Posts Tagged ‘Stars’

2017: The Year We Land on the Moon, according to Russian Rocket Pioneer

December 31, 2016

I was watching a talk on CD-Rom last night by Dr. Gerald K. O’Neill, one of the leading advocates of space colonisation. Way back in the 1970s, O’Neill suggested that humanity should colonise space by constructing special space habitats at the Lagrange points between the Moon and Earth. The L5 points are excellent sites for space colonies, as they’re the points at which the gravity from the Moon and Earth interact to form stable points. The space habitats he designed were solar powered cities, with areas of parkland, housing and manufacturing areas. The CD-Rom with these talks came with a book I bought nearly a decade ago by him, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (Burlington Ontario: Apogee Books 2000). However, for one reason or another I hadn’t got round to watching it. I think part of the problem may have been that the computer I may have been using at the time had an incompatible version of Windows.

Along with his other arguments about the ecological and economic benefits space colonisation would bring, and the technological and scientific methods, which would be used in the construction of these colonies, Dr. O’Neill also mentioned that, according to the Russian rocket pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, it would be this New Year, 2017, when humanity would first break out from Earth and land on the Moon. O’Neill makes the point that instead, we got to the Moon 50 years early. He then goes on to predict that, despite cuts to NASA’s budget and the low priority given to funding science, and particularly to supporting the space programme for itself rather than those products which have spun off it, humanity will be colonising space in a centuries’ time. He even predicts that by that time, we may well be starting to send space colonies outside the solar system to colonise the neighbouring stars.

The video seems to date from around 1982, and I’m rather more pessimistic about humanity’s possible colonisation of space. There’s immense public interest in it, but it is expensive using the technology currently available. The costs aren’t prohibitively so. I went to a symposium at the British Interplanetary Society nearly a decade and a half ago, where one of the speakers pointed out that the cost of constructing an orbital hotel actually are the same as building a tower block here on Earth. And once the commercial exploitation of space begins in earnest, launch costs can be expected to fall as new ways and launch vehicles are developed to put people and objects into space more easily and cheaply. Indeed, one of the aerospace engineers talking at the Symposium also made the point that there were planes and vehicles planned in the 1940s and ’50s which would have had the ability to achieve orbit. So, far from humanity being 50 years ahead of schedule, by another set of standards we’re 60 or so years behind.

Still, I hope that with China now planning to send a probe to the far side of the Moon and its unstated intention eventually to send humans there, 2017 won’t be too far off Tsiolkovskii’s prediction. I’d like humanity to begin colonising the Moon as well as the Red Planet. At the moment, we’re just languishing, sending people to the International Space Station. It’s a great scientific achievement, but there’s so much more that needs to be done to open up the High Frontier properly.

Medieval Kingdoms of Infinite Space

April 27, 2013

There’s a little bit in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Q says to Picard ‘What is it your beloved Shakespeare said? ”All the Galaxy’s a stage, and all its people only players’.
‘World’, Picard corrects him. ‘It’s world, Q’.
‘Well,’ retorts Q sniffily, ‘it’s what he would have put.’ Yet a century before Shakespeare, European Natural Philosophers were discussing the possibility of other worlds and extraterrestrial life.

Medieval philosophy and science was based very much on Aristotle. Aristotle believed gravity was a universal force produced by each element seeking its own place in the universe. Thus, things fall to Earth because Earth is their natural place. He ruled out the possibility that there were other worlds, because he felt that if there were, this would mean there was no natural place. Other ancient Greek philosophers, such as the Pythagoreans and Plato, had a different view of gravity. According to Joannes Stobaeus, writing in the 5th century AD, Heraclides of Pontus and the Pythagoreans believed that each star was a world consisting of an earth surrounded by air. Plato in the Timaeus believed that objects naturally sought to rejoin their own kind, in whichever world it was situated. During the fifteenth century there was a revival of interest in Platonism. The leading churchmen Nicole of Oresme and Nicholas of Cusa both believed that gravity was a local phenomenon, and that each star was a centre of attraction holding its constituent parts together through gravity. Nicholas of Cusa went even further, and believed that every star was inhabited, just like Earth. There’s a myth that it was the belief in an infinite number of inhabited worlds which led to the Church burning Giordano Bruno for heresy. It wasn’t. The Church did not have an issue with that. It was Bruno’s pantheism and belief in magic which led to his condemnaiton by the ecclesiastical authorities.

Nicholas of Cusa went even further than believing the universe was inhabited. He considered that while the universe was not infinite, it had no boundaries, and thus had no centre, therefore denying that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. It’s a profoundly modern conception of the nature of the cosmos, even if he shared the medieval belief that each world was surrounded by rings, each ring composed of one of the four elements. It makes you wonder what someone like Nicholas of Cusa would have produced if, rather than writing tale of Romance, they had written Science Fiction instead.


A.C. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo 2: Science in the Later Middle Ages and Early Modern Times 13th – 17th Century (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1959).