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Monday, October 24, 2011

The Star Wars Defense

Chapter 9C

The Star Wars Defense

Another contribution of space to our actual situation is often mentioned. Satellites are integral part in military communications and reconnaissance. But on the whole this has been more of a benefit than not. It was precisely the existence of such satellites that made it possible for the Kennedy administration in the U.S. to sign a test ban treaty with the Soviets. The days of such testing seem a remote memory today, but we must not forget that extremely powerful devices were routinely exploded in the atmosphere, with potentially disastrous effects. And even though a ban was in the interest of both parties, it was difficult to get around the suspicion that the other side would cheat. Together with seismographic methods and other techniques, reconnaissance satellites gave the needed assurances. Little can be done to hide an explosion of several megatons from a good camera overhead.

Satellites also guide “smart bombs” and give the military information needed to invade other lands. But then again, cooperation with the military need not be evil. It all depends on the enemy and the war. Besides, the main motivation for the development of “smart bombs” is to maximize the destruction of military targets while minimizing civilian casualties. This is hardly the basis for an indictment. Now, a new direct application of space technology to war may be the conversion of an airplane designed to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere into a spy plane (for it could fly high enough to avoid standard ground-to-air missiles). As we have seen, though, the spying made possible by space technology has been on the whole beneficial.

Let me leave behind for the moment this examination of past and present and concentrate for a while on the future. There are two main ways in which space can be seen as worsening our situation. One is that weapons more formidable may still result from space technology. The other is that by developing that technology we make the world more unstable. What those formidable weapons might be is largely unknown. A suggestion one hears from time to time is that big rocks could be aimed at the Earth from the Moon. They would be accelerated to escape velocity by electromagnetic forces, and their course toward their Earth target would be corrected by pretty standard guidance techniques. The energy released by the impact of a large rock could cause extraordinary damage. To mount such an attack, a country would require a rather substantial base on the Moon. This base could be underground, and presumably easy to defend. I think that Gerard O'Neill's efforts to design a mass driver to put lunar materials in orbit -- basically the technology for the Moon slingshot -- shows that the military applications are not so readily at hand. The rocks would have to be very big to be effective as weapons and follow a very precise trajectory to fall on the right target. Nonetheless, I suppose that sooner or later such a weapon may be feasible. But I am not sure how the situation would be radically altered. What kept ICBM's in their silos had nothing to do with how easy the silos were to defend. It had all to do with the fear of retaliation upon the society that launched them. Similar remarks should apply to the proposal to build a gigantic solar collector in the Moon to energize a very powerful beam, a death ray, that would vaporize any nation incautious enough to become our enemy.

Another possible nightmare connected with space exploration may come at the time when we make serious attempts to travel to the stars. A hydrogen bomb releases only a small fraction of the energy "frozen" in matter. To achieve the relativistic speeds necessary in star travel we must find practical ways of releasing far larger fractions of energy. The problem is that, with such a technology, it might be possible to make bombs monstrous enough to blow our planet to bits. In that case, however, retaliation would be rendered at once impossible and redundant.

Some evidence suggests that a full-scale attack by one superpower upon the other might be enough already to destroy the human race even if there is no response. According to Carl Sagan and other researchers, a global nuclear war would radically affect the atmosphere, both by the amount of radioactive dust that would circle the planet and by the making it poisonous to terrestrial life. Although this possibility requires a rather pessimistic reading of "Nuclear Winter" scenarios, it should give further pause to nuclear adversaries. As our destructive power increases, to kill may well be tantamount to suicide. This may well show that to build more weapons is sheer folly. We should realize, however, that there is a clear sense in which more offensive power cannot make matters worse. When you have a bazooka pointed at someone's head, bringing a far bigger bazooka does not really alter the situation all that much.

The other way in which space may presumably worsen the situation is by making it more unstable. One possibility much discussed in the recent past was the defense system proposed by President Reagan of the U.S. This system, popularly known as "the star wars defense," would have employed gigantic lasers or particle-beam weapons to knock out ICBMs in flight. Normally the atmosphere would dissipate the impact of such weapons, but since ICBMs must fly in thin regions, they might be easy prey. There were several formidable problems with such a scheme. The first was that the technology required went far beyond the state of the art. The second was that several easy countermeasures were open to the other side. And the third, and most decisive, was that according to the most optimistic reliable estimates such a defense would probably be no more than 75% effective. Since at the earliest time when the system could have been installed, each side could have owned at least 10,000 warheads, the successful 25% would be more than enough to put an end to things human. Even 99% effectiveness would allow for incredible devastation. Although such high level of effectiveness was never in the cards, imagine that a vigorous program of research could have improved the power of lasers and the means of detection of ICBMs to the point that a 100% effective defense had been possible in a few decades. Since the proposal by the American president included making the technology available to the other side, ICBMs would have become obsolete. In this way space would have done away with its main contribution to the anxiety of the Cold War.

In reality, President Reagan's scheme was as pointless as it was expensive: A star wars defense cannot end the threat of annihilation. For the laser beams and the particles shot from low orbit could not penetrate the atmosphere to knock out also bombers and cruise missiles, or even missiles fired from submarines close to the target. That is, even with all the ICBMs neutralized, the Soviet Union and the United States had ample nuclear alternatives to destroy each other and human civilization. In the case of a real war, our celebration of the complete success of Star Wars against ICBM's would have lasted only the few hours that it would take for cruise a missile to barely clear the last hill on its journey to us . .

Whereas some hope that space technology can help us slay the dragon whose fire other technology ignited, others worry about the increasing reliance on satellites for military operations, especially now that it is possible to attack and destroy those satellites. This is seen as one more instance in which space technology brings us to the edge of disaster. But we should notice that a country whose military communication satellites were destroyed would feel inclined to attack mainly because it would reasonably interpret the destruction of its satellites as the prologue to total war. A country could get away with the destruction of another's satellites only if the other could not find out about it. Since this is not so, it seems unreasonable to suppose that space technology has made matters worse.

It is true that in space we can find more reasons for fighting than we already have. If we discover a great treasure in the Moon we may resent any attempts to take it away from us. And our satellites have become such valuable commodities that we would not like to be deprived of them. But we cannot blame space technology in this regard any more than a tribe can blame their canoes for enabling them to discover good hunting grounds downstream, grounds that may become a source of quarrel with another tribe.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

V-2 Rockets and Bombs

Chapter 9B

V-2 Rockets and Bombs

Even though rockets had been used for military purposes since the 1200s, they had never been particularly effective as weapons. But in the 1930s the needs of the German military began to converge with those of the VFR. The main problem for the rocket enthusiasts was the lack of financial support for their activities. They resorted to all sorts of stratagems to raise money. One member by the name of Valier sold Opel on the idea of trying rockets to propel automobiles. This scheme brought in some funding until Valier was killed testing one of his contraptions. The VFR leader, Rudolf Nebel, talked the city of Magdeburg into supporting rocket research that would lead to an experiment sure to make the city famous. At the time there were in Germany many crank theories supporting the view that the Earth was a hollow sphere and we lived in the inside, with our heads, not our feet, pointing to the center. A rocket with a human observer in it could go up a few miles and decide once and for all what the real shape of the Earth was. Nothing but extended survival for the VFR came of the project.

Into this opportunistic search for funds walked the German army. The treaty of Versailles, after WWI, forbid the German development of long-range, heavy artillery. But there was no mention of rockets anywhere in the treaty. A young member of the VFR, Wernher von Braun was able to interest the army generals in his projects, a task facilitated by the fact that he was an aristocrat and the son of the minister of agriculture. Initially the army support was small, but as the tensions in Europe grew and the task of rearmament went into full swing, young von Braun very adeptly played the German armed services against each other (both the army and the air force saw the rocket as their domain). All the while, the story has been told, von Braun and his cohorts kept on designing the future space ship. According to him, "An unbiased visitor to the planning group at Peenemunde would have heard little, if anything, discussed which related to other matters than reaching out into space . . . ." But when it came to economic support, all the talk was of the terrifying weapon they were developing for the fatherland. Their final product, the V-2 rocket, was indeed terrifying. Many a British nightmare began with the horrible whistle of the rocket as it cut through the London night on its mission of death and destruction.

Even if the VFR used the bombing of London to finance space flight ultimately, a critic may still deny them absolution. Moreover, he may argue that this episode is a clear instance of how the quest for space made for more misery than the world would otherwise have endured. And he may also point out how easy it is for scientists to sell their souls to the devil. Oberth thought that space would bring about a more harmonious future. So did the pioneers of aviation. Once in the air, human beings would realize the unimportance of the geographical and political barriers between them. In a similar vein, some believe now that as humans look back at the globe of the Earth from space, they will be struck by the revelation that we are all children of the Mother Earth and therefore brothers. There lie the beginnings of real peace. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam during the war against the USA sent a message of congratulations to its enemy on the occasion of the first lunar landing by the Americans. Perhaps that revelation of brotherhood will become widespread. But only folly would lead us to expect that it can guarantee peace. Brothers are sometimes the worst of enemies. As for the aviators, not long after being awed by the prospects of peace, they were killing each other and reducing cities to rubble. And in spite of the spectacular adventure of the Apollo flights to the Moon, the war in Vietnam continued for several more years.

Nevertheless, let us not leave the V-2 incident unexamined, for that incident gives so much plausibility to the notion that space technology is bound to bring us to grief. We assume that anything that furthered Hitler's cause was evil, therefore the V-2 was evil. But did the V-2 further Hitler's cause? To believe Dornberger, the German general in charge of the V-2 project, it did. He recalls that Hitler apologized to him for not having grasped the significance of the weapon years earlier--the first time in his life that Hitler had apologized. But the man who kept the books, Albert Speer, the minister of munitions, thought that the V-2 had been a terrible waste of manpower and resources. As he put it: "49,000 tons of explosive were dropped on Berlin alone, by which 20.9% of the dwellings were seriously damaged or totally destroyed. In order to direct the same quantity against London, we would have had to employ 66,000 great rockets." Consider for a moment that Germany fired against England a grand total of 1340 V-2s!

By contrast, one American B-17, a long-range bomber, cost six times as much as one V-2 but carried three times as many explosives and could be used many times over. It has been suggested that Germany would have been better off building airplanes instead. This is doubtful. Radar gave the allies a great advantage in defending against the German air force, and thus more airplanes may not have made the difference. Fighters could, of course, be used to defend Germany against the attacking bombers; but it is not clear that the Germans had the gasoline for those extra airplanes while, as Dornberger claimed, the V-2s used alcohol extracted from potatoes. Dornberger, however, fails to take into account the diversion of coal from the production of gasoline (the Germans made synthetic gasoline) to factories producing not only the alcohol but also the more esoteric fuels used by the rockets. Nor does he take into account that cars and trucks could and did run on alcohol. Indeed at Peenemunde, the base for the V-2, the carburetors of trucks had been modified so they could run on rocket fuel.

Whatever the final disposition of the choice between V-2s and airplanes, there is a more straightforward comparison to determine the effectiveness of the V-2. The natural competitor of von Braun's rocket was the V-1, or buzz bomb, a pilotless plane forerunner of the cruise missile, and not a rocket designed with space in mind. According to calculations made by David Irving and later confirmed by Speer, the V-1 killed twice as many Britons for half the production cost of the V-2. Toward the end of the war the British were able to shoot down most V-1s, but the Germans could have instituted easy modifications that would have preserved the success of the V-1. They did not do so because von Braun had convinced them that his big liquid-fuel rocket was the way to go. As Bainbridge concludes, "By any criteria, the V-2 was not a cost-effective weapon. It could not match the performance of much simpler weapons systems, yet drained money, materials, and talent from its sponsors."

Sometimes it is suggested that the V-2 could have carried an atomic warhead. But the Germans did not have one. And if they had, the V-2 could not have delivered it (the payload of a V-2 was less than a ton; an early atomic bomb weighed four tons). Suggestions that the Germans could have combined several V-2s for that purpose, or that they could have built a rocket capable of hitting targets in the U.S. do not stand up to close scrutiny. The same can be said for the notion that a von Braun design had provided an effective antiaircraft missile. But I will let the interested reader consult Bainbridge's analysis (pp.92-122). For our present purposes the important result, at least in this case, is that space technology does not seem to have made matters worse for mankind. If anything the case goes in the opposite direction. This, of course, may not change our moral evaluation of von Braun and his group. Bad intentions or plain callousness are in themselves worthy of blame.

After the war, the V-2 was used for scientific research at high altitude, a task for which it was very well suited. Its military used was limited, as was that of its direct descendants, the Russian T-1 and the American Redstone. And the reason was simply that a rocket was then too expensive and complicated a means of delivering conventional explosives. Nevertheless, opportunity would again come von Braun's way, now with his group forming part of the American rocket program, and for Korolyov, von Braun's Russian counterpart. At first it was the Army's interest in a rocket that might carry atomic warheads; and then in the 1950s, with the development of compact hydrogen bombs, the space rocket seemed to have become at last an effective instrument of war. Thanks to the descendants of the V-2 that terrorized London, man could now make short work of ending all life on Earth.

It is clear that the cold war led both Americans and Russians to spare no effort in developing technology for war. And there is no question that the quest for space played a part in putting the human race under the threat of nuclear annihilation. But as in the case of the V-2, the matter is not all that simple. First of all, that threat would have been there independent of rockets. Bombers would have been sufficient all along. Second, for all the anxiety that threat caused, some argue that the fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD) actually prevented a third world war. And third, the contribution of space technology is ambiguous.

The first point is fairly obvious. The main role of rockets was to make the time of flight so short -- from a few minutes to half an hour depending on their location -- that in case of a confrontation it would have been very difficult to correct any mistakes. To some critics this is a terrible indictment of space technology. And so is the mere fact that rockets have given us one more way of making the destruction of life possible. But this is all a matter of perspective. Let us consider the two indictments separately. It is true that shortening the time from the decision to attack to the actual explosion did not allow for much flexibility. Nevertheless, the problem of inflexibility still existed with bombers and cruise missiles that could not be called back -- as it was the case with the American weapons -- so without rockets the world would get a reprieve of a couple of hours. Once the decision to attack was made, the result would be the same anyway. In any event, from the point of view of the supporters of MAD, the variety and efficiency that rockets offered simply made us work so much harder to make sure that we did not launch an attack. And that was on the whole for the best.

People who hold this view need only point out that the Soviet Union and the United States had such mutually repulsive political systems that a global war would have been inevitable without MAD. And even though the two superpowers constantly engaged in surrogate wars, and even though many other countries insisted in adding their own ghastly contributions, during the Cold War, the world endured nothing comparable to the devastation of WWII. Indeed, it is easy to imagine that a conventional war between the two superpowers, probably in the 1950s, would have dwarfed the confrontation with Hitler. Thanks to nuclear weapons, there was no world war because to start one was to commit suicide. The anxiety produced by MAD was difficult to bear. But given the alternative -- and I mean a conventional, not a nuclear, WWIII -- there were those who would rather be anxious.

The notion is then that, with stakes so high, the world has had to be very careful. But what makes some critics despair is that an accident or a misunderstanding could have brought about the end of the world. As the means of setting the bomb off multiplied, the probability that it would increased. Besides, the shorter the fuse, the harder it is to evaluate whether reports that it has been lit are genuine. A country may retaliate, thinking itself under attack, in a case in which more time could have turned up a computer malfunction or a strange echo on a radar screen rather than an incoming ballistic missile. But on the other hand, the more its means of retaliation, the less a country will fear that it will not be able to get even. In such a case, a country may be more willing to take the chance that its opponent has not really launched a first strike--and more willing also to recognize an accident for what it is. The fewer its means of retaliation, the more paranoid a country may be, and thus the more likely to attack.

In this matter, as in most political matters, people hold strong opinions without hesitation. But it is seldom easy to see why the argument can cut only one way. Nevertheless, let us grant -- for the sake of discussion, if nothing else -- that MAD was a terrible thing, and that the world would have been better without it. Is the link between space technology and the nuclear threat therefore as firm as many believe?

That matter is not so clear either. During a short time in the 1950's, space rockets became suitable vehicles for the newly invented hydrogen bombs. But once the Russian and American space programs began in earnest, the size and power of the new rockets were generally far in excess of what the military needed. Even at the time when the first ICBMs were being built, the goal could have been accomplished without liquid fuel rockets, that is, without space rockets. Solid fuel rockets, it turns out, can serve the military purpose with greater reliability and safety. In fact, in several instances the space rockets were out of the question. The Navy, for example, had no use for a liquid fuel rocket that could be fired only in near perfect weather. The Navy feared that any rocking of the ship could make the rocket explode prematurely -- on deck.

Of course, a solid fuel rocket does not offer as much control. But then the task did not involve putting anything in orbit, and, in any event, given the devastating power of a hydrogen bomb, extraordinary precision was not at a premium. Much later when increased precision was required, new guidance systems had become available for the solid fuel rockets. Thus the military could have had its ICBMs without space; and to concur with Bainbridge, perfect hindsight makes us see that the military should have gone strictly with solid fuel rockets. The direction the military actually took favored space flight and not the means of destruction. And it took that direction because space enthusiasts like von Braun could always make great propaganda out of the technological success of the V-2 and the myth that surrounded it. Without that myth, military rockets would have been very different. As Bainbridge puts it: “The military advantages of solid fuels include cost, storability, reliability, and simplicity. These advantages must be foregone by space vehicles to achieve greater power and control. By its striking superiority over contemporary solid-fuel rockets, the V-2 pointed the direct way toward space but led military technology on a detour."

Saturday, October 8, 2011




One of Rousseau's complaints against the arts and the sciences was that they weaken the military might of a society. "All examples teach us," he said, "that in military of the sciences is much more apt to soften and enervate courage than to strengthen and animate it." Perhaps it was still possible in the 18th Century, when he wrote, to believe that the sciences were luxuries of no practical military consequences -- although even then the new science had brought great advances in ballistics and other military fields. Today those who share Rousseau's suspicion of science do so for different reasons. He worried that science made us if anything less formidable. They worry that it makes us far too formidable.

The proponents of space exploration generally have a benign view of what the enterprise has to offer, although it is not uncommon to see space activities funded precisely because some military advantage is likely to result from them. The serious objection is not, however, that there is a connection between space technology and the military, for after all there have been times when helping the military was the right thing to do (fighting against Hitler, for example). The objection is rather that space technology puts into the hands of man tools that he cannot fail to mishandle. There is an evil side to man, and so whatever discoveries science makes will eventually visit pain and misery upon the human race. Space science and its accompanying technology are no exception. If anything they confirm the suspicions against science in general. Is it not true that rockets have been used to kill and terrorize in the past? Is it not true that for decades they were the very means by which the entire planet could have been brought to nuclear annihilation at a moment's notice? Are they not still a great threat today?

The point is not merely that there is a connection between space and grief. The point is rather that the connection is somehow unavoidable, that you cannot have one without the other. Thus, the more space technology progresses, the more acute the grief. This far more sweeping claim requires that we look into the history of space exploration and its likely future for clues of such inherent connections with destruction and evil. Indeed we must keep in mind that this claim often gains plausibility in the first place because of appeals to history -- mainly to the role of the German V-2 rockets in WWII and of the intercontinental ballistic missiles during the Cold War.

The need to examine this objection in a historical context cannot be stressed too much. Some may argue that the relevant issue is whether space technology will make war inevitable in the future, whatever its role might have been in the past. But this line of argument operates in a rhetorical vacuum. An estimate of the contribution of space technology to war should presumably be supported by reasons, by an account of the causal and probable connections involved. And how are those reasons going to be assessed? On their merits, one might hope. But what are their merits? What makes causal and probable connections plausible in the first place? I submit that these difficult matters are most often influenced by the way we have learned to judge. And what has determined that learning if not our perception of how similar matters have been resolved? We appeal, that is, to our experience, and in the last analysis, to history. At the very least a brief look at history is necessary, then, to unearth assumptions which otherwise may be innocently smuggled into appraisals of the future.

The wish to explore beyond the confines of our own world is very old. By 180 AD it received full treatment in Lukian's Vera Historia (True History), in which travelers go to the Moon when a giant whirlwind picks up their ship from the ocean. In 1634 the famous Johannes Kepler wrote Sleep, a novel about a trip to the Moon. With the advent of the industrial revolution, several would-be inventors tried their imagination at mechanical contraptions that could turn such trips into more than dreams, although their colorful ideas had little to do with the actual development of rocketry many decades later. In Russia there was Kibal'chich, who spent his time designing explosive devices and rocket aircraft, while ignoring his trial for blowing the Czar to bits in 1881. In Germany there was Ganswindt, who worked on a hopeless steam jet to propel his spacecraft. And everywhere there were fiction writers taking their readers on trips that engineering could not yet make available.

The theme of space travel was in the air, and around the turn of the century the real pioneering work was finally carried out. By then science and technology had caught up with the old dreams to the point that not one but three independent investigators provided the foundation of space rocketry. The Russian Tsiolkovsky was the earliest, then came Goddard in the U.S., and finally the most influential of them all, Oberth in Germany. The first thing these three men had to do was show that space flight was indeed possible. Their solution to this problem, as we will see, has some bearing on the issue of whether inherent connections exist between space technology and devastating war. And the problem was that, to many “experts” at the time, space flight seemed not merely far fetched but physically impossible. Some disheartening calculations, for example, showed that however efficient the production of thrust, no rocket could raise its own mass into orbit. But as the pioneers showed, even the most sophisticated impossibility proofs could be gotten around by the very simple but ingenious idea of using multi-stage rockets. The first stage gives the whole rocket an initial boost and then separates. At that point a second stage takes over the task of pushing a lighter vehicle with a now shorter distance to climb. One or two more pushes like that and the rocket achieves orbital velocity.

A second barrier was overcome by the switch from solid to liquid fuels. Standard rockets generally used solid fuels, mostly gun powder, which lacked both the power and the control required for space flight. Tsiolkovsky and the other pioneers soon realized, however, that several mixtures of liquid propellants, particularly hydrogen burned with oxygen, could give rockets the desired performance. This is of particular importance to our question, as we shall see. Now, a quick comparison of liquid and solid fuels shows how right Tsiolkovsky was -- a most remarkable feat for a self-taught man who never gained entrance to the scientific or engineering circles of his day. Liquid propellants liberate more energy per pound than their solid competitors. (The following figures were given by John Shasta of the American Rocket Society in 1936, and appear in William S. Bainbridge's book The Spaceflight Revolution, from which most of the following account is taken). The best powder achieved 1870 BTU's; a mixture of methyl alcohol with oxygen, 3030; while hydrogen and oxygen combined gave 5760. Even in contemporary times the differences are pronounced: The solid fuel in the typical military rocket of the 1970's produced in principle an exhaust velocity of 2250 meters per second (m/s), a figure inferior to the 2750 m/s that Goddard had actually achieved with his small rockets decades earlier, and much below the 4200 m/s obtained by burning hydrogen with oxygen. At least until recently, the best that could be hoped for in future solid fuels did not measure up to the performance of liquid fuels in this respect.

In the second important respect, control, the differences are just as pronounced. The difficulty with a solid propellant is that it tends to burn until it is exhausted. You cannot just shut it off and start it again. In a liquid system, on the other hand, you may always control the amounts of fluids intervening in a reaction -- you may increase it, decrease it, or turn it off altogether. And you can open the valves again and thereby restart the combustion that gives you the thrust. This fine control permits the appropriate accelerations at the appropriate times to maneuver the rocket into the desired orbit. And although the techniques to achieve this control were not easily acquired by rocket developers in the decades that followed, there was now a clear direction of research, as well as good reasons to think that the problems could be solved.

The three pioneers also provided basic formulas for engine performance and specified likely vehicle trajectories. Now the goals were clarified, and so were the means for attaining them. Nevertheless, the move toward space did not quicken its pace for a long time. The few who were technically competent and who took the trouble to read carefully the works of the rocket pioneers may have realized the potential involved. But most technically qualified people regarded the topic with suspicion and did not bother themselves with an investigation of it. There is nothing conspiratorial or shortsighted in that attitude. Any scientist may well be bombarded with a myriad of ideas that he himself has not examined in detail. Which ones should he explore? Not all of them. He cannot. And surely not those that strike him as implausible or without foundation. Time is too short for that. Science changes because not all scientists are cut of the same cloth, and thus what seems preposterous to the majority may instead strike a resonant chord in a few others. Most beginnings are therefore small, and the development of space technology was no exception.

The dreams of the pioneers were left for others to realize. Tsiolkovsky remained undiscovered and ignored. Goddard was very secretive about his own work. As Bainbridge points out, "He did not publish an account of his first 1923 engine firing until 1936, when the V-2 was already taking shape on German drawing boards. Complete reports of his experiments in the 1930s were not published until 1961, the year that Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth." This situation was apparently more the result of his peculiar temperament than anything else. According to Bainbridge, "Goddard tended to ignore the work of other men in the field, was remiss in his correspondence with colleagues, refused to share his results, and would not participate in joint projects. He seemed to want to achieve successes...then burst upon the world in triumph." But one man alone could not achieve what took the efforts of many thousands. Such were the first quirky steps in the strange journey that took us to the Moon.

As interesting as the lives and motivations of these men were, an account that would do them justice is beyond the scope of this book. For our purposes, it is enough to say that those motivations had more to do with the liberation of the human spirit, with its excellence, than with the destruction of other human beings. In Oberth's words: "...probably Mankind will even build spaceships sometime, make other planets habitable, or even establish habitable stations in space, and having become morally mature in the meantime, will bear life and harmony out into the cosmos."

Oberth presented his masterwork The Rocket into Interplanetary Space as his doctoral dissertation in 1922 (Goddard's crucial theoretical work preceded his by ten years, and Tsiolkovsky's by twenty). He was turned down with the advice to look for a more suitable topic. He refused, and then proclaimed that he could become a greater scientist than his examiners, "even without the title of doctor." His arrogance was not entirely misplaced. Within a year he had published his book, of which Arthur C. Clarke has said that it "may one day be classed among the few that have changed the history of mankind." In any event, it became not only a source of inspiration but also the textbook for the German rocket experimenters. One such group, founded in 1927, the VFR--Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) -- was to prove of crucial importance.

Saturday, October 1, 2011




Is SETI a waste of time and money? I do not think so. SETI does at least two valuable things. First, it provides an extraordinary opportunity for a shortcut in our search for life in the universe. For obviously, if we detect intelligent civilizations we will have settled the issue of the possibility of extraterrestrial life, which otherwise may take hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years to resolve, if it can be resolved at all by space travel.

SETI’s chances of success may be slim, but if we do succeed the results would be of the greatest significance. SETI is like a lottery ticket: As long as the investment is small, we have little to lose and much to gain. That is pretty much the way the matter is being treated at the present time -- a budget in the few million over the next decade is a mere pittance as far as those things go.

Second, SETI provides special motivation and in some cases inspiration for many researchers who work in areas related, however indirectly, to the issue of the origin and the evolution of life. Indeed, to be fair to the SETI enthusiasts, much of their work has concentrated on improving our knowledge of several of the links in the chain between the origin of the galaxy and the origin of life. The misleading use of probabilities comes more in the public relations effort than in the actual science.

Another benefit of SETI is that as part of the task of identifying suitable stars it is necessary to improve our star catalogue for distances at least up to a few hundred light years away, which is the maximum radius of the volume that SETI will comb for intelligence in the near future. As new technology--radiotelescopes in orbit, for example-- increases the radius of the search, the map of our section of the galaxy is also bound to improve. This painstaking but necessary job of astronomical taxonomy has been neglected somewhat because it does not compare in glamour with the investigation of the many exciting phenomena that have come to light in the past three decades. SETI gives it the right spice to make it enticing enough.

Whether SETI succeeds or not, however, I suspect that its main possible contribution lies elsewhere. Just as exobiology can provide a very useful context in which to ask questions about the origin and evolution of life, SETI may become a useful framework to examine the nature of our intelligence and our technological civilization. And here I do not mean merely the determination of whether we should feel unique or ordinary as a species -- important as this matter may be -- but rather the ability to bring together many disciplines to investigate the origins and evolution of scientific culture.