peering at a basketball

James Cameron on exploration:
Space is a vacuum. There is, by definition, nothing there. When we talk about exploring space, we really mean exploring the objects careening around in space - planets, moons, the occasional comet. So space is a hurdle, an ocean that must be crossed to reach a destination. Unfortunately, for three-quarters of the space age it has been treated as a destination in and of itself.

The last time humans crossed space to a destination was the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. In the 32 years since, no man has seen, with his own eyes, Earth as that beautiful, solitary blue sphere, and - reality check - no woman has ever seen it at all. We've been only to low Earth orbit since 1972, and from that altitude of 220 miles, looking at the 7,900-mile-diameter Earth is like peering at a basketball with your cheek pressed against it. Yes, you'll see curvature, but you're not seeing the whole thing. We've spent 32 years "exploring space" in low Earth orbit. Exploring nothing. To stay in orbit you have to go 17,000 mph, or Mach 25. So we've spent three decades going nowhere fast.

Previously.

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82 Responses:

  1. eqe says:

    Thank you, I was despairing of finding sufficient slack for this lazy afternoon. Your efforts will not go unrewarded, young Skywalker.

  2. carus_erus says:

    I often quote: "Man has not walked on the moon in my lifetime".

    And unlike the rest of the LJ crowd, I'm 30.

    It's depressing (in more than one way...)

  3. "Yes, you'll see curvature, but you're not seeing the whole thing"

    At most you're going to see half.

  4. ex_sjc says:

    Since when was James Cameron allowed to make sense? Damnit.

  5. transgress says:

    i look forward to the discoveries made in space travel in my lifetime ;]

  6. nzchrisb says:

    So is he suggesting that we just blast off in the void never to return? Doesn't like like much fun or much use if you can't come back with anything.

  7. schnee says:

    Huh? There've been several un-manned missions, which, arguably, are just as much "exploration" as manned missions.

    • jwz says:

      And also arguably, you know, not at all.

        • jwz says:

          "Observation" and "exploration" are not the same thing. If you think a remote control camera is equivalent to having hands and brains on the ground, you're nuts. It's the difference between "doing" and "reading about."

          • schnee says:

            And? Exploring the moon (for example) is not about *feeling* the moon. It's about collecting data and samples, which is something that you don't need a human for.

            • jwz says:

              Right. It's about "collecting data." That's why we do this.

                • jwz says:

                  Do you consider yourself to have visited another country because you saw a show about it on TV or read the travel book? I guess that must be very economical for you.

                  Look up at the moon: "people stood there."

                  Look up at Mars: "people fired a camcorder at that."

                  If you find those equally compelling, then I feel sorry for you, because you have something deeply, profoundly broken inside.

                  (Besides being a furry, I mean.)

                  • schnee says:

                    That's not the same. If someone wants to go see mars, for example, that's fine with me, but if billions of tax dollars are spent on it, then I think it shouldn't be a frowned upon when someone asks why it's done.

                    Furthermore, if you're only doing it for the fascination, then I may have bad news for you: you're not going to be able to see much more than our own solar system, if even that.

                    Oh, and please, no ad hominem attacks, OK? I've always respected you (especially since I always liked xscreensaver and the Dali clock), but I'd hope that you don't lower yourself to that "your a furry so u suck" level.

                  • jwz says:

                    But you are a furry. How could I possibly be expected not to point and laugh you for that?

                  • schnee says:

                    Well... for the same reason that you're expected not to discriminate against gays, harass black people, spread lies and hate about jews and so on.

                  • jwz says:

                    Help, help! I'm being oppressed! Come see the violence inherent in the system!

                  • ammonoid says:

                    Sadly for you LJ has no killfile. No plonking zone.

                  • schnee says:

                    Yeah, but it allows me to a) take him off of my friends list and b) ban him from my journal.

                  • feren says:

                    OH NOES. You de-friended JWZ on LJ!

                    Is this the part where he falls down and grovels for your forgiveness?

                  • schnee says:

                    No. This is the part where the whole thing is over. He carries on with his intolerance, and I carry on with not having to put up with it anymore.

                  • batmite2000 says:

                    yay! :)

                    (non-discriminatory remark, you see, I was not here.)

                  • dagbrown says:

                    I wish someone (it doesn't even have to be a furry) would come onto my livejournal and plonk me. Just because I'd love to find out just what exactly (if anything) that entails.

                    I'm sure it would destroy my world.

                  • schnee says:

                    *shrugs* It's not meant to destroy his world or anything. FWIW, it's not meant to do anything to him at all - it's just meant to spare me his crap in the future.

                  • lherrera says:

                    Bloody peasant!

                  • spendocrat says:

                    Translation: You're basically right, but I'm a dick.

                  • pathogen says:

                    Oh, jesus. Please, I beg of you, try explaining to a black person or a Jew why you feel you are discriminated against and then report back to us with how many times they hit you and called you a dipshit.

                  • master_meio says:

                    You know you're in bad shape when a bunch of jwz's livejournal sycophants decide to mock you.

                    But really, dude... furries... ewww....

                  • schnee says:

                    Let me repeat what I said in the comment you replied to... fuck off. Troll.

                  • master_meio says:

                    Never thought I'd see the day, when some guy in a bunny suit unhooks his ball-gag so he can tell me to fuck off.

                  • schnee says:

                    Bunny suit?

                  • pathogen says:

                    Come on, don't get so defensive. Looking over your collection of LJ communities, you should be happy I didn't pick on you about your other depravations.

                  • pathogen says:

                    Well, your creepy, Buffalo Bill-style wearing of what I can only imagine are RealDoll heads, for starters. And there's the evidence from your userinfo that you invest *far* too much time and effort in Livejournal. And making communities for Livejournal.

                  • schnee says:

                    I'm not sure what you're referring to, but... well, I didn't quite expect a dipshit like you to make sense.

                  • pathogen says:

                    Man, you suck at this game. Also, nice response time. You're hovering over this thread hitting reload over and over, aren't you?

                  • schnee says:

                    Of course not - unlike you, I actually have a life, you pathetic little fuck.

                  • pathogen says:

                    Ooh! You're an ANRGY little squirrel, aren't you? I feel bad for you in this situation, seeing as I have so much ammo to use against you, while you apparently have only the most overused of flamewar retorts to lob against me. I mean, come on. I have to hit Page Down FIFTEEN TIMES on your LJ userinfo and *I'M* the one who has no life? You devote a section of it to interests you've REMOVED? You use MUDs?! What possible basis could you ever have for telling me that you have any sort of life outside of your degenerate fantasies of being a horny canine?!

                  • schnee says:

                    Why would I need to convince you I have a life? You're just a little piece of shit - the kind who got beaten up in highschool too much and now has a big mouth online because it's the only place were you don't have to fear getting the living daylights beaten out of you.

                    And at least I don't have a usericon with the ugliest face you could imagine edited into a teletubby.

                  • zapevaj says:

                    Hey man, that's my Governor's face you're talking about.

                    (No, really.)

                  • schnee says:

                    Well, it's still ugly. ^_~

                  • pathogen says:

                    Ahaha! Woo boy! At this rate, you're going to start calling me a Nazi and saying you can have me assassinated by your s00per intarweb hitman shortly. Buddy, I got a big mouth online because I'm a prick. As funny as it is that the only insults you can muster up are probably projections of thine own self, I do have to say, you are getting a seriously bad mark for effort in this. Regardless, you're right, you don't have to convince me of anything. I'm not looking for any justifications on your part. I was looking for some quick and dirty laughs, which you have supplied. Thanks for playing!

                  • schnee says:

                    Oh, yes, SUUURE...

  8. macguyver says:

    Now making Titanic, that was a feat.

  9. naelp says:

    The problem with human space exploration is that people are very fragile. A robot will happily subside on a small nuke plant for years and collect lots of data, while humans require an immense supply-train for even short trips.

    It is much, much easier to send a robot up with no need for things like "food" which take up a lot of room.

    • jwz says:

      This is true, however, speaking as someone who really digs robots (esp. robot masters) I have to say that robots are not A) clever or B) all that interesting. The point (my point, and that of the article) is that sending people to other places is just a fundamentally different exercise entirely than just knowing about other places. This drive to explore is something quintessentially human (or, at least, simian) and camcorders-with-wheels just don't scratch that itch.

      You can argue the economics or efficiency of it until you're blue, but the the simple fact remains that something that makes us us doesn't believe that it's real unless we've gone there. That's what makes it count.

      And, economically speaking, that's what gets it funding. Because motorized camcorders just aren't that interesting. Nobody except hardcore geeks give a shit. You send a robot, it's an appliance. You send a person, it's a hero. That's all the difference in the world.

      • naelp says:

        The chance of anyone personally going there is next to zero. Is it that important that one person who you'll probably never meet goes there?

        Exploration for exploration's sake doesn't work very well either. There needs to be a reason for exploration for it to succeed. The New World got discovered because Columbus was trying to get to China and make lots of money, not to explore. What is there in space that will motivate travel? There is no far off Cathay to get rich from.

        • gregv says:

          What is there in space that will motivate travel?

          Tourism. Because people really do want to go into space just to go into space. I kept reading about how these big companies were seriously considering/planning for some kind of orbiting hotel of some sort. It would be hideously expensive, but whoever has the money would want to go.

          I think robots will always be the leading edge, and humans will follow eventually. We do need the camcorders with wheels to learn about the conditions before we can ever send people there. And as it is much more economical, robots will get there first anyway. But people will always follow in part because we want to go (most of us, anyway) and because we need people to react to things as they come up, things that the robots may not have been designed for. You may discover something and want to do a completely new experiment to build on that.

        • gregv says:

          What is there in space that will motivate travel?

          Also, business that simply support further space travel, like when they were talking about putting some mining operation on the moon for whatever buried hydrogen was there, thus giving you the ability to make fuel on the moon, thus making further space travel cheaper because you have a refueling station of sorts. Why go to the gold rush and maybe get rich when you can sell all the equipment for the gold rush?

          • naelp says:

            This analogy fails because in space there is no reason to go in the first place. People went to California to get rich, not to explore. The fact that very few actually made any money is irrelevent, they went there because of the possibility.

            If no is going, there is no way to sell equipment to. Until something big is discovered, manned travel will never have enough backing to actually pay for its expense.

            • gregv says:

              Except, regardless of whether you think there is a reason to go, people are going, and spending vast quantities of money to do so. And this is almost certainly going to increase with time. There is the opportunity for people to capitalize on this, and if they make it cheaper in the process, they're just broadening the group of people they can sell to.

        • benediktus says:

          sorry to be a smartass, but columbus didn't discover amerika. actually it was leif erikson in 1001 or so.
          thank you for your participation.

          • jwz says:

            And someone else "discovered" it between 11,000 and 50,000 years before him.

            Despite your claim, I do not believe that you are sorry for being a smartass.

            • benediktus says:

              got me. you're right! but too, this "irregularity" has been erased from most history books by the great white male. most people don't know and don't even care. and i'm suppose to say, that i'm definitly the wrong person to do "american history 101".

              "extreme smartassing" is a sport out here, hmm?

              • ultranurd says:

                You know we have Leif Erikson Day now, right? Dubya proclaimed it this year, under the authority of a law signed by LBJ in 1964.

                The roughly 12.5% Swede in me regrets my failure to pass our drunk in a sauna on October 9th.

        • spendocrat says:

          I don't know anyone who's been to the moon. But every time I look at it through a telescope I think to myself "People have walked on that thing, holy shit is that cool."

      • flipzagging says:

        I've had this argument before with my geekier friends and it goes in circles.

        You're asserting that when we send people, we cross the boundary between mere knowledge and true experience. Maybe, but only for that one astronaut. I won't go, and you won't either. To get a similar "experience" for 99.99999% of the human race, you might as well send cameras. Maybe there is some communal benefit to everyone knowing they could go -- I could agree with that -- but it's minor.

        If I were President, yeah, I'd be going full steam ahead on science. On all fronts. But I wouldn't give space science any particular priority. I don't think we have the technology or energy reserves to properly explore space, right now anyway. Whatever's on Mars or Titan is going to wait another hundred years.

        I don't want to set earth sciences against space science, but I just don't like the claim that exploring dead rocks are somehow way more important than the living biosphere. There's intelligent life, that we don't understand, swimming just off the coast! They even recognize us as fellow intelligent beings, across the species gap. Do you think Europa's got anything more interesting than that?

  10. zapevaj says:

    Since when was James Cameron allowed to snark at NASA for a damn thing? He's used piles of cash and almost three decades, just like NASA, but at least NASA can throw something into space. Cameron can't even make a decent movie.

    • jwz says:

      Oh, come on. Well first, just because you don't like his movies doesn't mean he's wrong. But besides that: I thought Titanic was mediocre, but with the exception of the clearly-to-pay-the-bills Rambo 2*, I've enjoyed everything he's written/directed.

      * I have not seen "Piranha 2: The Spawning".

      • zapevaj says:

        I never said he was wrong; the exploration vs. data-collecting thing is an interesting point. But the snarky comment about "we have spent three decades going nowhere" is stupid. It just sounds like "Ooooh, I took several relatively brief trips into a nearby known environment. Lookit me, the deep-sea -explorer-! And silly NASA can't even put a man on Mars."

        Also, enjoyable != good, though they may sometimes overlap. For example, Robocop (Verhoeven, but it's a good example) is enjoyable, but god-awful. Titanic was a great big pile of "goddammit we don't have enough women in our market, bring me some STAT". No, NASA has not put a man on the Moon for 30+ years, but Cameron hasn't put out a good movie in almost 20.

        I have to give him credit for Aliens and writing Strange Days, though. Hm.

        • fantasygoat says:

          C'mon, Robocop was fucking awesome because the whole point of it was to mock that type of movie. That subtle difference was hard to see for most people, making it that much more effective.

          So you got ass-kicking and a message. I don't see the problem here.

          • pathogen says:

            That's funny, I didn't think the Robotic Superhero Police Officer Battles Giant Battlemechs And Evil Megacorporations genre was big enough to warrant lampooning.

            anyway, Verhoeven wasn't making a movie to make fun of sci fi. He was making a sci fi movie and indulging in his own penchant for self-mockery and social satire.

        • zonereyrie says:

          Cameron has been putting his money where his mouth is, pouring a lot of his money into funding the development of undersea camera systems, ROVs, etc. His documentaries on Titanic and Bismarck are stunningly beautiful, but beyond that the technology he's helped develop and mature is useful for general exploration.

          As for NASA, I grew up as a space nut, but at this point I think NASA has lost their leadership position. The development path is littered with half-finished projects that were abandonned before they could be matured - the X-30/National Aerospace Plane, the DC-X Delta Clipper, the X-33 Venture Star, etc. Hell, even less ambitious projects like the Crew Return Vehicle for the ISS, which wasn't even a technical challenge, were killed.

          Now we have Project Constellation, which is back to a gumdrop on a stick design. It utterly fails to inspire me. It is like a kid with a set of Apollo Legos and STS Legos kit-bashed a new design by mixing the pieces. There will be almost no new development for the new vehicles.

          Ares I is a 5-segment STS booster with a second stage based on the STS external tank, using an Apollo-derived J2X engine. (At least the X-33 is paying some benefits, the J2X evolved from the Apollo J2S by way of work on the X-33s linear aerospike engine.)

          Ares V is basically an STS external tank with 5 Delta IV RS-68 engines stuck on the bottom, and STS boosters. (At least we'll have a Saturn V-class lift vehicle again.)

          Orion is an enlarged Apollo capsule, basically. The service module engine is an OMS engine off the shuttle

          The new, proposed lunar lander is at least pretty much all new, looking nothing like the Apollo design and much larger.

          Meanwhile, companies like SpaceX and RocketPlane Kistler are making progress on a new generation of manned launch vehicles, and Bigelow's inflatable TransHab development is going very well.

          I can't lay all, or even most, of the blame at NASA's feet. Congress just isn't interested in funding development efforts, and at the first sign of trouble they panic and kill projects. If the political leadership in the 60s had acted the same way, Apollo would've been over with the Apollo 1 fire. I have a dark hope that China's growing space program might trigger a new 'space race'.

  11. greatbiggary says:

    Wait, did he write this before or after last week's maiden voyage of the Space Elevator Ribbon Robot? If that isn't "exploring space" enough for him, then maybe NASA should just put its foot down and stop trying. I think he's just refusing to be impressed.

    Speaking of vacuums...

  12. triggur says:

    Heyo. I wrote a shortshort story about something similar a while back (I'm the robodump guy, btw).

    Here.

  13. triggur says:

    In general, I'm a huge fan of space exploration. But I really have a problem with how NASA is spent its assloads of cash.

    How many times can you send mice and chickpea seeds into orbit and still legitimately claim that you're doing "important research?" They habitually tout the goals of impressive new alloys and space-manufactured wonder drugs, but they've said that for decades. What have they honestly learned with all that fiddling around?

    How many times do we have to have video teleconferences from space to kindergarten classrooms filled with kids asking over and over what it's like in space? Sure, it's great to get kids interested in exploration, but it's ultimately unimpressive to them when they realize we're not accomplishing anything up there.

    NASA is squandering its resource doing basically nothing but PR to get it more budget so it can do more PR. They're chasing their tails.

    And then there's this insanity with sending people to Mars. We continue to barely have the technology to send people to the moon, let alone any kind of extended mission anywhere.

    We're trying to run before we can walk. We really really need to plow said assloads of cash into terrestrial research, research in materials and propulsion and all the touchy details behind making it feasible to safely get anywhere interesting.

    Or, instead, we can anxiously wait for our next space video teleconference. I hear the astronaut's going to do something entertaining with eating floating food.

  14. strspn says:

    Whether we have an instinctual drive to do it or not, it seems pointless to explore places we don't want to go. How about spending most of it on the Terrestrial Planet Finder until we have a short list of a dozen or so places and then work on generation starships?

  15. ahruman says:

    Since you linked back to this... 17,000 mph in space is not Mach 5, dammit. It's not Mach anything.

  16. cessibaby says:

    is he in some 1950s timewarp or something. lots of women have "seen it." hell they've built it, rocked it, commanded it. more than even this link gives credit to. so f off James.
    http://womenshistory.about.com/od/aviationspace/a/timeline_space.htm

    • jwz says:

      No woman has ever been past LEO, and no man has since 1972. He's talking about the view from far enough away that you can see the whole sphere.

  17. 205guy says:

    I'll settle for some freeze dried ice cream and some brand new desktop images (in assorted trendy "colors") any day:

    http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/data/realtime-images.html

    Would be cool to animate those over the past X images, kinda like the weather radar on the evening news.