And then there were none   Leave a comment

Traveller from an antique land.

Yesterday afternoon I watched the final ever Space Shuttle launch streamed over the internet. Once Atlantis lands she’ll be retired, and that will be the end of their thirty-year and 135-trip mission.

Which also means NASA no longer have anything capable of taking humans into space, so the ISS will only be accessible by Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft – which, in one form or another, have been in service since before the Moon landings.

It’s sad how space exploration, manned especially, seems to have fallen out of favour. The Cold War was, on balance, probably a bad thing, and I’m sure nobody misses the constant threat of imminent nuclear annihilation, but it did provide the impetus to go from no human ever reaching space to walking on the Moon in less than a decade. Unfortunately, since 1975 it seems to have all been downhill. There have been space telescopes, the ISS, even Mars rovers (some even worked), but no apparent plans for or progress towards any sort of manned exploration, let alone eventual colonisation. People do complain about the cost (always); it was estimated that the total cost of the Apollo program was about 170 billion in 2005 dollars. It sounds a lot. For reference, that’s about a year’s budget for the NHS (which is an impressive and worthwhile endeavour itself, of course, and thus under constant threat from the government).

It made me think of one scene in the Rama series. One of the humans – probably Nicole – is being shown the rise and fall, over millennia, of various space-faring species. There’s a representation of the local part of the galaxy, planets or stars glowing in colours to represent the species that’s colonised them and going dim as they die out, with a Raman explaining what happened to them.
You could imagine what we might look like; a single dot – the briefest flicker an almost imperceptible distance away – and then, maybe not so very long after that, fading to nothing. “Oh, they had a brief surge of directed enthusiasm, but soon returned to aimless bickering. Weren’t very good at planning for the future.”

Of course, there have been other impressive projects; the Large Hadron Collider would be quite a feat of engineering even if it were not filled with super-conducting magnets and used to crash infinitesimal particles into each other at phenomenal speeds; Norway built and maintains a global seed bank with over half a million samples; and we can’t forget a certain global communications network allowing almost anyone (who’s pretty well off by global standards) to communicate with almost anybody else (who’s pretty well off by global standards) almost instantly, allowing the sharing and collating of information like never before – as in that previous encyclopaedia link.

But these projects are done on tiny budgets by a few people (relatively speaking), or more or less by accident. There doesn’t seem to be any particular national or international goals, aims or ambitions. No great projects, no sense of direction or purpose, no forthcoming achievement. Nothing towards which you can feel you’ve made a contribution. An infintesimal, insignificant one, perhaps, but still a contribution. Just people and countries milling around aimlessly, hoping they can pay the bills, with no reason to get out of bed in the morning other than it’s better to piss in the toilet.

And the problem with not having any goals is that it means you won’t achieve them.

Not that I can really talk; my goal is to eat biscuits, and on Friday I wrote some simple code for an inconsequential company and played a couple of computer games.


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