Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Buzz Aldrin & I

On June 10th of 2009 I saw a conversation between Buzz Aldrin, the famous astronaut, and Ernie Manouse, a local Houston journalist and broadcaster, at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. On June 20th it was to be the forty year anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Forty years since humans first touched down on a heavenly body other than Earth.

“Hopefully the wait will not be too long to have Mr. Aldrin sign my book. There are all sorts of people here. Half of them, like myself, are too young to have actual memories of the moon landing in 1969. There are myriad nerd chicks all over the whole theater. It does the heart good to see so many ladies into space exploration.

I wish I could go to outer space and go to the Moon. If I was on the Moon I would find an out of the way place with a lot of lunar soil and I would draw an angry picture in the soil for other explorers to find later! I would love to volunteer as an artist to meet any aliens we run across and have them share their species' art with me, so I could them talk about it to my fellow Earthlings.

There are so many people here that the ushers are seating them in the aisles, on the stairs. They are soon to start. We are so far underground in this auditorium that the cellphone reception is non-existent. They project images which will likely be included in the actual exhibition.
The conversation Between Buzz and Ernie goes well. Buzz is very funny and talks honestly about his feelings towards the current space program. I learn a lot and before I know it the talk is concluded. Now came the hard part.

I go out of the theater and head to the main level of the museum. It is there that the staff have set up Buzz to sign copies of his book. Seeing how long the line was made me think that nearly as many people waited in line during the talk as went to the actual talk in the auditorium. It was a long wait, and by the time I got up there Buzz was pooped. The man is in his 80's and it was getting late in an already long day.

I handed him my book and told him it was an honor to have met him and heard him speak. He may have heard me and he may not but either way I had gotten close to one of only a small handful of humans ever to set foot on another celestial body. I wish I had a weekend to hang with him so I could ply him with question after question. He would probably grow sick of me asking stuff but what an opportunity that would be!

Looking back I saw that Mr. Aldrin was going to still be signing books an hour or more into the night. I headed outside with my signed book, and looked up at the sky. It was like meeting Magellan, or Marco Polo. I got to listen to one of the greatest explorers in human history first hand. Quite a fun night.


Now, how do I get on one of the new flights to the Moon? I think that sending a trained artist to outer space would be such an amazing thing. The images created by an artist would add so much to our understanding of what it really is like to be there. Photography does not do the experience justice. Maybe I should petition the government to create an astronaut-artist position!



It's a Parade Of Weirdos Out There

What if our Earth is the only planet out of the trillions of possible planets that could exist that has managed to beat the infinitesimal odds and created life, a new form of matter that has the ability to understand and alter itself and everything around it? If every variable that could possibly have affected the path to life is accounted for, then the likelihood of the occurrence of life on this planet is near impossibility.

Just because we find life here on Earth does not mean we are likely to find life anywhere else in the galaxy because, for the most part, the Earth is a closed system. Comets, asteroids, and other such features of our solar system can definitely strike, and therefore interact with, the Earth. They have been doing so for the entire existence of the Earth. They as well as the myriad influences the Sun exerts upon our planet are part of the whole package. In a sense it is our solar system that is closed.

How do you get people to think about this? How do you get people to understand how deeply fragile it all is, to truly accept it? And, by that token, how do you make people understand the near infinite level of responsibility that we humans, with an unprecedented capacity to affect and understand ourselves and our universe, have for the care, maintenance, survival, and dissemination of life through our universe?

By the latest estimates, the visible universe is somewhere around 14.5 billion years old. For all we know this could be a very young age for an Universe. It has taken that long, that massive an expanse of time, for one of the trillion planets to create lifeforms capable of spreading Life not only across planets but across solar systems, through the galaxy, and maybe in the far future, across the sickeningly vast abyss between galaxies themselves.

The universe as we know it could last another 14 billion years, or it could last 100 trillion years. Unimaginable expanses of time. We humans can barely wrap our minds around the concept of a “lifetime's” worth of time (averaging between 60-90 years) Beyond mathematics, the age of our Universe and it's possible lifetime may as well be infinite.

What could life become if we help it to populate the cosmos? Life is as cruel as it is beautiful. It is as joyous as it is meaningless. Spreading life means spreading death. This would be no different than having children. When we procreate we do not know what the future holds for our offspring, but we do know it will hold it's fair share of pain as well as joy. This does not keep us from birthing a new generation. The same should apply to spreading life through the galaxy.
Humans are the first and so far only species on the Earth capable of analyzing and altering the world around us in endlessly new ways. Other animals change their environment, beavers, bees, elephants, but they do so as a result of just a few instinctive urges, and do not do so solely to see what happens, like humans often do. We can not only imagine change, we can effectively cause change.

The spread of life would be done through microorganisms. Humans find hardy single-celled organisms that live where no oxygen exists, where no sunlight reaches, where there is no available food. These organisms would be prime candidates for the spread of life. If an array of craft were launched from Earth, each containing mechanisms which would allow for the dispersal of their contents when they have reached a far away planet, we could germinate the cosmos. We could send a batch of heat-resistant, sulfur-digesting bacteria to Mercury for instance, or a batch of algae that lives in deep dark ice to Neptune. We could try to match the bacteria to a planet whose composition most suits it.

The rub is that it took over 3 million years of microbial life to develop complex multi-cellular life on Earth. It will likely take just as long or longer for life to develop complexity on these new outposts. In fact, life may never develop beyond the single-celled stage, but so what? What a triumph it would be to seed any type of life anywhere. The Earth is at any time one stray comet away from mass extinction. If an event is big enough Life itself may only survive in single-celled organisms here on Earth. We must guarantee that life as we know it continues.

There are many people who suppose that life on Earth came across the wastes of space aboard comets or asteroids during the early Earth's near-constant bombardment. Others suggest that perhaps some other ancient and powerful civilization put life here on Earth, seeding it as I suggest seeding other planets. To this day there is no acceptable explanation for why the first DNA molecule came into being. We have been able to recreate the conditions in the early Earth and all we can create are amino acids. These are the building blocks of DNA but to get to the helical complexity of the DNA molecule from the far simpler hydrocarbons known as amino acids is a quantum leap we do not yet understand.

For all of our interplanetary exploration, we have barely scratched the surface. The likelihood exists that we will find microbial life in our Solar System. If this turns out to be the case then we can compare that life to our Earth life and see whether we are fruits of the widespread nature of life in the Universe, or, if our DNA was tampered with somehow. The tough part will be in convincing those in charge of discovering such things to share them with the rest of the population.

Our Milky Way galaxy is estimated to be around one hundred thousand light years across. That is an average size for a galaxy, as far as we have been able to determine. This average sized galaxy is composed of billions of individual stars, with thousands being “born” every day. The immensity of our galaxy is nearly incomprehensible. To think that there are billions of galaxies of all types out there in the vastness of space just boggles the mind. It truly is a limitless fountain of possibility.