Friday, October 28, 2011
Music Got Us to the Moon – Where Might it Yet Take Us?
A GUIDE special feature...
[If you began reading this in the Acoustic Americana Music Guide's news feature edition of October 27, 2011, then scroll down to pick up where you left off. It's clearly marked.]
MUSIC GOT US TO THE MOON – WHERE MIGHT IT YET TAKE US?
The biggest and final Mars lander touches down in November. Is there meaning for Artists?
Get ready, because we're going to challenge you. The challenge is to write the next song that fires-up the popular imagination and gets us looking upward and outward again. We'll help all we can by sharing and disclosing some compelling notions and facts and ideas and “wow” factors as we go along.
Music propelled the dreams of the generation that took us to the Moon. In the time when those folks were the innovators and the movers and shakers of society, the vinyl records and airwaves were filled with “Moon songs” in all genres and heavenly musical images of romance and bliss. It helped create a mindset.
Music, for good or bad, inspires culture more than it reflects it. Doubt that? Then ask why, after an era of “gangsta rap,” TV is filled with “inside the prison” shows featuring processions of thugs? And why, when modern Nashville country music is all about dysfunctional relationships, are the divorce and domestic violence rates higher in regions where that music is dominant?
Where might music take us, if we write and perform songs to inspire a brighter, better future? Can our music, in our time, help us fulfill our destiny as a species? Can it help us, in the words of the poet, “Slip the surly bonds of Earth?”
It's been a long time since “Fly Me to the Moon” was a '60s hit song for Frank Sinatra. And it didn't come out of nowhere. There was plenty of groundwork before the proliferation of “Moon songs.” At the end of the 19th century, “Shine on Harvest Moon” was a hit on cylindrical wax records. In the '30s, the Ink Spots had a hit with “Paper Moon,” and the song returned as the title and title track of a '70s film. That handful of lunar-related tracks hardly scratches the surface.
Generations of kids grew up singing “Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the Moon.”
In the years immediately leading to the “space generation,” when the people who would become astronauts and those who would send them into space were all growing up, the charts were filled with homages to lunar themes: “Blue Moon,” “How High the Moon,” “Moonglow,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “Moon Over Miami,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and the huge hit, “Moon River,” were just some of them. Couples danced as the lyrics “Moonlight Becomes You” were sung over the band. Was music influential? Did it help create a new mind-set?
Search for “Moon songs” and you'll get thousands of web hits. Most of the best-known ones are, indeed, from the era when actually going there became a credible idea – including the time when President Kennedy challenged the nation in the early '60s, “before this decade is out,” to “land a man upon the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.”
Submitted for your approval: every one of those “Moon songs” prior to Apollo 11's 1969 landing – particularly those that were hits during the years just prior – made their own contribution to the popular imagination and propelled the idea of going. (Curiously, no hit song commemorated the event after it happened, though there was a rock band named Apollo 100.)
Whether you are willing to accept that the collective role of “Moon songs” leading to the Apollo landings was large or small, one thing is incontestable: music ALWAYS feeds the sensibilities and perceptions of its time, and helps define its era for future generations. Popular fascination ultimately becomes desire – and in the late '40s, '50s and '60s, music fed the desire to go to the Moon.
So, if music got us to the Moon, could it take us beyond? Could it get us to the planets? Can it inspire us to get past our self-absorbed misuse of unprecedented and ever-expanding technological capabilities, and inspire us to actually apply all that capability to DO something worthy of ourselves, of the legacy we have inherited, and of our true potential? Can music accelerate and fulfill our evolution?
Art and song were, for centuries, a product of exploration and the spirit of adventure. But somewhere, art was embraced by the high-brow humanities and divorced from discovery and exploration, and with them, from science as an exciting vector for going forth.
One result is that space exploration, for far too long, has been pitted against human needs as a budget priority.
These things should never have happened. We are complicated creatures, simultaneously nurturing and argumentative and competitive and confrontational and pugilistic. But we are ones who, by our most unique and deepest nature as a species, are creators of art AND explorers, creatures driven to see what's beyond the next hill and to test the next concept and to memorialize the discovery in shared images.
We are members of a species who must ask questions and who must seek and get answers. We must. It is an internal imperative. When we fail too heed it, we are unfulfilled. We are a tribe who must question the meaning and make sense of the answers we are given and those we find. We must continually inform our perceptions of all else we know with those new discoveries.
Without that, we do not advance; we stagnate and our civilizations fall.
We honor and romanticize idealized views of our past, even as we are driven to continually renew ourselves by supplanting yesterday's wisdom with today's questions and tomorrow's answers. And then to question all of it, all the more, always and continuously. And we must do these things not simply for ourselves but for others. We inform ourselves of who we are as we explore on behalf of others who stay behind; all are inspired by the ones who go. Let us hope the disconnection in our cynical time has not severed this forever, and that it can be restored. Like art, exploring achieves and informs the highest aspirations of the human spirit.
That's why thousands of years' worth of songs were written about great voyages and epic quests and the people who made them. It's time it all got back together again. It just might end the alienation that so many people feel toward this society. It might help complete us.
We should recognize that a lot was happening that enabled the fascination for going to the Moon, beyond the development of multistage rockets following their development as weapons in World War II. Indeed, the Space Race is often cited as the key contest of the Cold War.
But it transcended that. The fascination for going “out there”came from the culture, where art was, and is, a more important component than science. There were endless '50s and '60s science fiction movies and comic books about aliens and space travel. Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke were writing prolifically and their novels with space themes sold big.
[If you started reading in the October 27 edition of The Guide's News Features,
IT PICKS UP HERE...]
In our arena, recorded music was booming in the late '50s. Singles on 45s were cheap and plentiful. There were hi-fi 33 1/3 rpm records that could hold complete symphonic pieces, unlike the earlier 78s. The classical world brought Holst's “The Planets” to a large audience, even as Elvis shook, rattled and rolled. It all went into the cultural stew pot. For the first time, everybody was building a music library at home. New songs and anything on an LP suddenly joined the pantheon of orchestral numbers and pop songs – and a disproportionate number of those songs were about the cultural and romantic value of the light of the silvery Moon, and even the heavens beyond.
All this became a subject of exploration for us when we realized there are some significant anniversaries this time of year.
Sputnik 1, the Earth's first artificial satellite, was launched October 4, 1957, scaring America into a space race. Astronomer Edmund Halley, for whom Halley's Comet is named, was born October 29 (in 1656). Explorer / adventurer Thor Heyerdahl was born on October 6 (in 1914). Polar explorer Richard Byrd was born October 25 (in 1888). “Discoverers” of America Leif Ericson and Christoforo Columbo (or Colon, aka Christopher Columbus) have their annual days on October 9 and October 12, respectively. The president who started the U.S. Space program, Dwight Eisenhower, was born October 14 (in 1890), and the same date (in 1947) was when Chuck Yeager became the first human to break the sound barrier while piloting the Bell X-1 rocket plane. And on Halloween in 1939, actor Orson Wells broadcast his infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast.
October 22nd is likewise an important, if obscure, anniversary. On that day in 1975, the Soviet's Venera 10 probe landed on Venus and became the first spacecraft ever to send photographs back from the surface of another planet.
The '50s hit song, “Venus,” and all the references to the planet, deriving from its role in the ancient pantheon as the Goddess of Love, could never be the same. Just as with the Moon songs, art and life interact and music changes reality by changing our perceptions and understanding.
The U.S. Space program followed our culture's obsession and focused on the Moon and Mars. Cultural obsession? In addition to all our American Moon songs, American culture was still very much under the influence of Orson Wells' 1939 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, based on English novelist H.G. Welles' 1899 book.
That radio play caused millions to panic in the belief an invasion was underway – from Mars.
After that, the Red Planet began to resonate even more with Americans. Every school kid for decades knew that American astronomer Percival Lowell had seen and mapped a system of canals on its surface. Plenty of other astronomers saw them, too, through different telescopes, as far back as Galileo's description of “canali” – Italian for “channels.” They are simply explained away now as “optical distortions” or “atmospheric phenomenon.” Others cite it as the power of suggestion, even among scientists. (Valles Marineris, the hemisphere-spanning Grand Canyon of Mars, really is there, but none of those telescopes should have been able to reveal it.)
“And the story was told of a river that flowed make me sad to think it was dead.” - Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell, aka the band America.
After “Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs' series of “Jon Carter of Mars” books, and then Wells' terrifying adaptation of Welles, Americans were obsessed with Martians.
The Russians, meanwhile, did not share the same cultural icons. They chose to concentrate on Venus. Having lost the Moon race, Venera 10 was important as their first success – and boast – since putting the first man in space and making the first spacewalk.
Previous Venera-series landers had disappeared on the way down through the planet's mysterious atmosphere. When Venera 10 landed, it survived long enough to transmit a few black-and-white images of the surrounding terrain. Sadly, instead of finding a steamy, tropical twin of Earth, as had long been dreamed, the Soviet lander revealed a literal hell of 870-degree (F) temperatures and crushing atmospheric pressure, 90 times that of Earth.
Talk about conflicting images. Hell, vs. the Goddess of Love? That just might have marked the end of romantic songs about space. While the Rolling Stones could sing that “Love Stinks,” it was a tough sell to equate love with a hellish place. Reality is always a romance killer, eh?
It may have been where art and science began to disconnect. Certainly, the absence of art – specifically, the absence of songs – to inform the popular imagination about space meant the beginning of the end of inspirations based on starry heavens and exploring them.
It's a shame, because Venera 10 brought us a stunning message with the biggest overtones we've ever faced as Earth-dwellers. It showed us that a good planet can go wrong. Though moonless, Venus had long been regarded as Earth's twin. The reality, with an atmosphere comprised mostly of carbon dioxide, offers the most extreme warning imaginable of a runaway greenhouse effect. As on our own planet, CO2 allows the sunlight in, but doesn't allow the heat back out. Atmospheric scientists find great relevance for studying Venus as an analog for likely scenarios of Earth's atmospheric changes. Beyond our society's addiction to burning fossil fuels that release CO2 by the millions of tons, nearly all scientists agree that Venus is what the Earth will eventually become, whether or not man accelerates it by millions of years. But nobody has helped inform us about any of that with a song.
“The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the [solar] wind...”
Was Venus ever Earth-like? Maybe. There was once an ocean's worth of water there, and even today, the hydrogen and oxygen that once comprised Venus's water are still being literally blown-away into space. The planet has no magnetic field to shield it from the solar “wind” that strips-away most atmospheric gases and allows lethal radiation to reach the surface, in spite of the thick CO2. As if it wasn't hellish enough, volcanoes add sulfur dioxide, as they do on Earth, except it doesn't dissipate on Venus.
“...and it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire.”
Whatever conditions may have been in the distant past, today, Venus's sulfuric acid will dissolve you; if the CO2-trapped heat doesn't charbroil you; or the atmosphere's surface pressure, 90-times that of Earth, doesn't crush you first; or the 230-mph equatorial winds or pair of seasonal polar hurricanes don't tear you apart. The planet's high mountains top it off with a diabolically satanic aspect, topped with a white (at least a bright) snow-like coating that's actually formed from molten metal.
Not surprising that nobody wanted to write a song about THAT being the true nature of the Goddess of Love.
Yet, believe it or not, some scientists speculate that life may have developed on Venus. And it may still be there, in the form of heat-tolerant acid-eating microbes that live in the upper atmosphere or beneath the surface where they could eat rocks, as some exotic cave-dwelling microbes do here.
“I was strolling through the park one day, in the merry, merry month of December” - “No – May!” - radio broadcast of Apollo astronauts singing, while romping across the surface of the Moon.
While we can never walk on Venus, we can learn things there, and we can learn far more by visiting other planets and moons. It's possible that, early on, there was a common origin for life on Venus, Mars and Earth. All were being struck by a lot of stray objects that knocked pieces of each into space, and some of that likely fell onto one of the other “nearby” planets.
Remember the Martian meteorite found in Antarctica, the one that created the buzz because it might contain fossils of Martian life? Many scientists look beyond that and cite far more profound possibilities: WE may be the surviving Martians. The first life on Earth may have been delivered from someplace else.
Those are questions we can explore. We won't know until we go and seek and find and learn.
Given our technology, we could have gone already; we could have seriously been looking for life “out there.” NASA's original Apollo-era time line called for a manned landing on Mars in 1987, and it was a reasonable expectation. Instead, for two generations, we've been told we cannot afford it. Our priorities to fight in Vietnam ended the manned space program beyond Earth orbit. It's a recurring theme. FAR more expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became our 21st century national priorities, though their ongoing two-billion-dollar-per-week costs were kept off the books for most of one president's two terms. When the bill for the first few years of those wars was finally presented, it nearly bankrupted us.
Peaceful planetary exploration would have been much, much cheaper and expanded our technological base far more than developing exotic drones or other weapons. Yet we're still here and only here, earthbound and armed to the teeth. A small part of what we continue to spend on those wars – despite the supposed “end” of our presence in Iraq by the end of this year – could be diverted to enable a real and vigorous space program.
We could simply spend a fraction of what the military gets. A fraction, to explore the planets of our solar system and the most promising of their moons. Yes, it should be aimed at sending astronauts – excited, inquisitive, scientifically proficient, articulate, artistically literate men and women.
But that hasn't happened and it seems worse than unlikely. There's a bought-and-paid-for majority in Congress to support the defense industry, and insufficient public pressure on politicians to divert a small part of the money to an ambitious, adequately funded space program. We could have gone long before now. We still could.
That Wall Street bailout money could have sent humans to Mars and back, while exponentially increasing our understanding of – literally – life, the universe and everything, AND improving education, AND providing health care for those without it. Instead, our money preserved “too-big-to-fail” banks that invest only in offshore operations of multinationals and won't provide mortgage relief to Americans losing their homes to foreclosure. So the fat cats collect their obscene bonuses, ship our jobs overseas and keep ripping us off, all in a never-ending myriad of ways. And let's not forget that a lot of our money has gone to a few favored multinational corporations in no-bid contracts, even as our blood and treasure drained into the rocks and sands of Southwest Asia.
For decades, dreams of planetary exploration focused on the “Goldilocks Zone,” the idea that anything too close to the sun would be too hot for life and anything too far away would be too cold. Now we have learned just enough to know better and to want to expand our search.
“Life finds a way.” – Jeff Goldbloom's character in “Jurassic Park.”
Couldn't we learn more by exploring the rocks and sands of Mars and Mercury and the atmosphere of Venus? Couldn't we learn more by exploring the giant oceans beneath the icy surfaces of moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn? Do those alien oceans harbor critters the size of plankton, small to conserve heat, or the size of whales, big to absorb heat from available sources? We could find out. If we did, it could change everything more profoundly than anything ever has.
“Aye, Calypso, the places you've been to, the things that you've shown us, the stories you tell, and aye, Calypso, I sing to your spirit, the men who have served you so long and so well.” - John Denver's song “Calypso.” (Written about Jacques Cousteau's exploration ship before it was sunk by the French government to keep it from learning French nuclear waste disposal secrets and causing an international scandal. Is that a metaphor for much that is and isn't happening today?)
Can you imagine the sea chanteys from oceans on other worlds that are within our grasp?
And what of the methane snowflakes that fall and the liquid methane rivers that flow on Titan? It's Saturn's largest moon, the one that has an atmosphere with clouds that move lazily across its sky, and a crazy-cold analog of our weather. What analogs of Christmas Carols or winter hearth songs or “Suwanee River” would come from experiencing that?
The little Huygens' probe from Cassini LANDED on Titan and sent back pictures. Cassini discovered lakes on Titan, one the size of Lake Ontario. The lake is fed by those flowing rivers and rain and snowfall. And all of it is liquid methane. Freaky. How much more exciting does it need to get?
Liquid methane lakes on Titan are -290 degrees. Fed by rain from the clouds, rivers carve valleys there en-route to lakes, just as rivers do on Earth. And there is evaporation from those lakes that keeps the whole process going, just like the hydrologic cycle on Earth. Major wow factor.
In “2001: A Space Odyssey” (the Arthur C. Clarke book and the landmark movie) humans had already built permanent Moon bases and sent a manned expedition to Jupiter. Before the year 2001. All the technology and hardware required for those things was reasonable to envision when the film was made in the late 1960s, before the Nixon Administration canceled the last three Apollo missions (the most science-oriented of the program) and pulled the plug on NASA's plans for humans in space beyond Earth orbit. Shades of Conan O'Brien's “In the Year 2000” sketches. They stole our future to pay for the wars in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, just as they're stealing it now to pay for wars in Southwest Asia and oil depletion allowances and greed-driven fat cats who are too big to fail.
Still, that early '70s end of manned space exploration didn't stop everything. Not altogether. We've had some remarkable robots – and the returns we've gotten from any one of them should have been enough to lure us back into space with urgent enthusiasm.
In 1976, two Viking landers sent back color images from the surface of Mars while their orbiting counterparts mapped a surface of impossibly high mountains and impossibly deep and lengthy canyons caused by huge volumes of running water. We even thought we'd found life just beneath the surface. We're still not sure.
In 1979, thanks to the two Voyager spacecraft, we got our first close-up look at Jupiter and its moons, and what we saw was far more intriguing than we had ever imagined. Nowadays, that knowledge is simply part of the background noise of what everyone sort-of knows but doesn't really understand.
Along the way, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo allowed the ancient treasures of King Tutankhamun to tour the world. That was a big deal, but what captured everyone's imagination was Steve Martin's “King Tut Boogie.” It dominated radio with its wacky lines: “Born in Arizona, raised in Babylonia, King Tut.” But it captured the imagination. In the midst of all ythe robotic probes, that was what space exploration needed then, and needs now. - a human touch.
The '90s brought us the era of Mars rovers. There was hatbox-sized Sojurner that made elementary school kids gleeful because it was small and cute and they were the first computer generation of kids. The double-aughts brought us the busted-but-still-running Spirit and Opportunity and color and stereoscopic images of their far-flung travels across Mars. A final robotic rover, called Curiosity, lands this November and it's the size of a VW Beetle. It should be the best yet. But it's the final one. There's no more money.
It's maddening. We're just learning enough to know what to look for. In May, 2008, the Phoenix lander found water ice beneath the surface of Mars, and we began to see the planet, as one scientist expresses, as “an ice cube covered with a layer of dirt.” That's huge, because the Dry Valleys of Antarctica are the closest thing here to Mars, with their surface of rock instead of glacial ice; and just beneath their surface, they have water ice – and life.
Methane gas is seasonally released from specific regions on Mars. Is it volcanic, or did something fart? That new Mars rover, Curiosity, the LAST one, the one that lands in November, is both robot geologist and astrobiologist, designed to search for specific organic compounds that are the product of living things.
Of course, finding life on Mars would be historic and problematic. If anything IS alive there, can we ethically keep visiting, or might we interfere with it? (Yes, it's the ol' Star Trek “Prime Directive.”) Best of all would be finding abundant fossils and nothing alive now on Mars, or nothing alive that doesn't already live on Earth. That way we could colonize Mars. But could we if we find life?
But the questions are moot. We aren't spending any more to go to Mars, even as our knowledge has taught us enough to send people with an effective set of tasks and questions. Instead, we gave all our money to the Wall Street pirates to bail them out of their incompetence-caused / motivated-by-greed failures – because they were too big to fail – and they've spent it lavishly on themselves.
In 2005, the Japanese probe Hayabusa (“Falcon” in Japanese) landed on an asteroid, collected a sample of dust, and spent the next five years bringing it back to Earth.
We've successfully sent Galileo to Jupiter and Cassini to Saturn; both were big, capable robot orbiters equipped with smaller probes. They performed brilliantly. Our knowledge grew exponentially. It took the big robotic Cassini seven years to reach Saturn. But they were robots and the popular imagination was not inspired by them.
The absence of humans from all but the mundane “around and around and around” of low Earth orbit aboard a spindly space station with an unexciting mission is the realization of NASA's original fear: “No Buck Rogers, no bucks.”
The end of the Space Shuttle program earlier this year may have exacerbated that, but in 30 years of missions, the thing never did much that captured the public's imagination, anyway.
Outside the scientific community, even the Shuttle-deployed, space-based, Hubble Telescope has only a cult following. And while the space station and its predecessors, Mir and Skylab, have been testbeds for technology needed for manned interplanetary space flight, there's still nothing planned, so there's been no chance to create excitement.
Concurrent with the robotic probe era were the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” franchises and their iconic musical anthems. Perhaps 1979's Voyager photos just couldn't compete with 1977's Darth Vader theme and John Williams' other Star Wars' compositions. All those films were, at essence, techo-dazzle updates of Buster Crabbe's 1930s Buck Rogers, complete with lots of loud explosions, dramatic music, and assorted space noises that can't really exist in the silent vacuum of space.
Those screen epics and, moreover, their instantly recognizable soundtracks, are as close as we've come, post-Apollo, to channeling popular imagination into the final frontier. It's the instrumental music of Star Trek and Star Wars that endures.
Reality lacked background music. No composers, no songwriters went along for the robotic ride. We know nearly all of what we know about Mars and Jupiter and Saturn and their moons because of our robotic extensions of ourselves. They could carry our scientific instruments, but not our culture.
Except... The most recognizable aspect of the Voyager probes, what people remember most, are the gold phonograph records of “Earth's Greatest Hits.” The two Voyagers took along music from the blues to Beethoven, voiced greetings in many languages, bird songs and whale songs and more. Since both Voyagers have left the solar system and are racing outward, they may be humankind's only permanent cultural presence in space. And we remember them best and smile because they are taking our music with them.
“Let's light this candle!” - Alan Shepard, to encourage an end to launchpad dithering, just before he became the first American astronaut launched into space.
Science has learned a lot, but needs to start dating culture again. We really only know enough to frame some big but rather basic questions, and more of us need to feel included in that. We already share one thing: we know enough to want to build spacecraft and pick landing sites and go – ourselves – to ask the most profound questions in our history, to make the deepest inquiries of all – and to experience and share with one another the most evolutionary step we could choose to take as a species.
Except we can't even get our people to or from that spindly space station without hitching a ride with the Russians. It's not simply unexciting and a regression from the days of Apollo. It's an embarrassment and a disgrace.
Exploring Jupiter's moon Europa should have become a priority for the nation and the human race as far back as our first good look in 1979.
Way back in the '60s, that “2001” movie had guessed at Jupiter and its constellation of moons as the best planetary target, and given us a soundtrack with music that's still iconic. “The Blue Danube” is no longer a waltz for people in powdered wigs, but the default selection in our mental jukebox for anything that slowly tumbles through space. “Also Sprach Zatathustra” is the ultimate anthem for supreme dramatic excitement on the scale of monumental experience, driven by the horns and kettle drums you hear in your head at the mere mention of it. Its three-note intro is more recognizable than the four-note motif of Beethoven's Fifth. Perhaps only the five-note intro to Led Zep's “Stairway to Heaven” is more recognizable – and we can't help but note the theme and title of THAT one. It could e that post-Apollo commemoration we were looking for, in an artistically obtuse way.
There could have and should have been – and can yet be – more of the soundtrack for the human experience of the star-spangled skies, based on actually going to explore them and being inspired by the doing of it.
Human inspiration is a two-way street. Inspired as artists, inspired to go, inspired by going.
We dream of doing. We anticipate going, and cannot contain our excitement about going, and then we go because its an imperative within us, and we feel and discover and are flooded with impressions no one has ever had before, and while we focus on central aspects, we notice that even what is peripheral is completely new, and we are thrilled and infinitely surprised and must seek meaning from all of it, and because we are artists we are driven to interpret and share what we learn and we are flooded with the rush of feeling all the new things as we process and seek to assess the totality and how each aspect informs, effects and changes us. That is one of the ultimate inspirations we, as a species, could experience.
In addition to the obvious choice of going to Mars, let's go to Europa. That moon, it turns out, is locked in an orbital tug-of-war with the massive pull of its giant host planet and two of Jupiter's other moons, Io (pronounced EYE-oh, with its school-bus yellow surface and many active volcanoes) and Ganymede (with its own wildly purple palate of colors and peculiar enigmas).
The New Horizons probe flew past Io and revealed the scope of its spectacularly continuous volcanism, first discovered by Voyager. Io is stretched by more than 330 feet, then returned to its usual shape, each time it completes one of its egg-shaped elliptical orbits of Jupiter. One scientist says the gravitational tug-of-war inside Io is like the heat you get when you keep bending a paper clip. (Try it, it's amazing.)
Discovering, in the Voyager images, that Io was being flexed is what first gave us the idea that Europa could not be a frozen-solid ice ball, or even a snow cone.
Beneath Europa's icy surface, the heat of all those competing gravitational forces keeps things warm enough to maintain a planet-size SALT WATER OCEAN, 500 million miles from our own oceans. Europa's ocean could be as much as 60 miles deep, and contain MORE water than ALL the Earth's oceans, COMBINED. How can we ignore THAT?
“The ocean is a desert with its life underground and the perfect disguise above. Under the sea, under the hard-baked ground...” - Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell, aka America.
Galileo passed by Europa twelve times. It's slightly smaller than our own moon, with a surface temperature of -260 degrees F. But that surface is a crazy quilt of broken, upthrust ice sheets and cracks, resembling ice floes on the Arctic Ocean.
Saturn has a moon like that, too, called Enceladus. It's only 300 miles across, yet it has giant deep “tiger strip” gouges that fire dozens of jets of water-ice hundreds of miles into space – at 1200 miles an hour – like Yellowstone's geysers on steroids. Planetary scientist Chris McKay says, “It's like a flashing sign that says 'Free Samples!' We don't need to land, we don't need to drill, we just need to fly through the plumes and collect some of what's being ejected into space.”
Most of it falls back onto Enceladus as fluffy white snow. It could contain frozen remains of whatever may live in the sea beneath the ice. Except we aren't going to find out. No money.
Not long ago, we thought water was the rarest and most precious commodity in space. Fortunately, it turns out that's not true in the solar Mister Roger's Neighborhood. Since water is the common denominator for all the life we know, sampling frozen aqueous plumes and oceans beneath ice crusts offers the most intriguing and realistic places to look for alien life. And it's important for another reason entirely, since a fuel cell can separate water's hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel that lets us keep going or return home with samples that could change everything we think we know.
Near the top of Europa's and Enceladus' oceans, light or other radiation may, in places, penetrate their skins of ice. That could enable life based on diffused sunlight or some other wave length emanating from the sun or from Jupiter. Mostly, the ice is probably quite thick. But wait. At the bottom of Europa's ocean, Jovian planetary physics would create a seafloor that releases heat, and lots of it. Life there isn't just possible, but likely, since it could be based on the same formula as the “Black Smoker” ecosystems at the bottom of Earth's deep, dark, Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and in the depths of the Pacific – and at the bottom of the cold Arctic Ocean. All these places have crushing water depth pressures, where isolated communities of life must be based not on sunlight, but on eating heat-formed waterborne minerals and compounds based on sulfur and hydrogen and methane. Microbes here that depend on those chemicals for life are themselves the basis for extensive food chains in deep, cold, dark isolated places. It works on Earth, where exotic tubeworms flourish in unique, lavish ecosystems, so why not? We can go see, if we're willing to spend the money.
Okay, so Europa's surface receives radiation so lethal that five minutes there would kill you. But get beneath the ice, descend through the water, and things change rapidly.
Submarine-spacecraft are probably the wildest and most exciting Star-Trekian machines anybody can imagine. We built spacecraft to hold pressure in. We built submarines to keep pressure out. Kids love those goofy cartoon Transformers. How cool would the real thing be?
On Earth, a cubic foot of water weighs 62 pounds. So, there's 620 pounds of water pushing down on every square foot at the bottom of a ten-foot-deep swimming pool. At the bottom of Earth's deepest ocean, the pressure is equal to 50 Boeing 747 jetliners pressing down on you. We know because we've been there, we've done that. Europa is smaller with less gravity, but our oceans are a fraction as deep as Europa's ocean. Whatever we build must survive the trip through space to get there. It's daunting, but if we do it, our technology would expand in ways we can't begin to imagine. And we could meet ET. Wow.
It's a mind-boggling idea. Yet today's scientists are already envisioning robotic deep-water aquatic spacecraft and the drilling devices to get them down through the ice. All they need is the money to apply our vaunted technology to do something more worthwhile than playing Angry Birds or Grand Theft Auto – something truly worthy of our technological prowess, and even of its development – to build and launch amazing submersible interplanetary spacecraft.
Want kids to study math and science? Give them a reason. It wouldn't need to be hyped to be “made exciting.” It IS exciting. Even Steve Squyres, guru of robotic Mars probes, says, “I build robots because it's the only way I can go. Would I go myself, instead? Hell, yes!”
There's a space geek cliché that the first human to walk on Mars has already been born. Right now, that simply isn't credible. But we could change our priorities and make it true. Someone old enough to be reading this could go.
We owe it to our kids. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to the future every bit as much as we owe it to our forebears, those who left us gifts they paid for, the legacy that enabled us to enjoy the advances we take for granted.
We can credibly return education to prominence, through a partnership of techno-innovation, adventure, scientific exploration, and the knowledge needed to go do it. We owe it to ourselves – if we want a place in history as something other than (a) the ones who used-up all the cheap oil while letting the fat cats become Robber Barons again, (b) developing sophisticated electronics that we wasted on goofy games and self-indulgent foolishness, and (c) irreversibly bringing greenhouse gas-induced climate change that we couldn't control.
We need to patch things up with the kids. Ever since astronomers demoted Pluto from its role as the farthest planet from the sun (three billion miles away) kids everywhere have been disillusioned. Mickey Mouse's dog is near comatose with depression. And they're not alone. We're supposed to accept Pluto as just one of a bunch of “Kuiper Belt Objects,” and not a planet? That just feels soooo wrong. Pluto has a moon called Charon, doesn't it? If you're round (spherical) and you have a round moon orbiting you, aren't you a planet? Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, and neither of them is even close to round. Isn't Pluto more of a planet? Shouldn't it get its own zip code? But then, astronomers haven't had a decent PR guy since Carl Sagan died.
Okay, we “get” the rest of the Kuiper Belt and its distant solid objects – planetos or planettes or planetoids or chunky granola masses or whatever you want to call them – solid stuff that's up to four billion or so miles away, ever-so-slowly orbiting the sun. And we “get” the Oort Cloud of comets, in a sort-of shell around us, up to 34 billion miles away – leftovers from where the solar system's water probably originated. A single comet can contain over a 100 million tons of water, so if there ever was a profusion of them closer to the sun, it explains our own blue planet, along with the origin of the lost water on Mars and Venus, the ice in perpetually dark polar craters on broiling Mercury and our own Moon, and those whizbang amazing ice-skinned ocean moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
Intellectually we get all that. But we could sure use one, good Jovian sea chantey.
Some of us are not content that “somebody,” “someday,” will be scuba diving beneath the ice of distant moons, frolicking with whatever else is swimming there and writing songs about it to inform the people (or whomever) of THEIR time. Perhaps we would learn and sing indigenous songs with the local inhabitants? However you approach it, it's mind-boggling. We could stop dithering, and go.
Why should we accept that swimming in alien oceans – or walking on Mars, peering over the rim of a canyon 100 times the size of the Grand Canyon – should be postponed for our unknown heirs (if we last long enough to beget them before rising sea levels drown us)?
Why shouldn't WE be the ones to go, instead of leaving the thrill for some nebulous future time (if there is one, before a giant asteroid impact destroys our civilization)? The money exists now (it exists to fight wars and for Wall Street to steal, so it must exist) and the technological and industrial and manufacturing bases still exist (just barely) within our country to build the manned and remotely operated and autonomous robotic spacecraft and the rovers and the samplers and the habitats and the hydroponic gardens and the fuel cells and the submarine-spacecraft.
There's an argument that we must keep building sophisticated military hardware to preserve our vanishing industrial manufacturing capability.
Why not develop and build a fleet of sophisticated spacecraft, instead? It's a strong argument, especially since technology spins-off freely (by law) from space exploration, but is always classified and inaccessible to innovation when it's for weapons and the military?
Want economic stimulus? Well, hellloooo, space gadget spinoffs!
We CAN change the equation. We CAN decide that the fat cats must take less from us and we CAN invest the difference in things that benefit all of us – economically, physically, emotionally, spiritually, as quality of life issues, AND things that fulfill our most noble visions of ourselves and our destiny as a species.
“Come Josephine in my flying machine going up she goes, up she goes...”
If, after the Wright Brothers, the development of atmospheric flight had been as regressive as manned space flight after Apollo, we would not be traveling aboard transatlantic jumbo jets. We would just now be congratulating Lindberg.
The difference is, there was immediate money to be made from commercial aviation. There is no immediate profit for investors in interplanetary space exploration – unless government commissions the programs so that private companies can bid to take part. Philosophically, the biggest rewards should not be treasure troves of profit for a few – though stock in aerospace would soar in value if they were building spacecraft and employing advanced-degree engineers and tech-competent worker bees to do it. Going “out there” creates infinite spinoffs, yes, as proven by Apollo. But more than that, it brings priceless returns for all of humanity.
The aerospace companies, large and small, will otherwise be building weapons. We wouldn't lose them as employers, but what a fine conversion – or reconversion, since once upon a time, they all built space hardware. Plus, the space program being public and open, there's less opportunity for Wall Street's Robber Barons to hijack things for their own self aggrandizement and personal greed, like KBR/Halliburton did with embellished and abused and unfulfilled military contracts. That alone makes it smarter than what we've been doing.
If vigorous manned planetary space exploration were only about seeking and learning and understanding more, about going “where no one has gone before,” about knowledge for its own sake, that would be enough. But it's not limited to all that. It's about the ULTIMATE “more.”
Human exploration of the cosmos drives us to continually reexamine and redefine ourselves and to continually challenge ourselves in new ways. And that drives the imagination of society, feeding and drawing from the need for art and artists to help us understand what we, as a species, are doing, and to interpret and reveal, to all, what it means. In the songs – those that come from doing it or from advocating that we should do it – each of us experiences and shares and reinterprets and becomes a co-discoverer.
“Oh for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage, to find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea, tracing one more line through a land so wild and savage, and take the Northwest Passage to the sea.” – Stan Rogers' song, “Northwest Passage.”
Dreaming becomes doing. Doing feeds the dream. It's a natural human process when we reach for high aspirations. Going “out there” drives us and feeds us and provides immeasurable returns to us with every discovery we make about life, the universe, and everything – and ultimately, about ourselves.
This is about – quite literally – everything. Everything, if we choose to do it.
Or it's about nothing if we choose instead to stick with endlessly costly distractions – or, alternatively, with some obsession with reducing costs by settling for a nation based on less of everything. Do we accept some crazy idea that we all should be John Wayne the man's man, and kill our own deer, so we can take the hide and tan it ourselves, and make boots from it ourselves, so we can pull ourselves up with our own bootstraps? And do it all outdoors, with no shelter in an urban society, because we got upside-down on our mortgages and lost our jobs when our employers shipped them to China, and we were foreclosed-on while we were unemployed, and had no other assets because they were made worthless by manipulators of the stock market for their own insider-knowledge-enabled gains. But we probably died from tetanus when we cut ourselves skinning the deer and didn't have any access to health care because we were unemployed.
“The Eastern world, it is explodin', fires ragin', bullets loadin', and even the Jordan River has bodies floatin', and you tell me over, and over, and over again my friend, oh you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction?” - “Eve of Destruction,” the hit song banned by the FCC from U.S. radio airplay when Barry McGuire's recording was released in the '60s.
Sure, there are problems right here on Earth and many require costly solutions. But do we choose to address those issues myopically, or will we choose to expand our vision? Even as we seek remedies to a nearly extinct American manufacturing base (exported for corporate profits), to an education system that's on life support, to a health care system where only the rich can afford life support, and to a quagmire of unemployment with diminishing prospects for many of our people ever going back to work?
If we choose cutbacks – and the shrinking economy that every historical example shows would follow, we will always be too broke to go anywhere; we will forsake our future; we will turn our backs on our legacy as a species; we will fail to inspire anybody or make a place in human history for ourselves, as the ones who took humankind upward and outward and into the next phase of our evolution.
Do we keep postponing the choice to some unknown time when some unknown others replace us and perhaps finally decide to bless themselves and their posterity by accepting a challenge worthy of THEM selves and THEIR time? Or will WE be the ones who enable all who follow us?
At any time, it could become a practical question instead of just a philosophical one. Whether we can dodge the next asteroid impact (like the one that killed the dinosaurs) may well be a function of whether we chose to be aware and observant of all that's out there. (Google Chixulub Impact, and Tungeska Impact, and Meteor Crater Arizona – these things happen more often than you may think.)
Are we a spacefaring civilization that recognizes it is time to learn what, and maybe who, is next door (perhaps before it collides with us) and that our neighborhood is a part of a vast natural environment that reaches infinitely beyond the Earth?
Or do we choose to stay boarded-up in our cabin in the woods, afraid of the bears and the wolves and the forest demons, afraid of the brown people who live over the hill, playing our claustrophobic games of distraction, manipulation, power and control, constantly trying to get more on our own plate at the expense of everyone else at the table, striving to always eat the choice cuts, paying others to be the ones to go cut our firewood and hunt our food and dig our well and our outhouse for us, and telling others to face all the risks and eat less so that we have more?
It's much easier to be driven by greed and fixated by arguing over the things that go bump in the night, without ever going to see what those things are. But is that worthy of us as a species? Is that a worthy use of the technology we have developed and, so far, applied to mostly silly ends? Will we leave anything behind as useful as the things our grandparents and their parents left us? Is our legacy that we, and our culture, and our time, were all about greed and narcissism that ultimately sabotaged our own future and our own self-preservation?
Artists invariably play a role in society's choices. Artists, at their best, always hold a mirror to everything around them and bring the reflection to society. Simultaneously, artists are among those planting seeds of new motivations and desires, and at critical times, new outlooks and new paradigms. Artists must not forget who we are. It's been a long time since “Fly Me to the Moon” was a hit.
“Mercury Blues” was about a car – is it time for a song about the planet? After all, in March of this year, NASA's Messenger became first probe to orbit Mercury. A robot. No Buck Rogers...
If you're wondering, we know about “Filk Music” (that's how it's spelled). It's the underground genre of science-fiction folk songs, where “Green, Green Grass of Home” becomes “Red, Red Sands of Mars.” There are songs about Spock's ears and Luke Skywalker's land speeder. Please, that's not where we're going here.
We're talking about something with much broader popular appeal and far more meaning. A song – or better, a trend in music – that reorients popular thought to embrace a return to space exploration as part of the fulfillment of human potential and the human spirit; a return to the discovery, the adventure, the science, and the thrill of pursuing a higher purpose and creating a legacy for our time, one that enables a destiny for our species that will make our descendants remember us as the ones who decided to “Boldly go.”
So we're throwing-down the dusty old gauntlet of an Apollo lunar pressure suit. It's one that would have gone to the Moon, until the program was cut. Pick it up. Take the challenge. Feel the slumbering spirit inherent in it. Write a song that turns society's attention upward and outward to the shimmering lights in the night sky.
Write a song that looks beyond the equivocating and obstructionist politicians, one that rejects their perpetual fixation with campaign donations and their failure to do anything except for their mega-donors, even as they steal our future. Write a song that shows a better way.
Write a song that reaches the highest aspirations of the human spirit, a song that motivates us and helps us see ourselves and our destinies as a species of spacefarers whose limits are as boundless as the light of the distant stars.
Songs can help us decide to go meet our fellow inhabitants of the solar system, whoever or whatever they are. Music helped motivate a generation, not so long ago, to find and spend the money to go to the Moon. Songs can play the same role again to get us to explore Mars and our sun's other planets and their wildly exotic moons, some with liquid salt water oceans more vast and voluminous than our own.
You might be the one who writes the song that motivates the rest of us to stop wasting time, quit screwing around with our future, and go. And who knows? You may someday hear your song sung from the surface of the distant world that it's about. (When that happens, remember who inspired you.)
Let's light this candle.
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