Worlds Enough

WORLDS ENOUGH by Charlie Martin

Once upon a time, we were building moon ships with the technology of the Edsel. Forty years ago this week, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. You may have heard something about it.

There certainly has been a lot of retrospective coverage of something my old friend Ray Bradbury called, with characteristic understatement, “the most important night in the history of mankind.” Hard to follow that, but there is an interesting project that got some well-deserved attention this week.

Interested computerists can see an example on their desktops today with the Virtual Apollo Guidance System project. It is an emulator that will run on a Mac, Linux, Solaris, or even Windows machine, and let you experiment with a simulation of the original Apollo Guidance System computer, right down to a point-and-click simulation of the original user interface — all 16 buttons, 21 7-segment digits and 18 lights of it. You can use the very same programs the Apollo astronauts used, copied laboriously from photocopies of the original program listings, entered into the emulator, and made to run. For example, to have the AGS display the internal clock, you enter “V16N36E”. That is, you click the VERB key, enter 1, 6, click the NOUN key, enter 3, 6, and click ENTR. Of course, if you want to set the clock, you have to enter the time. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the interested reader to figure out how to do that.

So be honest. Isn’t your first reaction “My God! It’d be suicide to go up in a crate like that!”

One recent story about the AGS project compared the AGS computer to the IBM PC XT, and that’s wildly overstating it: the AGS wouldn’t make a good digital watch, and the user interface makes programming a VCR seem simple by comparison. Of course, this wasn’t their only computing available. The Apollo astronauts carried a slide rule.

By now I can hear the younger readers especially, right through my computer. They’re saying “yeah, yeah, and it was five miles through the snow, sure, whatever.” But my point isn’t that it used to be hard in the Old Days. Well, okay, maybe a little, especially since I got my first professional programming job just a few months after Apollo 11. The real thing on my mind, though, is how something else has changed.

Because you’re right. We wouldn’t let someone go up in a crate like that. The risks now seem incredible; when astronauts are killed in action, we have a two year investigation before we allow another one to fly.

It wasn’t always like that. Charles Lindbergh decided to risk his life, and there was no OSHA to stop him; when Chuck Yeager flew the X-1, they knew, certainly, that the plane was going to get definitely shaky, and possibly uncontrollable, as they approached Mach One. The truth is that exploration, experimentation, is always risky; people have always known that, and some of them have accepted it. Some of them died. But then, everyone else dies too.

That spirit hasn’t died, though. In fact, one of the more radical ideas has been proposed by an ex-NASA engineer named Jim McLane. Basically, many of the problems of going to Mars are made immensely much simpler by making one small different assumption about the trip to Mars.

No return ticket.

When the first people go to Mars, it wouldn’t be as astronauts making a visit and coming home. They’re going to Mars, and they’re going to stay, and hopefully to become the old-timers who will lord it over the new arrivals years in the future.

Okay, it sounds a little crazy, but is it crazier than going to the moon in an aluminum beer can with a slide rule and a computer we wouldn’t even put in a child’s toy? And if it works, what do we gain? We gain a world. A World. And maybe our souls.

The Chinese are making a space program as we speak, and seriously planning on being on the Moon in 2020. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll let the risks to the pilots and astronauts stop them.