September 29, 2012

A long-ago way of thinking...

Bruce Charlton's Miscellany: Human capability peaked before 1975 and has since declined: (Thanks to Ed Driscoll.)

...I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since.

This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.

Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer *wanted* to go to the moon, or could not afford to, or something…– but I am suggesting that all this is BS, merely excuses for not doing something which we *cannot* do. ...

Apollo was the culmination of the Industrial Age. It happened during the 60's, which was exactly when a new age of the world was beginning, the Information Age. It is my theory that this had nothing to do with personal computers or the Internet, which were still in the future. Rather, it was a change in how people thought. (Link to my Info Age pieces, if you are curious.)

And what Apollo was mostly about was not technology or space exploration. It was about, "The whole nation pulls together." As in fighting a war. Which was the purpose; uniting us in the Cold War.

It worked at first. I was there. I remember us all swooning over the pictures of the first Mercury astronauts in Life Magazine. The Americans who didn't "pull together and feel the required emotions could probably fit in a football stadium. That was the real "success" of Apollo. That's what the big deal was. The technology was superb, but it was not "off the charts." It was intellectually comparable to the Manhattan project, the development of jet aircraft, or the creation of digital computers. (I'd say the first Plutonium bomb was a much bigger technological "reach." Maybe the biggest one ever.)

Apollo seems stupendous because it fits our mental picture of what a big project should be. Everyone moving together under the leadership of wise big government.

At the same time it was, on its own terms, a colossal failure. By the time we actually walked on the Moon, a large portion of Americans had begun thinking in a different way. They simply did not function in the group-mind fashion of ten years before. We did not pull together as a nation, and we were less interested in vicarious experiences by a few "official" explorers. After the first flights we lost interest in the Moon. Big top-down-management projects no longer seemed to make sense. Actually, they literally did not make sense, because people had changed. They were fragmenting and inventing wild new things and thoughts at such a pace that managing them top-down was like organizing cats. Nothing like Apollo has happened since, because such things don't work in the Information Age. (For the same reasons I predict confidently that CFPB and Obama-care will fail.)

The thing that was supposed to be the next Apollo, the Space Shuttle, was a mess. A clunker. It should never have been built. And it's real problem was spiritual--we didn't know what we wanted to do in space, and the Shuttle expressed our incoherence, The "magic" didn't happen. NASA kept pulling stunts to make the Shuttle exciting and "relevant," such as sending a teacher into space. Trying to re-capture the "astronaut magic." And failing every time. What America should have done was use subsidies to stimulate private space development; to turn loose individual genius, rather than collectivist genius. Which is starting to happen now. If there were some way to measure such things, I'd guess that a random year of Silicon Valley is as big a technological accomplishment as the whole Moon program. But people like Mr Charlton can't "see" it. It doesn't fit their template.

We will go back to the moon. But never as an Apollo-style government program. Rather, when cost-to-orbit shrinks to a certain point, we will see an explosion of private space happenings, which will result in thousands of people simply living in space. In orbit. And those people will start doing stuff. Starting businesses, businesses such as going to the Moon and shooting back materials to build more orbital stuff. They won't be wearing white space suits, and planting flags and gazing soulfully up to the stars. They will be more like a scruffy infestation of gold-rush miners.

(The book to read is Vacuum Flowers, by the supremely talented Michael Swanwick. Alas, he is infected with the nihilism common to our age, and like so many SF writers of my generation, writes beautifully but has nothing to say. But the kooky rabble inhabiting his space habitats are a valuable corrective to all those fantasy pictures of noble NASA explorers in their white space-suits.)

Posted by John Weidner at September 29, 2012 3:44 PM

Have you ever read any old John Campbell (science fiction magazine editor)? I remember an essay he did back in the 70s about the patterns of civilization. It went like

Tribal: Tightly controlled, group think.
Barbarian: Chaotic, individualistic.
Civilized: Controlled, organized.
Future: Presumably a swing back to unorganized.

Paraphrase: "Our current selves will see these future people as wild, unrestrained, disorganized. They will lack the discipline and organization that makes our current society".

It sounds a lot like what you're writing about here.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at September 29, 2012 4:43 PM

That's good! Yes, exactly. "wild, unrestrained, disorganized," i.e., bloggers. And hackers. And robotics guys. and private space companies.

I used to read Analog as a boy, and I've no doubt Campbell had a real influence on me.

I remember something Asimov wrote about him. George Gaylord Simpson asked him what Campbell was like. Asimov said, "Suppose you are introduced to someone as the world's foremost mammalian biologist, which you are. And this person proceeds to lecture you on biology for two hours straight, getting all his facts wrong, yet somehow leaving you unable to answer back. You will have met John Campbell."

Posted by: John Weidner at September 29, 2012 5:14 PM

Ah, you inspired me to find it. Here it is.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at September 29, 2012 6:18 PM

Let me use another analogy.
The development of independent towns in the European High Middle Ages allowed much greater economic exploitation of previously unusable resources than in the Dark Ages.
By around 1500 all the arable land was being used, the old growth forests were gone, as well as the easy-to-exploit mineral deposits. As a result Europe was a nastier place to live than it had been 300 years previously. More people, with fewer resources to feed and clothe them.
Then the fertile, unexploited America's were discovered.
Where is our New Frontier? Sending a guy into space for a few minutes or hours at a million dollars a pop is not remotely like sending shiploads of immigrants to the Americas or piling the family and belongings in a conestoga wagon and heading westward.

Posted by: Terry at September 30, 2012 6:46 PM

That new frontier is less than 200 miles away, but you stubbornly refuse to see it. Space is a very livable place, once you get some stuff up there to build with. You can raise crops with 24 hours a day sunlight. You have as little or as much gravity as you wish. Without the impediments of night and atmosphere, solar power will be cheap and abundant.

Once building materials start flowing from the Moon's much-lower gravity, things will really take off. What are Moon rocks made of? Iron, Oxygen, Silicon (glass), Aluminum, Titanium... You can look it up.

Transport within your own orbit will be easily improvised. People will be bolting small rocket engines to cargo pallets or fuel tanks, and put-putting around wearing space suits. (As long as they are outside the reach of bureaucrats and safety-regulators.) This will be equivalent to the wagons of the pioneers, in the sense that the ordinary hard-working under-capitalized person can aspire to them. For our pioneers, a Conestoga wagon was very expensive, but still within reach--we tend not to understand that, and take that investment for granted.

Settlement will presumably move to stable orbit points like L-5. But the principle is the same.

What we currently lack is the equivalent to steerage class on the old ships. There's no way for the settler-types to get there cheaply. But it's coming.

Posted by: John Weidner at September 30, 2012 8:49 PM
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