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Thursday, November 7, 2013

C'mon Man!

In May 1961 President Kennedy announced the goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. The goal was achieved on July 20,1969, when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong left the Lunar Module and stepped onto the surface of the Moon.

Footprint on the lunar surface (NASA)

Or did he?

Hold on. I don't buy into the conspiracy theories about the moon landing being faked. But man, there are some doosies out there. No, what I'm writing about here is more along the lines of, "Why in the world has our exploration lagged since 1969?"

Apollo Mission Control (NASA)

Think about it. NASA was able to put men on the moon using 1960's technology eight years after getting the presidential order. Early estimates for the lunar landing project appear to put the cost of the program at around $20 billion. Those early estimates were quickly raised to roughly $33 billion as discussions concerning the feasibility of a lunar landing project continued. At the end of the program NASA estimates Apollo cost $25.4 billion (about $95 billion in 1990 dollars).

In an article commemorating the one-year anniversary of the passing of Neil Armstrong, James Hansen, a history professor at Auburn University and Neil Armstrong's biographer in "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong" (Simon & Schuster 2005), notes that it took 400,000 Americans to man the Apollo team. So, $25 billion and 400,000 people. That is quite an investment - but they got it done.

Another interesting fact concerning the Apollo 11 mission was the computing power required to make it fly. In this Computer Weekly article, it is highlighted that the "...Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) used a real time operating system, which enabled astronauts to enter simple commands by typing in pairs of nouns and verbs, to control the spacecraft. It was more basic than the electronics in modern toasters that have computer controlled stop/start/defrost buttons. It had approximately 64Kbyte of memory and operated at 0.043MHz."

The same article also notes that a, "...USB memory stick today is more powerful than the computers that put man on the moon."

C'mon man!

And therein lies the genesis of this blog. What could we accomplish today with $100 billion (in 2013 dollars) and 400,000 highly educated and motivated team members?

Are we reduced to goofing on Elvis?

Yesterday I wrote a tantalizingly titled piece about the potential demise of Apple. I had read an article that lamented how Apple appears to have forsaken innovation for design. Consumer electronics is not a moon mission but I suspect a lot of the technology that has been behind the incredible advances of the last fifty years came from the space program, more specifically from Apollo.

So what are we doing with that technology?

A CNN article provides one list of the top twenty-five technological advances in the last twenty-five years:
  1. Wireless world 
  2. Defense technology
  3. Alternative fuel vehicles
  4. Biotechnology
  5. Computers
  6. Lasers
  7. Genomics
  8. Global finance
  9. Processors
  10. Digital storage
  11. Space
  12. Fiber optics
  13. Satellite TV & radio
  14. DNA testing
  15. Video games
  16. Biometrics
  17. Energy and water savers
  18. Scanning tunneling microscopes
  19. Batteries
  20. E-baggage
  21. Remote controls
  22. Animal cloning
  23. Manufacturing technology
  24. The big picture
  25. Weather technology
Where is space on this list? Number 11. The CNN article highlights the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars lander missions as the top achievements in this category. To be fair these are tremendous things but, at the risk of sounding trite, they allow us to look around the galaxy. While there is value in this, and it's exciting to be able to explore the Red Planet via remote picture feed, and even see beyond our own solar system using Hubble, these types of missions pale in comparison to manned space flight. 

There is something inside humans that drives us beyond the next mountain, that sends us out upon the waves heading toward a destination we can't even see yet. Think about the early explorers. When Magellan, Columbus, daGama, Eriksson, Vespucci and others set sail, they didn't have modern technology. They did have the advantage of exploring in an environment that contained breathable air. And if they were successful in reaching land, food and fresh water were - potentially - available to replenish their supplies. 

Sailing the sea in basically a leaky, wooden canoe

But something keeps bugging me about this. Where is our spirit of adventure? Where are the explorers of today? By all accounts Neil Armstrong was a quiet, humble man. On the other hand, he was also a man who, beginning at the age of 20, flew 78 combat missions in the Korean war. A man who flew over 200 different aircraft including the famous X-15.

That's not a's a rocket with wings...

Obviously, Armstrong had that pioneer spirit, that desire to see what would appear over the next horizon. Where are those men and women today? Working in computer labs? At universities? Maybe at the LHC in Switzerland? How many times can you climb Mount Everest or skydive?

Remember that guy Magellan? The first to be credited with circumnavigating the globe? Killed by Natives in the Philippines. How about Hernando de Soto, the first European explorer to cross the Mississippi River? He fell ill and died. His men weighed down his body and dumped him into the Big Muddy. Juan Ponce De Leon didn't find the fountain of youth. But he did find a poison arrow, dying in Florida in 1521. Giovanni da Verrazzano, of the New York bridge Verrazanos, took one voyage too many, ending up killed - and eaten - by natives in the Lesser Antilles. And you thought Brooklyn was dangerous.

History is full of examples of men and women who pushed the envelope, who strove to break barriers and explore our world. Take another look at the list above. Which of those twenty-five technological achievements lends itself to the next frontier? Video games? E-baggage? Animal cloning?

For the love of Lewis and Clark!

It's time to take our great technology and focus it on the horizon once more. I bet you can find any number of people willing to step off this earth and be the next Columbus or Cook. 

In fact, there is one team of people that are doing just that: MarsOne.

Even if you are Ah-nold, if you go to Mars with MarsOne, "You won't be baaaack."

Would you take a one-way trip to Mars? The MarsOne program is not funded yet but cost estimates for the program are around $6 billion - far less than what it cost to send us to the Moon in 1969. So is MarsOne the next Queen Isabella? Only time and the tides will tell...

What do you think?


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