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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“WhatsApp isn't for parents”: how we contact all the different people in our lives

I wanted to find out how our digital hierarchies operate, so I asked people how they communicate with their family, friends, and colleagues. 

Recently, my family made an important decision. Too many conversations had petered out and decisions had been deferred because text messages had been going astray. Someone would end up calling someone else to talk for half an hour about how frustrating it was that they hadn’t replied to a question from three days ago, when all that was really required was a simple “Yes, see you there on Saturday”.

So, we became a WhatsApp-only family. It makes sense – we live on two different continents and travel quite a bit, and using the internet rather than cell service for sending text and pictures has already proved a lot more reliable. Still, though, when I need to tell my mum something and go to open the app, I can’t shake the feeling that it isn’t right. As far as I’m concerned, WhatsApp isn’t for parents; it’s for flatmates and groups of friends roughly the same age as me. It isn’t for your grandfather to pass on news of his latest Scrabble triumph.

This got me thinking – what is it about different methods of communication that make them feel appropriate to some people in our lives and not others? Why do I feel like text messages are inherently more “mum”, whereas Twitter DMs are really only for colleagues and creepy strangers? And does everyone have the same sense as I do? I’m a woman living in London in her late twenties and I work in the media: how does the hierarchy of digital communication methods look from other perspectives?

I designed a survey to try and find out. I asked respondents to select the means they use to communicate with people who occupy different roles in their lives, as well as for some basic personal information like where they live and how old they are.

I had hundreds of responses, from people of all ages and from all over the world (feedback came from places as far flung as Auckland, Puerto Rico and Kolkata). I think inevitably since I was promoting the survey via my own networks the respondents skewed to my own age group – 43 per cent were in the 22-30 bracket, but the second largest was 31-40 and the third was 51-60.

Nearly half of all respondents said that they would communicate with their mum and/or dad via phone call, while 47 per cent picked text message for siblings. The older the respondent, the more likely they were to pick phone call as the means of parental communication. Interestingly, for mums text messages came in a strong second (32 per cent), while with dads email and text tied on 24.7 per cent. The same goes for extended family – 44 per cent said they would call – but email came second on 35 per cent.

Facebook is the preferred means of communication for schoolfriends, at 52 per cent – something that was consistent across all age groups – whereas what I called “friends you’ve made as an adult” are mostly contacted via text message (56 per cent) or email (41 per cent). But there were some important distinctions made in the notes. One person commented: “When I have selected Facebook, I mean Facebook Messenger as a separate app on my phone and tablet rather than writing on their walls,” suggesting that there’s even greater nuance to how people are using the social network to stay in touch.

I’m unusual in using Twitter as a means of talking to colleagues, apparently: email came in at a whopping 70 per cent, followed distantly by text and phone call. Flat/housemates was a less conclusive spread, with 24 per cent using text messages, and 14 per cent apiece using WhatsApp and Facebook. Other messaging apps and systems that got frequently flagged for communicating with friends include: Telegram, Viber, Line, Instagram, Google Hangouts, iMessage and Skype chat. Interestingly, one person noted that “I haven't had a text from a person for months, now just a marketing channel for me”.

The majority of people still regard email as the most “official” means of digital communication, with twice as many people saying they would use it for their landlord as opposed to picking up the phone. And for the category I called “official, eg job application or complaint”, 92 per cent of respondents said they would use email.

Of course, there were lots of interactions that the survey couldn’t pick up – there were lots of comments of the kind that “I live with my mum and my partner, so it's mainly face to face”. What emerged as I was going through the data was that I am by no means alone in feeling that some methods of communication are more “appropriate” to people occupying particular roles in my life, but that we don’t agree on who goes with what.

There are myriad factors involved: when we first started using various apps and technologies; the age and tech literacy of both the person sending the message and the person receiving it; how we feel about privacy and security online; and much more besides. As technology has advanced, our means of communication have fragmented, and we’ve all gone in different directions. Somehow, it works.

That is, until my grandfather learns to use Snapchat – then all bets are off.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.