We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every 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 in 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 the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. 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. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, 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 and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
— Carl Sagan
I know this is short notice for those of you who’ve yet to submit your applications, but today is officially the last day for you to apply for NASA’s 120-day Mars Analogue Mission.
As most of you probably know, astronauts love Tabasco. Ask any of your astronaut friends, and they’ll tell you that space food gets really boring, really quickly. When astronauts are in a zero-g environment, the gravity that normally weighs their blood down can’t do it’s thing. The blood floats around their bodies in all directions, causing their heads to swell up; this is referred to as the “Charlie Brown” effect. This is why astronauts usually look fatter than they really are when video-conferencing from space. It also makes it difficult for them to smell, which means that most of their food loses it’s flavor. Believe it or not, this is a serious problem. According to NASA, “humans eating a restricted diet over a period of months ultimately experience “menu fatigue”, also known as food monotony.” So far, Tabasco has sufficed to keep hundreds of our nation’s top scientists sane in the extreme conditions of an orbital environment.
But it would be wrong of us to rely on hot sauce alone as a solution to the problem of food monotony. Thankfully, the U.S. government is taking this seriously. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been invested in a 4 month study to “determine the acceptability (palatability) of available instant foods and food prepared by the crew from shelf stable ingredients, and determine whether food acceptability changes over time during a four month simulated mission.”
What is this all about? Why are we blogging about this? Well… as painful as it is to think back on the Bush Jr. years (dark times for anybody invested in the ideals of The Enlightenment), you’ll remember that W. unveiled ambitious plans to travel to Mars and beyond. The Mars Analogue Mission test is a lingering consequence of that politically motivated madness.
Which, politically speaking, almost makes sense. During the 1960’s, Americans came together to rally around the idea of “controlling the heavens.” When John Glenn returned from America’s first true orbital space flight, there were parades across the nation. People wept openly in the streets. The Apollo voyage to the moon was an event that is imprinted in the memory of every person alive at that moment in history . The whole spectacle only took a public investment of something like 170 billion dollars. Which is cheap, if the event is viewed as the fulfillment of a millennial vision of the potential of Science & Reason to elevate us out of the Hobbesian reality of 1960’s America.
It turns out that it wasn’t really that big of a deal. We walked on the moon, and so what. Life on earth is much the same as it was in 1960’s - with a few exceptions. The gap between rich and poor has increased by around 33%. In 1965, U.S. CEOs in major companies earned 24 times more than an average worker - forty years later, executives are making 262 times that of an average worker. For a few people - things are a lot better. The titans of Big Oil and Big Coal are making record profits. Jay Z’s planking on a million. But for most people, life is still nasty, brutish and short. And we seem to be drifting back to the very Dark Ages the space race was supposed to rocket us out of.
Readers of The Guardian may have seen this great article, in which Nina Fedoroff, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is quoted as saying “”We are sliding back into a dark era, and there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”
At the same conference, her colleague Professor Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California, San Diego lamented that “Those of us who grew up in the sixties, when we put men on the Moon, now have to watch as every Republican candidate for this year’s presidential election denies the science behind climate change and evolution. That is a staggering state of affairs and it is very worrying.”
This should worry you. You should be upset that during the last decade, our government has given the fossil fuel industry roughly the same amount of money in tax-payer funded subsidies that it took to put a man on the moon - all while they’re recording record profits. You should be mad that renewable energy projects received a fraction of that funding, and that while people are feeling the effects of Global Warming all over the world, Americans are investing in solutions to “menu fatigue” and not a clean energy rEvolution.
Imagine if the people of America (the world’s leading per capita emitter of Greenhouse Gases) organized around the common goal of stopping global warming. Imagine people taking up the challenge of the Energy Revolution with the same patriotic zeal that got us to the moon.
That’s a world we could live in, but it won’t make itself. We need to make it. It will take time, and it won’t be easy. Thankfully, we don’t need billions of dollars worth of new technology to create that future. We simply need the political will.