The Lost Future

I’ve started to watch a new TV series: For All Mankind. Very interesting. Thought provoking even.

CCCP flag on the Moon!? Crazy, eh!

What an incredible show! Where do I start? The premise is simple yet foreboding. Everybody knows that the Americans landed on our single natural satellite on 20 July 1969. In fact, my mother swears that it was one of the first important memories that she formed in her early teens. She was 14 at the time.

That day was an important one for billions around the globe. Regardless of their whereabouts, political convictions (communist, capitalist, non-aligned), everybody was ecstatic about it. I mean wouldn’t you be excited if you were alive on that momentous day?!

Be that as it may. The fact is that the guy who produced this show, Ronald D. Moore, is a genius. Imagine if you will a world where not the Americans reached the Moon but the Soviets did. A full 4 weeks ahead of the United States. Imagine just how different everything would have been. I mean the possibilities are just unending. Where would we be right now if that had happened?! Would we even be here at all?! Perhaps not. Or maybe we would have been born but spoke our national languages and then a little bit of Russian. Who knows?

Enough said. I am not censoring myself in any way by not pursuing this line of thought. I am just cognizant as to how deep this particular ‘rabbit hole’ goes. And I am not particularly fond of its ramifications. Counterfactual history is all fine and dandy. But is it now?! Would we enjoy all its potentialities? I think not.

What if that was replaced by this …
Tough luck for America, eh. Or is it tough luck for the world as we think we know it today?!

In any case, I am not going to play on America’s historical insecurities and fears of underachievement. Instead I am going to place the spotlight on what I think is germane to this story.

When America followed up and made history that July day, it did not just make JFK’s dream come true, it also killed the space program. Yeah, yeah, I know most people will say “What is wrong with this crazy dude? What does he know? Nothing, right. Right!”

Well I do believe that America singlehandedly killed its space program with one swift stroke. When Neil Armstrong walked on the face of the Moon, he put paid to humanity’s dream of reaching the stars perhaps in the next century if not couple of centuries. Why do I say that, you might ask. Fine, I’ll bite.

Look, when the idea is to reach out and start exploring the solar system and perhaps, why not, even settle it or colonize it so to speak, you need to conjure and gather all the energies of this planet to this single objective of making the stars our home. It’s not enough to think “To the Moon and back” or “To Mars and back”. You need to think big or go home, literally, go home. If you don’t think on a huge scale then you are not thinking things through. Even the Toy Story characters got it better than NASA or the Soviet/Russian space program. “To Infinity and Beyond!”, said one cartoonish toy character. And he was right to say that.

What our parents and grandparents generations did not get was the fact that once that Ohio born trio of astronauts ‘landed’ on the Moon, then that was it. Not so fast, one might say. What about all the other missions that explored Venus, Mercury, Mars, all the inner and outer planets of our system?! Why am I not mentioning that? Well, my friends, quite simple. How many of those missions were manned? Zero. Yeah, zero. I mean, unless I missed it and somebody send someone to Mars or beyond, and then that’s on me.

Jocularity aside, why do you think that was? I believe I know precisely why. The Soviets called it a day, preferring to invest in ICBMs and nuclear weapons. The Americans were perfectly content to do the same. And so, a common uniting dream became a dividing nightmare. One that we are still living the consequences of today.

So, if you ask me I will tell you that I would that the Soviets really reached the Moon on 22 June 1969, so that the Americans developed some gonads and went after them, perhaps deeper into space, thus carrying us all into the future alongside them.

I guess Monty Python got it all right.

Our universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
In all of the directions it can whiz;
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!

A lot of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny and perhaps the race to win the Cold War came out in the wake and because they put a man on the Moon in July 1969. But nothing, I mean nothing could replace the lost opportunities that humanity did not pursue because of that moral hazard.

Yeah, that’s right. I equate America winning the Moon Race with a moral hazard.

A moral hazard is what happens when you insure your house, and then instead of taking care of it just like you would if it wasn’t insured, you start taking risks, unnecessary ones. So, one day, you burn it all down. By mistake. And while you might get your money to rebuild from the insurer, you just lost all your precious stuff.

Another example is what happened to hockey players once protective gear became mandatory. Before, players would get some concussions, sure. People bumping each other will make that happen. After the helmets were introduced, players started to pay less attention than before. And that is when bad accidents happened, people ended up in wheel chairs, or six feet under.

Same thing happened when kids discovered the new kid-proof medicine bottles. Before, a few dosed themselves by accident. After, a lot more became statistics. Just because someone though of a way to make the drug receptacles more secure. That is a moral hazard. It is counter-intuitive. It doesn’t make sense. But it happens. It happens all the time.

And so when the United States reached the Moon before the USSR, humankind became the unwilling victim of the biggest example of a moral hazard that it had ever had the misfortune to partake in.

Forget all the technology that we all benefited from due to the space program. Forget all the microwave ovens and gear that has made our life easier, better, more fun in the last 50 years. That is nothing compared to the opportunities lost by generations to come. That is a trifle compared to the wasted time, which measures in hundreds of years or tens of generations, which could have been used by humanity to make the jump from a one-planet race to a multi-planet, and eventually multi-system race.

People like to think of how well things played out so far. That is incredibly stupid and nonsensical. That is quite daft and moronic. Perhaps, we do not deserve the greatness, which awaits beyond this planet. A race of smart beings would talk less and do more. A truly smart people would abandon the small chat, all the little wars over resources or idiosyncrasies, and focus on the big picture.

After all, if we wait too long now, we might go the way of the dinosaurs, and frankly it would be an empty post-scriptum to a forgettable story, yet somehow an appropriate one for such a stupid bunch of individuals. If we don’t get our act together and start thinking like a group, then we will all pay for our lack of foresight.

Carl Sagan had this to say in 1994, two years before he died:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
This image of Earth is one of 60 frames taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990 from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In the image the Earth is a mere point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Our planet was caught in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the Sun. This image is part of Voyager 1’s final photographic assignment which captured family portraits of the Sun and planets.
Courtesy of NASA and JPL.

Carl was a great scientist and a good human being. He wanted us to understand our common responsibility towards our future. And while his words reflect the science of his day, nothing changed since that day. And that is what is wrong with this picture. We need to move on, to advance the paradigm of human knowledge. And we need to leave Earth, perhaps not all, but some. We need to create options and we need to do that sooner rather than later.

For I fear that one of these days, either by design or by accident, something will happen, that will limit our options in bad way, in a very bad way. So yes, we need to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

But we also need to get out of our galactic neighborhood. Just because it is the only world known to harbor life… so far. We need to change that. And we need to abandon this self-defeating mindset that Earth is where we make our stand. Earth needs heroes not martyrs.

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