Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why has Manned Space Flight been Progressing so Slowly?

The sobering answer is, because most people couldn't care less.

No one has walked on the moon in 35 years. We are further away from the Apollo program than Apollo was from the great depression. Mars is a distant unknown date on NASA's calendar and private space flight amounts to little more than barn storming. The fact is spending the necessary money to explore our solar system is simply a matter of priorities and space exploration is not a priority.

Some would ask, “Why explore space at all?” The only answer this question needs is another question. Why explore anywhere? The answer to that question is going to very from person to person but as soon as you start parsing the answers you will discover something. Most people are not explorers, nor do they recognize the importance of exploration. They will tell you they don't see the point in spending money “up there”. Never mind the fact that all the money will be spent 'down here' they just don't see it.

Many would let machines explore space because it is too dangerous for humans. Don't worry they will. Machines are getting smarter all the time and if they ever surpass us in intelligence then they will inherited the destiny we thought was ours. There can only be one "first step", let it be ours, let it be human. The Universe belongs to us. For now.

Maybe the government should boost spending until private industry can take over. There are no voters in space so politicians as self serving as they are, are not going to fund space exploration. And most people being as self serving as they are, are not going to demand that their politicians spend more money on space exploration. There is a unhealthy relationship between NASA and the U.S. Government. NASA pretends to explore space and congress pretends to fund them.

Space exploration is expensive, you can't do it on the cheap. NASA still hasn't learned this lesson. They intend to retire the space shuttle and even hand the space station over to the Russians to free up funds to build the kinds of rockets we launched 30 years ago. Of course they'll lose the shuttles ability to do repair and assembly missions and the space station as a staging location but they are stuck. Congress just isn't going to come up with money for an energetic manned space program. NASA and every other space agency in the world is underfunded. If it were possible to do more with less then other countries that are talking big and spending a lot less would be going further. No one is where NASA has been because no other government is spending the money the U.S. government has in the past.

Let private industry pay for it. Private space programs are in their infancy but so far no private billionaire benefactor has decided to spend his entire fortune and go to the moon.

Would it even be possible for private business to explore space? They're are no customers in space and there aren't enough people able to drop 20 million dollars on a ride into orbit to make it pay. Let's see a 10 billion dollar a year space program would require 500 people to spend 20 million every single year and risk their life to sustain it. Nope ain't gonna' happen.

Space exploration is going to have to wait until there are literally hundreds of thousands of billionaires. Who could spend 20 million like it's pocket money. That's going to be a long long time.

Of course where there is a will there might be a way. I wonder what that way might be?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

8 Reasons Why We Haven't Been Visited by Aliens

Fermi's Paradox. Where are the Aliens?

In 1950 Enrico Fermi asked this question, more accurately he asked, “Where is everybody?” The universe is so old and large, it has been argued, that there has been plenty of time for many technologically advanced civilizations to arise and spread across the galaxy. Yet, there is no evidence of such life. Interestingly, it is this lack of evidence that is the most compelling argument against there being any other life in the universe. Enrico Fermi may have been one of the smartest people ever to live but I didn't let that discourage me from coming up with my own reasons.

More specifically I decided see how many reasons I could think of to explain why we haven't been visited by Aliens.

1.) They already did and we didn't notice. Many People believe Earth was visited by Aliens in the distant past. Sadly there is no 'conclusive' proof.

2.) There are no Aliens. It is entirely possible that we are the only examples of intelligent life in the universe. Whoopee, the Universe is all ours.

3.) The Aliens haven't found us yet. The universe could be so vast that other intelligent life just hasn't encountered us. Or conversely intelligent life could be extremely rare.

4.) They have found us, they want to surprise us and they're on the way. This one is popular in Science Fiction. We can't get to them so they gotta come to us. I hope they're friendly.

5.) Intelligent life could be self limiting. The competitive instincts of evolution causes intelligent beings to destroy each other in warfare. This one appears all to likely. Let's hope our wisdom can out pace our technology. Artificial Intelligence before nanotechnology please!

6.) They are already here but they are robots in disguise, or lizards, or something. Too weird, I let you Google this one.

7.) Aliens are deliberately avoiding contact. They may be avoiding us for our own good. Sort of like Star Fleets prime directive in Star Trek. We know form Earths history that when an advanced culture comes in contact with a more primitive one, the primitive one usually suffers. Either its culture morphs to take on the characteristics of the more advanced one or it is destroyed trying to compete. Along with the civilization that spawned it.

8.) Aliens just don't have anything to say to us. Another likely scenario. Any aliens that have existed longer than us – pick your own time frame - would be more technologically advanced. They may have enhanced their intelligence to such an extent, that they would view the universe and their place in it much differently than we do. We just may not have much in common. Humans don't spend much time talking to moss and insects and from an Alien perspective that may be just what we look like. Growing and crawling on the surface of this planet. Let's just hope they don't poke a stick in our nest.

There are many other subtle variations on these ideas but I think I got the obvious ones.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Is Science Fiction Mainstream Entertainment?

It is a commonly excepted notion that science fiction has gone mainstream. One way to gage if an idea has penetrated popular culture is to examine its prevalence in our movies and TV shows. Since science fiction movies are some of the top grossing films of all time and come out with some regularity it would be temping to call it mainstream.

I would call science fiction mainstream if its major subcategories were being well represented in our popular culture – TV shows and movies.

For the purpose of examining this question I think it would be useful to break science fiction into three main categories?

  1. Science Fantasy – Does not seek to examine the affects of technological advances but merely uses a futuristic setting to tell an entertaining story.

  1. Movies that focus on one particular advance in technology in order to gage its impact on society.

  1. The last type is more holistic and attempts to guess how we will live our lives in the future taking into consideration a panoply of scientific advances.

Are all of these different types of science fiction represented in mainstream entertainment?

Let's take a look at some popular science fiction movies and TV shows.

The Movies;

Blade Runner, The Matrix,, The Terminator, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Gattaca, Total Recall, Minority Report, Contact, RoboCop, A.I., The Truman Show, 1984, Transformers.

The TV Shows;

Star Trek, Babylon 5, V, Alien Nation, The Six Million Dollar Man, Max Head Room, The Jetson, The Wild, Wild West, Ghost in the shell.

I think this list is representative of the genre. It would be quite an effort to summarize each of these movies and TV shows in detail so I am going to be presumptuous assume familiarity on the part of the reader. For the uninitiated Google these movies and TV shows for more info.

What immediately strikes me about this list is that the TV shows do a much better job than the movies, showing how regular people might adjust their lives to advanced technologies or novel situations.

The movies on the list tend to focus in on their plot with laser like precisions giving us a myopic view of the future. Presenting it through the eyes of just a few key characters. This is an effective story telling tactic but in science fiction it is over used.

What Science fiction movies gain in focus we the viewers lose in perspective.

This is a missed opportunity, thinking about how our society will deal with culturally disruptive technologies shouldn't be limited to just a small percentage of the population. All of our lives and lively hoods are dependent on technology in increasingly overt ways. The technology we develop to make are lives easer can just as easily be turned again society as a hole. The only way we have so far been able to deal with this is through increased surveillance and reduced privacy and freedom.

A more optimistic view of how we may integrate highly advance tech into our lives is needed. Instead of stumbling forward a more conscious discussion about how we will integrate these advances into our culture needs to take place. Science fiction can be a catalyst for that discussion.

Science Fiction is the only branch of entertainment which examines how people will cope with technological advances that may drastically affect how we live our lives. As technology races ahead at ever accelerating rates, it is important that we all are conscious of the possible consequences. Many scientists were inspired by science fiction as children to pursue their chosen professions and many science fiction dreams have became reality.

Should we conclude that science fiction has gone mainstream? To shape the future we must imagine it. If the only time we see robots in our movies they are blowing things up, that may be what we get. Literally.

What makes for a good Science Fiction movie?