Where No One Has Gone Before

by Kent Ballard


I surprised myself last week while watching the NASA coverage of their Orion test. The first day was a nasty reminder of all the times when the world and I waited through countless holds. But on the second day, at around T minus 20 seconds, a miracle happened.

I became young again.

Young enough that it was all still a mystery. So young that the unknown no longer held any fear. I was young enough to challenge the universe on its own terms and I was confident of victory. We could face this great thing. And we could beat it.

But the glow of those engines has died out now, and I’m back on Earth. What I see is not encouraging. We’re not only fighting the universe here. We’re fighting ignorance and superstition and mankind’s eternal curses of greed and stupidity. And no amount of engineering can help us.

When I was a small child, very few people believed it would ever be possible to land a man on the Moon. You would still get laughed at for saying you thought differently. We not only landed a dozen men over several missions, we took cars with us and drove around on the damned thing, a uniquely American way of conquering any new land.

You’ll get laughed at today while talking about starships. Never mind the fact that we’re now investigating the Alcubierrie Drive, a dead ringer for the legendary Warp Drive that powered four generations of fictional ships around the galaxy. And if you try to talk to people about the EmDrive, all but a very tiny handful will have no idea what you mean. If you explain that it means thrust from electrical power only—a reactionless, fuelless thrust—if they have any grasp of physics they’ll simply tell you it isn’t possible. But it is. We’re working on that too. And the Chinese are very interested in it as well. Both nations have small working models that produce thrust and are scaling them up. Other nations will follow soon.

Still, the uneducated moan and wring their hands about all that money spent in space. They’re fools and always have been. Not one cent has ever been spent in space. All that money was spent here in our economy and it went to develop new chemicals and materials, processes to miniaturize things, new kinds of batteries and power sources, computers that are cheaper, faster, smarter, and smaller. NASA employs many more plumbers and bulldozer operators than astronauts, more bricklayers and electricians than physicists, and they give more paychecks to janitors than to people working on new propulsion systems. And they do it all on much less annually than one battle cost in Iraq or Afghanistan and they spent a helluva lot less blood buying all that too. The United States has now spent over nine trillion dollars supposedly fighting poverty. We have more poor now than when we started. But for the same expenditure we could have had a world that looked more like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001—and with more employment and better employment for everyone.

Breakthrough technologies do that. When personal computers were new, there was a worry about the economic disruption a “paperless office” would cause. People believed secretaries everywhere would lose their jobs. (Yes, I know, but they really believed that.) What actually happened was computers made countless thousands of new jobs that didn’t exist before and you cannot find a secretary today without at least one computer monitor on his or her desk. One did not eliminate the other. They made each other stronger and more efficient.

People who would boldly go anywhere first have to deal with the others who laugh at them. Cold fusion became the fodder for late night talk show jokes. Fleischmann and Pons died discredited, unable to find work anywhere in the enlightened world of academia that blackballed them. And while cold fusion has been replicated many times over, it hasn’t been officially invented yet because no one has found the secret to starting and stopping it when they want. Therefore it does not exist—but universities around the world keep on doing it and studying it because the riches of King Solomon’s mines await the first team to control it. But they study in secret for the most part. They don’t want to be laughed at, the second-worst imaginable thing in academia, and they don’t want to rock any boats, by far the worst sin. Also some of them could be killed. Controlled cold fusion would wreck the oil industry overnight and set the world economy on its ear. You’d better believe that this work is not only very real but also very dangerous. If you were totally without morals, how many people would you kill for several trillion dollars?

I was listening to some forgettable comic making fun of NASA recently. He said they should make their minds up about asteroids. On one hand, they’re claiming that one could fall on us and kill us all, and on the other they’re talking about lassoing one and bringing it closer to Earth. What gives?

He’s probably not stupid, merely uneducated. I would enlighten him by showing him a map of the Earth, carefully pointing out the gigantic craters left behind by asteroid strikes, and ask him if he’d mind being under one when it hit? And if he did, who would he go crying to in order to save his ass? The Department of Homeland Insecurity? His police department? The Post Office?

Then I’d ask him if money meant anything to him, and point out that a great deal of money is now being invested in robotic devices to mine asteroids in space. Asteroids are like candy. They come in many different flavors. The right kind of asteroid is worth a ridiculous sum of money. How much? It’s been estimated that just one small (thirty yards or so across) S-type asteroid contains over a hundred pounds of gold and platinum, and about one and a half million pounds of other metals like iron, aluminum, titanium, lead, nickel, and other expensive things. The people who no longer laugh at this, and who are investing money today, figure that 241 Germania—a common enough asteroid—contains mineral wealth equal to $95.8 trillion dollars on today’s market. That’s equal to the annual GDP for the world. Bold people are going for a piece of that.

I’d point out too that by taking this wealth from space, no little bunnies or pretty trees would need to be bulldozed away. Those metals can be taken—and will be taken—with no scarring of the Earth, no poisonous mining runoff, and no need for decades of expensive land reclamation projects that might or might not ever be completed. We may not live to see starships, but we will buy things made out of metal from space because those products will be cheaper than Earth-mined metals.

And don’t write off starships either. If the past century has taught us anything, it’s not to laugh too loudly at the impossible. Be honest with yourself. Who would have ever believed in nukes, lasers, or smart phones? Or that two of the three would be developed by private enterprise? Or that the other one would be considered one of the greatest engineering feats in history but only used twice? The point is, don’t scoff at technology and never try to predict it. You’ll always be wrong.

My youthful feeling the other day was bittersweet. Sure, I was one of those kids who idolized the early astronauts and could rattle off every nut and bolt that made up a Mercury or Gemini capsule. But I also bristled at—and fought—the idea that it was all a Cold War stunt. No, space meant more to me than that. It still does. But the old enemies still exist, and I find myself fighting the same ignorance, the same luddites, the same refusal to see what this means to our species. Human history has barely begun, but we wrote another line of it last Friday…no thanks to them.

In the end it means the survival of humanity, that we won’t all be taken out helplessly by a rogue asteroid, solar flare, some virus from hell, or our own stupidity. That’s worth fighting for, even if that day seems so terribly far away. And on a deeper and more spiritual level, it means new hills for people to hike up simply to see what’s on the other side. We need both. We need the security of knowing we can take hits, terribly brutal hits, and still be around. And without our curiosity we would no longer be human. If we should ever lose that we’ve lost everything, including any hope we ever had.

For me, the end of the space program will come at that time when people think no more about hull designs or propulsion systems or radiation shielding, when the great thing before them is that next hill or that next curve in the river ahead. Because at that time, we will never again run out of hills and rivers to explore, new places to go, new lands to seek.

We will be more free than humans have ever been before. We will be free forever.

Roll Over, Einstein?

I find it odd that someone who counts on his fingers would even attempt to write about physics.  But there was an article in the paper a couple of weeks ago that grabbed my attention and hasn’t let go.

Particle physicists at Cern, the European particle physics laboratory, have been researching sub atomic particles called neutrinos.  Neutrinos do not carry an electric charge, which means they’re not affected by the electromagnetic forces that act on charged particles like electrons and protons. So these infinitesimal particles are able to travel great distances through matter without being affected by it. Essentially neutrinos move through all matter without being stopped—you, me, lead, planets, even the Sun.  Bizarrely, according to a physicist friend, it is possible to trap some of the weak ones with a dry cleaning fluid.

Anyhow, scientists have been shooting them on a 730km (450 miles) journey through the Earth from Cern near Geneva, Switzerland to the Gran Sasso lab in Italy. What was remarkable about the experiments is it appears that the neutrinos seem to arrive sixty billionths of a second faster than they would have been had they been traveling at the speed of light in a vacuum.

Which, if eventually proven to be accurate, would be the most important sixty billionths of a second in the history of physics.  It would overturn Einstein’s theory of relativity and turn our explained world inexplicable.  Because, if the experiment is eventually proven correct, it sets the stage for blurring the line between the past and present and decimates the notion of cause and effect.  (The last sentence is over my head—that is, the why of it.  Someone who actually understands this will need to explain it in a comment, ‘cause I sure can’t.)  But just a glimpse of the idea itself is, for me, a mind fuck.  I somehow see Superman rapidly flying backwards around the Earth again and again at super speed in order to change the past.

As you might expect, physicists can’t and won’t believe in that 60 billionth.  Some simply don’t trust the results. (“I’ll eat my shorts if this is true.”) Others have differing rationales, for example, suggesting that different gravitational effects at the two different locations might have affected the measuring clocks.  A few have quickly come up with a “New Physics” that still maintains Einstein’s theory albeit with modifications.

Even the scientists at Cern, who have been conducting the experiments over a long period of time, are skeptical.  In fact, they’ve put out a call for other physicists to go after their results.  To try the experiment (and others) to see if it could possibly be repeated somewhere else. They themselves are creating new experiments to try to explain/overturn their own findings.

On some level, it doesn’t matter to me if this experiment turns out to be accurate or not.  I don’t expect to do much time traveling.  It’s the notion that everything we believe can, in a heartbeat, (and years of experimentation is but a heartbeat of time), be turned on its head leaving us with little or no explanation about the world in which we live.

I love that idea.  Maybe because it fits with my own experience that knowing is often only that which we perceive at a given moment.  And that knowing can, and very often does, change over time.  Sometime quite quickly.

Maybe I love the idea because I believe in the fluidity of knowledge.  Hell, with all the data that’s been streaming in from outer space for twenty or more years, we’re bound to discover that what we believe isn’t what it is.

Maybe I love the idea because as a parent I’ve lived through the growth and changes my sons have gone through and watched how mutable a life can be.

Maybe I love the idea because I still believe that people change.  Or, at least have the capacity for change.  And I’m not talking just around the edges.  I’m talking core.  Most of us know people who have gone through one type of “conversion” or another.  Religious, political, cultural.  Deep enough changes to recreate themselves.

Maybe I love the idea because artists have shown over and over throughout time that what we take for granted, what we see, can be seen so differently that our eyes open to unconsidered possibilities.

Or maybe I love the idea because it thrills me to know I know nothing.

So good luck scientists, no matter how the 60 billionth turns out.  You’ve already made my day.

Video link NEUTRINO SONG-Corrigan Brothers


“What is to give light must endure burning.” Viktor Frankl