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Awesome new NASA video: “The Pursuit of Light”

I’m fairly entranced by this just-released video, and I daresay you will be, too. Here’s a description of it, apparently issued by NASA themselves (although I’m unable to source it):

NASA dreams big science. The Space Shuttles may be gathering dust, but we’re not staying on Earth! In this awesome new short, NASA presents the Earth, the planets, the Sun, and the endless universe beyond. Come for the cool, stay for the music, take away a sense of wonder to share. It’s six minutes from Earth to forever, and you can see it here!

Maria Popova of Brain Pickings offers an on-target commentary:

NASA may have given us decades of cosmic awe, but the agency’s future and thus the future of space exploration are hanging by a thread. Neil deGrasse Tyson has argued that the only way to get NASA back on track is to get those to whom the president is accountable — the electorate, “we the people” — excited about space exploration again, and Pursuit of Light, a beautiful short film from NASA with original music by Moby, seeks to do exactly that. (“Pursuit of Light: NASA and Moby Capture the Magic of the Cosmos“)

Note that the (dazzling, beautiful, hypnotic) musical accompaniment isn’t just by Moby. The opening track is by the amazing Jami Sieber.

Video: “Outer Space” (with images from NASA’s Cassini and Voyager missions)

There’s something exquisite about this.

Creator: Sander van den Berg

Description: “The footage in this video is derived from image sequences from NASA’s Cassini and Voyager missions. I downloaden a large amount of raw images to create the video.”

Music: “That Home” by The Cinematic Orchestra

Science fiction, cultural myths, and the doubtful future of space flight

It appears we’re in the midst of a mini-explosion of reflection about the status of the science fictional dreams that, according to some observers and thinkers, fueled our 20th-century race into space. Basically, the space program in its original conception or incarnation — which in addition to its obvious nature as a geopolitically motivated Cold War phenomenon was truly a vision-driven effort to explore beyond our own planet and establish a future for us among the stars — is dead or dying. Commercial spaceflight a la Richard Branson may indeed have a booming future, but this is a far cry from what we originally, collectively envisioned. At the same time, and in a most interesting development, NASA is attempting to address the lack-of-vision problem directly by returning to its philosophical roots in visionary science fiction and forging a relationship with modern SF writers (see below).

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NASA says aliens may destroy earth over global warming. NASA says nothing of the kind.

Here’s a regrettable object lesson in the necessity of maintaining a properly skeptical attitude in today’s hype-prone mass media society, even in the face of the coolest headlines ever:

Word recently surfaced of a new report from NASA that sounds like something from a science fiction film. It started on August 18 in, of all places, the Guardian, with a story bearing the headline “Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilizations, say scientists“:

It may not rank as the most compelling reason to curb greenhouse gases, but reducing our emissions might just save humanity from a pre-emptive alien attack, scientists claim. Watching from afar, extraterrestrial beings might view changes in Earth’s atmosphere as symptomatic of a civilisation growing out of control — and take drastic action to keep us from becoming a more serious threat, the researchers explain. This highly speculative scenario is one of several described by a Nasa-affiliated scientist and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University that, while considered unlikely, they say could play out were humans and alien life to make contact at some point in the future.

Naturally, attention was drawn, and the story was soon picked up and parroted by Fox News, the International Business Times, CNET, and more.

Then Universe Today, a damnably level-headed space-and-astronomy-oriented website with a well-documented history of trying to kill all the fun (see their May 2008 article “No Doomsday in 2012” for the smoking gun), stepped in less than 24 hours later to put the kibosh on the party with “No, NASA is Not Predicting We’ll Be Destroyed by Aliens“:

There were some interesting, if not shocking headlines this week regarding a study supposedly put out by NASA, with the articles saying that aliens might come and destroy Earth because of our global warming problems…While the report is real, and one of the authors was a NASA intern, NASA in no way sponsored or endorsed the article, which was basically an enjoyable thought-experiment and was titled: “Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis.” (Available as pdf here.) By comparing the title of the paper to the splashy headlines, as you can imagine, most of the news articles don’t accurately describe the paper’s content and conclusions — over-blowing just a tad the part about alien invasions — and the headlines portray NASA as being behind the paper and the research. But NASA didn’t really have a thing to do with the very speculative, if not fun paper.

Universe Today also noted that one of the paper’s authors, Shawn Domagal-Goldman, the NASA intern in question, acted out of probable embarrassment by posting a statement to NASA’s PaleBlue blog to explain how the whole thing had gotten so out of hand. Even NASA itself ended up tweeting an acknowledgment of the situation.

Killjoys, all. To hell with reasonableness and moderation. I want sensationalism. Thankfully, the culture’s moving my way here in Tabloid USA (and also, obviously, in Tabloid UK).

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Mythic Vision: Its lack killed NASA, its recovery may save us all

MoonwalkI’ve been observing with great interest the flurry of recent articles, essays, and editorials about the original moon landing and subsequent implosion of the U.S. space program. By far the most fascinating and moving is the essay by Tom Wolfe that appeared in The New York Times two days ago.

Titled “One Giant Leap to Nowhere,” it presents Wolfe’s oh-so-lucid and impassioned diagnosis of what went wrong with the U.S. space program in the wake of the moon landing. Specifically, says Wolfe, “NASA had neglected to recruit a corps of philosophers.” He recalls the electrifying combination of existential fear and giddy excitement that characterized the space race between the U.S. and the Soviets, and points out that, unfortunately, all of this potential fodder for a truly enduring mythic vision was utterly expended on a kind of single combat-style approach to the idea and practical project of space travel. “From the moment the Soviets launched Sputnik I into orbit around the Earth in 1957,” he writes, “everybody from Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson on down looked upon the so-called space race as just one thing: a military contest,” an epic battle of virtuous us against evil them, with our respective heroes, the John Glenns etc., playing the roles of our warrior champions.

The result?

On the morning after [the moon landing], congressmen began to wonder about something that hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff — they didn’t use the actual term — really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable … how far-seeing … but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?

The tragedy of this realization and its concrete aftermath — the four-decade implosion and marginalization of NASA — is seen, says Wolfe, in the fact that there really was and is a powerful philosophical goal (what I prefer to call a mythic vision) that informs the idea of space travel. He says he heard it articulated beautifully by an elderly Werner von Braun in the 1970s, near the end of von Braun’s life:

[As paraphrased from memory by Wolfe:] Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.

But, Wolfe points out dryly, “NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.”

earth_riseHe closes with a really brilliant insight and assertion that touches not only on the U.S. space program’s critical need but on the critical need that our civilization as a whole faces right now, as we stagger through an epochal crisis:

What NASA needs now is the power of the Word. On Darwin’s tongue, the Word created a revolutionary and now well-nigh universal conception of the nature of human beings, or, rather, human beasts. On Freud’s tongue, the Word means that at this very moment there are probably several million orgasms occurring that would not have occurred had Freud never lived. Even the fact that he is proved to be a quack has not diminished the power of his Word.

July 20, 1969, was the moment NASA needed, more than anything else in this world, the Word. But that was something NASA’s engineers had no specifications for. At this moment, that remains the only solution to recovering NASA’s true destiny, which is, of course, to build that bridge to the stars.

“The power of the Word.” Maybe I’ll be forgiven for using this provocation to launch into a quote from Ray Bradbury, who has waxed eloquent and excitable about the mythic aspect of space travel many times in his multi-decade writing career.

In his short story “The Toynbee Convector,” Bradbury tells of a man who saves human civilization from its multiple crises, most especially a grave crisis of spirit, by faking a trip into the future and “bringing back” a story about the better world we will end up creating for ourselves. In a massive exercise in self-fulfilling prophecy — which was precisely the man’s point and plan — his story lifts the human race out of its despair and sparks an excited desire to begin working toward that better future.

Here’s how the old man justifies his grand deception:

I was raised in a time . . . when people had stopped believing in themselves. I saw that disbelief, the reason that no longer gave itself reasons to survive, and was moved, depressed and angered by it . . . . Everywhere was professional despair, intellectual ennui, political cynicism . . . . The impossibility of change was the vogue . . . . Bombarded by dark chaff and no bright seed, what sort of harvest was there for man in the latter part of the incredible twentieth century? Forgotten was the moon, forgotten the red landscapes of Mars, the great eye of Jupiter, the stunning rings of Saturn.

. . . . “Life has always been lying to ourselves . . . . [T]o gently lie and prove the lie true. To weave dreams and put brains and ideas and flesh and the truly real beneath the dreams. Everything, finally, is a promise. What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, wishing to be born.

Now that’s an instance, albeit a fictional one, of Wolfe’s “power of the Word.” But then, fiction is exactly what we’re talking about — isn’t it? — whenever we talk about the Word, the meaning-creating Logos.

Fiction-makers of the world, your time has come.

Andromeda island universe