07 January 2012

FWS Topics: What are We doing in Space?

Last night, I was at Barnes & Noble with the family, picking through the latest MSF novels, Porsche and gun magazines, when I came across the current issue of Astronomy Magazine, it had a cover story about what we are doing in space. I was even more floored when it was writing by none other than Brian May of the rock band Queen! Brian May, for those who do not know, is not only a brilliant and gifted guitarist, but also has an PhD in Astrophysics from Imperial College in 2007.
He gave a speech at STARMUS in June of 2011 that was not only thought provoking, but rings true historical speaking, and lends credence to sci-fi works like Avatar. Here is the transcript of the speech, which is a work of Brian May, PhD, and should be credited to such.
Before you begin reading this speech, it is a harsh review of mankind and its activities on this planet, and for the record, I'm not some extreme hippy gun-hating environmentatist, but I am worried about the future of our planet and the human race in general, I know that we, has a species, are not prepared for what is coming. I am also a realist and an historian, that is fully aware of the darker side of human expansion and its price. I grew up in Oklahoma, I went to school with members of the Poncan Tribe and was even engaged to a member of the Potawatomi Tribe, there I witnessed the legacy of western colonization, and possible the face of the future if and when we encounter any alien species. This blog is devoted to military science fiction, and I know that as there are wars here on Earth there will be worlds on new planets, either between ourselves or others that may exist out there. But when I read Brian May's speech it made me think about the present and the future.
I hope it does you too.


Starmus 22 June 2011

I could be perhaps perceived as an ideal contributor to this STARMUS conference, since I carry credentials from both music and Astronomy. But in this company I feel very humbled. My qualification as an astronomer is an Astrophysics PhD from Imperial College, on the Motions of Interplanetary Dust, and my credentials as a musician are 40 years recording and touring the world as a member of the rock group Queen, and as a solo artist. As an astronomer, I could very easily speak to you in depth and with confidence on the motions of Interplanetary Dust. As a musician, I could speak to you with some authority on what it’s like to play an A chord at 10,000 watts in Wembley Stadium. But the subject I’ve chosen to speak on today, and the subject that Garik asked me to speak on – because it’s something we have spoken about many times over the years I’ve known him, is a subject I cannot approach with confidence. I approach it with some trepidation, because I cannot be an expert in this area. But also because I feel the weight of worry that what I’m contributing may sound negative, and almost ungrateful, in the company of our brilliant guests, men who have trod the moon and space. Some of what I have to say is speculative, and I hope that our astronauts will be able to put me straight later on and tell me in which parts of my thesis I’m talking out of my hat.
I stand before you today, to address you neither as a musician nor as a scientist, but as a Human Being.

It will be entirely non-technical. I suppose I have an unusual viewpoint, albeit not quite as unusual as our esteemed guest astronauts here, but because I have glimpsed the world from the extremes of the environments of pure art and pure science, and I’ve seen quite a lot of this world.
I’ve been absolutely enchanted by the talks at this conference. Enchanted, stimulated, astounded – because the speakers have all been able to answer so many questions about what we know about the Universe we live in. But I won’t be answering questions in this talk.
It has been amazing for me to meet the astronauts and learn from them how much they share this concern … how much they care for the planet … for the animals … for mankind, a mankind not split into fragments.
My mission here today is purely to frame a question. It’s a question I do not intend to answer, but I hope to stimulate some discussion among the assembled company – most of you here are not only at the pinnacle of current thought, but influential in the world at large.

My Question is simple:


There is more than one shade of meaning in this apparently simple enquiry. On the surface is the purely factual question of what is currently happening in the Human Race’s exploration of the space around our planet, - which has largely been answered already in this great conference – and very exciting it is too.
But my enquiry extends deeper to the question of what our motives truly are, in our further exploration, and ultimately to whether the motives on which we are acting stand up beside our picture of the Human Race in the context of the Universe as a whole. In other words, to cut to the chase: now that the door to the conquest of Space has been opened by brilliant scientists and engineers, and brave explorers, is the rest of the Mankind ready, or indeed worthy, to walk through that door?

And … if we walk through, in bulk … what will we take into Space?

How did this begin? Amazingly it is half a century since Man first ventured outside the thin layer of life-giving atmosphere which surrounds our blue planet. In the 1950s and 60s we saw two powerful nations, the USA, and what was then called the USSR, who were in a state of so-called ‘Cold War’ with each other, both pumping money and human ingenuity into building space rockets to take Man into space. The first steps were very much like Jules Verne’s projectile – a capsule shot into near Space, and then allowed to follow its natural parabolic trajectory, in free fall, back to Earth. It was ascertained that a man could survive in the near vacuum of Space using microcosmic support systems inside metal containers, the first manned space vehicles, and even outside the capsules in the first space suits - our venerable guest ALEXEI LEONOV proved this by his personal courage.

So now it was clear that Humans could journey into Space.

What ensued was a Space Race … a rush to be the first nation to put a human foot on the Moon. Why? Was it in the spirit of exploration, of discovery, or pure human curiosity? Yes, all of these. We know that the two men behind American and Russian initiatives, Von BRAUN and KOROLOEV had dreamed of a moon landing all their lives. But if human curiosity was the only motive, why did the two nations not collaborate? What wonderful way to mend bridges it might have been … to work on such a noble project hand in hand. But of course they didn’t. Why? Because the whole subtext of this endeavour was, just as it had been 40 years earlier for Von Braun in Germany, making V2 rockets to Bomb London – Military. (In Russia KOROLOEV was doing the same job.) The dreams were there, shared by the astronauts, the engineers, the astronomers, who worked on this project. But why did it get the billions of dollars it needed in funding, to make it happen?

Well, I don’t think we can avoid the thought that it was because of quite different reasons. Not only did the conquest of the Moon look like it could give superior spying power, and fire power for the nation who got there first, but the prestige, the bravado, the impression of military might, would surely frighten all nations into submission. The power behind the two National efforts was – in fact – military. I must stress that, by ‘military’, I do not mean that this was the idea of the armed forces. No – what I’m referring to is the military aspirations of politicians, which have to be carried out by armed forces who are often all too aware of the flaws in the reasoning of the politicians.

From then on, one wonders what happened to the motivation – the power. Yes, there were more moon landings – 12 people have walked upon our Moon. But we are now 50 years on, and does it not seem incredible that the huge momentum of that time did NOT translate into a colonization of the Moon by now, half a century later?

Those 50 years have seen thousand-fold leaps in expertise, computer technology, the birth of the Internet – how come this outreach into space stalle? Buzz told us in his address to us that after the clear objective of the first moon landing had been achieved, it became harder to be clear about the objective, and harder to keep the support for the continuing exploration going. Yes – that must be so. But it’s tempting to also theorise that the political ‘powers-that-be’ did not see any immediate advantage in pursuing this path any further. They turned their eyes in other directions. And they were actually quite open about it. Kennedy spoke of Man’s ambition to explore the cosmos in the pursuit of pure knowledge – but the word Star Wars was coined to describe the ambitions of the development of unmanned weaponry in Space instigated by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980 – the Strategic Defence Initiative. And meanwhile, the mighty Saturn rockets no longer roared, and the Moon was left alone.

I can only guess, but I look at a recent failure of an application to study Zodiacal Dust to secure funds of about 10,000 pounds to make further studies of its motions, and contrast it with the roughly 330 million dollars that were allocated for NASA to hit Comet Tempel 1 with a projectile, and please don’t tell me that military considerations have nothing to do with the decision making process. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the scientists who pulled off this feat, but how jolly for the politicians to be able to demonstrate to the world that the USA can hit a target at 100 million miles!

The prime motivation for much of the money allocated to space exploration is evidently still tied up with the military, and with political power. …

If it’s true, are we happy with that? Does that make it the right kind of motivation?

IS THIS WHAT WE WILL TAKE INTO SPACE - through that door - into the future?

Do we take Military ambition? Do we take we take Economic ambition? Politics, economics, and the military seem always to conspire. Do we take the greed and selfishness of big business into Space? Will we rejoice, when we get off the lunar shuttle, in seeing a McDonalds sign? Kentucky Fried Chicken ? Gucci, L’Oreal, Hedge Funds, Insurance brokers?

But what else do we take into Space? Well, probably a continuation of our present behaviour – right?

We need new lands, do we? The Earth is no longer big enough for us? Right? So, briefly … shall we look at the damage we have done already to our own beautiful planet … a planet uniquely perfectly suited to our needs, and the needs of all the creatures who, as Richard Dawkins has reminded us, each at the pinnacle of their evolutionary path, worthily share the Earth with us. Looking at our planet from afar … it looks so peaceful, clean, gentle, unsullied. It evolved over millions of years, with its flora and fauna, its delicate balance of emergent LIFE. But this paradise, this Eden, is not showing us the hurt it has endured, in the mere couple of hundred years since Man became all-powerful. It’s hard to imagine, now, what the Earth was like, just 300 years ago, before we covered it with roads, concrete and fast food chains.

It was literally teeming with life. It’s said that when Captain Cooke first dropped anchor in the Seychelles, there were so many turtles in the sea, you could walk on them all the way to the shore.
It’s said that when the last rail was laid on the first railroad across the USA, you could travel from coast to coast and there was never a time when you couldn’t see buffalo.
Where do we even start to assess the impact we have had on our planet? Garik Israelian pointed out to me that, ironically, we have produced so much light pollution, that most of us can no longer see the stars from where we live … so maybe we have to go into space to see them!
There are already thousands of pieces of debris whizzing around in orbit around the Earth … the remains of spent rockets, and deceased vehicles, from large lumps of machinery, down to stray nuts and bolts – all travelling at thousands of miles a second, not great if they hit you at 20,000 miles per hour as you venture into space.
But let’s look seriously at the mess we make right here - the pollution from humans … its effect on the Earth.
Buzz Aldrin, two days ago in this room, said that getting to Mars will be good for us … we will learn to conserve and recycle on Mars … it will teach us to be better people. I can’t help asking if it might be better if we learned to conserve and recycle and be better people before we colonise Mars? It’s hardly necessary to point out every detail of the way we have treated our planet … how, in only 200 years, we have driven so many land animals into extinction, and are well on the way to doing the same to the creatures who live in the sea. Those of us who are old enough to have been scuba diving for 30 years observe with dismay how much the seas have been impoverished in our lifetime. How we have stripped the planet of most of its vegetation, the very lungs of our world on which we depend for air. How we have pumped so much pollution into our atmosphere that we can’t tell if we are causing global climate change or not.

Is THIS the kind of behaviour WE’RE GOING TO TAKE INTO SPACE?

Every species of animal currently living on Earth, each a triumph of evolution, logically would seem to have the same rights to a decent life and a decent death, as us humans. But somehow – in the rush to propagate our species, the notion came into our heads that really, somehow, Man was the only species that mattered. So we now calmly justify the expandability of every animal on the planet, in the name of advancing our own progeny. Suppose we find that intelligent life we’re so excited about looking for tomorrow? How will we treat it?
At this moment, billions of animals – sentient creatures - are confined in degrading and ghastly conditions, many bred for nothing but to make the most profit out of food production … Cows, Pigs, Chickens, Turkeys, many of them so hideously genetically manipulated that they cannot support their own weight … animals that live a life of constant pain, only to be subjected to a violent, premature death, their torture bodies heading out in shrink-wrap on to supermarket shelves. Read “Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer, if you want the details.

IS THIS the kind of behaviour WE WILL TAKE INTO SPACE?

At this moment billions of mammals, sentient cognizant creatures, are confined in pitiful conditions, deprived of any sensory experience, tortured in the name of scientific research, medical research, the making of cosmetics, and other lame excuses. I have been working with the Hadwen Trust in the UK, which has already demonstrated that progress in medicine may actually be accelerated by the replacement of ALL animals used in medical research, by eliminating pointless and irrelevant experiments, inconclusive because animals react differently from humans to most drugs anyway ... the most tragic demonstration being Thalidomide – a drug passed by animal experimentation as safe for humans, leading to its prescription as a cure for nausea in pregnancy. The result was multiple birth defects, carving a hole in a whole generation of babies.

Is THIS what we’ll take into Space?

At this moment, birds are being bred in tiny boxes, to be released on British moors in a condition in which they basically can’t fly properly, so they can be mown down by armies of men with guns, in the name of sport. At this moment, gangs of men on horseback are lying about what they are doing out in the countryside … claiming that their packs of hungered dogs ‘accidentally’ stumbled upon a fox and tore it limb from limb. Yes, they call fox-hunting - even though it’s now illegal in Britain - a ‘sport’. They claim that torturing a wild animal to death in the name of sport is a ‘human right’ (even though this concept was roundly dismissed in the European Court in 2009).

Is THIS what we’ll take into Space?

At this moment, backed by the governments they have helped to install, farmers whose intensive farming methods have led to the proliferation of disease in livestock, and subsequently to the infection of the wild animals around them, are clamouring for the slaughter of the wild animals whose lives have been blighted by these diseases. The British government has recently announced its determination to cull our native Badgers, in spite of the fact that scientific experiment has proved that culling of Badgers will not even contribute to what they are trying to achieve … the control of bovine TB in cattle.

Is this disregard for the welfare of animals what we will take into Space?

Just supposing we are lucky enough to find animal life out there … is this the way we will reat it?

This is how we treat the other species on the planet. But how do we treat our own kind?

Armstrong and Aldrin planted a worthy plaque on the moon, a photo of which we saw this week … saying … “We come in peace, in the name of all mankind” … and I don’t doubt for a second that this thought was in their hearts and minds. But what did we do, walking through that other door many years ago – the door that the gentle peace-loving pilgrim fathers opened to the other New World? We all but exterminated the indigenous population, the North American Indians, along with the buffalo with which they were interdependent. We enslaved the people of Africa because we thought they were less deserving than us of freedom and dignity. A shameful history.

Slavery was abolished by the efforts of William Wilberforce only a hundred and fifty or so years ago. Yet we all know that human trafficking is still rife. Young labour is imported to all Western countries, kept in conditions of no contact with the outside world. Children are abducted to be used for the pleasure of perverts, in an industry which is spread out across the so-called civilized world. Children are made to work on toxic dumps, seeking out chemicals which will ultimately kill them, and then, worse, the people who keep them enslaved make them endure sexual abuse in return for pickings of the best toxic waste. We fight wars for territory, for political power, we call ourselves peace-keepers yet we use our might to make war in impoverished countries, often protecting regimes of questionable morals. We play God, attempting to change the leadership of countries to suit our own economic needs.

Our record of abuse to animals matched by our record of abuse to our own kind.

\So what will we take into Space? All of this?

If we allow large numbers of men to go into space, who is to stop a country building a military base on the Moon? Or on a conveniently hard-to-monitor asteroid? And using it to bring about the next Hiroshima The next act of destruction committed in the name of keeping peace – or spreading what we call democracy Perhaps the next Hiroshima will be New York, or Moscow, or London. Suddenly the conquest of Space takes on a huge heavy overtone.

We all know the story of COPENHAGEN - the story of the agonies of indecision of Oppenheimer and his colleagues, on whether or not to give the secrets of making an Atom Bomb to their governments. We know what the result was. It is too late to take back the nuclear bomb from the politicians of the world. But it may not be too late to look at that door that leads into Space - no – surely not to close it – but at least put some regulation on it … to stop the proliferation of Man’s foul temper, man’s aggressive behaviour out in the hitherto untouched Cosmos.

Is it possible for Scientists, Artists, men of understanding and empathy, to take a moral stand - take hold of the reins of future exploration of Space, to make laws governing the further exploitation of lands outside Earth? To contain the evils we have wrought on our own world - and behave decently out there?

Maybe the door needs to be held just ajar for a time, while we turn our attentions to the millions of people on this planet who are starving, or dying of diseases which are curable, yet they cannot afford the cure. There many who would question whether even one more rocket ought to be fired while there is still one child dying unnecessarily, while there are still people suffering torture because of their beliefs, animals suffering torture for our pleasure.

Is it a lost cause? Must we conclude that Man, in bulk, is indeed unworthy to step off the tiny blue world, which he has all but destroyed in his folly?

I’m sorry if any of this has seemed negative.

I have actually agonized over whether I ought to give this talk at all … nobody loves the pursuit of knowledge more than I do … I love the simple beauty of science … which enriches our lives … just as I love the simple beauty of music which feeds our souls. I was also a boy who dreamed of being a space man … Dan Dare was my hero … a fictional man of honour, courage and moral rectitude, just like the great men we have shared this festival with these magical days ... the real-life astronauts of our time. We have heard each one of these men express their determination that the future of Space must be shared by all nations - sitting in my room last night, I didn’t want to be the one to doubt that the Human Race could pull it off.

But there is a huge positive side to all this. To asking this question, at this time. This is an opportunity. This could be a new start for Mankind … and many of the people who can make a difference to the future are in this room. If you - if WE don’t ask this question, and take some action, to ensure that we get the right answer … who will?!
OK – for the last time, I ask the question … if we do open the door wide … can we, as concerned scientists, artists, and human beings, find a way to propagate just the decent, noble parts of our civilization?
Not cruelty, but empathy and compassion.

Not greed – but generosity,

Not Conflict - but Cooperation,

Not War - but Peace, in which all men, all women, all creatures, share the glorious gifts of Nature.
The glorious gift OF LIFE.

For now, in a sense, we are all participants at a new Copenhagen.

Thank you.

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