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PROGRAMMING NOTES / SPACE
These are my notes archives for space topics -- or anything else I may think of putting here.
What Earth Would Look Like With Rings Like Saturn
The Apollo Space Comment
Pardon me while I write a note about space. There are those who say we've stopped exploring, and I'm not letting the 40th anniversary go by without a word.
Scroll down if you're just looking for my little bits of Delphi stuff.
In thinking about space, our expectations are often measured by the book and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's a good yardstick because it has a vision and a date, so I'm going to use it here.
People look at this movie and see we were supposed to have reached deep space before now, and they think we just gave up on the dream. But they're really looking at it all wrong. We really exceeded that.
For those who don't know, the book 2001 was written by Arthur C. Clarke, who established his futurist bona fides proposing the use of communications satellites. You'd say that idea was realized. Most people see it that way, and here's where they're not connecting the big picture.
Clarke writes about this in his 1976 introduction to George O. Smith's THE COMPLETE VENUS EQUILATERAL, which had a theme of space communications:
We both thought that our "extraterrestrial relays" would be large, manned structures carrying armies of engineers -- as, indeed, will one day be the case. Neither of us dreamed that most of the things we described would be done -- within twenty years! -- by a few pounds of incredibly miniaturized electronic equipment.
This was back in 1945. That was two years before the first transistor. The notion that it could all be automated with microchips just didn't occur to them.
The Manned Orbital Laboratory is another example along these same lines. This was going to be America's first space station. The Air Force selected military astronauts (this was not a NASA program), and they expected to be up there by the early '70s. Alas, microchip technology progressed very quickly, and we got spy satellites to do what that station would have done.
Had it not been for all these computer advancements, we'd have had dozens of space stations aloft for all these years, some military and some civilian. While I'd love to imagine space colonies busy in orbit, the somewhat-less-adventurous truth is that our satellites are far superior to the massive vacuum tube cities in space that Clarke had predicted all those years ago.
So, think of all those satellites as automated space stations. That's what they are, and there are a lot more of them up in space than all the sci-fi writers had ever dreamed.
This brings me back to 2001: A Space Odyssey and what else was actually accomplished.
If you remember the plot -- after the cavemen, of course -- you see Dr. Heywood Floyd stop at a space station, and then make his way to the moon to visit the center of a magnetic anomaly. Did we continue exploring the moon like that after the last Apollo moon trip? Well, yes, we did.
In real life, the Lunar Prospector was launched in 1998. It scanned the moon from orbit for the next year and a half. Among other things, it searched for magnetic anomalies and did find one. (No, it didn't land to dig up anything in the center; we can't have everything.)
What about a mission to Saturn as in the book 2001?
The Cassini-Huygens mission took a Jupiter-fly-by-route to Saturn just like in the book. Cassini snapped this picture of Saturn's moon Iapetus. If you've read the book, you may recall Iapetus is where the second monolith stood. See? We did get there after all. Sure, Cassini was automated, but it got the job done. What more would astronauts really expect to do there anyway? Besides, they only made it as far as Jupiter in the movie.
This isn't to say I don't see any value to having astronauts out there. I'm just pointing out we made it into the 21st century on schedule. The exploration of space did not end with Apollo.
On the other hand, one way that we are behind the accomplishments of 2001 is in artificial intelligence. Science hasn't been able to create anything like the HAL-9000. That's particularly ironic, seeing as how we've explored space by automation.
And while there is no orbital Hilton like in the movie, had there been one in real life, I think it's safe to say that Dr. Floyd would not have needed that phone booth to call his daughter. Let's count our blessings.
UPDATE: NPR leads off a story with a comparison to 2001 that leads into space tourism and Virgin Galactic. Most of the 21st century is still ahead of us.
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