As you’ll likely be aware we recently had the launch of the iPhone 7. Now nearly ten years on from the original launch we’ve gone from a situation of genuine excitement, innovation and advancement in phone technology to tinkering at the edges with a slightly better camera, removing the headphone jack and stupidly expensive wireless earbuds, great.
This isn’t so much a dig at Apple though, what a hypocrite that would make me as I type this on my MacBook Pro, record interviews on my iPhone 6 and watch films via my iPad. For the last ten years I’ve genuinely been a fan of Apple products but the nature of how underwhelming this constant refinement, rather than the advancement of technology has got me thinking about how so far, the 21st century on a technological and societal level is full of fatigue.
At times it feels like we’ve maxed out the breakthroughs of the 20th Century and like children with too many toys, we have no idea what to do with them. One of my favourite family stories is how my Grandad woke my Dad up in the early hours of July 20th, 1969 to witness Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon. It’s hard for me to comprehend just how impactful that moment must have been for my Grandad who grew up without electricity and for my Dad at the young age of 10 to experience human history in the making like that. To go from horse and cart to a man on the moon in less than 50 years, what an incredible achievement for all of humanity.
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin making hisotry on the Moon, July 20th, 1969. Image Credit - NASA
The last man to land on the moon was Commander Eugene Cernan on December 7th, 1972; he has a great documentary about that by the way which is available here. Since that last manned mission to the moon, the spin-off technologies that followed the Apollo missions include everything from laptops to water purification, highway safety and even frozen food. Imagine how many decades it would have taken us to reach where we are today without the space race. Now I’m not saying we should ignite a cold war between super powers to get better smartphones, whilst the benefits of the space race technologically can never be understated, the toxic mix of politics, ego, and paranoia that motivated Apollo doesn’t need to be repeated.
If we take a look at this amazingly well laid out graph from The Guardian of UK spending in 2012, you’ll see a tiny little yellow blob that is spending on science and research (£5.61 Billion) on the right-hand side.
Breakdown of UK spending in 2012, Science & Research one of the small yellow blobs at a measly £5.61 Billion. Image Credit - The Guardian
By comparison, the budget spends for NASA in the early 60’s was between 3-4% of GDP; today it is at 0.5%. It actually blows my mind that we spend so little on something that is so important to the future of who we are as a species.
I can’t help but feel that this underspending has left us in the situation we are in today, a technological civilisation yes, but we’re bored, very bored. We have access to the world’s knowledge online but spend our time watching cat videos (ok, guilty), X Factor has brainwashed millions into the culture of short-termism and it appears on both sides of the pond we increasingly care less about facts than we do personality.
We need to take great strides forward, to push our boundaries, invent things that don’t exist yet and to do it in a fast paced manner. I’ve yet to witness “my Apollo moment” and don’t want to wake up one day when I’m old thinking we really didn’t achieve anything that would be worthy of putting into the history books. It doesn’t matter how many phones you launch, it will never impact the world the way Apollo did.
Now, we have the international space station, which has undoubtedly laid down the foundations of understanding for living in space long term, which will allow us to eventually get back to the Moon, Mars and beyond. But it’s that word eventually I don’t like, it always feels like there is a plan to put a human back on the Moon or Mars but we actually don’t really care, so we’ll just kick the can further down the road until people forget again.
Currently, NASA has plans to land humans on Mars by the 2030’s but as Tech Insider recently pointed out:
“To the critics' lament, plans get even more speculative in the 2030s. NASA wants to launch a crewed, round-trip mission to Mars aboard Orion — but that's about all the details the agency has confirmed so far.”
We also have the ambitious Mars One mission, which seeks to send humans on a one way colonizing trip to the red planet using Elon Musk’s Space X rocket. But with a flurry of criticisms from the scientific community about the viability of the mission, much remains to be seen if it is able to achieve its goal by 2027. Like the Paris Agreement on climate change that seeks to globally tackle the issue by 2020, it feels like we need a similar deal on human space exploration. To cement our progress in the coming years and not have a 44-year gap, as is currently the case since Eugene Cernan left his footprints on the Moon.
When I spoke to Dr. Matt Taylor who works on the fantastic Rosetta mission at the European Space Agency. I asked him about his journey into ESA and how that became possible; he explained how his parents pushed him into education, which led to university and eventually ESA. What was more striking was what Matt said afterwards, which was: (24:32 in the interview)
“This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of, if I was in school now, whether or not I would be able to go to university because I’m old enough for there to have been maintenance grants, where you didn’t have to pay fees, instead your local council would pay for your fees. I really would say, I’m not sure whether I would go to university now, so I wouldn’t have been able to do my job if I was 30 years younger”
Just imagine how many potential Dr. Matt Taylor’s we have lost through this shambles of a system and what that loss means for all of us. As someone who has been through the university system and now thousands in debt, I can tell you it’s bullshit. Free education was a reality for our parents and should have been for us, successive governments of all colours are to blame for this catastrophic failure but that doesn’t mean it should carry on this way. If my generation and future generations are to be put off university through sky-high debts or spend years wasting our time paying them off, where will we be in 20 – 30 years time? We’re sleepwalking into stagnation and need to change course.
One of my dreams I would like to see come true in my lifetime is to personally see the Earth from space and experience “The Overview Effect” but given a seat to space with Virgin Galactic requires the full price of US $250,000 to be paid as an upfront deposit that may not happen for quite some time…
The reason why this is a dream for me to see this, comes from reading the astronauts experience of the overview effect and how it changed them. There are many quotes you can read online but perhaps my favourite comes from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell:
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.'”
Earthrise from the Moon demonstrating "The Overview Effect" Image Credit - NASA
Imagine if we as a species pooled in the resources to make space travel a reality for everyone on the planet in 50 years, much like how airline travel is today. It would drastically change how we work, think, feel and our collective responsibility to each other as we improve life on Earth and further explore space.
In a time where we feel the state of the world today is getting increasingly worse, there seems to be a sense of defeatism about it, that these problems are simply too big, so let's just carry on as we are because there’s nothing we can do about it, well that’s bullshit too. If we change our priorities to focus on the benefits of human space travel, we have the capability to deliver everything from free energy to faster transport and even a cure for cancer. Perhaps though it’s discoveries we cannot conceive yet which make for the strongest case to push forward with human space travel, to discover transformative technologies that will benefit all of humanity and bring real positive change worldwide.
I write this merely as an observer of the world around me and an enthusiast of science and space travel. I often get “the look” when I bring this topic up at the dinner table as for some reason there is a taboo about talking about humanity’s future in space, like it’s in the realm of politics or religion, not to be talked about unless you’re an expert in the field. Well, guess what? That’s bullshit too, talking about going back to the Moon or a mission to Mars should be exciting and something we all want to be a part of in our own way. Now more than ever, we need a common goal, a purpose that binds us all, which brings optimism instead of defeatism across national boundaries. Let's not leave it to the experts just to be positive for us; we need to get behind them every step of the way, help fight their cause and step out of this fatigue. As ultimately we will all be the beneficiaries of any future discoveries to come, but only if they come.