Friday, July 11, 2008

Buzz Off

Don't you hate it when one of your childhood heroes says something so profoundly wrong and stupid that you just have to call them on it? Unfortunately, it just happened to me.

The hero in question is Apollo 11 moon-walker Buzz Aldrin. Ironically, I ran across this story on the US Sci-Fi Channel's "Sci-Fi Wire" news site. If any of the space sites or major news sources picked it up, I didn't see it. Aldrin was shilling his new National Geographic Channel show, "Unseen Moon," at the annual TV Critics Press Tour.

Anyway, Aldrin went on about how "unrealistic" science fiction television shows caused the public to lose interest in the space program. He doesn't name names, but he keeps mentioning "beaming," which seems like a reference to Star Trek. But he also is quoted as saying something about the shows being on "today," which kinda points a finger towards Stargate Atlantis, the only other current show I can think of that "beams" people.

Or maybe he's confusing reruns with new shows, or is being unclear about the time. Because, the public started losing interest in the space program before half the people working on Atlantis were born.

So I'm going to assume he's talking about Star Trek, since its the best known and most iconic space science fiction show, and its history somewhat parallels that of the space program.

Just so's you know I'm not taking him entirely out of context, here's what he's quoted as saying:

"I blame the fantastic and unbelievable shows about space flight and rocket ships that are on today. All the shows where they beam people around and things like that have made young people think that that is what the space program should be doing. It's not realistic."

and later in the article:

"But, if you start dealing with fantasy and beaming people up and down and traveling seven times the speed of light, you are doing damage. You're not helping. You have young people who have got expectations that are far unrealistic, and you can't possibly live up to the expectations you have created in young people. Why do they get bored with the space program? That's why."

Can't have those young people stretching their imaginations and developing unrealistic expectations, can we? Good grief. Next thing you know, he'll be going on about the sins of dancing and the dangers of "the rock and roll."

Seems to me, Buzz, that if some young people, scientists and engineers, had not developed unrealistic expectations based on the unrealistic works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, there might never have been rockets into space.

Though Verne is credited with being highly predictive of the Apollo program in many respects, he shot his adventurers to the moon with a giant cannon, something even an engineer of the time could have shown was impossible. Verne, in turn, scoffed at Wells, who sent his travelers to the Moon using an "unrealistic" anti-gravity metal. (This debate is not a new one.)

Many later space program participants also cite the Mars books of Edgar Rice Burroughs as inspiration, which were even more fantastic and romantic. His hero, John Carter, travels to Mars through some kind of ill-defined astral projection, and his Mars is populated with all manner of fantastic creatures and races, including one that happens to have hot (yet egg-laying) females with whom Carter can conveniently interbreed. (Thus, I suppose, clearing the way for Captain Kirk to later bed-hop across the galaxy.)

And of course from there we can go the the Lensmen books of E.E. Doc Smith, or the juvenile novels of Robert Heinlein, for example. Smith's books are as fantastic, in their way, as Burroughs. Heinlein tried to be more realistic, but his books are still full of aliens and rockets flitting from star-to-star.

Yet this sort of stuff has managed to somehow inspire generation after generation of scientists, engineers, pilots, space advocates, and yes, even astronauts. In fact, many of the current crop site Star Trek, and the even-more-fantastic Star Wars, as inspirations.

The fact is, Buzz has it all wrong. Realism isn't the issue. Scientific accuracy isn't the issue. Science fiction is inspiring to those who make real space travel possible, and it's inspiring for entirely different reasons.

Star Trek offered hope that humans could go to the stars, that there might be other life in the universe, and that we would find it, and it would ultimately be good. It also offered the hope that humans could solve enough of our internal struggles to survive and work together to make it possible.

The how of getting there isn't important, it's the hope, the wonder, that we could. Once you've embraced that, you don't look around and say, "well, I can't beam to space, so I'm not going." No, you go and find the next nearest thing you can, the Shuttle, Spaceship One, the new Orion vehicle, and you try and get on it if you can.

And if that isn't good enough, you roll up your sleeves and try to make something better. Not the Enterprise probably. Not a transporter. But better.

Or at least, you hope somebody else does, and you're much more likely to support them if they say they're trying.

No, I'm afraid Buzz has it all wrong.

Not that I can blame him for his frustration, maybe even anger at our lack of progress in space, and the public's seeming apathy towards it. It's just that he's lashing out in the wrong direction.

The reasons for the public's lack of interest are complex, and I don't think there's one single thing to blame. But if fingers are to be pointed, I think you can start with NASA's stunning ability to counter-promote itself. We're not just talking inability to promote here. We're talking an exhaustive 40+ year campaign to dehumanize its astronauts into bland, interchangable drones in the public eye, and to make some of the most exciting voyages of adventure in human history, seem boring.

Buzz has always been one to buck that trend. Unlike some of the Apollo astronauts, he's not been reclusive, or allowed himself to be one of NASAs obedient PR pawns. He's been out there, in the public eye, pushing himself as an individual, and yeah, even licensing his image for toys, models and other trinkets.

Even signing on to host TV shows. Yeah.

And I've always backed him on that, because the astronauts should be rewarded for their courage, celebrated for their place in history, and appreciated as the deep and complex human beings that they are. If that means Buzz Aldrin Action figures, well, that's fine, because I want a Buzz Aldrin action figure, and I want one for my grandkid too. I want to know their stories, the good and bad of them. If they have something to say, I want to listen. And if they make a little cash along the way, more power to them. Who do I make the check out to?

But this time, Buzz is just wrong. He just doesn't know what he's talking about.

We should be thankful for Star Trek and Stargate and Star Wars and all the rest, that kept people thinking about the future, thinking about the stars, thinking about the planets, and not thinking about "if," but only "how, and when?" Because it's only through that spark of hope that we'll get there, however we do it.

And I'll take that spark any way I can get it, thank-you...

(While most responses to this post have been supportive and positive, not everyone was convinced. So I put some of my cast-off arguments into a follow-up post that I hope will put the matter to rest. Check it out.)

1 comment:

  1. Hey Buzz,

    In 1940 a critical benchmark level for the mind was ascertained — it's called the flicker frequency. It appears that your mind is able to distinguish up to and including 24 different signals per second.

    If things go faster - faster than 24 separate events or things per second - your mind cannot follow anymore.

    What happens when you expose your mind to more than 24 pictures per second? You begin to see a continuous, unbroken flow of images that appear to lack distinction between one frame and the next. We actually have a name for it:

    It’s called a movie!

    In 1960 electronic companies hit on the idea of quantum physics and the transistor was born. A few years later we saw the first microchips appear — laying the foundation of what would become the basis of our daily life — nothing in modern times remains untouched by this technology. These chips were running on 2 MHz – that's 2 Million instructions per second.

    In 2007 computer chips have reached 2 GHz computational speed — that’s 2 billion instructions per second. And that's only mass-produced computers for the general market. Some science based computers have already passed 100 Ghz. 

Compare that to the maximum of 24 instructions per second your mind can handle and you understand the incredible mind-blowing increase in speed.

    Warp 7 doesn't seem so impossible by those standards. Government funding must be the big disappointment.