More Than Life Itself: Some Heretical Thoughts

The Mars rock with the bugs -- a scanning electron microscope image of alleged fossil bacteria in a martian meteorite.  These features are extremely small (note scale, in nanometers, i.e., billionth of a meter).

A Mars rock with bugs?  Scanning electron microscope image of alleged fossil bacteria in a martian meteorite. These features are extremely small (note the scale, in nanometers, i.e., a billionth of a meter).  NASA image.

In a letter to Space News, current CEO of The Planetary Society, Bill Nye, expounds on his belief that the search for life on Mars is the both the principal rationale and objective of human spaceflight. Many members of the Planetary Society subscribe to this belief, as do many others in the space advocacy field. Certainly, upon reading through various decadal studies of the planetary science community, it quickly becomes apparent that searching for extraterrestrial life is the major goal of space exploration and other topics are noted as to the degree with they contribute to the search for life. Where does this deeply ingrained idea come from?

Setting aside for a moment the decades of science fiction dealing with invaders from Mars and a variety of BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) from space, this quest for life (as a driving imperative for the space program) took much of its impetus from Carl Sagan (1934-1996). Sagan, who popularized space science in his TV series Cosmos, is renowned for speaking and writing about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Sagan became famous by pontificating on the “billions” of planetary systems that must exist in our galaxy, explaining (on the basis of our scientific understanding of how life arises) that many millions of them must be teeming with life. The science fiction concept of extraterrestrials was thus elevated and dignified by a seemingly irrefutable scientific argument, and this combination steam-rolled NASA into making the Quest for Life Elsewhere (QFLE) a cornerstone of its rationale for existence and its space exploration strategy. NASA’s quest to inspire (and let loose the floodgates of funding) saw gold in Sagan’s appeal to the public.

From our earliest recognition that Mars was a planet similar in size and composition to the Earth, it has harbored humanity’s hopes for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Dreams of “life” were dashed when the initial flyby mission showed a cold, cratered surface, more like the Moon than like the Earth – a desolate Mars with an extremely thin, carbon dioxide atmosphere. In 1971, the Mariner 9 orbiter rekindled hopes of “life” when it showed channels as natural features on the surface. These landforms are difficult to explain by any process other than flowing water, and water is a prerequisite for life. Two Viking landers were launched to Mars in 1975, configured with the express objective of searching for evidence of (microbial) life in the martian soil. Nothing was found, except for some strange and unexpected soil chemistry. No organic matter was found in the soil at the parts per billion level, suggesting that not only was there no life there, but that some chemical process on the surface was destroying carbon compounds that did exist (we knew that they were being deposited on the planet by meteorite impact).

Thus, for the twenty years following Viking, Mars was considered dead, although many speculative efforts tried to envision how life might have arisen there in the past and then went extinct, as the climate changed from an early wet, warm and thick atmosphere to the current cold, dry, and thin conditions. Another round of robotic missions to Mars in the 1990s rekindled interest in possible life – or at least fossils – that could exist there. Since then, we have sent some type of robotic probe to Mars at nearly every launch opportunity (which occur every 26 months). Each mission has discovered that: a) Mars once had liquid water near the surface; and b) could have developed life. Each announcement of these astounding results is accompanied by much press hoopla as the again “new” findings are heralded and papers are published.

Concurrent with these findings was the astonishing result that perhaps life had already been found. Scientific study of the meteorite ALH 84001 showed extremely small rod-like forms that look similar to terrestrial bacteria. This space rock is one of a group thought to have come to Earth from Mars, blasted off the planet by an ancient impact. If all of these inferences were correct, then we may have already discovered fossil life from Mars! However, these interpretations are not universally accepted – indeed, they are not accepted by most of the scientific community today. Thus, the QFLE continues.

Just why is the idea of martian microbes so compelling? Although motivations vary, many in the space community have embraced the QFLE in relation to Mars because it has been good for business. The discovery of the possible fossils in a martian rock in 1996 inspired and spawned an entire Mars exploration program, one responsible for the launch of 11 American and 7 international spacecraft (and still counting) to the red planet over the last 20 years. Each mission repeats the new discovery that Mars “probably” was conducive to life early in its history. We can’t stop now – this elusive goal is just around the next bend!

Two issues present themselves in regard to the QFLE, especially as applied to Mars exploration. First, is the QFLE a valid rationale for a space exploration program? Second, if extraterrestrial life were found there, so what and what then?

Clearly, as they have embraced it as their rationale for space exploration, NASA is endorsing the QFLE. I have two issues with this adoption, one practical and one philosophical. On the practical side, if you define your objective around the search for life and you don’t find it, by definition, your mission is a failure. One cannot prove a negative, so not finding life or evidence of former life does not prove that it never existed. The only response QFLE advocates have to such a negative result is that “we just haven’t looked in the right place” and thus, additional missions or experiments are needed. This gambit works for a while (at least, it has worked up until now), but eventually, the public will get wise and decide that enough is enough. Thus, using the QFLE as a rationale for spaceflight contains within it the seeds of its own demise, as finding life or evidence for its past existence is an unlikely occurrence (it has yet to happen in 50 years of planetary exploration).

On the philosophical side of the issue, I contend that the QFLE, while a legitimate scientific inquiry, should not be the all-consuming justification for our space endeavors. It is certainly no more important than all of the other questions about the origin, history and evolution of the planets that we have developed over the years. By focusing on the QFLE and making all other topics subservient to its needs, we preclude opportunities for discoveries and breakthroughs in fields unrelated to biology. But more insidiously, by questing for life, we are attempting not to make a new discovery, but to confirm an existing dogma. Virtually all scientists subscribe to the materialist paradigm for the origin and development of life, viz., that given the right chemistry and environment, life will arise and over geological time, it will evolve into many different, ever more complex organisms. And if, or when, extraterrestrial life is found, what will have been proven? That our materialist model is correct? What scientist doubts that now?

By necessity, most planetary scientists follow the money and because special pots of funding have been set aside for the study of extraterrestrial life, many orient their research in that direction (one must eat, after all). But that funded scientific “interest” is not a product of the free marketplace of ideas deciding which topics are most important, but rather the directed result of a bureaucratic decision.

According to Nye,

“Everyone…..would agree that if we were to discover evidence of ancient life on Mars, let alone if we were to discover something still alive there, it would change the course of human history.”

Well, I don’t agree. I believe that the really important breakthroughs and insights of science tend to come from totally unexpected connections and conceptual breakthroughs, not from some finding that everyone has been expecting for the last 100 years. By making the QFLE the central objective that propels our national space program, we’re ignoring other objectives of equal (if not greater) importance and significance. Moreover, we’ve set the program up for an abrupt termination when the long-sought evidence for life fails to turn up. But even if life or evidence of former life is found, all we have done is to validate our existing prejudices. I sense that this realization is gradually creeping into the consciousness of others in the space community, as some advocates of human Mars exploration are emphasizing habitation and settlement, rather than the search for martian life.

The universe is big and displays many interesting phenomena for us to study. To make the QFLE the main focus of our scientific exploration efforts is to ignore or give short shrift to other equally engaging problems. It also has the potential to cause a loss of political support for the program – the public “excitement” that it seeks.

NASA and Congress are always asking: What will inspire the people? We don’t need another Sagan – what we need is a permanent path to everywhere in space. The quest for everything can begin once our leaders move beyond believing that we need gurus and gimmicks to inspire and sustain a great space program.

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28 Responses to More Than Life Itself: Some Heretical Thoughts

  1. I’m actually far more interested in expanding human life to other worlds in our solar system rather than discovering microscopic organisms on other worlds in our solar system.

    But once humans or robots begin to travel to other star systems, perhaps a century or two from now, then the discovery of– macroscopic– organism on the lands and seas of those alien worlds will probably be the most exciting things ever to happen to humanity.


    • billgamesh says:

      “-expanding human life to other worlds in our solar system-”

      The problem is gravity- a world with a slightly lesser or greater gravity than Earth might be habitable but there are no such bodies in our solar system. Very low gravity bodies like small icy moons may be easy enough to establish science outposts on by providing artificial gravity facilities but for large populations it is probably not practical. Our Moon may support a lunar factory workforce with such arrangements but permanent residents do not seem likely. Using centrifugal force on a scale larger than just temporary small apartment living would be problematic.

      The solution to expanding human life into the solar system is the Bernal Sphere- an artificial spinning hollow moon with one Earth gravity on the inner surface equator. These miles-in-diameter mega-structures fabricated from lunar material can be mass-produced in the hundreds and eventually hundreds of thousands and provide lebensraum for billions of human beings. This was the vision of O’Neill and other space colonization advocates and only in recent years have expectations sunk into the abyss.

  2. Dear Dr. Spudis,

    You have corageously tackled what is currently the great issue of space exploration — the “Quest for Life Elsewhere”; but as with all great issues, there are wheels within wheels, and the complete explication of which will take many books and many centuries.

    Which is to say, further, that I am going to honor your blog post as an exploratory probe, and will likewise forgive my own comment following for being a mere impression:

    My belief is that many of those whom you place in something of an opposition camp — i.e., those who are advocating for a fuzzy quest for signs of life on Mars as opposed to the more practical and inevitable goal of building a lunar infrastructure — are actually to be embraced as comrades fighting the same battle; and here I am thinking more of the hardened NASA insiders than the Bill Nyes occupying the peanut gallery.

    And our common enemy, of course, was alluded to by P. T. Barnum more than a century ago when he said “You’ll never go broke underestimating the taste of the American public”, and which I will expand as follows: “You’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence and curiosity of the American public.”

    With the Apollo program, for example, there was no question of finding signs of life; the stated mission, rather, was exploration and discovery — to which the American public gave a great yawn once the novelty value had worn off.

    I suspect that our NASA insiders actually believe — and who can blame them? — that were proof of past microbial life on Mars to be announced, the public would soon enough yawn again — this despite the implications of such a discovery — and NASA would shortly thereafter be bereft of much of what little funding remains to it.

    Hence the tease game to which you correctly refer — the discovery of life is always just around the corner; but in the meantime, some valuable science is being accomplished, and some valuable engineering infrastructure is being put in place. And much of the latter — here I light a candle rather than cursing the darkness — will be applicable to the cislunar environment.

    G. W. Smith

  3. J Fincannon says:

    I do not understand the rationale behind sending human life to other worlds if there is existing life there. Apart from the scientific rationale (i.e. we don’t want to contaminate the life forms or destroy them prior to our comprehensive investigations), there is an ethical one too. If we ever find existing Mars life even at the microbe level, this would seem to preclude our presence lest we destroy it with all the microbe we carry on us as part of being human. The EPA has drastic protection regulations for rather small life forms on Earth. We could only go to Mars after we disprove life exists there, but that seems a tall order and a rather good guarantee of a fleet of robotic exploration vehicles, perhaps for many decades to look in every Martian nook and cranny. This isn’t a Star Trek universe where you beam down to every life filled planet without a care at all of unleashing a terrestrial plague upon the poor inhabitants (presumably only at a microbe level) or carrying back some dormant alien life when you return to Earth to provide a reciprocal interaction.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Most of those who advocate the QFLE for Mars have not taken their thought processes (if I may be so charitable) to the ends which you elucidate. I agree that finding existing microbes on Mars would put it off-limits to human use for the indefinite future.

    • Joe says:

      After reading this and thinking about it for a while this occurred concerning Bill Nye (who is mentioned extensively in the article).

      – Bill Nye (before joining the Planetary Society) used to be pretty much anti-human spaceflight.
      – After he joined the Planetary Society, he has obviously become an adherent to their Mars first and only philosophy.
      – But he is also a believer in Anthropogenic Global Climate Change (he tried to blame the recent floods in Texas and Oklahoma on it) and thus presumably want to protect all life (even hypothetical extraterrestrial life) from human activity.

      Based on that, shouldn’t Mars be one of the primary places in the Solar System he does not want humans to be allowed to go?

  4. Joe says:

    Two Comments:

    (1) You say – “Moreover, we’ve set the program up for an abrupt termination when the long-sought evidence for life fails to turn up.”. As other posters have noted the same thing would happen if evidence of microbial (or past microbial) life were discovered, that is the public would lose interest. It is a losing proposition in the long run either way.

    (2) I can only go by my own feelings (including what caused me to become an engineer and go into aerospace in the first place. I was never fascinated by microbial life (not saying such a discovery would not be important or that I should not have that fascination; just did not). Art work showing a small group of astronauts planting a flag someplace was not it either. What did fascinate was art work and articles showing large long term facilities with many inhabitants in various location in space. I could never picture myself as one of those small elite cadres, but I could as a worker/resident in those various settlements.

    Another reason often given as a rationale for supporting a space program is encouraging STEM education. If those lunar facilities can also be tied to direct benefit to civilization on earth, those would be (at least in my opinion) more sustainable rationales for support/

  5. billgamesh says:

    If we are connecting heresy as a popular culture device to Martians, it is really Nye, Tyson, and Sagan, who are the heretics. Nye is agnostic and Tyson and Sagan atheists and it could be argued all have (or had) an ulterior motive for finding life off-world as supporting an anti-religious agenda. There is also the climate denial crowd who just happen to also be far more likely to be anti-evolution creationists who believe the Universe was created in 6 days about 5000 years ago.

    Celebrity scientists claiming the search for life on Mars is both the principal rationale and objective of human spaceflight are just as guilty as the Koch brothers paying for climate change “studies” that infer it must all be a vast left wing conspiracy.

    I could care less about any of them- the atheist scientists who like to make fun of believers, the schemes of the energy industry, and most of all the Mars nuts who think that place is some kind of promised land. What I do care about is the vision of Gerard K. O’Neill. That vision just so happens to stand on it’s own regardless of whether climate change is real and classifies Mars as the place not to go. The Moon is where the energy to power civilization and the resources to colonize the solar system with artificial spinning hollow moons (Bernal Spheres) are to be found.

    In this sense Dr. Spudis is right- Moon return is the present heresy. The NewSpace crowd wants nothing to do with anything that disrupts their LEO business plan while Mars as a “horizon goal” allows the space agency to forever plod towards that distant horizon but never arrive.

    • Joe says:

      “There is also the climate denial crowd who just happen to also be far more likely to be anti-evolution creationists who believe the Universe was created in 6 days about 5000 years ago.”

      Are you saying that “climate denying” “anti-evolution creationists ” are in favor of going to Mars?

      If not please explain why you are mentioning them at all.

      If so please provide links to evidence this is true, as it will come as a surprise to many.

    • Grand Lunar says:

      Tyson and Sagan also identified themselves as agnostics, just for the record.
      Nothing wrong with that, really; I do as well.

      I do agree that the vision of O’Neill provides an excellant plan of colonizing space.
      Why settle worlds when we can build them?

      Sounds like something a truly advanced species would do.

      As for the NewSpace crowd, some also want Mars (don’t make me name names!).
      But their visions are just too large for their own good.
      The only way they can think of to go there is via the Apollo-style.

  6. mike shupp says:

    My recollection is that many people back in the 1960s-70s period were … disappointed, let’s say … when Apollo and other space programs revealed the lifelessness of much of the solar system. The Moon was dead, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, and wasn’t really to most folks, but ,,, Mars looked dead, all the time dead, and that was surprising, Venus was not just dead, but virtually uninhabitable, and that was amazing. And the outer planets and all their satellites were dead…

    None of this was really news to most dedicated spaceflight enthusiasts, but they weren’t a large portion of the population. To “ordinary” people getting space information from newscasts or in second hand fashion from casual conversations and pastor’s sermons and the like, the message that came through was that space was not just dead but uninteresting, and not just now but for all time to come. A precipitous drop in space spending was probably an inevitable result.

    Space proponents had available several possible reactions to this diminished interest. One was to argue that humanity could over time colonize the planets and bring life throughout the solar system, or even interstellar space. They’ve chosen not to make this argument. The second was to argue that life — intelligent life! — surely existed elsewhere in the cosmos and would be revealed if we looked for it. This has led to the SETI effort. A third is to argue that life of some sort, if only as bacteria or viruses, might exist elsewhere in the solar system and could be revealed by sufficiently sophisticated space.

    Not to be snide, but I’ll suggest that the first notion didn’t get anywhere, or wouldn’t have gotten anywhere, because it stank of science fiction. It’s proponents were generally seen as having little social status and accordingly their ideas were never taken seriously. This is still the case. Since “space buffs” don’t count in our governing centers, our decision makers (politicians, in other words) have generally based policy on recommendations high status individuals with claims to specially relevant information. Which is to say, Scientists.

    Historically SETI appealed to physical scientists without great biological sophistication, at a time when physical scientists were held in high repute by society and our general knowledge of biology and our knowledge of planetary bodies was considerably less than it is today. Not a bad idea — I’m generally in favor of SETI programs myself, even after 40 years or so disappointment — but really sort of a 1970’s idea.

    Anthropologists and biologists in the 1970’s tended to be less supportive of SETI. Form their knowledge, they thought the path from microbe to intelligent life was likely a damned narrow twisty poorly-lit one with lots of dead ends, rather than the superhighway imagined by theoretical physicists. And that was when he biological sciences were not especially well funded. Since then, the federal government has changed its priorities. We’ve spent a rising proportion of federal funds on medicine and genetics and related biology, and our ideas about what life forms might happen to exist in unearthly environments have grown considerably. And our knowledge of those environments on the surface of Mars, or under the icy crusts of the Jovian moons or the methane of Titan, etc., has also increased from our robotic explorers, So the current search for life in our solar system in some ways matches our current scientific interests and technological skills — it’s an Early 21st Century sort of thing.

    I’ll make a guess. All those observations of exterior solar systems through Hubble and other telescopes is going to shape our perceptions. Twenty years from now, we’re probably going to have a much clearer idea — or at least firmer prejudices — of how suitable for life most solar systems are, better notions about whether life has had time to evolve to produce intelligence, etc. I.e., our expanding knowledge of planetary science is going to trump biology in explaining Life In The Universe. And thirty years from now. a new generation of scientists will be arguing that the old timers have neglected all sorts of important things and got it all wrong …

    tl;dr: Carl Sagan was a genius. Space buffs should consider him a saint.

    • Joe says:

      “My recollection is that many people back in the 1960s-70s period were … disappointed, let’s say … when Apollo and other space programs revealed the lifelessness of much of the solar system.”

      – The fact is that there was never a “Golden Age” when majorities of the public supported space programs. The only time support went above 50% was in one Gallup Pole run immediately after Apollo 11.
      – What is also true is that on average over the decades in the range of 40% to 45% have supported it. This in spite of the fact that some of the same poles (the ones that bothered to ask) show those same people think the program costs some 20 times what it actually does (and 10 times what even I a “stinking space buff that doesn’t count in our governing centers” would support.). The real question is whether or not that consistent 40% to 45% plurality could/should be able to determine what no more than 1% of the federal budget should be.

      “Not to be snide, but I’ll suggest that the first notion didn’t get anywhere, or wouldn’t have gotten anywhere, because it stank of science fiction.”

      – Would hate to see what you would write if you were trying to be snide. Obviously trolling to get someone to get angry so you can have a fight. You are going to have be a lot more subtle for it to work.

      “I’m generally in favor of SETI programs myself…”

      – Interesting you have more respect for SETI after, as you say yourself, “40 years or so disappointment “. SETI has survived only because it is far less expensive than actual space probes (human or robotic). There was some excitement about the concept when it began, but it is most likely that the vast majority of the general public even know it is still on going (as much as it is). Those under 40 years of age probably do not even know it ever existed.

      “Carl Sagan was a genius. Space buffs should consider him a saint.”

      – Others can speak for themselves, but I will leave it to you to build the Cathedral.

      • William Mellberg says:

        “Others can speak for themselves, but I will leave it to you to build the Cathedral.”


        For a different view of Carl Sagan, read pp. 235-236 of Frank Borman’s autobiography (“Countdown”).

        “It’s an ironic twist that Sagan has used all the self-promoting gimmicks of public relations and television to set himself up as a kind of scientific guru. Now (1988) he enjoys the fruits of the same society whose materialism he so viciously attacked.”

      • billgamesh says:

        “Carl Sagan was a genius”

        There are maybe a dozen scientists in the last century that deserve that title. Sagan is not on the list and the only one left that I know of is Freeman Dyson. I am not sure if Stephen Hawking is considered a member of the club. Einstein is at the top of course, and a short list of others like Feynman who worked on the Manhattan project. My favorite is Stanislaw Ulam. As for sainthood, there are no saints- everyone fails in some way in someones view. Though not on the genius list Mr. Brown was THE central figure in the history of U.S. space flight yet he was also a former Nazi SS officer- though any pictures of him in that black uniform with deaths head regalia were disappeared when we rehabilitated him. Anyone who thinks his hands were clean is practicing cognitive dissonance- he visited the infamous Dora rocket factory enough times to know what was happening and was an ardent Nazi- but was never characterized as such after the war. I can still acknowledge and marvel at his accomplishments without making him a hero. He is just one example.

        The cult of personality is a stupid game to play or promote.

        • Joe says:

          “Though not on the genius list Mr. Brown was THE central figure in the history of U.S. space flight yet he was also a former Nazi SS officer- though any pictures of him in that black uniform with deaths head regalia were disappeared when we rehabilitated him.”

          Assuming that by Mr. Brown you mean Von Braun, it is true that all the members of the Peenemunde Rocket Group were members of the Nazi Party (with varying degrees of enthusiasm). However, Von Braun being a member of the SS is another matter. It could be true, but it is unlikely such an honor (and that is what the Nazi’s would have considered it) would be given him as he had been known to consort with Jews. According to Willey Ley, Von Braun helped get him out of Germany, for instance.

          If being skeptical of that means you think I am “practicing cognitive dissonance” so be it.

          In any case your assertions do make a point that it is a bad idea to put anyone on too high a pedestal. You are not doing them no favors as being on a pedestal automatically means someone will try to knock you off it.

          • William Mellberg says:

            A few thoughts about von Braun …

            Wernher von Braun was, in fact, an SS officer. He was given a commission by Heinrich Himmler as part of an SS effort to gain control of the A-4/V-2 production program. The SS was, indeed, put in charge of production of the V-2 at the underground Mittelbau factory under the notorious Hans Kammler. Von Braun described the conditions in the Mittelbau plant as “hellish.” There was not much he could do to change them.

            Von Braun remained a civilian working for the German Army at Peenemünde. He held what was essentially an honorary commission in the SS. He did join the Nazi Party. But that is no surprise given his job as technical director for the A-4/V-2 project. Bear in mind that von Braun was from the Prussian aristocracy (he was Baron von Braun), and that his father, Magnus von Braun, served as Minister of Agriculture in the Weimar Republic. Magnus returned to Silesia when the Nazis took power in 1933.

            I met Wernher von Braun twice, literally bumping into him the first time at the Apollo 17 launch. We met under less awkward circumstances three years later at a Washington Aero Club luncheon. He was both gracious and charming.

            I knew Ernst Stuhlinger, von Braun’s longtime friend, colleague and biographer. Dr. Stuhlinger and I talked at length about the war years and about the von Braun rocket team’s culpability and moral responsibility for the slave labor deaths in the Mittelwerk plant, as well as for the deaths on the receiving end of the V-2 campaign. He also addressed these topics in his book, “Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space.”

            Basically, Dr. Stuhlinger told me that unless one has lived under a homicidal dictatorship, it is difficult to appreciate what choices von Braun and his colleagues faced. “If we complained or refused to cooperate, our families would be arrested as an ‘incentive’ for us to keep quiet. Under those circumstances, you tend to keep your mouth shut.” Stuhlinger noted that Party membership was mandatory for the Peenemünde leadership, including himself. As you say, there were varying degrees of enthusiasm for the Nazis among the group. Some joined the Party quite willingly. Others did what they had to do to survive.

            Bob Ward’s book, “Dr. Space,” also addresses the topic of individual and collective guilt as it relates to Nazi Germany.

            So does Klaus Fischer in his book, “Nazi Germany: A New History.”

            Of course, Michael Neufeld takes a very dim view of von Braun and his colleagues in his books.

            I should add that Sergei Korolev, the Soviet space mastermind, was a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and chaired CPSU cell meetings at his OKB-1 design bureau. One colleague described him as a committed Communist, although another OKB-1 colleague, Konstantin Feoktistov (one of the Voskhod cosmonauts and a spacecraft designer) later said that “everybody hated the Party and the system” but had little choice in the matter. BTW, Feoktistov went against the grain by refusing to join the Party. Apparently he was too valuable to punish.

            Sergei Korolev also helped create several ICBMs designed to deliver nuclear warheads on the United States. Was that immoral? Should he have refused? Unlikely, given that he had already been wrongfully sent to the Gulag under Stalin in the 30s (and nearly died).

            While I read many comments about von Braun serving an evil dictatorship, I have never seen any criticism of Korolev for serving another evil dictatorship. After all, his first ‘boss’ was Stalin. Korolev served Stalin faithfully and supposedly admired him. Yet, all I ever read about Korolev is praise with no mention of his relationship with Stalin.

            Given Sergei Korolev’s role in the conquest of space, there is much to praise.

            Diito for Wernher von Braun.

            Did the good outweigh the bad? What will they say 100 years from now?

            One last thought …

            I knew several of the Avro Canada engineers who came to NASA’s Space Task Group in 1959 following the demise of the CF-105 Arrow. Two of them worked directly with von Braun. Both of them had served in the RCAF during WWII, and both of them were not very keen on the man before they met him. But both of them were impressed by his intelligence, his charm and his leadership once they started working with him. In short, they grew to like and admire their former enemy.

            Bill Mellberg

      • mike shupp says:

        Joe –

        I’m 68. I lived through this period, y’know? I spent 20 years of my life working at JPL and Rockwell’s Space Division. I’ve read a whole bunch of science fiction over the years. I’ve had time to reflect.

        So, since you don’t like my ideas, share with us some wiser ones. And please list your credentials.

        • Joe says:

          “So, since you don’t like my ideas, share with us some wiser ones. And please list your credentials.”

          Credentials first:

          – While younger than you, I also lived through the period as a child (for whatever simply living through it is worth).

          – When I graduated from college (in engineering) in 1981, I went to work at the Johnson Space Center working initially in the EVA hardware area for the Space Shuttle Program.

          – I then moved into EVA operations, where I participated in developing the techniques for assembly/maintenance of the ISS.

          – After a number of years at that I moved into systems engineering, where I worked on (among a number of other things) Constellation Systems (until it’s cancellation).

          – Since we are keeping score that comes to about 30 years.

          – While I have also read some science fiction, I have also researched the period in question (not just reading someone else’s books but reading news articles and editorials from the period).

          Now on to ideas:

          You presented, your version of history as per your “recollection”.

          I presented mine based on both my recollections and reading news reports, editorials and poles from the period. My ideas on the subject may differ from yours but they have already been plainly stated in my original post.

          I trust that satisfies your curiosity.

    • billgamesh says:

      “-several possible reactions to this diminished interest. One was to argue that humanity could over time colonize the planets and bring life throughout the solar system, or even interstellar space. They’ve chosen not to make this argument.”

      Someone did-

      -and politicians responded; ” Senator William Proxmire, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget. His response was, “it’s the best argument yet for chopping NASA’s funding to the bone …. I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy”.[53] He successfully eliminated spending on space colonization research from the budget.[54]”

  7. William Mellberg says:

    Humans have been traveling to Mars for decades. Remember this trip in 1959?

    Actually, this mission landed on Phobos.

    Today’s Mars advocates are still echoing some of the same lines from this
    program filmed more than half a century ago.

    “Men Into Space” was a terrific show for its time.

    But I prefer THIS episode …

    Water ice on the Moon. Now where have we heard about
    that before?!

    Another great essay, Dr. Spudis!

    Bill Mellberg

    • Joe says:

      Men into Space, huh.

      Looks like it was a television series and youtube has all the episodes.

      Now I will have to watch them all.

      Thanks, I think.

    • Michael Wright says:

      “Today’s Mars advocates are still echoing some of the same lines from this
      program filmed more than half a century ago.”

      I was thinking there are three characters created by Hollywood based on real life people: The pirate, the cowboy, and the spaceman. But they never existed as portrayed as swashbuckling arr matey, roaming the wild west with a six-shooter and 10-gallon hat, or zipping around the galaxy visiting worlds where everyone speaks english. Many people confuse fiction with reality, and probably much of our history has fictional aspects.

      While watching that youtube episode, an advertisement pops up: “16.1% 2014 Annuity Return. True investor returns with no risk. Find out how with our free report.” Too bad it’s not a lunar mining company. But wait, if such were to become reality, there may be some hucksters pulling gimmicks like they did in the wild west of 1800s.

  8. billgamesh says:

    Thanks Bill, very entertaining.

    His book Beyond Tomorrow has an illustration of a lunar ice mine. Ice was suspected in 1965 and as a 7 year old I took this book home from the library the year Apollo 8 first took human beings into outer space.

    The ice on the Moon is the critical enabling resource for Human Space Flight – Beyond Earth Orbit and should be the central focus of all spaceflight advocacy. That the Moon is not the “horizon goal” of the space agency is a huge red flag. A flag carefully hidden from public view.

  9. Grand Lunar says:

    I’ve had similar feelings on this subject; that the hyperfixation of the QFLE has blinded leadership in the space program.
    This, along with hyperfixation on Mars, has brought on tunnel vision on practically every level in the space program, both manned and unmanned.

    And I agree that news of life elsewhere, while it may cause a brief stir in people (mostly the fundamentalist types), will quickly be regarded with irrelevancy.

    What we need right now is a different voice to explain what’s really important and practical.
    We need a revolution in how we carry out our space program.

    “A little revolution now and then is a healthy thing, don’t you think?”
    – Captain Ramius, “The Hunt for Red October”

  10. Joe says:

    Thanks for the tip.

  11. LocalFluff says:

    The value of discovering alien life is not about public opinion. It would revolutionize life science! Medicine, agriculture, environment, bioengineering. It is plausible that alien life can use DNA/proteins like life on Earth, it consists of simple components like amino acids and has been extremely successful here. Since there are at least 10^300 possible different proteins per atom in the visible universe, another life like ours would certainly not use any of the proteins life on Earth uses today. It would be the discovery of a biological multiverse.

  12. Michael Wright says:

    I was thinking our space program particularly NASA uses “Quest for Life Elsewhere” vs. industrial/economic development. Nothing wrong with the QFLE paradigm but it will never go beyond small science based missions. Since most likely NASA budget will never again increase except for modest inflation adjustments, seems to me another more compelling reason to go the N.A.C.A. model to do basic research to help budding industrialists build space settlements.

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