Pie in the Sky? Maybe Not

By Ricardo L. Garcia

The Mars Rovers present Earth-bound audiences with an awesome view of  frozen rocky plains under a bizarre pink sky….

An ungainly assembly of instruments and photographic cameras, hurtling across the gulfs of space beyond the frontiers of the Solar System at 470 million kilometers a year after decades of exploration, carries mankind’s greetings to whatever other intelligent beings might be sharing the Universe with us….

Smiling men and women do cartwheels, float in mid-air, and wave hello from their perch 200 miles above the ground….

The scene may vary. But the question for many people, alas, is essentially the same. “Uh—this is all quite impressive, I’ll grant you that. But couldn’t we spend the money on some really pressing problem? Like, say, finding a cancer cure?”

Or saving the whales. Or stamping out terrorism. Or reversing the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Take your pick—the list goes on and on.

In a world hard to reconcile with Leibnitz’s cheerful verdict, the question is certainly a valid one, if often a wrong one. Indeed, the problem with this question is, it does contain a kernel of truth—along with a totally unwarranted assumption.

And now, before eyebrows begin to rise in some circles, may I suggest trying a little thought experiment, in the best Einsteinian tradition. (In addition to helping clarify the problem, it will have the added bonus of not coming anywhere near the taxpayers’ real money, which I suspect is at the bottom of the whole business.)

Let us imagine for a moment that we can dispose freely of all those trillions of dollars in the U.S. federal budget for our purposes, no questions asked. As this is, alas, just a mental experiment, we could throw in another couple national budgets, say those of China and Germany, to have some pocket change just in case. (We promise to give it all back as soon as we’re done…).

As the final step, all funds so gathered will be allocated to an account in a Vinci, Italy, bank, in the name of a certain Leonardo. And then we sit back and wait.

And wait. And wait. As the years pass, expectation gradually evolves into suspicion, and then into disappointment. Even allowing for a weekend or two off to fool around with painting and sculpting, there seems something wrong with this guy Leonardo…C’mon, for all the funding he’s got, he should be giving the finishing touches to his airplane by now!! Or at least that helicopter he’s been babbling about for years. The man is an engineering genius, isn’t he?

I suspect that long before reaching this point, though, you will have guessed the truth—all the science of the Renaissance was simply not enough to solve the problems involved in powered flight, the kind that has to do with airplanes. Or even lighter-than-air flight as in balloons, for that matter. What is more, at that moment in history, in some basic areas nobody had the vaguest idea how those problems could be even approached. (The study of bird flight is about as good a guide to developing aviation as the study of elephant cries is to inventing the telephone.)

What was missing, clearly, was fundamental knowledge—the kind of knowledge potentially leading to major breakthroughs in technology. Until that knowledge could be patiently gathered and systematized, no working airplane could be had.  As luck would have it, it took us nearly four more centuries to get there, and it is a sobering thought that it could easily have taken us a trifle longer than that, under only slightly different circumstances.

Which bring us to another important factor. For a decent sum of fundamental knowledge to  build up to a point where it can be put to use in technology, or medicine, say, there has to be a sizable number of minds working simultaneously on a given problem  for enough time to come up with the goods.

To be continued

Ricardo L. Garcia

Ringraziamo Ricardo L. Garcia per averci inviato il suo articolo. Domani la seconda e ultima parte. Ci scusiamo per tutti i lettori che non conoscono l’inglese.

Informazioni su Umberto Genovese

Autodidatta in tutto - o quasi, e curioso di tutto - o quasi. L'astronomia è una delle sue più grandi passioni. Purtroppo una malattia invalidante che lo ha colpito da adulto limita i suoi propositi ma non frena il suo spirito e la sua curiosità. Ha creato il Blog Il Poliedrico nel 2010 e successivamente il Progetto Drake (un polo di aggregazione di informazioni, articoli e link sulla celebre equazione di Frank Drake e proposto al l 4° Congresso IAA (International Academy of Astronautics) “Cercando tracce di vita nell’Universo” (2012, San Marino)) e collabora saltuariamente con varie riviste di astronomia. Definisce sé stesso "Cercatore".
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4 risposte a Pie in the Sky? Maybe Not

  1. FABIO SAU dice:

    Wernher Von Braun took us on the Moon. Nobody else.

    As usual, nobody mentions the man behind the entire American manned space program in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

    Unfortunately LBJ shut the Saturn V production lines down in 1966…!

    • Ricardo L. Garcia dice:

      The decision to stop the production of Saturns and shut down the Moon program was made during the Nixon administration, long after Johnson had left the White House. As of December 1, 1966, there were still doing the initial static firing test of the first flight version of the second stage of Saturn V, at Marshall Space Fight Center.. . No Saturns had even been tested in flight; the initial contract called for the building of at least 15 of them. Nobody knew how many flights it'd take to land on the Moon–mission planning was fluid right up to the last moment.
      Von Braun, of course, is rightly credited as the engineering genius that drove the US space program. But he also builds on the legacy of others–Tsiolkovky first proposed rockets as the way to move in outer space (he also hit on the idea of using liquid hidrogen and oxygen as propellants, as developed later in Apollo 12). Goddard independently in the 1910s settled on the rocket as the way to go, and advanced the idea of LIQUID propellants, testing the first liquid fuel rocket in 1926. Matter of fact, the German V-2 was a souped-up version of Goddard's 1926 rocket, s acknowledged by Von Braun himself. The theoretical calculations for a moon flight had been done earlier by a number of people, among them the British Interplanetary Society.
      Von Braun was the driving force, of course, but without JFK's historic decision and LBJ's staunch support of the Moon program to the last moment of his presidency, we'd never had a Moon landing.

  2. Ricardo L. Garcia dice:

    Grazie di cuore a te, cara Sabrina, per tutto.