f there’s any single thing that marks somebody as a geek in the original sense, it’s space travel.
Computers were once the sign of true geekdom but now everybody is into computers at some level. Excitement about getting beyond Earth’s gravity is now the defining geek characteristic.
Many people don’t care or even disagree with that excitement, as the pullback after the Apollo moon landings showed. But for geeks who grew up with fiction about space travel in books, then TV and film, it is a baseline belief that going to the stars is a worthy goal.
n recent years, though, that baseline belief has shifted for this geek. I’m having second thoughts about concentrating on space travel for an unexpected reason: The success of private space ventures.
Before I explain, you can ponder this and other interesting space issues on Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. when Science Cafe New Hampshire holds its latest online session, “Space Travel: Surviving the Trip.”
The focus will be on the effects of space flight on humans, from sleep patterns to genetic changes to muscle atrophy to altered vision, and how to deal with them. The lineup is stupendous (I had nothing to do with it).
It includes Dartmouth engineering and medicine professor Jay Buckley, a physician who flew aboard a 16-day Space Shuffle mission in 1998. His research interests include aerospace medicine and motion sickness, which I suspect is a bigger problem than earth-bound folks think. I fantasize about going to the space station but fear the effects of upchucking in microgravity.
Also on the panel is Laura Barger, assistant professor (part-time) at Harvard Medical School, who has published research on how life on the space station alters astronauts’ sleep patterns (not usually for the better), and Colorado State University professor Susan Bailey, whose research into changes in DNA telomere length and activity is one of 10 projects studying Scott and Mark Kelly, the identical twin astronauts.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more knowledgeable trio for this topic. To watch the event and participate via YouTube or Facebook Live, check the links of the website sciencecafenh.org.
I’m excited about this Science Cafe because I’m fascinated by the idea of humans leaving our home planet (that video of twin SpaceX boosters landing still gives me chills). So why did I say earlier that I have come to have doubts?
The problem is that the astonishing success of SpaceX and others have turned space travel from a global social good into a private escape.
It has become clear that a common motivation of going to the stars is hope that it will be the ultimate screw-everybody-else technology which lets the “meritocracy” escape the ecological disaster we’re all making.
That is, by the way, an idiotic hope. I love Kim Stanley Robinson’s books, too, but Blue Mars is a fantasy rather than a blueprint. It’s ludicrous to think we can geo-engineer an off-planet safety valve for human existence.
So what’s my worry? Even though the hope is misguided it has rejuvenated the possibility of going to the moon, Mars and beyond, which is valuable for science and the human spirit.
The problem is that too many powerful geeks see their space fantasy as an excuse to not care that their money, time and attention is also creating problems at home, from climate change to returning us to the unbalances of the Gilded Age. It’s a supersized version of the rich guy who make a fortune from practices and technologies that damage America but doesn’t worry because he can always flee to his house in New Zealand.
I’m afraid that excitement about space flight has become one of the things giving us permission to ignore very real, very dangerous and very immediate problems. Space travel may not be the “waste of money” that opponents have long argued, but it does have the potential to be an actual obstacle in the way of creating solutions.
Yeah, wildfires are constant and the ocean is acidic and there’s nanoplastic in human placentas, but giving attention to it might get in the way of my plan of being be buried on Mars. Ad astra per aspera!
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve been working at home too long and have lost perspective. Maybe the fact that some selfish dweebs have embraced a foolish vision of space flight doesn’t mean it’s inevitably flawed.
After all, Elon Musk has done yeoman’s work with Tesla at creating one of the technologies we need to avoid climate disaster even as he has been the poster boy of the alternative-world fantasy.
Perhaps, as was true in earlier years, space travel can be an accidental spur to solving global problems rather than an obstacle. Let’s hope so.