18 February 2021

Time travel

Jennifer Trosper, 2004
Jennifer Trosper, 2021, at JPL during landing
Very first images from Perseverance

Space exploration is not for the impatient!

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people in the late boomer years held an average of 12.3 jobs in the 37-year period of the survey. Consider then the career of aerospace engineer Jennifer Trosper, who has worked on every NASA Mars rover project, from the first one, Pathfinder/Sojourner (launched 1996, landed 1997) to Mars 2020/Perseverance (launched last year, landed today).

As deputy project manager of NASA's Mars exploration program, her work on Perseverance is far from over. However, at today's post-arrival briefing, she pointed out that Perseverance's longest-term project, collecting and packaging samples for a Mars sample return mission (likely to be completed no earlier than 2031!), will be in the hands of a new generation.

I've mentioned before (2005; 20122014) that the my favorite form of reality television is live coverage of space exploration milestones -- such as this afternoon's arrival on Mars. Today's high-stakes mission, landing on the irregular surface of an ancient lake bed, seemed like an amazing risk to take with taxpayers' money, but to the unrestrained joy of all those scientists and engineers on camera, they succeeded. Of course it wasn't just our money hanging in the balance -- many of the people we saw in the television coverage of the landing had devoted years, even decades, to this effort.

It's interesting and sobering to line up space exploration chronology with my own life chronology. I remember the launches of Voyager 2 and Voyager 1 in August and September 1977 respectively; the news coverage at the time included fascinating details of the golden phonograph records attached to both spacecraft, addressed to any cohabitants of our universe who might catch and decode them in 40,000-plus years.

August 1977 ... that was the very month Judy and I met, joining our histories together. It really doesn't seem long ago at all, even if photos and videos from that era look strangely low-tech!

Judy told me about an incident in one of her business school classes, when her class was shown a film entitled The Second Battle of Britain. One of the students asked, "What was the first 'battle of Britain'?" I choose not to laugh at this student, who asked the question about forty years after that first Battle of Britain -- it was simply evidence that, at least among Americans, history seems to be a weak point in our education. I had the advantage (?) of being from a family that was totally formed by World War II.

I remembered this incident the other day as I was reading a thread on the Russian social network Vkontakte. In commenting on the official responses to Navalny-linked protests, someone said "It's 1937 all over again." Someone else protested that 1937 was not at all an appropriate comparison. Then another person chimed in: "What was so special about the year 1937?" An answer soon came: "You really don't know about the 'Great Terror'?"

Victory Day, Elektrostal, May 9, 2010
In the first years of our service in Russia, those among our students who knew about Joseph Stalin's purges seemed to have heard about them from their own grandparents. However, we also saw various attempts to rehabilitate Stalin himself. For example, every time we attended Victory Day events, there were at least a few participants holding up portraits of Stalin.

In any case, some young people would listen carefully to their grandparents, even as they might say (as I read on one social network thread), "Granny, stop telling those horror stories!" Of course, as the years go on, that living memory weakens.

Even so, more than a few people in the Russian Internet have noted that years 1937 and 2021 have coinciding calendars.

I just finished reading Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, better known for his novel The Queen's Gambit.

Mockingbird is a clear, sparely written dystopian novel about life in the 25th century. Robots rule, though the vast majority of those robots are so moronic that the only reason that they can rule is that humans have been rendered stupid by drugs, pornography, indoctrination, the prohibition of all social contact beyond "quick sex," and the wall-sized televisions that dominate their home lives.

The humans do not know that those drugs they're encouraged to take at any hint of anxiety contain anti-fertility chemicals, guaranteeing an eventual end to the human race. In the meantime, reading and writing are long-forgotten skills, until our modest hero-rebels, Mary Lou and Paul, decide to begin decoding the ancient remains of prior civilizations they've found in their terminally shabby New York City.

Robert Spofforth, the last remaining intelligent robot-ruler, is sick and tired of his eternal and unrewarding life, and utterly frustrated by being unable to catch more than fleeting dream-glimpses of the mostly scrubbed memories that came with his programming, which was based on neurological data downloaded from a real human being. His contact with Mary Lou and Paul gives him some new material to work with -- but I should stop there!

Just one more point. During his travels, Paul finds temporary refuge with a little community of separatist Christians who have succeeded in expelling robots from their midst, and whose church turns out to be an ancient Sears store. He finds rigidity and kindness in equal measure in these people. He finds that their Jesus does not exactly line up with the appealing figure that Paul has read about in the Bible. (He, although agnostic, has actually read this book, while they haven't.) It is fascinating to see how Tevis imagines 25th-century Christianity surviving, or not, among people who have been so damaged by the society they are attempting to resist.

Mockingbird was published in 1980. There's some of George Orwell in Tevis's writing, and a bit of Philip K. Dick, but his deadpan delivery has a charm of its own. His descriptions of the effects of television could reasonably be extended to the Internet, and the ever-available tranquilizing drugs and intoxicants of Mockingbird's world are also not exactly unrealistic projections. In the novel, Paul guesses that there had been some massive global catastrophes in the preceding centuries, but he doesn't know the details; humans had long since lost interest in keeping historical records.

In our own time, we face converging dangers of creeping fascism, environmental decline, and the prospect of new pandemics. (A few of us are also warning of the hazards supposedly inherent in artificial intelligence.) What role should the church play in keeping us aware, resilient, and resistant to the twin anti-human temptations of violence and escapism? Might we do better than Walter Tevis suggests?

Here's a link to Public Broadcasting's capture of today's streaming coverage of Perseverance's landing. (Here's a version of the link which takes you to the point where the spacecraft is about to meet the atmosphere of Mars.)

Two Quaker Web sites have refreshed their designs: the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative, and our own Camas Friends Church.

A statement to read and consider signing: Christians Against Christian Nationalism.

Also well worth our attention: a podcast in the Christianity Today series "Quick to Listen," How American Christianity Lost Credibility with the Global Church. Morgan Lee and Ted Olsen interview René Breuel, the Brazilian pastor of an evangelical church in Rome, Italy. Breuel manages to be both charitable and unsparing.

The video time machine takes us back to Buddy Guy in the year 1969.


Bill Samuel said...

I tried to sign the statement on Christian nationalism but was unable to because it requires answering a clergy question, and I reject the clergy/laity division and thus could not. It seems this statement is only for hierarchically oriented people in Christendom.

smith said...

Johan, what I know about history could fit into a thimble.. I could have been the person asking what Britain's first battle was. Hope you still respect me after this dastardly confession. lol. :P :P

The Tevis book sounds very much up my alley. Will check it out!! ty for the recommendation.

one more thing...I didn't know Buddy Guy played Led Zeppelin so well. haha

Johan Maurer said...

Smith, what I know about art and photography could fit into a thimble!