Communion Of Dreams

Not “Because it’s there.”

George Mallory, the famous British mountain climber who may or may not have been the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest, supposedly responded when asked by a New York Times reporter “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with “Because it’s there”.  This, in the spirit of the day, was understood to mean that it was a challenge to be conquered, man triumphing over nature.

When I was young, I found this quote to be inspirational. Aspirational. It was, I thought, the perfect explanation for doing the seemingly impossible. For pushing boundaries. For climbing higher than anyone had ever climbed before. Perhaps all the way to the Moon. And maybe one day, to the stars.

Half a century later, I have learned the wisdom of having goals — or, perhaps more accurately, motivations — which make more sense over the long run. Because while “because it’s there” may lead to a temporary triumph, it is hardly enough over the long haul.  If you want something to be more than just a moment of glory, captured forever in the record books but limited to only being in the record books, then you need something much more pragmatic.

So I was delighted to read this today, from Phil Plait’s visit to Elon Musk’s SpaceX factory and the question of why go to Mars:

Musk didn’t hesitate. “Humans need to be a multi-planet species,” he replied.

And pretty much at that moment my thinking reorganized itself. He didn’t need to explain his reasoning; I agree with that statement, and I’ve written about it many times. Exploration has its own varied rewards… and a single global catastrophe could wipe us out. Space travel is a means to mitigate that, and setting up colonies elsewhere is a good bet. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of modern rocketry) said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”

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The overall atmosphere in the factory was one of working at a progressive company on an exciting project. Of course: They build rockets. But the feeling I couldn’t put my finger on before suddenly came into focus. The attitude of the people I saw wasn’t just a general pride, as strong as it was, on doing something cool. It was that they were doing something important. And again, not just important in some vague, general way, but critical and quite specific in its endgame: Making humans citizens of more than one world. A multi-planet species.

It’s easy to dismiss this statement, think of some snark as a way to minimize it and marginalize it as the thinking of a true believer. But—skeptic as I am—I’ve come to realize this is not minimal. It is not marginal. This is a real, tangible goal, one that is achievable. And SpaceX is making great strides toward achieving it.

That’s when I also realized that the initial question itself was ill-posed. It’s not why Elon Musk wants to get to Mars. It’s why he wants humanity to get there.


The Apollo Program was a phenomenal achievement. It was inspirational. Aspirational. But while it contributed many worthy technological advances, and led a whole generation of the best & brightest to go into science and engineering, there is a reason that there are still to this day only a dozen people who have ever walked on the Moon.

Musk’s goal is still visionary. And perhaps not pragmatic in the short term. But in the long term, species survival seems to be just about the most pragmatic goal humanity could have.


Jim Downey


Welcome to the paleo-future.

I grew up reading stuff like this:

R is for rocket.jpg

And even had a really cool metal rocket based on the images from Destination Moon which one of my relatives made and gave me. For the longest time those sleek rockets landing and taking off again (what NASA calls ‘Direct Ascent‘) defined what space travel meant, and I loved watching early launches which hinted at Things To Come.

Then space technology advanced, and I got a little older. Rockets were no longer cool. With all the wisdom and knowledge of a 14 year old, I dismissed the idea that anyone would want to use them for anything other than lobbing other things into orbit, and even at that they would be soon surpassed by more efficient and reusable shuttles and aerospace vehicles.

I’m glad not everyone was so easily distracted:

Welcome back to the future of my youth.


Jim Downey

More words.

Following up from Sunday

“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

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There was a very interesting discussion on the Diane Rehm show the other day with Stuart Firestein, who is the chairman of the Department of Biology at Columbia University as well as a professor of neuroscience. The whole thing is worth a listen, but in particular there were a couple of particular bits I wanted to share. Here’s the first:

So in your brain cells, one of the ways your brain cells communicate with each other is using a kind of electricity, bioelectricity or voltages. And we’re very good at recording electrical signals. I mean, your brain is also a chemical. Like the rest of your body it’s a kind of chemical plant. But part of the chemistry produces electrical responses.

And because our technology is very good at recording electrical responses we’ve spent the last 70 or 80 years looking at the electrical side of the brain and we’ve learned a lot but it steered us in very distinct directions, much — and we wound up ignoring much of the biochemical side of the brain as a result of it. And as it now turns out, seems to be a huge mistake in some of our ideas about learning and memory and how it works.

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I stared at the body, blinking in disbelief. We were in the shadow of the First Step, so the light was dull. The body lay about 10 metres from where I stood and was angled away from me. It jerked – a horrible movement, like a puppet being pulled savagely by its strings.

We had been on a well-organised and, so far, successful trail towards the summit of Everest, worrying only about ourselves. Now a stranger lay across our path, moaning. Lhakpa shouted down at me and waved me to move on, to follow him up onto the Step. I looked back at the raggedly jerking figure.

From here.

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From about halfway through Chapter 6 in Communion of Dreams:

“But smart how?”

Jon looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, there are lots of kinds of intelligence, and I’m not just talking about the reasoning/emotional/spatial/mechanical sorts of distinctions that we sometimes make. More fundamentally, how are they smart? Are they super-geniuses, able to easily figure out problems that stump us? Or maybe they’re very slow, but have been at this a very long time. Perhaps some sort of collective or racial intelligence, while each individual member of their species can barely put two and two together. There are a lot of different ways they can be intelligent.”

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(Warning – the page from which the following comes contains gruesome images and text.)

Above a certain altitude, no human can ever acclimatize. Known as the Death Zone, only on 14 mountains worldwide can one step beyond the 8000 meter mark and know that no amount of training or conditioning will ever allow you to spend more than 48 hours there. The oxygen level in the Death Zone is only one third of the sea level value, which in simple terms means the body will use up its store of oxygen faster than breathing can replenish it.

In such conditions, odd things happen to human physical and mental states. A National Geographic climber originally on Everest to document Brian Blessed’s (ultimately botched) attempt at summiting, described the unsettling hallucinogenic effects of running out of oxygen in the Death Zone. The insides of his tent seemed to rise above him, taking on cathedral-like dimensions, robbing him of all strength, clouding his judgement. Any stay in the Death Zone without supplementary oxygen is like being slowly choked, all the while having to perform one of the hardest physical feats imaginable.

It makes you stupid.

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Again, Stuart Firestein:

And in neuroscience, I can give you an example in the mid-1800s, phrenology. This idea that the bumps on your head, everybody has slightly different bumps on their head due to the shape of their skull. And you could tell something about a person’s personality by the bumps on their head. Now, we joke about it now. You can buy these phrenology busts in stores that show you where love is and where compassion is and where violence is and all that. It’s absolutely silly, but for 50 years it existed as a real science. And there are papers from learned scientists on it in the literature.

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Update at 12:10 p.m. ET. Dragon Has Docked:

Dragon has finished docking with the International Space Station. That makes SpaceX the first private company to dock a cargo spacecraft to the space station.

That happened at exactly 12:02 p.m. ET, according to NASA.

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“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

Last weekend four more people died attempting to summit Everest. Partly, this seems to have been due to the traffic on the mountain. Yeah, so many people are now attempting to climb the mountain that there are bottlenecks which occur, which can throw off calculations about how long a climb will take, how much supplemental oxygen is necessary, and whether weather will move in before climbers can reach safety.

In theory, everyone who attempts such a climb should know the odds. One in ten people who attempted the summit have died.

But we live in an age of accepted wonders. We think we’re smart enough to beat the odds.

Jim Downey

(PS: I hope to wrap up the third & final part of this set, get it posted this weekend.)


Last night I watched a movie made before I was born.  By coincidence, the timing was perfectly in sync with the news yesterday.

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Over a year ago, I wrote this, about Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace (one of the speakers at the Heinlein Centennial):

Yes, dependable reusable rockets is a critical first-step technology for getting into space. But as Greason says, he didn’t get interested in space because of chemical rockets – he got interested in chemical rockets because they could get him into space. For him, that has always been the goal, from the first time he read Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein when he was about 10. It is somewhat interesting to note that similar to the setting and plot of the book, XCOR Aerospace is based on the edge of a military test range, using leased government buildings…

Anyway. Greason looked at the different possible technologies which might hold promise for getting us off this rock, and held a fascinating session at the Centennial discussing those exotic technologies. Simply, he came to the same conclusion many other very intelligent people have come to: that conventional chemical rockets are the best first stage tech. Sure, many other possible options are there, once the demand is in place to make it financially viable to exploit space on a large enough scale. But before you build an ‘interstate highway’, you need to have enough traffic to warrant it. As he said several times in the course of the weekend, “you don’t build a bridge to only meet the needs of those who are swimming the river…but you don’t build a bridge where no one is swimming the river, either.”

And this, in a piece about Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets:

And there was a lot of thought early in the development of rocketry that such capability could be used for postal delivery. It doesn’t sound economically feasible at this point, but there’s nothing to say that it might not become an attractive transportation option for such firms as UPS or FedEx if dependable services were provided by a TGV Rockets or some other company. In his juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert A. Heinlein had his characters adapt a retired “mail rocket” for their own spacecraft, used to fly to the Moon.

I find this notion of private development of spaceflight more than a little exciting. When I wrote Communion of Dreams, I was operating under the old model – that the enterprise of getting into space in a big way was going to mandate large governmental involvement and coordination. I’m not going to rewrite the novel, but I am reworking my own thoughts and expectations – this is probably the single largest change for me from attending the Centennial.

Well, yesterday a Falcon 1 rocket from the Space X corporation made it to orbit.  From Phil Plait:

Congratulations to the team at Space X! At 16:26 Pacific time today (Sunday, September 28, 2008), their Falcon 1 rocket achieved orbit around the Earth, the first time a privately funded company has done such a feat with a liquid fuel rocket.

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As coincidence would have it, about the time the Space X rocket reached orbit I was watching Destination Moon, a movie I had added to my NetFlix queue after the Heinlein Centennial, and which just now had floated to the top.

What’s the big deal?  Well, Destination Moon was about the first successful private corporation launch, not to orbit, but as a manned mission to the Moon.

It’s not a great movie.  But it was fascinating to watch, an insight into those heady post-war years, into what people thought about space, and into the mind of Robert Heinlein, who was one of the writers and technical advisors on the film (with connections to two of his novels: Rocket Ship Galileo and The Man Who Sold the Moon).  Interesting to see the trouble they went to in order to explain what things would be like in space (no gravity, vacuum, how rockets would work, et cetera) because this was a full 8 years prior to the launch of Sputnik.  We’ve grown up with spaceflight as a fact, with knowing how things move and function – but all of this was unknown to the average viewer when the movie was made and released.  They did a surprisingly good job.  And the images provided Chesley Bonestell are still breath taking, after all these years.

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It may yet be a while before any private corporation wins the Google Lunar X Prize, let alone sends a team of astronauts there and gets them back, as was done in Destination Moon.  But it’ll happen.  When it looks like it will, I may need to schedule another viewing of the movie, and not just trust to coincidence.

Jim Downey