The iconic Frank Sinatra tune, “Fly Me to the Moon,” may be a love song, but Saturday evening at the Green Bank Observatory, the song was incorporated into the week-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of NASA’s moon landing.
The celebration culminated with an “out-of-this-world” evening of enter- tainment that opened with a performance by Korean pop star and actress JiHAE. Accompanied by GBO software engineer Paul Marganian, JiHAE sang “Fly Me to the Moon” and her original song, “Pale Blue Skies.”
Following the musical interlude, Dr. Chris Impey gave a presentation, “Our Future in Space: From the Moon to Exoplanets.”
Impey began his talk with a look at the inherit need humans have to explore.
“So why do we do this?” he asked. “We don’t have to care about that big world outside Earth. It’s brutal. It’s harsh. There’s radiation. There’s a total vacuum that you could die in in ten seconds. Why do we do it?
“We don’t know why we do it, but the history of human migration across the planet gives us a little hint of what might be going on,” he continued. “The pattern of human migration across the planet is an astonishingly small fraction of time in the history of us being human. We moved out of Africa roughly 50,000 years ago and spread all across the continents and it took six or seven thousand years.”
The need to explore is in our genes. Technically, it is an allele on a single gene that is dubbed the explorer gene. Today, that gene is connected to ADHD and risk seeking behavior.
“Humans are built to explore,” Impey said. “We’re the only [mammals] who did it because we wanted to. We didn’t have to. There was no pressure of population. There was no pressure of food resource that drove humans to move around the planet. They didn’t leave a written record of why they did it, so we don’t know, but we do seem to be built to explore.”
The itch to explore led humans to stop looking left and right, and start looking up. The urge to go into space dates back much further than most might think. As far back as 1500 in ancient China, a man named Wan Hu commanded 47 servants to light 47 rockets which were attached to his chair which would send him to space, making him China’s first astronaut.
“In truth, he died a hideous, horrible death,” Impey said. “But, he had a vision. He was imagining hundreds of years ago what it would be like to leave the planet.”
Following Hu was Robert Goddard, who, in 1926, sent a rocket flying 180 yards across his Aunt Effie’s frozen cabbage patch.
“These are the visionaries that took us to the beginning of thinking about leaving the Earth,” Impey said. “We pay tribute to Miss Baker, an African spider monkey who was the first primate into space in 1959. She survived, was brought back to Earth and lived to the age of twenty-eight. Miss Baker was buried at Goddard Space Flight Center with full military honors. Three thousand people came to Miss Baker’s funeral. You should be so lucky.”
Of course, by the 1960s, the space race reached its apex, with Russia and the United States fighting to be the first to the moon.
While Russia beat the U.S. in several facets, on June 20, 1969, Apollo 11 was the first crewed mission to land on the moon.
“The space history that we’re reliving now, with some nostalgia, was born of a geopolitical pissing contest between the two world super powers,” Impey said. “We shouldn’t forget how unusual a context that was for space exploration. It was not done for the most noblest, altruistic motives.”
Despite the evidence and first-person stories, there are still a lot of people in the world who believe the moon landing was a hoax – a fact that still baffles Impey.
“We did go to the moon,” he said. “There’s evidence. We have reflectors that show the moon is getting this much [holding his hands a foot apart] further from the Earth every year, giving us a millionth of a second longer in our year. It’s nice. I use that time wisely.
“It is a big deal,” he continued. “It’s an incredibly big deal what we did then with computers that were so primitive that humans were doing the work. So, as an educator, I get enormously pissed off. On the other hand, if I made a list of the bat s*** crazy things that Americans believe – the grassy knoll, Elvis was seen in Walmart last week – Apollo denying is just so on par, so why get all tweaked about it? I kind of chill when I think about it.”
Part of the problem, in Impey’s opinion, is people feel as though NASA is wasting money trying to go into space when, in fact, NASA is getting less than half the funding it got in the 1960s during the space race.
“It’s a matter of perspective,” he said. “If you need the money for something, you do it. A decade ago, the federal government spent $840 billion dollars on a Wall Street bailout and about two people went to jail. That’s the funding of NASA for its entire history, in one year. So, yeah, we spend money on what we want to spend money on. It’s a matter of priorities.”
NASA is also facing more competition than before, especially from China, whose space program is merging with the military industrial complex, adding to the amount of funding going into space exploration.
Although NASA is not as active as some think it should be, there is a new surge in space exploration coming from the private sector.
With billionaires like Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis, Yuri Milner and Jeff Bezos creating their own space programs, exploration will soon become an entertaining tourism endeavor – for the right price.
“There was a set of seven space tourists who paid ten to twenty million dollars a pop to go in a Suya spacecraft to the space station and hung around for a week,” Impey said. “That’s a lot of money. Those are special people.”
Impey compared the new space exploration costs with that of Hollywood blockbuster films to show what the cost for a new rocket or space mission would be in this day and age.
“If you want to put a point on it – if you had four million dollars burning a hole in your pocket, you could hire a really good director like James Cameron to make a super cool movie about life on an exoplanet, or you could build the Kepler space telescope, which found hundreds of exoplanets,” he said. “I was able to calculate the average cost of a space mission of any kind, and the average cost of producing a movie over the last half century or so. The average movie now costs more than the average space mission.”
So, what does the future hold with private and public sectors both planning missions to enter space? Well, in this case, the sky is not the limit.
“We will go back to the moon,” Impey said.
The problem with easy access to the moon is that there are no laws in space. That doesn’t mean there will be rogue space cowboys robbing people, but it does mean there is no way to protect the artifacts that remain on the moon from the original space race.
“What would happen if a private company went and rode their rover over Neil Armstrong’s footprints?” Impey asked. “Eh, too bad. It can happen. It’s not a national park. It’s not owned by anyone. So space truly is a wild frontier. Space law is a new, growing program.”
New technologies are also in development that will make space exploration a tad easier, including a space elevator.
“I think something that doesn’t get a lot of attention because when [British sci-fi writer] Arthur C. Clarke was asked late in his life, ‘when are we going to get a moon elevator, a space elevator?,’ he said, ‘fifty years after everyone stops laughing,’” Impey said.
“Actually, people have stopped laughing,” he continued. “The idea of a space elevator – like the Indian rope trick – you suspend a cable until the centrifugal force of the Earth balances the weight of the entire cable and you have to stabilize it. That’s a tricky thing to do.”
At this point, a material does not exist that will create a space elevator from the Earth to the moon, but there are materials that will work from the moon.
“Current materials allow a lunar elevator,” Impey said. “So the first space elevator is going to be on the moon. Why would you care? Because if you use the moon for your staging point for interstellar travel and commerce and resource – getting resources – then you want to be able to get into zero gravity and travel through the solar system for free. The point of a space elevator is for free.”
Impey said he believes there will be a lunar space elevator within a decade. He also believes mining of asteroids will be within the next couple decades.
Looking further into the future, Impey said colonization is imminent and by 2100, not only will people be living on the moon, they will be procreating and making new generations of moon-born humans.
After his presentation, Impey answered questions and held a book signing for his 2015 book, “Beyond: Our Future in Space.”
To close the evening and the week-long event, the celebration moved to the exhibit hall where GBO employee and artist Rebekah Anderson unveiled her latest project – a mural running the length of the back wall of the room.
Anderson was joined by friends and colleagues who pulled away white sheets to reveal the brightly colored depiction of space with swirling magentas, deep blues and purples, mixing into the vast black of space. The piece also features a satellite, an astronaut reaching for a planet and a close up of a female astronaut – her face gazing into the great beyond.