If you’ve ever seen any of the retro-futuristic imagery of the coming space age from the 1950’s, chances are you’ve seen one or more works from legendary space artist Chesley Bonestell. It was Bonestell’s knack for sci-fi realism that gave life to the space-faring visions of Dr. Wernher von Braun and others in the pages of Collier’s magazine in the mid-1950’s. That series of issues and articles “took America by storm … the country turned space-happy” as “Bonestell’s paintings appeared in settings ranging from commercial advertisements to television programs to school lunch boxed.”
NASA is out to prove that its best days aren’t behind it. To do that, it plans to return to the scene of its crowning achievement — the surface of the moon — but in half the time it took before: a five-year plan to land by 2024. Of course, as this Smithsonian Air & Space article makes plain, this isn’t the first time a Presidential administration has tried to rerun President Kennedy’s play by publicly announcing a lunar landing goal. Nor is it the second: both President Bush’s did the same, but the plans never panned out because the budgets and political commitment never materialized. Will this time be different?
And no, I’m not commenting on the goat rodeo show that both parties are putting on in Washington right now. I refer to the political missteps of NASA’s Administrator, Jim Bridenstine. Yes, the Apollo Program was proverbial born out of JFK’s audacious speech before Congress on May 25, 1961, announcing the goal going to the moon and back by the end of the decade. But what actually got Apollo off the ground and to the moon was the skilled political work of NASA’s Administrator at the time, James Webb. Webb was a master at maintaining Congressional support and shepherding NASA’s budget over the course of years, even through the tragedy of Apollo 1. Going to the moon is a political project as much as a technical one, and NASA won’t be going there if it doesn’t figure out how to avoid needlessly fumbling the support of Congress.
This is a fantastic example of how the development of technology can spur unexpected science to become possible in arenas totally disconnected to the domain of the technology in the first place. The proliferation of high-quality digital video recording capabilities via smartphones was not pursued as a way to unlock scientific understanding of things like the dynamics of tsunamis caused by earthquakes vs those caused by undersea volcanic eruptions. And yet, that’s exactly what has happened as a result of so much of the world now being equipped (and socialized) to take photos of everything and share them online. Amateur videos of recent tsunames (some of the worst on record) have enabled researchers to calculate wave velocities, trajectories, build patterns, etc in such a way that effective, life-saving pre-warning systems are now possible.
aka how the internet’s perverse social incentives and incredible scale are an escalator into the hell of duplicity, cynicism, and nihilism that are the hallmarks of what social scientists term “low-trust societies.”