Space and us

First broadcast January 4, 2004.

I get temporary obsessions. That suits my chosen writing format, the essay, and it's invaluable in my day job, as one of the people writing new content for an Australian online encyclopaedia. Over the years, my temporary obsessions have caused many encyclopaedia entries and more than a few Ockham's Razor talks, but occasionally, one of them gets away and grows into a book.

Two years ago, my curiosity about a casual mention of sugar in Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale" led to an exploration of sugar on 'Science Matters', an Internet list maintained by the ABC. That provoked me to explore the history of sugar in more detail, and suddenly there was a book, telling the story of sugar, and the effect it had on the world.

In much the same way, I wrote a chapter for the catalogue of the 2002 "Mars and Beyond" exhibition at the entirely excellent National Museum of Australia. That triggered me to start looking at where the dream of getting into space came from, which made me wonder about how rockets developed, and the effects they had. Suddenly, there was another book, looking at the hows, whys and effects of rockets - but next year, it'll be something else.

That subtle plug for my book, "Rockets: Sulfur, Sputnik and Scramjets", out of the way, let's go back to my trigger point, the human dream of space, because the dream's both alive and well - and a lot older than most people realise.

It's a long way from Adelaide to Woomera. Driving to see the University of Queensland test of their scramjet last year, I began musing about the way a certain type of fictional tale used to be set in distant places. By a coincidence, Jonathan Swift located Lilliput at thirty degrees, two minutes south, and north-west of Van Diemen's Land - in other words, just north of Woomera.

If like Sir Thomas More, you want to reflect on your own society, one clever trick is to describe a model society in which utopian ideals can flourish, but it needs to be a long way off, on the other side of the world, to keep the readers believing in it. More's Utopia was located in America, while Lilliput was in a gap on the map that Australia would one day fill, but after Swift's time, the world was too well-known, and new Utopias needed to be further off - preferably on another world.

In fact, quite a few stories had already been set on another world, the Moon. Swift could've sent Gulliver to the Moon, Mars or Venus, but then he would've had to design some method of getting there, while a shipwreck was an easy literary device, employed by Shakespeare in several plays and by Defoe in "Robinson Crusoe". So Lilliput was in Australia, and Laputa and Brobdingnag, Gulliver's other destinations, were in the northern Pacific, reached by sailing a LONG way.

In the second century AD, Lucian of Samosata set out to satirise the Phoenicians travellers' tales told by about horrors in the eastern Atlantic. Like other early exploiters, the Phoenicians wanted to scare others away from the new territories where they were turning a nice profit. There wasn't much science about it, though - one of Lucian's lunar trips was made using the wing of an eagle and the wing of a vulture, and another relied on a whirlwind, but it satisfied the readers' hunger for tales of exotic places.

We seem to have an inbuilt wander-and-meet-new-people gene, a tourist imperative that drove our ancestors out of Africa, looking for a place where the grass was greener. Late in the 15th century, as better ships were built and sailors became more daring, Europeans sailed around Africa for the first time in almost two thousand years - Herodotus wrote about a Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa some time before 425 BC, but that idea didn't catch on.

In my encyclopaedic day job, I've been working industriously on a milestones of history project, identifying the key literary, musical, artistic, scientific, technological, political, military and historic events, year by year in the story of humanity, and after 1500, there's a massive rise in the number of events to list as the Europeans started going to other continents. Then there was another huge increase at roughly the time as the Thirty Years' War, 1618 to 1638.

Galileo Galilei spotted the moons of Jupiter in 1610, Johann Kepler developed his laws of planetary motion in the sixteen teens, at the start of the war, and in the middle of it, in the 1630s, Kepler, Galileo and two English clerics all wrote of people living on other worlds. Galileo wrote of people living on Jupiter, and how the moons of Jupiter would appear to Jovians, as opposed to the way we see them from Earth, but the other three looked to the Moon.

One of the clerics was John Wilkins, a consistent moderate who, in perilous theological times, annoyed the Puritans with his protection of Anglicans, and later upset the High Churchmen with his gentle treatment of the Dissenters. Of course, his position was made sounder when he married Robina French, the widowed sister of Oliver Cromwell, but after the house of Stuart was restored, Wilkins managed to retain favour, and he was made Bishop of Chester in 1668. So he wasn't a bishop when he wrote his careful proof that there was no reason, scientific or theological, why there should not be another world, on the moon, in 1638.

Francis Godwin was Bishop of Hereford when he published his The Man in the Moone, also in 1638. Godwin had the hero towed to the moon by a flock of swans, and after that, it was on for young and old, with all sorts of graphic descriptions of travel between worlds. Kepler was scientist enough to realise that the acceleration forces could be disastrous; enough, he said, to rip the traveller's buttocks off. Cyrano de Bergerac, tongue in cheek, expounded on the effectiveness of marrow-bone jelly and dew in getting travellers to the moon. Another writer planned to use a giant leaf-spring that would set the traveller down gently on the moon, another planned to use seven thousand barrels of gunpowder.

The method was irrelevant, just a means to the end of getting the fictional character to a place where strange and exotic people could be met. It was the dream that mattered, though Kepler was scientist enough to deal with g forces, cold and the vacuum of space in his account. Still, Kepler was trying mainly to use fiction as a vehicle to convey information. For my money, Kepler was the first science fiction writer.

Curiously, rockets never came into the equation until late in the 19th century, when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the first to realise that controllable rockets were the only way to propel craft in space - and that meant using liquid fuels, he said. Tsiolkovsky was on the ball, suggesting the use of liquid hydrogen, something only prepared for the first time just a few years earlier, as an ideal fuel for the purpose.

The Russian Tsiolkovsky was inspired, like Robert Goddard in America, by Jules Verne's 1865 idea of a launch gun, located near Cape Canaveral. This sent the first humans to the moon, but once there, the ideas diverged. Verne had people living on the Moon, but three years later, the fourth Earl of Rosse, working at Birr Castle in Ireland, measured the surface temperature extremes on the moon, and showed it was not a place where life could exist - life as we know it, anyhow.

Tsiolkovsky dreamed more of looking at the earth from space: "This picture is so magnificent, alluring and infinitely diversified that I heartily wish you and I could see it," he wrote. Of course, once in space, the Russian sage assumed we would go on to mine the asteroids and then outward to the stars. Goddard, on the other hand, came to space travel at a time when the canals of Mars had been discussed for twenty years, and taken as evidence that canals implied the existence of canal makers.

Goddard's dream, like that of the people who came after, was not so much going to the moon as going to Mars, seen as a planet where there was every chance of finding strange life forms. For much of his life, Goddard was pilloried as the 'moon rocket man', and he commented a little sourly once that if he had only spoken of sending a rocket to Mars, it would have drawn less unwelcome attention.

When an A4 rocket, the model we now call the V2, flew 190 kilometres in October, 1942, Wernher von Braun is reported to have said "What a pity it landed on the wrong planet!" This tale may have been part of a process of the post-war laundering of von Braun, a bit of public relationism, but it rings true. Like the other rocket scientists, his eyes were on space, and he would serve the military if it got him closer.

The Apollo moon missions of the late sixties and early seventies may seem to have been an end in themselves, but they were, in reality, just one choice from a number of options, calculated to gazump the USSR, which got Yuri Gagarin into space before any American. Another choice might have been to develop nuclear rockets that would have been capable of launching interplanetary missions, and in those more careless days of atmospheric tests for nuclear weapons, they might have got away with it, but maybe the lunar landings were seen as more attainable, more visible, and more likely to stay within budget.

Scratch a space-conscious scientist, and you'll find an enthusiasm for landing humans on Mars or sending probes to Europa, one of the Jovian moons Galileo found in 1610. There seems to be an ocean beneath Europa's icy outer layer, and perhaps life as well. It won't be life as we know it exactly, and it won't be life as we imagine it, no Little Green ETs or Bug-Eyed Monsters. But if there's a chance of finding life there, every serious scientist wants to be a part of the discovery.

Mars is now looking less likely, but as it becomes more feasible, so the enthusiasm to go there becomes greater - if nothing else, Mars may have fossils, or it could provide a staging point for Europa, or the really Big One, sending probes out of our solar system, satisfying humanity's tourist imperative.

Many scientists have doubts about the International Space Station. They say it has microgravity almost everywhere, that vibrations make most zero-gravity experiments hopeless, that the space nearby is less than a hard vacuum, and experiments done there are trite and pointless. I think they miss its real value. It's a symbolic foothold in space, and it gives humanity an assembly point where future generations may begin to satisfy that outward urge.

You see, I share that outward urge, just like the geophysicists I spoke to in Washington last year, who told me a human mission to Mars is essential, because it needs humans to decide where to look, and what to look for. There are people at NASA who right now are planning a system where power satellites around Mars will beam energy down to the surface to operate a robot factory that could make rocket fuel, using carbon dioxide and water found right on the surface, so there will be a full tank, ready to bring an expedition back up again. What we learn, say the geophysicists, could be crucial to understanding the Earth.

I have a different motive. When Galileo's Jovian moons were checked, they were found to fit the mathematical pattern we now call Kepler's Third Law. The thing that showed it was a law was that the same pattern applied in this other Jovian system. Jonathan Swift was very aware of this. He claimed, 150 years before the two real Martian moons were found, that the scientists of Laputa:

" . . . have likewise discovered two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars . . . the squares of their periodical times are very near in the same proportion with the cubes of their distance from the centre of Mars, which evidently shows them to be governed by the same law of gravitation that influences the other heavenly bodies."

Now in my mind, if life can be shown to have evolved in any other system, anywhere, we'll be entitled to talk about a Law of Evolution, and that will make life rather difficult for those who don't understand evolution but oppose it anyhow, claiming fatuously that evolution's "just a theory".

But our real motivation is to see one of our number go there. We outies share the outward imperative, the universal touring gene, but I think old Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, that arch-outie, deserves the last word:

"Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever."

This is one of a set of talks which were originally heard on ABC Radio National in Australia. All of the talks are copyright © Peter Macinnis, blank, but permission will be readily granted on request for educational and most non-profit purposes—I'm not particularly territorial, and on this one in particular, I'm generally delighted to share.

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For the rest of the talks, go to Six Months of Sundays.