Remember Neil Armstrong with space exploration that actually matters

Don't put someone on Mars just for the sake of it. Build a space elevator and democratise the final frontier.

On Saturday afternoon, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, died in Ohio of heart problems that came following bypass surgery. He was 82.

His death has struck home the failure of mankind to build on the legacy of exploration that his generation left us. Just 24 men have travelled beyond low Earth orbit, and just 12 have set foot on an extraterrestrial surface. Of those 12, eight remain, and none were born after 1935. Space travel is an old man's game, it seems.

Coming so soon after the success of the Mars Science Laboratory's mission – when NASA landed a nuclear-powered, laser-armed, one-tonne rover on the red planet – all eyes have naturally turned to the only other planet in the solar system which humans could realistically walk on. (Mercury and Venus would kill you in seconds, the gas giants are, well, gas, and Pluto is so cold oxygen freezes.)

Martin Robbins, for instance, writes in the Guardian:

Curiosity made us what we are: the instinct that makes us click an interesting link on Twitter is the same force that built our cities and hospitals and carried us on rocket ships to the moon. It may not be rational, but we didn't get where we are by being an entirely rational species – we did it by trying things, and failing pretty much most of the time. It's time for someone to step up and show us all that we still have that drive, that when we have the guts to unleash that curiosity – and the guts to fail – we can still achieve greatness. Neil Armstrong's death is a wake-up call, a challenge to our generation. We can go to Mars, and it doesn't need a miracle: we just need to decide to go.

But no matter how impressive the trip to the Moon was, we mustn't forget that it was as much a product of imperialistic showmanship as an urge for exploration. America went, not to indulge their, and our, curiosity, but to shove a big, lunar, stars and stripes in the face of the Russians.

That doesn't lessen the magnitude of the achievement, but it does put a question mark over the idea of repeating it.

We know we can put people on Mars. The technical aspects are tricky, but not much more so than putting an SUV-sized rover there. Almost more difficult are the social aspects; the crew would be in near-isolation for around two years, with only each other and low-bandwidth links to Earth for company. Probably best to keep sharp objects safely stowed away.

And there's not actually a huge amount of curiosity which would be sated. We've sent four science labs to Mars, of increasing complexity. We've got hi-def photography, 3D scenes, panoramas; we've got chemical analysis of the rocks, satellite pics of geographic features and left miles of wheel grooves from exploration. In short, we've got everything other than a photo of a person standing on the planet.

If we are to use the death of the old generation of explorers to spur on a revival in the idea for this generation, let's also learn from their mistakes. Don't follow a paradigm which results in 0.0000003 per cent of the planet making it out of orbit; create a new one, which lets this massive achievement change the lives of many, rather than a lucky (or foolhardy) few.

In short, we need to build a space elevator.

Forbes' Bruce Dorminey explains:

The basic concept involves carbon nanotube ribbon stretching from sea level to 100,000 km up; well beyond the altitude of geosynchronous orbit (35,800 km). Earth’s gravity at the lower end of the ribbon, and a counterweight and outward centripetal acceleration at the high end of the ribbon, would keep the elevator’s “cable” taut and stationary over a single, fixed ground-based position. Robotic climbers would ascend the ribbon to various earth orbits and potentially enable the launch of spacecraft to destinations throughout the solar system.

There are a few problems to overcome, the main one being that we don't yet have any material which is strong enough to stop the cable from snapping due to the stress. But if you had told someone in 1954, the year Sputnik began development, that by 1969 there would be two people on the moon, they would likely have had the same objections.

And a space elevator frees us from the wasteful excesses of space flight. You would no longer have to strap yourself to the top of a bomb to get out of the earth's gravity well (the carbon emissions alone ought to give pause for thought – each launch of the space shuttle produces 28 tons of CO2 just from the engines, equivalent to driving a car for just under five years. And that's not counting all the rest of the operations involved in running the space centre). The cost of getting things into low-earth orbit would plummet. And if you did still want to go to Mars, it's a heck of a lot easier to do so in a rocket which is already in space by the time it sets off.

If we want to remember the pioneers of the 20th century, lets not do so with vanity projects of dying empires, but with exploration which really makes a difference. Let's build a space elevator.

A concept of a space elevator. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.