The spirit of exploration

Setting foot on the Moon is possibly the biggest single statement of exploration, that innately human ambition, ever made. We live in a different world now, and a different time. We look back nostalgically on the Apollo missions as “the good old days”, but this is not the right way to be looking.

Our world is now so removed from exploration that people exist who dare to say that the Apollo landings never happened. This line of thinking should never even cross people’s minds, much less have anyone agreeing with it. Plainly, it’s as ludicrous as questioning if Robert Falcon Scott ever really went to Antarctica, if Edmund Hillary ever truly climbed Everest, or if Yuri Gagarin ever truly went to orbit. The notion is preposterous, and yet it exists. The worst part is that it exists because we allow it to.

Going about their day to day lives, many people now carry a pocket sized mobile device which probably has more computing power than the entire Apollo 11 command module. Many people are reading this on a computer which would have made the most advanced NASA computers in the 1960s pale into insignificance. And yet, we’re losing sight of where we should really be looking.

That Neil Armstrong didn’t live to see anyone else set foot on the Moon is a sad shame, and should be an embarrassment to the rest of us. We live in a world where in 2011, the US alone spent $14.8 billion on internet advertising, and yet there are people who’re willing to argue that a relatively small $2.5 billion to land on Mars is a waste of money. The world’s priorities are broken. I truly hope that those who hold the purse strings can stop looking at spreadsheets for long enough to look up to the sky every once in a while. Perhaps they might see that.

We need to keep exploring. It’s what we do best. Few things in life provide more inspiration or a better feeling of togetherness than all looking in the same direction and saying, not that “they did it” but that “we did it.”

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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9 Responses to The spirit of exploration

  1. Pingback: The World’s Priorities Are Broken - Subjective Delight

  2. anonymous says:

    I’ve never understood why people who throw, catch and hit balls seem to get all the adulation from our youth. Neil, his fellow astronauts, the scientists and the technicians behind the Apollo program are people who are truly worthy of being heroes to our sons and daughters.

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  4. We’re still actively exploring.

    The plethora of robotic probes that have been dispatched into the wider solar system, many to destinations that manned astronauts couldn’t plausibly reach with current technology, has continued long past Apollo.

    Manned space travel hasn’t advanced substantially, true, but I’d argue that’s because manned space travel much beyond Earth orbit is still sufficiently expensive, risky, and not providing enough of a payback to be worthwhile outside of the context of a cold war where such things weren’t valued.

    • invaderxan says:

      Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s not my intention to pour cold water on the achievements which we have made. We are indeed still exploring, and I write about that often enough on this very blog. But manned space travel has barely advanced at all. In fact, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, it’s actually gone backwards. XKCD said it best – if you imagine Earth as the size of a basketball, no human has travelled more than one inch away from its surface since 1972.

      And yes, a plethora of robotic probes have been dispatched, but still… We haven’t returned to the surface of Venus. We haven’t returned to the surface of Titan. We’ve never even landed anything on the surfaces of Ganymede, Callisto, or Europa. We’ve never even sent anything to Ceres. We’ve caught only a passing glimpse of Neptune and Triton.

      Yes, what we’ve done is impressive – but compared with what has been considered, it pales in comparison. Obviously it’s expensive and risky. What feat of genuine human exploration in history wasn’t?

      • Would any of those paths–especially for expanded manned space travel–have been plausible given the realities of the time?

        I’ve been of the opinion that the manned space race of the 1960s, as inspiring as it was, is best understood as being premature, a product of sustained inter-state competition in a buoyant economic climate that made spending vast amount of money on risky technologies to achieve economically dubious goals not especially risky. To keep manned space travel progressing at the optimistic rate expected by contemporaries, you might have to keep either the sustained inter-state competition or the global economic boom going, Keeping the boom going may have been impossible, but keeping the Cold War going could have been deadly on a planetary scale.

        Meanwhile, with longer and riskier missions, the chances of a non-salvageable Apollo 13-style event that could deter manned space travel would rise … Paul Drye at his False Steps blog described how a propoed flyby of Venus in 1973-1974 ( could have ended in tragedy thanks to a massive solar flare that would have occurred while the astronauts were still travelling.

        We might have come close to a best-case scenario.

        • invaderxan says:

          It’s certainly true that space travel isn’t without risks. But then, it’s not like these things haven’t undergone extensive tests and research. Precisely the fact that people like Paul Drye have highlighted these things means that they are known risks which can now be considered and planned for. Even if you consider the Apollo missions to have been reckless and premature, the fact remains that there were 10 Apollo missions before anyone set foot on the Moon’s surface.

          I could say more here, but instead I’ll just refer you to this post which I’ve written on the matter before. We know how. The things we don’t know, we’re fully capable of inventing. What our species lacks is the inclination.

      • Paul says:

        The retirement of the space shuttle was not a step backwards. The space shuttle was a grievous mistake that stalled space exploration for decades. It utterly failed in its fundamental purpose: to reduce the cost and difficulty of putting payloads into orbit.

        Now, with SpaceX, progress is occurring again. Launch costs are being reduced to historically low levels (adjusted for inflation), and if plans for flyback lower stages and reusable second stages come to fruition, costs could drop much faster.

        Combine SpaceX launchers with in-space fuel depots and fuel transfer technology, and the cost of going back to the moon could drop significantly.

        • invaderxan says:

          Interesting. In what way would you consider the retirement of the most sophisticated spacecraft ever constructed to resume work on designs which were used 50 years ago not to be a step backwards? That would be analogous to retiring jet engines and working on improving those old propeller engines that aircraft used to use. Because, you know, they worked. Mind you, I jest but similar things have happened.

          I’m sorry, but I refute your central point. No, the Space Shuttle was not a mistake. The mistake was the fact that people stopped caring. People became complacent. Because the Space Shuttle worked and everyone was a little bit too proud, so they saw no need to improve upon it. Ultimately, every single attempt at a replacement for the Space Shuttle had its funding cut. Every last one. Some were fundamentally flawed, but none so much that the basic concept wasn’t salvageable. All the same, people chose warships over spacecraft (do you have any idea how much all of that costs?). The mistake was not the craft. The mistake was refusing to actually continue working on it.

          SpaceX, magnificent as it is, is not progress. They too are using the same concepts used by the US with craft like Gemini and by Russia with craft like Soyuz. Concepts which work, but they need to build momentum. There will be progress, I have no doubt. Because there aren’t any politicians to divert their funds this time.

          I admire SpaceX, but do you not think it’s born of frustration? We’ve been promised a new version of the Space Shuttle for decades now – since before I was even in school! Privatised space travel is finally happening, and for that I’m glad. Technology is finally available and affordable, and people like Elon Musk are finally taking matters into their own hands.

          Consider your phrasing – “if plans for flyback lower stages and reusable second stages come to fruition…” The same was said when the Space Shuttle was originally constructed. Maybe this time, someone actually will.

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