I don’t remember the first moon landing. I wasn’t quite five. Also I was asleep. Never have quite forgiven my parents for that… But as I grew, going to the moon was something people just did. Apollo 13 I do recall; I drew pictures of a lunar command module (you knew the names of the parts of rockets) with pieces flying off. Space travel was normal – and it had only just begun.
That impression lingered for long after, with Skylab and then the Skylab-Soyuz hookup, and – after what seemed like an interminable wait – the Space Shuttle finally flying. Surely the Shuttle was a step towards Mars and beyond.
In all, we were well into the 80s before it sank in. The great age of planetary exploration had ended years before. I’d thought the future was going to be incredibly exciting. It turned out I’d been born into someone else’s exciting future, already almost over when I arrived. That’s why the 80s were such unremitting crap I guess. A decade without a future, caught between lost hope and the still undiscovered.
As it turned out, we got our own exciting future. A more sophisticated one, of data and connection, than childhood’s rocket-fuelled dreams. But I guess nothing can ever replace the simple beauty of such vast possibilities. Yes, I wanted to be an astronaut.
Neil Armstrong was the first person to do something I’ve dreamed of ever since. He walked on the surface of another world, where nothing is the same – not the light, the air, even your own weight. He was the first human to stand anywhere other than on Earth. He will not be forgotten, for as long as there are people.
A friend opened the discussion with “Space Shuttle, RIP or good riddance?” Both, I said. It’s sad to see it go, it’s been the workhorse of American space science for decades. But it really should have been gone long, long before this.
As I said in the paper, it was obvious ever since the Columbia disaster that the design was a horrible mess of compromises. NASA had wanted to get people into space for the sake of scientific research, but they couldn’t afford a vehicle. The Defense Department were willing to contribute, but they wanted to put large payloads into orbit. Anyone putting safety first would have said those are two different missions that require two utterly different machines; one big dumb heavy-lifter to fling stuff into orbit, which no person in their right mind would even stand near never mind sit on top of, and one uncompromisingly designed to get people into and back from space safely. But thanks to budgetary pressure, they cobbled it together as one thing. The Space Shuttle was really the first SUV, an overpowered truck with added passenger seats.
If the right decisions had been made after Challenger there need never have been a Columbia disaster. If they had been taken after Columbia, there might be new vehicles in place by now – vehicles that would be both safer and cheaper to run. The original error may have been made by the Reagan administration, but it was compounded by every subsequent one. To the point now that, really for the first time since the Space Age began, Americans can no longer go into orbit – not without the help of the Russians at least.
The Chinese can.
It may be perfectly true that the lunar missions were done for prestige and bragging rights rather than any scientific or economic reason, but they helped the US win a propaganda war. The lack of a leading role in space exploration makes America look exactly like what it fears itself to be – a power on the wane.
When I posted yesterday about QR codes, those little symbols used to put Web links on real-world objects, reader Azijn made this thought-provoking comment:
I find QR codes a bit weird. Why not have an app that can simply recognize a certain default font in which advertisers will agree to publish their URLs? Humans and phones alike can recognize that!
Indeed, I can find no such app. How come? Azijn’s idea would surely work.
But then you have to remember that most design actually happens by accident. QR codes are prevalent for this purpose mainly because they’ve been around long enough to catch on. They were invented by Toyota for labelling components and it was in Japan that they were first used on phones. But that doesn’t mean of course that they’re the best solution.
QR codes did have a couple of advantages. They were designed expressly to be read by machine and have built-in error correction, so they were easier for simple devices to process. But now that phones are very powerful computers they should have little trouble handling text recognition – I doubt if there’s even any need for special fonts¹.
I can think of one way to speed things up though: A typographical convention to indicate where a website address begins and ends, such as putting it between two easily recognised symbols, so that the phone doesn’t need to scan whole pages. Example:
Any such text will be highlighted on your phone’s screen, showing you that it’s clickable.
Can I get a patent on that?
There have been fonts designed to be easily read by machine since at least the 60s, for example the hardcore OCR-A, the more friendly OCR-B, or the space-age classic Westminster – which I had always thought belonged to NASA or IBM or some such but turns out to have been created by a British bank. These days though Optical Character Recognition software is so good that they are no longer really necessary, though obviously plainer, less ornate fonts are likely to get better results.