Rockets from Cassiopeia

“The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. … Recently, we’ve managed to wade a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting .” – Dr. Carl Sagn

Since Dr. Sagan said those words in the first episode of Cosmos over 30 years ago, we have not waded much farther from home. The Voyager probes are now about 100 AU from the Sun but humans themselves have still gone no farther than a high orbit on the far side of the moon. Several generations of children have dreamed of becoming astronauts, grown up, and moved on. Barely 500 people have been to space to date. If you really want to discourage a space enthusiast, mention that 2 generations have lived past healthy spacefaring age with the promise of being the first humans to Mars unfulfilled. I speak from experience. I remember seeing posters like this at Future Flight space camp in Hawaii. I  can see you running off to email your congressman to increase NASA funding right now.

Fortunately, most space enthusiasts are optimistic futurists like me. Think of a child that grows up today enamored of the sea, wanting to captain a tall sailing ship and head off over the horizon to undiscovered lands. At some point his parents will explain to him that there are no lands left to explore. The fun part is over. He missed his century by about 300 years. What some may characterize as lack of progress I see as opportunity for the generations of the 21st century to be a part of the new age of exploration.

The analogy between spaceflight and the great sea voyages of the 16th and 17th centuries is a bit tenuous. Columbus and Magellan didn’t exactly spend a lot of time sending out robotic precursor missions to the West Indies. Our age will develop more slowly. We have about 20 active interplanetary missions, with more planned. Some of them are on the way to distant exciting places like Jupiter and Pluto. If you pay attention, a lot of amazing things are going on. The people who can dream big and think far into the future are the ones that will teach humanity to swim. We can’t afford to litter the cosmic ocean with sunken ships like the Europeans did. Our age will be calm, collected, professional.

The slow outward push of humanity into the rest of the solar system may be so slow that each incremental step will not be all too amazing to the people alive at the time. The rapid flurry of activity that kicked off the Space Age may have spoiled us, for now. Someday we will find ourselves standing on Mars and everyone back home will be wondering why we’re not on Europa yet, and so on. The day will come when the solar system itself will seem ho-hum. Young children will no longer be promised Mars but will be promised Alpha Centauri.

When we cross that immense distance to the nearest star we will be finally sailing on Dr. Sagan’s ocean. Looking back towards home will make the idea of the Pale Blue Dot provincial. The Earth will be lost in the glare of Sol. And yet we will have barely brushed the vastness of the universe. A settler of Alpha Centauri could take a 20th century astronomy textbook with him and be perfectly at home in the night sky. Orion will gleam as ever, although perhaps not as a Winter constellation. Sirius will still shine bright blue. And if our settler wanted to gaze back toward the homeworld, he only has to seek out a familiar bright W in the sky. There off to the left, making Cassiopeia‘s W a longer zigzag, will be the shining light of Sol.

We can say that our first voyages will take our rockets from Cassiopeia to Centauras but those names will eventually become meaningless. Our descendants will come up with new names for their constellations. I believe that wherever they end up, the shape of Cassiopeia from Alpha Centauri will be remembered as a marker of humanity seeking its destiny.

“Across the sea of space, the stars are other suns.” – Dr. Carl Sagan

From Wikipedia

 

 

November 21, 2011 10:24 pm

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