Posts Tagged ‘Saturn’

Apollo Astronaut Michael Collins on Sexism, the Fragile Earth and Banning Guns in Space Colonies

July 13, 2017

Last week I put up a post about a clip of Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, pulling faces at a rambling, incoherent speech made by Donald Trump. Trump was signing into law an act affirming America’s commitment to the space programme. His speech about it was less than inspiring however, and Aldrin, who not only went to the Moon himself, but has also been a staunch supporter of opening the High Frontier up to ordinary women and men, was very definitely less than impressed.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently was Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story, written by the third member of the Apollo 11 crew, Michael Collins. Collins was the pilot, who flew the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon, and then waited in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin made their historic landing, before flying back with them on the return journey to Earth. The book is Collin’s account of how he came to be astronaut. Determined to be a pilot after being allowed to hold the joystick of a passenger aircraft on which he and his family were travelling as a child, he joined the USAF and became a test pilot. He then moved on to join NASA’s space programme. He describes the rigorous training required, and his first flight into space with John Young in Gemini 10 in July 1966. He also explains how he came, reluctantly, to leave the astronaut programme for a variety of reasons, not least was the way it was stopping him from spending time with his family. And in his final chapter he, like Aldrin, looks forward to the future spread of humanity throughout the Solar system and beyond, with humans going to Mars and then Titan, a moon of Saturn, which may hold the key to the origin of life.

This isn’t an explicitly political book. Nevertheless, Collins does comment on specific issues as they affect the racial and gender composition of the astronaut programme, his perspective on the importance of the environment and why he believes guns would be banned by the inhabitants of a space colony. These are all issues which Trump, his supporters and donors in the gun manufacturers and lobbyists would strongly oppose.

In the passage where he discusses how he and the other astronauts became part of a panel, whose job was to select a fresh batch of astronauts, makes a point of explaining why only white men were selected. He then goes on to comment that although this was what was done at the time, he believes and hope that this will change, and that Blacks and women are just as capable of flying air- and spacecraft equally well. He points out that the highly technological nature of modern aircraft means that there is absolutely no biological obstacle to women piloting such high performance machines. He writes

Note that I have said “he”, because there were no women in the group, nor where there any blacks. In thinking about that, it seems to me that there were plenty of women and blacks who could get the highest marks in categories 1 and 4 [their intelligence and how badly they wanted to be astronauts], but in 1966 categories 2 and 3 [education and experience] tended to rule them out. There simply did not seem to be aeronautical engineers and experienced test pilots, who were black or women. I think, and hope, that will change in the future. Flying a modern jet aircraft does not require a great deal of strength, for one thing. Hydraulic flight controls, like power steering in a car, prefer a light touch, and women should do as good a job as men. Obviously, an airplane has now way of telling the skin colour of the person flying it. (pp. 72-3. My comments in brackets).

He describes how looking at the Earth from space made him aware how fragile it was, and of the importance of preserving the environment.

I will never forget how beautiful the earth appears from a great distance, floating silently and serenely like a blue and white marble against the pure black of space. For some reason, the tiny earth also appears very fragile, as if a giant hand could suddenly reach out and crush it. Of course, there is no one giant hand, but there are billions of smaller hands on earth, working furiously to change their home. Some of the changes being made are good, and others bad. For example, we are learning more efficient ways of catching fish, and that is good because it means more people can be fed from the oceans. If, on the other hand, these new methods result in the disappearance of species, such as whales, then that is bad. The automobile gives us great mobility, but pollutes our atmosphere. We cook cleanly and efficiently with natural gas, but we are running short of it. Newspapers and books spread knowledge, but require that trees be chopped down. It seems that nearly every advance in our civilisation has some undesirable side effects, Today’s young people are going to have to acquire the wisdom to see that future changes help our planet, not hurt it, so that it truly becomes the beautiful, clean, blue and white pea it seems to be when viewed from the moon. The earth truly is fragile, in the sense that its surface can easily shift from blue and white to black and brown. Is the riverbank a delightful spot to watch diving ducks, or is it lifeless greasy muck littered with bottles and tires? More people should be privileged to fly in space and get the chance to see the fragile earth as it appears from afar.
(p. 146).

Further on in the book, he states that future orbiting settlements would get their power from solar energy, as this would not only be abundant and free, but also clean, unlike coal. (pp. 150-1).

He also remarks on the way the Apollo missions differed from previous historic expeditions in that the explorers were unarmed, and suggests that the future inhabitants of a space colony at one of the libration points where the gravity of the Earth and Moon cancel each other out, and so named ‘Libra’, would similarly see no need for carrying weapons.

Apollo set a precedent for the future in another interesting way. It was probably the only major human expedition in which no weapons were carried. In similar fashion, no weapons would be permitted on Libra and Librans simply would not be able to understand why earth people continued to shoot one another. On Libra, if people felt hostile, they would be urged to put their energies into athletic contests or other competitive events, or simply to let off steam by going flying.

He then describes how the lower or zero gravity in the colony would allow people to fly aircraft power by their own muscles. (pp. 154-5).

Most of this is, or at least should be, non-controversial. Scientists have been warning us about the immense danger to our ecosystem, and the horrific decline in its natural wildlife as more and more habitats are destroyed, and an increasing number of species threatened with extinction, since the early ’70s. Among those warning of the ecological perils to the planet was the inspirational astronomer and NASA scientist, Carl Sagan. And indeed, one of the most powerful images that stimulated ecological awareness and the burgeoning Green movement was that picture of the Earth as a fragile, blue orb hanging in the blackness of space taken from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. Way back in the mid-1990s the Beeb’s popular science programme, Horizon, devoted an edition, ‘Icon Earth’, to how this photo had influenced politics and culture.

The picture hasn’t just made more people aware of the urgent need to protect the environment. Some of the astronauts have spoken about how it brought home to them how artificial racial and national divisions are. They point out that there are now boundaries visible from space. Helen Sharman, the British astronaut who flew with the Russians to Mir in the 1980s, states in her book about her voyage that space helps to foster international understanding and cooperation. She observes that astronauts are the least nationalistic people.

As for guns, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that shooting in the enclosed environment of space habitat could have truly disastrous consequences through the damage it could do to the machinery and fabric of the colony itself, and their ability to preserve human life in the harsh environment of space. A bullet through the outer skin of a spacecraft could lead the escape of its air, causing those within to die of suffocation and decompression.

Trump, however, is supported by the racist and misogynist Alt Right, who would like to roll back Black Civil Rights and women’s social and political gains since the 1960s, while the Republican party as a whole is generously funded by the NRA and the gun lobby, and the Koch brothers and other industrial magnates. The Koch brothers own much of the American petrochemical industry, and so, like many of the other multimillionaire businessmen, are very strongly opposed to any kind of environmental protection. The Kochs in particular are responsible for closing down awkward parts of the American meteorology and environmental science laboratories when they dare to issue warnings about the damage industry is causing to the country’s natural beauty and wildlife. They are then replaced with other institutions, also funded by the Kochs and those like them, which then conveniently deny the reality of climate change. The Republicans and their supporters in industry have also set up fake ‘astroturf’ Green movements, like Wise Use, which seek to undermine the genuine environmental movement.

Given the way the experience of looking back at our beautiful planet from space has transformed political, social and cultural perspectives all across the world, you can understand why some astronauts just might feel they have excellent reasons for pulling faces at their president.

Government Internet Censorship in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Titan’

July 6, 2017

One of the very real concerns about the current attacks on freedom of speech by British and American governments is these states’ demands for increasing powers to regulate and censor what is posted on-line. This has all been framed under the pretext of protecting the British and American peoples from pornography, especially paedophile, and terrorism.

Stephen Baxter is one of Britain’s leading writers of Hard SF. This is the subgenre of Science Fiction, which follows Asimov and Clarke in being based on real science, though obviously also with a greater or less degree of extrapolation and invention permitting the inclusion of FTL drives, AIs and aliens. Baxter’s best known for his Xelee sequence series of books. These are set in a universe dominated by the advanced and unknowable Xelee, an alien race so far ahead of humanity that humans and the other intelligent species compete with each other to scavenge bits and pieces of their technology. At the same time, the universe is being prematurely aged by the Photino Birds, dark matter creatures for whom the light and warmth of the universe of normal matter is a hostile environment.

Baxter has also written a number of novels set in an alternative world. In Voyage, he described a crewed NASA expedition to Mars, whose triumph – a successful Mars landing – comes just when the entire American space programme is cancelled. The book was adapted as a radio play and broadcast on Radio 4.

In Titan, published in 1995, Baxter tells the story of a group of NASA and JPL scientists and astronauts, who launch a manned expedition to Titan to investigate further the discovery of living biochemistry by the Cassini probe. This is to be NASA’s last hurrah after the crash of the Columbia space shuttle results in the cancellation of the manned space programme. The story begins in 2004, in a world that is almost identical to the present of the time the book was written.

There are a few exceptions, however. Amongst the new inventions of this future past are computerised tattoos, which change shape according to the wishes of the wearer, and soft computer/TV screens, which can be rolled up and pasted on walls like paper.

And one of the issues that is very alive is the American government’s ruthless censorship of the internet. This is discussed in one scene, where NASA’s head, Hadamard, meets Paula Benacerraf, an astronaut aboard the ill-fated Columbia mission, her daughter, Jackie, who is responsible for publishing the discovery of life on Saturn’s moon, and her young son, at an official ceremony in Texas to honour China’s first taikonaut, Jiang Li.

He found Paula Benacerraf, who was here with her daughter, and a kid, who looked bored and restless. Maybe he needed to pee, Hadamard thought sourly. On the daughter’s cheek was an image tattoo that was tuned to black; on her colourless dress she wore a simple, old-fashioned button-badge that said, mysteriously, ‘NED’.

Hadamard grunted. ‘I’ve seen a few of those blacked-out tattoos. I thought it was some kind of comms problem -‘
Jackie Benacerraf shook her head. ‘It’s a mute protest.’
‘At what?’
‘At shutting down the net.’
‘Oh. Right.’ Oh, Christ, he thought. She was talking about the Communications Decency Act, which had been extended during the winter. With a flurry of publicity about paedophiles and neo-Nazis and bomb-makers, the police had shut down and prosecuted any net service provider, who could be shown to have passed on any of the material that fell outside the provisions of the Act. And that was almost all of them.
‘I was never much of a net user,’ Hadamard admitted.
‘Just to get you up to date,’ Jackie Benacerraf said sourly, ‘we now have one licensed service provider, which is Disney-Coke, and all net access software has built-in-censorship filters. We’re just like China now, where everything goes through the official news agency, Xinhua; that poor space kid must feel right at home.’
Benacerraf raised an eyebrow at him. ‘She’s a journalist. Jackie takes these things seriously.’
Jackie scowled. ‘Wouldn’t you, if your career had just been f***ed over?’
[Censorship mine].
Hadamard shrugged; he didn’t have strong opinions.
The comprehensive net shutdown had been necessary because the tech-heads who loved all that stuff had proven too damn smart at getting around any reasonable restriction put in place. Like putting encoded messages of race-hate and smut into graphics files, for instance: that had meant banning all graphics and sound files, and the World Wide Web had just withered. He knew there had been some squealing among genuine discussion groups on the net, and academics and researchers who suddenly found their access to online libraries shut down, and businesses who were no longer allowed to send secure encrypted messages, and … But screw it. To Hadamard, the net had been just a big conduit of bullshit; everyone was better off without it.
(pp. 130-1).

This is Science Fiction as the literature of warning: against cuts to the space programme, and net censorship. It even mentions rising graduate unemployment, in a scene where Paula Benacerraf arranges a meeting with her team to discuss the possibility of launching a crewed mission to Titan. They meet at dinner party in Benacerraf’s house, served by her housekeeper, Kevin. Kevin is a fine art graduate, who is working as Benacerraf’s housekeeper in order to work off his student debt. His works are the usual horrors inflicted on the world by contemporary artists. In her only visit to his atelier, Benacerraf is shown a 1/4 size sculpture of himself which Kevin has gnawed from a block of lard. This is just a study for a full-size work, which he intends to gnaw from his own liposuctioned fat or faeces. As she and her guests are being served by Kevin, she reflects that he is like the majority of graduates, who will never have a job.

Well, the shuttle programme has been cancelled, but hopefully this will not prevent the further exploration of universe. The Chinese certainly are looking to put a person into space, and are believed to be aiming to land a human on the Moon by 2020. Baxter also mentions this in Titan in his description of the spacewoman’s mission to the Deep Black, where he states that this is believed to be in preparation for a moon landing in 2019.

And Baxter is absolutely correct about the demands for a comprehensive censorship of the internet by the British and American governments. The only difference is the terrorists the governments are panicking about are Islamist, rather than neo-Nazi. So far, the demands for censorship have been limited, so there isn’t the almost-complete shutdown of the net described in Baxter’s version of the recent past.

But this is still a very real danger, as these accompanying threat, which Baxter didn’t predict, of increased state surveillance of electronic communications, for the same reasons as censorship.

Someone once remarked that all science fiction is really about the issues of the time they were set. Titan reflects the fears about the internet that were present back in the 1990s, when it was first emerging. These fears, and the consequent demands by government to censor nearly everything we see or read online, are still very real, and Baxter’s book is still very relevant.

NASA Suggests Life Could Exist on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

April 18, 2017

And now for a bit of positive news. In this video from Seeker, the host discusses NASA’s announcement four days ago on 14th April 2017 that the Cassini probe had discovered traces of hydrogen above Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Saturn’s moon is believed to have an ocean beneath its icy surface. The hydrogen is believed to have been produced by hydrothermal vents, like those at the bottom of Earth’s oceans, and have escaped through the ‘tiger stripes’, or cracks in the moon’s ice sheet. This could indicate that life is also present on Enceladus’ ocean floor, as the hydrothermal vents or ‘black smokers’ in Earth’s oceans are also the haven for life. The ecosystems that have developed there are based on methanogenesis, in which hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide to produce energy. The process is believed to have been at the basis of the evolutionary tree of terrestrial life, and may even have been the origin of life on Earth. The presenter states that the probe has not discovered the other two chemicals necessary for the presence of life, sulphur and phosphorus, but these are believed to be present as well.

It is, however, possible that Enceladus is too young for life to have evolved there yet. If life does exist on the moon, Cassini won’t be looking for it either. The probe was not designed to land on Saturn’s moons. Instead, it is scheduled to end its nearly 20 year mission by crashing into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it will be crushed by the immense pressures of the gas giant. This was to prevent it contaminating Enceladus or Saturn’s other moons by crashing on them. NASA is planning to send another probe to Saturn in the 2020s. This probe will also investigate Europa, which may be a better candidate for the presence of life. It not only also has an ocean, but is also older, at 4 billion years old, and so may have been around for enough time for life to evolve.

Patrick Moore on a Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as the Star of Bethlehem

December 18, 2016

The Christmas season is definitely upon us, so I thought I’d post something seasonal. Patrick Moore was sceptical of some of the explanations offered for the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Magi to the infant Jesus. In the 1983 edition of the Yearbook of Astronomy, he dismisses the idea that it could have been an particularly bright appearance of Venus, noting that the planet was far too well known to appear new. He also noted that no new stars were recorded in the astronomical records of the time.

However, in the 1981 Yearbook of Astronomy, he speculated that an extremely rare triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in 7 BC, and that this could be the basis of the Star of Bethelehem because of the immense significance this would have had for contemporary astrologers. He wrote

If we regard the periods [time taken for planet to complete one rotation around the Sun – Beastrabban] as 12 and 30 years approximately, we see that Jupiter covers about 30 degrees a year, while Saturn moves through 12 degrees. Thus, Jupiter gainis 18 degrees a year on Saturn, and conjunction of the two planets can only occur at an interval of 20 years. If both planets travelled in circular orbits it can be shown that only one in six of these conjunctions could possibly be triple, and we should then expect to have a triple conjunction every 120 years. However, both of these giant planets have accentric orbits, and both are subject to severe perturbations, so tyhat this average is never realized. the last three tiple conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn occurred in 1452, 1683 and 1940, and the intervals here are more than double the 120 years. In all of these cases, the time between the two oppositions was of the order of a day or less.

One tripole conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn has received a great deal of attnetion. This is the conjunction of BC7 which, it was suggested, could be the explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. This old idea had been rejected in many quaarters because the two planets were well separated in latitude and were, in any case, familiar objects to the Magi. In recent times the subject has been revived, but now the astrological significance of the even has been emphasized. This seems a more reasonable suggestion, though it does not explain all the details of the story. Certainly the rarity of this triple conjunction (which the Magi would never have witnessed before) would give added significance to the event. (p. 83).

Tolstoy’s Prediction of the First World War

April 27, 2014

As I’ve mentioned before, this is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and already the BBC has put on a season of programmes commemorating the conflict. I’ve blogged on Michael Gove’s criticism of the negative view of the First World War, which he feels denigrates the courage and patriotism of the soldiers. He attacked the Beeb’s comedy series, Black Adder Goes Forth, as an example of this, and compounded his argument with knee-jerk Tory anti-intellectualism by claiming that the view was promoted by ‘Left-wing intellectuals’. A number of bloggers have attacked this diatribe, including Mike over at Vox Political. It has also provoked a response from the creators of graphic novels, who are putting together several albums presenting the horrific reality of the conflict as a response to Gove’s Right-wing patriotic view of the War.

Many people in Europe in the late 19th and first decade of the 20th centuries were very much aware of the looming threat of world conflict. One of those who foresaw it and its mass carnage was the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. As well as a writer, Tolstoy was a pacifist Anarchist. He hated the horrors of modern, industrial society and the state that oppressed the Russian poor. He saw the solution in the abolition of the state and traditional peasant society, to the point where he gave up much of his life style as a Russian aristocrat to live, dress and work like a peasant. As a young man, he had, like many other noblemen, been a soldier and had fought in the wars to conquer Chechnya and the Caucasus. He had been highly impressed by ideas of a Chechen Sufi leader, who, when his nations’ attempts to resist the Russians through armed force were repeatedly suppressed, rejected violence and advocated instead a policy of non-violent civil disobedience. Tolstoy himself rejected violence, and took up the Sufi leader’s ideas. In turn, Tolstoy’s advocacy of the policy influenced Gandhi in his own campaign against British rule in India.

Tolstoy also campaigned on behalf of the Doukhobors, a heretical Russian Christian sect, that also rejected violence. It was due to Tolstoy’s support and that of British Quakers that the sect emigrated from Russia to settle in Canada.

He promoted his Anarchist and pacifist ideals in a series of books, What Then Must We Do?, The Kingdom of God is Within You and The Restoration of Hell. They also influenced his magnum opus, War and Peace. This was written to show that history was not made by a few great men, but by the actions of millions of ordinary people. Lionel Kochan discusses Tolstoy’s ideas, his criticisms of contemporary society, and prediction of the coming War in his Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970). Tolstoy attacked just about every aspect of contemporary society, including science, the press, religion, state education, and the state as a system of organised crime itself. Kochan writes:

Tolstoy, no doubt, showed little, if any, awareness of the deep-rooted complexity of the evils he stigmatized; no doubt, also, his positive doctrine was thin enough – the gospel of universal love, undogmatic Christianity, sexual abstinence, non-resistance to evil, the renunciation of tobacco and alcohol – for all that his later work constitutes an anarchist programme of profound strength. His unbridled criticism of society and its values, his corrosive and derisive scepticism, made him an anarchist more anarchic, a nihilist more nihilistic and a revolutionary more destructive than any whom Russia had yet brought forth – far more consistent and humanistic than Bakunin, far more hard-headed than Kropotkin.

What is science? He asked. Had it done anything of value to human life in determining the weight of Saturn’s satellites? What was universal suffrage? A means whereby the prisoners elected their own gaolers. Had industrialism raised the standard of living? Then look at the slums and doss-houses of Moscow. Tolstoy derided division of labour as a device for turning men into machines, book-printing as a medium for communicating ‘all the nasty and stupid things that are done and written in the world’, and reform for teaching people ‘that though themselves bad they can reform bad people’. What did the church do but maintain idolatry ‘in the most literal sense of the word – worshipping holy relics and icons, offering sacrifices to them and expecting from them the fulfilment of the worshippers’ wishes’? What did compulsory education do but ‘teach the savage superstition of patriotism and the same pseudo-obligation to obey the state’? What was the press but a means for ‘exciting feelings of mutual hostility between the nations’? What were the governments of the time, despotic and liberal alike, but – and her Tolstoy quotes Herzen’s phrase – ‘Genghis Khans with telegraphs’? The modern state was a mechanism so interlocked and interdependent that it became impossible to discriminate between the guilty and the innocent: ‘Some people demand the perpetration of a crime, others decide that it shall be done, a third set confirm that decision, a fourth propose its execution, a fifth report on it, a sixth finally decree it, and a seventh carry out the decree.’ Tolstoy’s apocalyptic vision of a state given over to destruction culminates in an anticipation of the imminent First World War:

‘The bells will peal and long-haired men will dress themselves in gold-embroidered socks and begin to pray on behalf of murder … The editors of newspapers will set to work to arouse hatred and murder under the guise of patriotism and will be delighted to double their sales. Manufacturers, merchants, and contractors for army stores will hurry about joyfully in expectation of doubled profits … Army commanders will bustle here and there, drawing double pay and rations and hoping to receive trinkets and crosses, stripes and stars, for murdering people. Idle ladies and gentlemen will fuss about, entering their names in advance for the Red Cross and getting ready to bandage those whom their husbands and brothers are setting out to kill – imagining they will be doing a most Christian work thereby.’

Kochan criticises Tolstoy for not understanding how enthusiastic and patriotic Russian servicemen initially were for the War. However, he then goes on to quote the great writer’s prediction of the condition of the soldiers in the War’s later stages, men who

‘will trudge where they may be driven, stifling the despair in their souls by songs, debauchery and vodka. They will march, freeze, suffer from hunger, and fall ill. Some will die of disease, and some will at last come to the place where men will kill them by the thousand. And they too, without knowing why, will murder thousands of others whom they had never before seen, and who had neither done nor could do them any wrong.’

For Tolstoy, the coming world war would ‘devour in a year more victims than all the revolutions of a century’. (pp. 157-8).
I strongly disagree with most of Tolstoy’s criticisms of contemporary society. He was, for example, wrong about science not benefitting humanity. it clearly has and had, most obviously in the improvements in medicine, that appeared in the 19th century. And printing and the press have increased knowledge and much good around the globe, despite the fact that they can often be used for evil. Having said that, he does have a point with the Sun, Daily Mail, and Express.

It will, however, be interesting to see if the BBC or anyone else, in their programmes on the Great War, mention Tolstoy’s prediction.

As a pacifist Anarchist, Tolstoy’s political views were strongly disapproved by Paul Johnson in the Spectator. In one of his articles in that journal he described the great novelists as somehow – I’ve forgotten quite what he wrote – being responsible for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s tyranny. He never described how this was so. He simply asserted it, and went on. The only thing Tolstoy had in common with Stalin is that they were both radicals, who revolted against the Tsarist state. And possibly that they both had military careers. Apart from that, Tolstoy hated everything that Stalin stood for – militarism, an oppressive, coercive state, brutality and murder. And Tolstoy himself was far from unique in wishing to see a radical reform or overthrow of contemporary society. By 1905 the Tsar’s reluctance to establish any kind of constitutional reforms had pushed most sections of the Russian society in opposition. Even the Union of Unions, made up members of the liberal profession – doctors, lawyers, vets, scientists, engineers, teachers, university professors – not the usual bomb-throwing nutters – were advocating the use of violence if all else failed. There was another writer called, Tolstoy, Alexey, who survived into the Stalin era to write pieces praising the dictator. It looks like Johnson confused the two due to the same surname. But Leo Tolstoy would have been utterly opposed to the old thug.