Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I Want Teleportation Now

I was at Fry's with my kids the other day looking at cell phones, and i was amused at how much the typical cell phone looks like a Star Trek communicator (there must be a word for this phenomenon, where fiction anticipates the future while also influencing it). Then yesterday Slashdot linked to this WSJ piece entitled Requiem for the Future. The basic point of the piece is that the future we anticipated back at the time when we (old folks) were kids and men were walking on the moon never really came to be. We're not on Mars. Not only haven't we established bases on the moon, we haven't even been back.

The recent shuttle mission emphasized how little we've progressed in the last few decades. When i was a high-school senior (1982) i entered a contest called the Space Shuttle Student Involvement Project (you might remember stories about bees flying around in space, or plants growing in microgravity,etc.). I wrote a proposal to do diffusion experiments in space, and i won a trip to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama (Turns out that doing diffusion experiments in space wasn't a half bad idea. Several real scientists had already thought of it, and in fact done it. The biggest effect though was primarily due to lack of convection currents, which i knew nothing about). We got to visit several of the labs (including the one where they made the exploding bolts that hold the shuttle on the launch platform), and we met astronauts and mission specialists. It was cool. The shuttle was fairly new, and this was long before the Challenger disaster so we could still imagine the shuttle as being a sort of highly reliable space airplane that was the first step in making outer space a permanent outpost.

None of us at that event would have suspected that 23 years later the shuttle would still be the most sophisticated form of space travel, and that it would still have a lot of flaws to overcome. At that time our relatively brief lifetimes had seen the space program go from almost nothing, to manned space flight, to moon landings, to the shuttle. I'm sure that we all assumed that by the turn of the century we'd be on our way to Mars.

Of course we did see amazing technological progress in those years. That year (1982) just happened to be the year that the Arpanet became the Internet, and you can now buy commodity computer hardware that's as powerful as the supercomputers of that time. Cell phones didn't exist then (though you could get a car phone). As the WSJ article also points out there have been some interesting space missions in that time, especially to Mars (and of course, the Hubble). But nothing that feels like it came out of the science fiction of the past.

NASA gets blamed for this, for a lack of vision or something. But i don't think NASA is at fault so much as a general lack of enthusiasm for the idea of human space travel. Maybe as our perceived standard of living has leveled off and even dropped, the idea of spending money to go to the moon seems frivolous. Maybe there's a general malaise regarding technological progress in general.

But my personal crackpot theory is that computers and the Internet exposed us to the idea that outer space is not, as we previously thought, the final frontier. We can now imagine the prospect of virtual worlds that are not only different from ours, but limited only by our imaginations. Even science fiction changed (e.g., Gibson's Neuromancer and the whole cyberpunk thing, The Matrix). If our motivation for going into space was simply exploration (and not the technological challenge per se, or commercialization), then the virtual world offers as much without the danger and unpleasant space trips. Of course, the benefit of real outer space is that we could encounter things that we haven't yet imagined, but it's gonna be damned hard to get there. That's why we need teleportation, now.

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