What next for the apes who went to space?

I have no idea where I was on the night of July 20-21, 1969, being far too young to grasp the historic events that were unfolding, as Apollo 11 became the first spacecraft to land humans on a world other than our own. It was, in every sense over my head, albeit in this instance by a good one third of a million kilometres.

In its specially extended coverage, RTE television was still on air at the then-scandalous hour of 3.56am on July 21st as Neil Armstrong took those famous first steps onto the surface of the moon. The RTE Guide, in its edition dated July 18, 1969, featured four solid pages detailing its planned radio and TV coverage of the monumental event.

The usual domestic news stories were swept from the editorial agendas as the dramatic story of Apollo 11’s eight-day journey to the moon gripped audiences around the world. I don’t know what the 1969 version of the water-metering saga was, but even a political soap opera on this scale would surely have been swept away in the dizzy excitement of Apollo 11.

Back then, scientists really were virtually rock stars – presidents and prime ministers listened to and – as often as not – acted under the guidance of the great scientific institutions, be they Nasa and the AAAS in the US, or the UK Royal Society.

Politicians and the media still argued furiously about how best to respond to given scientific findings, but only the truly bone-headed and marginal argued about the facts themselves. The 1969 moon landing was an astonishing triumph for science in its most literal sense, i.e. scientia, the Latin for knowledge. An insatiable thirst to better understand our world had actually propelled one insatiably inquisitive species of higher primates all the way from the African savannah to our neighbouring moon – and back.

A curious side-effect of Nasa’s space programme was that it offered us, for the first time, clear images of Earth as a small blue sphere cradled against the ink-black infinity of space. A famous photo known as ‘Earthrise’ was taken by a crew member of Apollo 8 on December 24th, 1968, the first vessel to complete a lunar orbit. From this new perspective, our limitless world suddenly appeared finite, delicate, yet exquisitely precious – the merest blue smudge in the Cosmos.

Less than two years later, 20 million people took to the streets of America for the first Earth Day, in April, 1970. That massive direct action shook up the political classes and, sensing the new zeitgeist, Republican US president, Richard Nixon signed the Environmental Protection Agency into being in December of that year.

For a long moment in the early 1970s, it really seemed that humanity’s relationship with the natural world might, for the first time since the start of the Industrial Revolution, be placed on a sustainable trajectory. This would mean awakening to the reality of our place within the living world, not as its master but its child, entirely dependent for our well being, our prosperity and our very lives, on the only known biosphere for a trillion kilometres in any direction.

The influential book ‘Limits to Growth’ was published in 1972, having been commissioned by a think tank known as The Club of Rome. It was chillingly prescient:

“If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

What the authors could not have foreseen back then was not just that growth trends would continue, but that they would in fact ramp up sharply, along an exponential curve, especially since the late 1990s, when vast countries like China and India began the most rapid spurt of industrialization in human history.

Fast forward some 45 years from the moon landings to another historic day: November 12, 2014. On this day, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta reached the comet known as 67P/C-G, a roughly 3-by-5 km chunk of rock (first detected in the year of the moon landing, 1969) last August.  Rosetta has travelled some 6.4 billion km since it blasted off in 2004 – the mission has cost around 1.4 billion euros – if you think that sounds like a lot, it’s less than a quarter of what our government pumped into just one rotten institution – Irish Nationwide – after the banking collapse.

Comets are flying time capsules, fragments that pre-date the formation of our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago, so they offer us unique opportunities to better understand our own planetary origins, including tantalising clues as to the origins of life on Earth, as well as possibly trapping ancient organic molecules. I herded the kids into the living room just ahead of 9pm RTE main evening news, so they could see coverage of this truly amazing story. We waited, and we waited, and we waited some more. Gerry Adams, water protesters, Ivor Callely, Ian Bailey, the 1916 commemorations were among the ‘top stories’ that filled the screen.

Not one of them was in any sense ‘new’; all have been rumbling along for days or even weeks. Nor did the bulletin offer any particularly notable advances on any of these stories. Eventually, after around 14 minutes, RTE News carried a piece, running to two minutes and 15 seconds. You couldn’t fault correspondent Will Goodbody’s report, but the same cannot be said for the rabbits who are operating the editorial levers in Montrose.

Wondering if I was simply losing my marbles about the significance of this story, I switched over to the BBC’s flagship TV news bulletin at 10pm, where, sure enough, it was the lead item, with the entire opening segment of almost six minutes dedicated to its coverage. Ditto for CNN and Sky News.

To recap: Rosetta is probably the biggest astronomy story since Apollo 11. Yes, the Mars Rover was another technological triumph, but chasing Comet 67P/C-G for billions of kilometres across the solar system and finally successfully intercepting with and then landing a probe on a rock hurtling along at over 50,000 km per hour, is one of those truly rare moments when science fact brilliantly eclipses even science fiction.

The triumph of the Rosetta mission shows how cutting edge science, enabled by ever more powerful computing resources, has continued to advance in the last four decades. Compare and contrast this latest titanic achievement with the media caricature of science being a disconnected series of random events and ever-changing ‘evidence’ and scientists a bunch of self-serving chancers who make stuff up to get research grants.

This incident also brought it forcefully home that, apart from being uninterested in science, just how entirely provincial the outlook of Ireland’s national media really is, whatever its pretentions to the contrary might be.

This point was hammered home the following morning, when our Newspaper of Record relegated the comet landing to the inside pages. If on the other hand Roy Keane is spotted out walking his dog, well hold the front pages! George Bernard Shaw once mockingly described a newspaper as being an institution unable to distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation. It doesn’t seem quite so far fetched a put-down now.

Cast your mind back a couple of weeks, to Sunday, November 2nd and the launch of the IPCC’s AR5 Synthesis Report. This was the Big One, pulling together the main threads of its findings, while weeding out some climate policy trolls (most notably the pseudo-scientific Panglossian hokum pedalled by one Prof Richard Tol) along the way.

To its credit, RTE did a fine job that day, leading its 6pm and 9pm bulletins, with environment correspondent George Lee leaving viewers in no doubt that as to the gravity of this report (I was interviewed by Lee for the bulletin wearing my An Taisce climate change committee hat).

Within 24 hours, the story was a dead letter as far as the Irish media was concerned. It didn’t make a line on the front page of the next day’s Irish Independent, with the Irish Times managing a meagre 2” single column front page piece. By Tuesday, it was business-as-usual, as the Independent’s knuckle-dragger-in-chief penned his latest piece of bilious anti-science twaddle.

In what I can only assume is a desperate search for attention, the author (who confuses being able to type with being able to write) plumbs the sewers of journalism every time he mentions climate change. The irony here is that the Indo’s actual environment corr, Paul Melia, seems to really know his stuff, but get precious little editorial space, while the poo-flinging Ian O’Doherty is promoted, presumably to serve as Daily Mail style click-bait.

When it isn’t conducting intricate manoeuvres with probes half a billion kilometres away, the European Space Agency is, along with its US counterpart, Nasa, at the bleeding edge of research into climate change. Both agencies deploy satellites to take a range of ultra-precise ongoing measurements of ‘the home planet’, from assaying atmospheric CO2 to sea level and ice thickness measurements.

Measuring and understanding the vital functions of a dynamic living biosphere and its ever-changing weather systems involves as phenomenally complex collaborative science as guiding Rosetta across the Solar System to rendezvous with comet 67P/C-G. Curious how as soon as the same scientists who deliver mind-boggling breakthroughs such as the Rosetta mission apply their expertise to measure the degree to which Earth systems are being impacted by climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, glacial ice loss, sea level rise, extreme weather events and widespread pollution, they are suddenly cast as cranks, alarmists and venial grant-seekers who’ll say anything for a couple of hundred euros. Like a certain kind of hack, come to think of it.

Well, that’s what the poo-flingers would have us believe anyhow. Personally, if forced to choose between believing the semi-literate babbling of neoliberal fantasists and the collective expertise and data sets of the world’s scientific institutions, frankly, it’s really not such a tough call.

I was interviewed on Monday’s RTE Drivetime (clip starts around 00.49) about the report. The interviewer asked me straight off the bat whether the IPCC’s findings could in fact be trusted. Seriously. Had he been tuning in, George Lee would probably have been pulling his remaining hair out in tufts. In the movie Groundhog Day, it’s always February 2nd, and nobody ever remembers anything about the day, no matter how many times the hapless weatherman, Phil Connors has to endure it.

As far as the media coverage of climate change is concerned, it’s always February 2nd, and the story is inevitably handled with the same eyebrow-lifted surprise and scepticism. Perish the thought that somebody might open their eyes wide enough and stay focused for long enough to realise: ‘holy crap, this is real, it’s happening, we’re stuffed, and absolutely everything I know, everything I’ve learned and pretty much everything I care about is either irrelevant or dead wrong’.

Not many people, especially media people, are queuing up for a cold shower epiphany like that. But, as the IPCC has laboured to warn us, the “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” of climate change are coming our way, ready or not, and, it appears, sooner than we feared.

*Hat-tip to Prof Brian Cox for inspiring the title of this post.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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6 Responses to What next for the apes who went to space?

  1. autofac says:

    Hey John –

    Nice. I actually am old enough to remember the first moon landing. It’s hard now to imagine the kind of universal interest that there was at that time. My older brother laboured for months on a giant airfix scale model of that Saturn V, including the incredibly detailed lunar module and lander. People casually discussed lift-offs and burns and orbits and g forces and how a flag was going to manage to “fly” on the airless moon. And the future was science and technology and exploration and fun, and above all, it was open and full of endless possibilities.

    Ah well.

    The technological utopia was indeed just that, of course: a fanciful dream. Childish even. Unfortunately, instead of growing up, it seems we’ve just grown old.

    Anyway, thanks for calling out the astounding neglect by Irish media of the extraordinary achievement of the Rosetta mission culminating in the Philae landing. FWIW my personal faourite coverage of the event was xkcd’s “live animation” – well worth a replay!

    Minor quibble:

    What the [Limits to Growth] authors could not have foreseen back then was not just that growth trends would continue, but that they would in fact ramp up sharply, along an exponential curve…

    But exponential growth – and properly modelling it, using the computer tools only just then becoming widely available – was exactly the point of the Limits to Growth project. Of course, details have changed a lot; but the most amazing thing about LTG continues to be the fact that, at the global level, we are still tracking very close to their “standard” (business as usual) scenario.

    Final footnote: the first “programmable device” I ever owned (1976?) was a Sinclair Scientific Programmable Calculator. It was so limited that achieving any meaningful “program” was an achievement in itself. My memories are fading, but I’m pretty sure that one of the sample programs that could be crammed into it was the virtually compulsory “lunar lander” game! But I mention it not because it was obviously both inspired and enabled by the Apollo project, but because the core principle – the use of a computer to solve an otherwise completely intractable mathematical model of a complex system – was exactly the same principle that allowed and enabled the Limits to Growth analysis. In this way, LTG became both the pinnacle and the epitaph for the Apollo age.

  2. econroy says:

    I too am old enough to remember the moon landing! I remember snoozing on the sitting room floor with my younger brother awaiting the landing in the middle of the night on a snowy black and white TV. It was momentous. Well done on the article (as usual!) and on Drivetime – I liked your final comments about the special interests of several governments and what awaits us if they are pursued. Regards, Eric.

  3. johngibbons says:

    Barry, thanks for the fascinating trip back to the heady days of Star Trek (the original series in b&w, of course) when it really did look like humanity was going to spread out to explore and even colonise the solar system and beyond. When researching for the above piece, I watched quite a bit of contemporary footage. The breathless excitement, the sheer thrill of discovery, was obvious, from those directly involved to the hundreds of millions of people who gathered around flickering TV screens in homes, public squares and TV shop windows to see the culmination of the Apollo 11 voyage.

    Even the Cold War, which of course provided the incentive and funding for ICBM-style rocket technology, seemed to go on hold for a moment, as humanity shared a unique experience. And yes, since you mention it, I seem to recall getting fairly handy at Lunar Lander once upon a time! In hindsight, while the late 60s and early 70s must have felt like the beginning of a brave new technology-inspired era, as you suggest, LTG reframes it instead as the beginning of the Great Unravelling, as our complex systems with their rapacious demands on finite resources sent us, not soaring towards the stars but instead hurtling down a well.

    To the unwary, falling can feel like flying – until you reach journey’s end, of course.

  4. johngibbons says:

    Thanks Eric, great to hear the stories of people’s memories of summer of ’69 (wasn’t that a song?) starting to emerge. Heady days indeed. Shame I slept through it all!

  5. CoilinMacLochlainn says:

    I remember it too. My father woke me up in the middle of the night to come and watch it; I think Neil Armstrong had already take his ‘giant leap for mankind.’ The reception was bad, the pictures were snowy, and all I could hear were crackling noises, mostly unintelligible American voices, I think from NASA in the main. But I was pleased that my father knew it would interest me, even though I was just eight. He died later that year.

  6. johngibbons says:

    What a poignant recollection, Coilin. Losing your dad at age 8 must have been a dreadful blow, Thank you for sharing.

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