

Thanks to a remarkable birthday gift, I also became a great fan of the huge Saturn V rocket. My excellent scale model could even be launched. Powered by the muscles of older family members, a complicated vertical catapult sent the “rocket” soaring skyward, from whence it drifted back to earth under plastic parachutes that popped, miraculously, out of the model’s hull.

The booklet which came with the toy was full of fun facts about the rocket Wernher von Braun had dreamed of building since the 1920s. I can still recall the precise height of the Saturn V – 363 ft.

But that was then, the 1960s, when the ambitions and ingenuity of human-beings was thought to be limitless. Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry’s boast to “boldly go where no man has gone before”, like his vision of a single, peaceful, bounteous, female-affirming, racially-integrated planetary society, seemed entirely feasible. The exploration of Space was only just beginning. “Warp Factor 5, Mr Sulu.”

It was not to be. Jack “ we choose to go to the Moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” Kennedy turned into Lyndon Johnson, who became Richard Nixon, who brought the Apollo Programme to an end. The Americans had set out to beat the Russians to the Moon, and they had done it. NASA’s ambitions, and its budget, were scaled back. Man had taken one small step towards the infinite – and that was deemed to be enough.

Twenty years later, REM’s young musicians were singing “if you believed they put a man on the moon”. The generations that followed the Baby Boomers struggled to see the purpose of it all. So many billions of dollars spent, so many scientists and engineers working their butts off, and for what? Velcro, non-stick frying pans, and a heap of junk littering the moon’s pristine surface – forever?

They had a point.

But there is still a point – isn’t there – in trying to see that little bit further? In trying to find out what had happened to our nearest planetary neighbours. (Seems that Venus and Mars were once a lot like Earth – which is a bit of a worry!) Some point, too, in capturing the light of a universe that was still young. When the stars were flickering on like a city’s lights at sunset. There is still so much to see out there.

But looking in wonder at the birth of time is one thing, dumping yet more human junk in the lunar dust is another. Even as Gene Roddenberry was dreaming, his planet was steadily warming. Inexorably, the vast fossil-fuelled civilisation that had made the Apollo Programme possible, was headed for the edge. The human species had, briefly, escaped the grip of its planet’s gravity, but only at the cost of jeopardising its long-term survival.

The Mother Ship
That wondrous photograph, snapped by the early Apollo astronauts, of the earth rising above the moon’s horizon, told humankind everything it needed to know. This is the only mother ship you have. This is the only mother ship you need. Heal it before you think of leaving her again. But not enough of us received the message, and now: “Houston, we have a problem.”

Not that Houston’s listening. Houston has the “Artemis Programme” – may already have hurled a rocket bigger than the Saturn V towards Apollo’s sister’s sacred satellite. A risky exercise. If the Ancient Greeks are to be believed, the moon goddess is a dangerous deity.

The hunter, Actaeon, accompanied by his hounds, happened upon the naked Artemis as she was bathing. Furious, the goddess transformed Actaeon into a stag and his own dogs tore him to pieces.

Artemis’s Revenge: Actaeon devoured by his own hounds.
Sometimes it’s as well to leave heavenly bodies in peace.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 September 2022.


David George said...

I'm not at all convinced that human ingenuity and ambition are limited or that we won't continue to surprise ourselves with discoveries and developments we can't imagine.

Earth is like it is because of life, our lifeless rock in space was once, as you say Chris, like Mars or Venus. Iron and aluminium lay about in metallic form for billions of years. Around two billion years ago cyanobacteria (blue/green algae) appeared and began producing oxygen. Everything changed. It's remarkable to think that, of all the billions of species (to say nothing of individuals) that have come and gone, we, and every thing alive today, owe our existence to an unbroken chain of life going back to the origin of life itself. Everyone of your ancestors, right back to the primordial swamps survived and reproduced. Thanks to them.

I really enjoyed Bill Bryson's strangely uplifting 'A brief history of nearly everything', he covers a lot of that. I've read it several times, it doesn't fail to inspire a sense of wonder and deep gratitude. Thanks to him.

DM said...

The progress of human civilisation and ‘saving the planet’ can only be achieved by doing more, not less. The Artemis project is a wonderful example of that quintessential human spirit.

Archduke Piccolo said...

I have long believed that any notion of humankind's colonising the cosmos in any meaningful sense is simply a pipe dream. A nice pipe dream, that has yielded a fine and meaningful literature and entertainment, perhaps containing some philosophical truths, but ... nothing more.

By 'colonising in any meaningful sense' I mean 'to establish human civilisations upon other worlds'. Mining colonies such as depicted in 'Outland' the first 'Total Recall' movies in my view in no way stretch the boundaries of human settlement to accommodate increasing populations and exhaustion of natural resources. Especially when one considers the enormous expenditure of resources even to achieve those limited enterprises.

One feels that among the world's leaders - especially the western world - there lives a kind of cargo cult mentality - as though someone - or something - will intervene to save humankind from itself. 'We could have saved ourselves,' (Kurt Vonnegut), 'but we were too damned lazy to try very hard... and too damned cheap.' I recall some years ago making a list of 7 possible ways the human race will meet its demise. I won't list them here, but I realised later that I had omitted the eighth: 'All of the above.'

Ion A. Dowman

greywarbler said...

DM You will no doubt be quite sanguine about the 'progress of human civilisation' to the extent of offering yourself up for Project Soylent Green' if it happens to be where progress is moving, and your friends and relatives too.
Or perhaps the Project will be enacted in some other distant continent and you will look on with surprise and dismay from your armchair.

A tale of Earth in despair in 2022. Natural food like fruits, vegetables, and meat, among others are now extinct. Earth is overpopulated and New York City has 40 million starving, poverty-stricken people. The only way they survive is with water rations and eating a mysterious food called Soylent.
Plot Summary - Soylent Green (1973) - IMDb
Soylent Green is a 1973 American ecological dystopian thriller film, directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young and Edward G. Robinson in his final film role.
Loosely based on the 1966 science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, the film combines police procedural and science fiction genres, the investigation into the murder of a wealthy businessman and a dystopian future of dying oceans and year-round humidity, due to the greenhouse effect, resulting in pollution, poverty, overpopulation, euthanasia and depleted resources.[2] In 1973, it won the Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film.

The man with more imagination than you DM and perhaps David George.

greywarbler said...

What to do in the future if you want to make change? In 'Oliver' Fagin is sorely disturbed, as every possible avenue turns out to be a cul de sac. Hello to the other Fagins reading this and no thank-you to all directing us to other exits,
saying, 'We are programmed to receive, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave'.

Fagin sings a lovely, lively little song. I like this bit of wish fulfilment. along the lines of 'If wishes were horses, beggars would ride'.

I'm reviewing the situation,
I must quickly look up ev'ryone I know.
Titled people -- with a station
Who can help me make a real impressive show!
I will own a suite at Claridges,
And run a fleet of carriages,
And wave at all the duchesses
With friendliness, as much as is
Befitting of my new estate...
"Good morrow to you, magistrate!" Oh gawd!
I think I'd better think it out again.

Ron Moody enunciates the difficulties:

David George said...

Reading that book, The Short History of Nearly Everything, was like standing on a mountain; only more so. The blessed humility and gratitude born of the realisation of the sheer improbability of our existence? Do read it you've not already.

The other thing that profoundly changed the way I viewed the world, for the better, was Jordan Peterson's brilliant "The Psychological Significance of The Biblical Stories".

Guerilla Surgeon said...

If we're talking about influential books, Hobsbawm's "The Age of Extremes" opened my eyes to the ridiculousness of some of capitalism's shibboleths.
Richard J Evans'"Telling Lies for Hitler" showed me the lengths that some members of the extreme right will go to to alter history.
And funnily enough Jordan Peterson showed me that you can make a huge living selling absolute authoritarian bullshit. Which profoundly – to coin a word – changed my worldview in that I wish I'd discovered this idea when I was young enough to take advantage of it. And of course young enough to enjoy the fruits. Unfortunately though it's also made me cynical about the gullibility of seemingly intelligent people. Perhaps I'm overoptimistic about their intelligence?

David George said...

The will to explore, to see what's beyond the horizon, is a feature, not a bug. Things change, enemies bring danger and disease, over the horizon might be something terrible, a threat to be confronted, or an opportunity to be exploited. We could stay in our place and pretend that what is will always be, fool ourselves that nature and reality are at some sort of permanent stasis. But at what ultimate cost. Think of the Kakapo, perhaps it wasn't such a good "idea" to become reliant on one source of food, to only breed every three years, to give up flying. Better to be adaptable, adventurous and resilient.

Here's a couple of stories that I have a connection to and fascination with.

David George said...

One of the greatest examples of human exploration is the Polynesian settlement, we've no written account but we can piece it together. Using the limited resources at hand these people, the proto Polynesians, courageously pushed out from S E Asia - or were pushed out by the conquering horsemen from central Asia. They ended up colonising lands more than half way round the world from Easter Island in the east to Madagascar in the west; from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the South. What a story!

Although the Polynesian- Madagascar connection is not widely known it now looks likely (from DNA evidence) that they were the original discoverers and settlers. There's no doubt the Malagasy language, their official language is largely Polynesian. Here's English, Maori and Malagasy counting one to ten:

English Malagasy Maori
one iray tahi
two roa rua
three telo toru
four efatra wha
five dimy rima
six enina ono
seven fito whito
eight valo waru
nine sivy iwa
ten folo tekau

David George said...

Another story of resilience and courage is that of my paternal Grandmothers people - the Waipu Scots.

The Highland clearances (genocide?) saw them burnt out, evicted from their humble homes and holding to make way for sheep. The survivors traipsed to the coast in search of work - herring fishermen and general labour mostly. The failure of the fishery brought famine and motivated the resolve to seek a better life. Under the leadership of Rev. Norman McLoed they found passage to Nova Scotia and set up there with work in the cod fishery and forests and set up small farms. Famine returned with the failure of the wheat and potato crops and the lingering effects of the little ice age.

They had heard of opportunities in New Zealand and Australia and again, under McLoed's leadership, they resolved to seek a better life. Incredibly they built and manned their own ships and sailed them to the other side of the world. The ships were then sold and they bought land at Waipu in Northland.
Here's a lovely wee clip telling their remarkable story: 10 minutes

greywarbler said...

For McLeod put Exclusive Brethren's leader and the Gloriavale community. It doesn't compare well. Centrepoint too.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Although the Polynesian- Madagascar connection is not widely known"
Er... Yes it is, among academics and those who take even a mild interest in this sort of thing. It's well known that Austronesians migrated all over the Pacific, mixed and mingled with other peoples, including those in Madagascar. But I don't think that the idea that Maori ancestors actually came from Madagascar is widely believed – perhaps you have some inside knowledge on this. A link would have been nice.

"The Highland clearances (genocide?) saw them burnt out, evicted from their humble homes and holding to make way for sheep."

By their own clan leaders in the main from what I gather, so whether it's genocide to kill your own people or not I don't know – but even so many of them were given assisted passage rather than being burned out. Still not much choice but to migrate but it beats having your primitive hut burned over your head I guess.
And by capitalists who wanted to improve the efficiency of their landholdings. I do thought you'd have approved of that David. After all, human beings can't come before efficiency surely? Except when you have some romanticised connection to them of course.

David George said...

Thanks Grey.
Yes, I've fancied, and gained the impression from the Waipu people, that Mcleod was a Moses like unifying figure leading his people through their almost insurmountable adversities to the promised land. It's quite a story.

I don't know much about the Exclusive Brethren or Centrepoint but I've got a "live and let live" attitude to the Gloriavale people. It's not a life many of us would chose (no private property and submission to strong social control) but as long as they're able to leave if they want then good on them I say. It's good to have diversity like that and it obviously suits some people, I'm surprised it's not more widely studied as a social experiment. It's certainly the most successful large alternative community we've had - apart, you could say, from the pre European tribal Maori communities organised along similar lines.

Anonymous said...

"Houston, we have a problem" is actually a slight misquote. It's what Tom Hanks, playing Jim Lovell in the film about Apollo 13, says. What Jim Lovell himself actually said was "Houston, we've had a problem. We've had a main B bus undervolt" Test pilot dry technical talk, so entirely understandable it was slightly edited for the film, which is generally accurate. The film records how, with maximum ingenuity, on the ground as well as in the damaged spacecraft, the three astronauts made it back safely.

Today, advances in space do not have anything like the interest and support that got men on the moon, and the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely. Apollo 13 was a sort of triumphant failure. But I think the Apollo program overall was a triumph.

The James Web Space Telescope (JWST) is also a triumph of science and engineering today. To work out what needs to be done to see the first light from the first stars ever to shine, and then build and launch the spacecraft to do it, is truly amazing.

I think we do need the ingenuity shown in the Apollo program, and on Apollo 13 in particular, and continuing today with the JWST, to face all the challenges on Earth. Some of that is going to involve really uncomfortable reassessments by some. Germany will now keep two of its three nuclear power plants in service to help get through the energy shortages caused by the Russian gas supply shutdown. For a government including the German Greens, and originally committed to phasing nuclear out, that that was a really tough decision, I'm sure.

Ingenuity is not enough by itself, though. We need solidarity as well. In the first covid lockdown, to save lives by staying home was widely supported, to the degree it succeeded in an initial elimination of the disease. But it needed the development of vaccines, and wide enough acceptance of them (maybe, in some cases, as grudgingly as the German Greens keeping nuclear power) to get to where we are now in New Zealand, a "new normal", with a relatively minimal loss of life from covid.

I'm cautiously optimistic humanity can face climate change, and pull through with minimal casualties. But like New Zealand facing covid, it will take both solidarity, and wide enough acceptance of ingeniously developed new science and technology. To paraphrase an ad from my youth "If the Apollo 13 crew could make it, so can we".

David George said...

"I don't think that the idea that Maori ancestors actually came from Madagascar is widely believed"

Neither do I GS, in fact I've never heard anyone even suggest that. The proto Polynesians were from South East Asia with remnant populations still today in Japan, Taiwan and the Malay peninsular. The language clues, and now DNA evidence, leave no doubt.

I put up the numbers in Malagasy and Maori - here they are, for those interested, in The Easter Island native language:


It's over halfway around the world from Madagascar to Easter Islands, an amazing story. No?

Anonymous said...

Hi David

Madagascar was colonised by a Malay kingdom. Malay and related languages from the Malay archipelago are Austronesian languages, like the Polynesian languages, and the native people's of Taiwan's languages - and like Maori.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

My apologies David I misread your post.