October 06, 2003

The Naked Time

Interesting synchronicity between Bruce Sterling's "top ten" list I discussed below (and which Prof. Hall discussed here) and the classic Star Trek episode "The Naked Time," which I am currently viewing on DVD (#10 on Sterling's list). At the beginning of the episode, Spock and Lt. Tormolen beam down to Psi 2000, where the lieutenant idiotically removes his glove, exposing himself to the contaminant that releases everyone's inhibitions and nearly leads to the destruction of the Enterprise. Starting at 10:21 into the episode (and shortly before his death), Lt. Tormolen waxes eloquent about the futility of manned exploration of space (#6 on Sterling's list):

"What are we doing out here anyway?. . . [We] leave men and women stuck out on freezing planets to die. . . What are we doing out here in space? Good? What good? We're polluting it. . . destroying it. . . we've got no business being out here, no business. If a man was supposed to fly, he'd have wings. If he was supposed to be out in space, he wouldn't need air to breathe . . . We don't belong here. It's not ours."

You can guess where I stand on this. I believe we do belong in outer space. As Heinlein said, the earth is just too small and fragile a basket for humanity to keep all of its eggs in. We are one asteroid impact, one script-kiddie nanobot or custom-sequenced doomsday virus from extinction. Now, whether the "manned exploration" should continue to be done by NASA is a debatable point. I am not too happy with the way NASA ended the USAF's approach best exemplified by the X-15 of incrementally expanding the flight envelope. I think there is still a valid military role, but the "scientific" value of the whole "civilian" space enterprise has been way oversold, as Rand Simberg has so much more eloquently put it elsewhere (again and again).

But now we see private enterprise picking up where the X-15 left off. Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne follows the same principle as the X-15, except that he had to design and build his own B-52 (the stunningly beautiful White Knight) to launch it from.

We also now find out that the SF idea of a space elevator may not be so farfetched given reasonably foreseeable implementations of current materials science.

So perhaps we'll see settlement (not just "exploration") sometime in the near future.

Charming Star Trek anachronisms in this episode: At 28:18, you can see Spock using a slide rule to calculate the Enterprise's orbital trajectory. Also, check out the analog clock at 47:05.

Posted by JohnL at October 6, 2003 11:10 PM
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