Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Exploration of Space and the Consciousness of Cathedrals

Man stands on the Moon, July 1969

Ignore for the moment that conservative Republicans mostly believe the moon landing was a hoax ("If it's real then why aren't there dinosaurs in the photo? Well? Answer that, smart guy!") and take a moment to reflect on the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing and contemplate the reasons why that seemed to represent the swan song for America's program of space exploration.

In a neighborhood coffee shop the other day I watched a twenty-something guy get frustrated to the point of apoplexy with his laptop computer because it took over twenty seconds to load a Youtube video. This, to me, represents the current consciousness we bring with us when we regard time.

Now consider that the nearest star to our solar system is Proxima Centauri, part of a triple star system called Alpha Centauri; Proxima is 4.22 light years from Earth. Considered to be science fiction only a few decades ago, the technology of ion drive propulsion has increased the speed of a potential inter stellar vehicle well beyond anything we've known in the past. Using ion drive propulsion, a vessel from Earth would take 81,000 years to make the one-way journey. In human terms, that is 2,700 generations of people, living and dying along the way. Or, imagine the launch of the spaceship in late 2010, and then imagine the parade celebrating it's arrival in 83015 (allowing the additional 4.22 years for the radio message "We made it!" to arrive).

Now imagine another quantum leap forward in propulsion technology allowing the ship to maintain the top speed attainable through gravitational assist, and you can cut a large amount of time off that figure. Now the travel time is reduced to 19,000 years (600 generations). You've cut 62,000 years off your travel time, not too shabby.

Nuclear pulse propulsion is a theoretically possible form of fast space travel. Very early on in the development of the development of the atomic bomb, nuclear pulse propulsion was proposed in 1947 and Project Orion was born in 1958 to investigate interplanetary space travel.

The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 is largely attributed to the cancellation of Project Orion (due to the obvious design flaw that huge amounts of radioactive waste would be pumped into space), but what kind of velocities could a nuclear pulse propulsion spaceship attain? Some estimates suggest a ballpark figure of 5% the speed of light (or 5.4×107 km/hr). So assuming a spacecraft could travel at these speeds, it would take a Project Orion-type craft approximately 85 years to travel from the Earth to Proxima Centauri.

Now we're talking. We've managed to slice 80,915 years off our original estimate (ignoring the nuclear pollution of the galaxy for a moment). But even 85 years in Youtube minutes is impossibly long. Such a monumental expenditure of time and money, it's difficult to imagine a Presidential administration putting energy behind a journey that would not see a "Welcome back!" parade until forty-two and a half administrations later.

If we consider what happens when inter stellar travel time consciousness collides full on with Youtube download time consciousness... you can see what the problem is. One solution might be if North Korea or Iran were to announce that they are putting resources into a space program for the purpose of inter stellar exploration. That might do it.

Within 48 hours every Republican with a hideous fake tan would be converging on Fox News demanding action be taken (just so long as poor people don't somehow benefit).

But I digress....

In 1160, Bishop Maurice de Sully had a vision in which he saw a new cathedral in the place where the current Parisian cathedral, St Stephen's (built in the 4th century) stood. Shortly after he assumed the title of Bishop of Paris, de Sully had the old cathedral demolished. Three years later, in 1163, the cornerstone for the new cathedral was lain. In 1196 de Sully died just as the nave (the central approach to the high altar in Gothic church architecture) was completed.

In 1345 the Cathedral of Notre Dame was completed and opened to the people of Paris.

Human history is nothing if not a story linked by similar multi-generational projects.

And this brings me back to one of my favorite quotations. About 15 years ago now I ducked my head inside a luncheon that was going on as part of a Women Studies conference and listened to a speaker who quoted someone who said,

"The trick is that we have to be willing to work for a future that, all along, we know we will never live to see."

There are certain things we know, now, even if reality hasn't yet caught up. One day same sex unions will be no big deal. One day people won't be thrown into prison for smoking the leaves and flowers of a weed that grows wild in all 50 states. One day there will be universal health care. One day cars will get over 50 miles to a gallon. One day humanity will spread out into the galaxy and consciousness will begin its slow spread out into the universe.

Some of these things could be achieved with a stroke of a pen; but others take time.

More precisely, they require a 12th Century temporal consciousness that allows for multi-generational projects. Who knows? Perhaps the Islamic clerics will prevail and will return the world to a 12th Century Islamic state and, in so doing, allow the work to begin. Nobody can predict the future.

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