Apollo and Everest

30 August 2012

Thursday


The recent passing of Neil Armstrong provides an opportunity to reflect once again on the moribund space program and the sorry state of human space exploration. In my Tumblr post on Neil Armstrong I mentioned the article Neil Armstrong’s death should be a wake-up call for the world by Martin Robbins writing in The Guardian, which was a forceful reflection on precisely this topic.

The collapse of ambitious human spaceflight programs (sometimes called the “Conquest of Space”), and the constant talk of a manned mission to Mars coupled with the absence of any action to begin such a project, contrasts strikingly with the “Conquest of Everest” by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, which began an ambitious mountaineering trend that has, in our own time, come close to being a mass phenomenon — sort of like playing golf, although a bit more restrictive and exclusive.

In the case of the lack of any follow-through after, or follow-up to, the Apollo program, this lack of action followed a public perception revealed in contemporary sources that all would be onward and upward after the Apollo program: that we would continue to go to the moon and not too long after that to Mars, and we would inhabit that exciting world that the futurists presented to us. Of course, we could have done so, but this didn’t happen. On the contrary, “moonshot” has now become an immediately and intuitively unambiguous metaphor that refers to a one-off heroic effort that is not followed by an encore.

In the case of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay, the opposite expectation was operative. I have previously quoted Sir Edmund Hilary (in The Heroic Conception of Civilization) regarding his ascent of Everest, as follows:

…Sir Edmund Hillary… was quoted by the National Geographic as saying, “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt.” Hillary went on to add, “We couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Yet Sir Edmund Hilary could not have been more mistaken, and he recognized this in the quote above. This effort to climb Everest, which he had himself understood as a “one-off heroic effort” that would not be followed by an encore, began a trickle that has now become a flood; the ascent of Everest has now become a “bucket list” item for the wealthy and privileged rather than a one-off “moonshot” that was impracticable to replicate.

At least part of the different perception and different consequences of Apollo and Everest must be attributed to the nearly insurmountable technical and financial obstacles to human spaceflight. To date, only large and relatively wealthy nation-states can afford the resources of putting human beings into space, and as a consequence these efforts came to be seen as intrinsically related to national prestige, whereas the work-a-day satellite launching business now has quite a number of competing enterprises both public and private represented.

As important as this is, however, it is not the whole difference. Part of it must also be credited to the shift, following the end of the Second World War and the middle of the century, from an Heroic Conception of Civilization to an Iterative Conception of Civilization. That the ascent of Everest can be iterated by anyone with sufficient resources and will makes it a Maslovian “peak experience” (if you will forgive the pun) available to a select and privileged subset of Mass Man.

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Apollonian Heroics

6 September 2011

Tuesday


The Apollo Moon Missions and

The paths left by astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on both Apollo 14 moon walks are visible in this image. (At the end of the second moon walk, Shepard famously hit two golf balls.) The descent stage of the lunar module Antares is also visible. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU)

The Heroic Conception of Civilization


In the Pantheon of Greek gods, Apollo held a special place. While not the equal of Zeus — “Father of Gods and men” (Πατὴρ Θεῶν τὲ καὶ Ἀνθρώπων) and pater familias of Olympia — Apollo represented those moral, aesthetic, and epistemic ideals that were central to ancient Greek civilization, and which still define classical ideals of harmony, order, proportion, and grace.

Apollo

Thus when the US moon missions of NASA were named “Apollo” the ideals of that early exemplar of Western aspiration to truth, beauty, and goodness were implicitly transferred to this great Cold War effort to best an ideological rival. Some at the time were critical of the space program because of its transparently ideological purpose (Bertrand Russell, for one, was roundly critical of the space program and dismissed it as mere Cold War posturing), but the Apollo program was one of those clear-cut instances in history when competition between political entities has given rise to something that transcended its time. This was no vulgar monument with flowing hair, drapery, and flashing swords; this was a singular achievement.

Regrettably a singular achievement in at least one sense, which is that it was singular — it was not followed by any comparable and sustained exploration of space, much less a significant presence in space (excepting Skylab, Mir, and the International Space Station). It took only sixty-six years from the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk to the US landing men on the moon. Many people (my material grandmother and my paternal grandfather included) lived to see both events, making this a remarkable period in which to be alive. At one point, hopes ran high that the next sixty years would be similar eventful, experiencing comparably exponential leaps of technology and achievement. But the subsequent forty-plus years have been anticlimactic. Twenty years from now, once another sixty-some years have elapsed, it is very likely that nothing much will have been accomplished in space travel.

The Apollo program is in the news again because the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has taken high resolution photographs of the surface of the moon that reveal in detail the moon landing sites. So we are reduced to looking from a distance at our accomplishments of forty years ago. I am the only one who finds this a little pathetic?

As I wrote above, hopes once ran high that the coming years would yield new wonders and achievements of technology; these hopes were the staple of late twentieth century futurism, which, as I have discussed elsewhere, ultimately became laughable and now is a source of camp humor when we look at the paintings of flying cars and jet packs that didn’t happen. Of course, other things happened in the meantime, but the high technology and computers, although it has changed the way the world works, has contributed little to human hopes and aspirations, and in so far as computers and automation have magnified the sense of a society distinguished by soulless, anonymous bureaucracy, recent technological advances have been counter-productive for human hopes and aspirations.

In a couple of posts, The Heroic Conception of Civilization and The Iterative Conception of Civilization, I attempted to delineate the contours of two very different attitudes to civilization that are to be found to a greater or lesser extent both in extant civilizations and in individuals who represent these civilizations. The exigencies of mass civilization sufficient to keep six billion people alive are such that it is the iterative conception of civilization that is most prevalent today, but glimpses of the heroic conception of civilization occasionally flash forth.

In my discussion of the heroic conception of civilization I quoted Sir Edmund Hillary as an exemplar of the heroic conception:

…Churchill was like Sir Edmund Hillary, who was quoted by the National Geographic as saying, “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt.” Hillary went on to add, “We couldn’t have been more wrong.” …an heroic feat — whether winning a war or climbing a mountain — once achieved loses interest, so that future heroes must look to other accomplishments. The unheroic character of our time, on the contrary, views accomplishments as a proof of concept, upon which an algorithm can be constructed and the achievement iterated for the benefit of the masses.

While Sir Edmund Hillary was wrong about it being unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt at climbing Everest, he might well have been talking about the Apollo program: if humanity fails to make the transition to being a spacefaring civilization, then it is unlikely that anyone will ever make another attempt at a moon landing. Thus the Apollo program, rather than being the template for an iterative civilization that late twentieth century futurists believed it to be, may be instead a singular heroic achievement, and in this sense a late and perhaps last flicker of the heroic conception of civilization.

In so far as the elite classes of our time busy themselves with refining their position as macro-parasites rather than formulating a vision for the future in which all can see themselves playing a part, this will be the template for a quasi-feudal order of society in which each class jealously guards the privilege it possesses, so that the non-elites will be as jealous of their middle-class luxuries as the elites are jealous of their private jets and private fixers.

Medieval feudalism was at least relieved by the heroic pretensions of the elite classes, who staged magnificent coronations, pageants, tournaments, and jousts at which the rabble could gawk and get drunk. In this sense, even the most marginal members of medieval society could see themselves as participating in the mythology that structured their world. With the barren and utilitarian feudalism of modernity, we are deprived even of vicarious participation in the spectacle of power, which is increasingly kept behind locked doors, security guards, and fortified buildings.

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Tuesday


Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus was an archetypal Greek hero.


… What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t.

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, scene iv


A few days ago in Counter-factual weapons systems I wrote the following:

Not only did these counter-factual scenarios fail to occur, but some of these possibilities were nearly extirpated from history. Churchill ordered the Colossus computers to be destroyed, broken into “pieces no bigger than a man’s hand,” and the blueprints were burned. Churchill obviously believed that this was a place that would not be re-visited. In this way, Churchill revealed himself as belonging to another era, to an era of pre-industrial gentility in which scientific discoveries could be as easily suppressed as earlier eras could stop the progress of an idea by burning copies of the books that explained it.

In this, Churchill was like Sir Edmund Hillary, who was quoted by the National Geographic as saying, “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt.” Hillary went on to add, “We couldn’t have been more wrong.” It may sound like a stretch to compare these accomplishments, but I think it betrays a similar outlook about civilization. It is a conception of civilization in which an heroic feat — whether winning a war or climbing a mountain — once achieved loses interest, so that future heroes must look to other accomplishments. The unheroic character of our time, on the contrary, views accomplishments as a proof of concept, upon which an algorithm can be constructed and the achievement iterated for the benefit of the masses.

Heroic ages are ages of splendid individuals, and splendid individuals are products of social systems with weak institutions in which energetic and imaginative individuals can effectively assert themselves.

Splendid individuals may exist in advanced, mature civilizations, but they are unable to assert themselves to the extent that they might be able in less advanced and less mature civilizations, thereby losing their historical opportunity to master events and become the pivotal figure of their time. Splendid individuals are most likely to emerge in proto-civilization, and almost all mature civilizations are preceded by a proto-civilization often called a “Heroic Age.” The obvious example here is the Heroic Age of the ancient Greeks, with the most famous exemplar of this ethos being Achilles.

Heroes do not flourish in civilization, and they do comfortably fit in civilization. Civilization, in turn, does not encourage the emergence of heroes, and does not comfortably make room for heroes should they emerge despite the intrinsic disincentives to heroism structured into civilization.

Nevertheless, the idea of the heroism is transmitted from the myth and literature of proto-civilization (like The Iliad), and the idea of the heroic life continues to influence civilization even if civilization is hostile to actual living heroes. Thus there exists the possibility of a heroic conception of civilization, and this is what I was attributing to Churchill and Sir Edmund Hillary above.

A hero is a singular figure. According to my formulation of the singular in The Mind’s Singular Function, that means that the hero is inspired. The hero retains the consciousness of the singular imperative. Thus the hero seeks singular accomplishment. If someone else has achieved something, it loses interest for the hero. And the possibility that someone might later choose to mimic what has already been done by others is utterly foreign to the hero– literally inconceivable to the heroic mind.

Indeed, the heroic mind may loose interest even in its own accomplishment as soon as it has satisfied itself that it has mastered a particular problem. The achievement is utterly without interest: it is the struggle to attain the achievement, through which the heroic mind becomes what it is, that is of sole self-interest. It is the growth of mind and spirit and strength, and not the act of glorying in completed accomplishment, that interests the heroic mind. It is always the next accomplishment that is the interest of the hero.

There could be no form of thought more distant from the heroic conception of the world than that of the algorithm, and as our civilization advances, achieves ever-greater maturity, and the intellectual means we employ to formulate and express that civilization become more sophisticated and more rigorous, our thought becomes all the more algorithmic. Indeed, the Age of the Computer is in large measure the Age of the Algorithm.

The heroic conception of civilization is an idea that is at war with itself, and therefore intrinsically unstable. There can be no heroic civilization, at least under the conditions of civilization as we now know it. Perhaps this will be a future horizon of civilization: to bring forth a civilization that is not intrinsically hostile to heroism. It is a worthy idea.

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Tuesday


V-2 single stage ballistic missile

The seeds of all our advanced weapons systems today are to be found in the technology of the 1940s, rapidly brought to an early fruition by the Second World War. I have previously mentioned the litany of jet engines, ballistic missiles, computers, and atomic weapons in The Dialectic of Stalemate, all of which became operational during the Second World War.

The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe ("Swallow") was the world's first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. (from Wikipedia)

If we reflect upon this circumstance we are able to imagine, as a counter-factual thought experiment, how even the atrocities and mass death of the Second World War could have been worse if that contest had continued longer and the ongoing pressure had brought other weapons systems to a similarly early fruition.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was a four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber that was flown primarily by the United States in World War II and the Korean War. (from Wikipedia)

The B-29 was one of the great technological triumphs of the Second World War and represents a integrated weapons system. One of the key measures of its sophistication was the very integration of the weapons systems of the B-29, and this was achieved by way of an analog computer, the Central Fire Control Computer (CSFC). Thus the B-29 constituted a computerized weapons system, although the computers employed were rudimentary analog computers.

B-29 Central Fire Control Computer

However, at the same time that the B-29 was employing analog computers for the fire control system of its automated turrets, at Bletchley Park the first electronic digital computers were in operation, working on code breaking. The Colossus computers — there were ten of them operational by the end of the Second World War — were so secret that they remained secret after the war, so secret that those who developed these early digital computers were deprived of their proper credit in the early history books on computers. This information did not begin to be known to the public until the 1970s.

A Colossus Mark 2 computer. The operator on the left is Dorothy Duboisson. The slanted control panel on the left was used to set the pin patterns on the Lorenz. The "bedstead" paper tape transport is on the right. (from Wikipedia)

It would not have taken a war of a much longer duration to bring together these technologies, which, while rudimentary, were already sufficiently robust to be employed in functional, operating weapons systems. Something like the B-29, only more advanced and sophisticated, might have employed Colossus-like computers in its fire control systems. After all, many of the largest bombers of the Second World War mounted radar systems that employed vacuum tubes — again, rudimentary but sufficiently robust for combat — so that the early construction methods of digital computers cannot be used as a reason to dismiss this possibility.

Nuclear weapons technology was one among many new technologies employed in the Second World War.

Similarly, it would not have taken a much longer war for the Axis powers to have produced atomic weapons and to put them on V-2 missiles, and handful of which would have leveled London, after which the Germans might have turned their attention to other targets. We know that the Germans were considering the design of longer ranger missiles, and it would have simply been an extrapolation of existing technology to do so. Jet-powered bombers would also, at that time, have been an extrapolation of existing technology, as would a cruise missile made from a V-1 augmented with computerized control systems.

The of the most famous photographs of Dresden after its annihilation by firebombing. Most of Germany had already been destroyed in this way by the time the atomic bomb was available.

Since the US did in fact produce atomic weapons first, it could have decisively settled the war in Europe as it settled the war in Japan — except that most of Germany’s cities had already been destroyed by conventional bombing, and that fissile materials would have taken time to produce. In the time it would have taken to produce additional fissile materials and therefore additional atomic weapons, other developments could well have made their delivery by the conventional means available to the Allies problematic.

Not only did these counter-factual scenarios fail to occur, but some of these possibilities were nearly extirpated from history. Churchill ordered the Colossus computers to be destroyed, broken into “pieces no bigger than a man’s hand,” and the blueprints were burned. Churchill obviously believed that this was a place that would not be re-visited. In this way, Churchill revealed himself as belonging to another era, to an era of pre-industrial gentility in which scientific discoveries could be as easily suppressed as earlier eras could stop the progress of an idea by burning copies of the books that explained it.

In this, Churchill was like Sir Edmund Hillary, who was quoted by the National Geographic as saying, “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt.” Hillary went on to add, “We couldn’t have been more wrong.” It may sound like a stretch to compare these accomplishments, but I think it betrays a similar outlook about civilization. It is a conception of civilization in which an heroic feat — whether winning a war or climbing a mountain — once achieved loses interest, so that future heroes must look to other accomplishments. The unheroic character of our time, on the contrary, views accomplishments as a proof of concept, upon which an algorithm can be constructed and the achievement iterated for the benefit of the masses.

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