Rethinking Space

Far out

Far out

Despite having been hooked on the glamour of it all, I’ve found there’s something vaguely unsettling about the philosophy that drives our need to explore the universe. In fact, I’m not so sure it’s really “our” need at all.

When I was barely out of shorts I was captivated by moon missions, lunar landscapes and thrilling detailed images sent back to earth across millions of miles of cold, empty space. But somewhere along the way the appeal has lost its shine. It seems I’ve legitimately been developing an alternative philosophy of my own. It turns out I’ve no fundamental interest in crossing the frontiers of space. But for decades I was led to believe I should. So it was time for a rethink.

It’s too easy to buy into a pattern of misinformed cynicism and negative criticism. But even so, I’ve now decided that the tangible returns from decades of commitment to space projects is a mere sideshow when measured against the mind-boggling expense. OK, I freely confess: I can still get a thrill from exciting pictures taken in space, but I now sober up quite quickly. With my feet back on the ground I’m forced to remember that suffering earth is riddled with issues that need ameliorated sooner rather than later. It’s a part of the anti-space cliche, but it’s valid.

I’m sure you would agree that from childhood astronomy is very much in our faces. We get it fed to us at school and in the media. But what is it? Do we really know what astronomy is all about? Why does space exploration happen? What’s the philosophical motivation that simmers away in the background? Well, here’s one version of it:

“Why do we study the planets? Why do we study astronomy at all? We someday need to go beyond the planet Earth if we expect to survive as a species for a very long time. We need to know what’s out there and what the nature of the Universe is” (Meers Openheim, Boston University).

In general terms it’s being claimed here that space exploration tells us a lot about our planet and its environment. But over the years I’ve balanced myself out and now question the value and practical usefulness of much of this knowledge. To what extent does it impact and enrich our daily lives? And even if we reap tangible benefits, are they all really worth the colossal expenditure? How much money needs to be spent? Shouldn’t we be asking what scientific research can actually accomplish here on Planet Earth by comparison?

Trite questions?

The picture that heads out this essay was taken by the famous (and arguably infamous) Hubble telescope. It was pointed at a really small area of black space and over 400 orbits it recorded 800 exposures lasting 11.3 days. This is very far back in time. Experts believe it to be “the time shortly after the big bang when the first stars reheated the cold, dark universe.”

The final image you see above, which shows around 10,000 galaxies, is in fact two separate images taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-object Spectrometer (NICMOS). The NICMOS reveals the farthest galaxies ever seen.

Although the hi-tech Hubble Telescope is said to have enhanced “our” understanding of astronomy, the astronomical cost is an uncomfortable legacy. Originally estimated at a total cost of $400 million, “…US expenditure is currently an estimated 4.5 to 6 billion US$” (Hubble Information Centre). That’s billion. Does this matter? And to be specific, does it matter to you?

The Hubble Telescope

The Hubble Telescope

We want to believe our space scientists have skills and knowledge that are grounded in documented experimentation and its proven results. But should we blithely accept all of their opinions and recommendations? I’d say not. Can we apportion blame here? Space scientists bond loyally in-house. They are knit together in one big fraternity. They effectively confirm one another’s legitimacy without being usefully accountable to those outside the loop. Where is the policing here?

Is there anything wrong with me asking why we are spending billions in the hope we can secure our long-term survival “out there”? And here’s another question: Should entrenched space exploration philosophy be supported and funded by our governments to the current extent? Financing space fantasists isn’t an option.

Finding real answers to these questions isn’t easy for the common cynic. Some with their feet rooted firmly on the ground remain unconvinced by many of the pro-space arguments they are hearing. But perhaps they are just uninformed philistines who believe bedfellows astronomy and space exploration have been out of control for decades.

I’m no longer entranced by this so-called thrilling ride into space. On the contrary, I have legitimate concerns. It goes against the grain, but I don’t “need to know what’s out there”. I’m not alone in this. Many are much more concerned with what’s going on down here.

They often think the world would have been a better place if the hundreds of billions that have been spent on space exploration and research had been intelligently funnelled into health, care of the elderly, emergency services, education, unemployment, the Third World, urban development and local community programmes. Those in favour of space exploration are surely tired hearing this line of reasoning. Perhaps there are good reasons why it’s heard over and over, year after year.

There’s sometimes a lot wrong with how governments allocate funds. The passing of time can confirm it. But even so, if the will is there to stand up and make brave decisions, prioritisation strategies become essential. Recent history shows that few politicians[1] have grasped the nettle. We shouldn’t wonder at this — political clout matters to leading space scientists. If nothing else many of their jobs may depend on it! It doesn’t help that space program ideology is deeply entrenched in our western psyche and actual infrastructures are well established.

Pegging back the world’s unnecessary budgeting habits has become a reality, thanks to the global financial downturn. It must have been bad news for proponents of space exploration. Forgive me voicing another cliche: We need to get funding that’s firstly centered on our earthly problems rather then falling into the trap of spending billions trying to solve heavenly riddles. We are losing out to expensive obsessions.

Advocates of space exploration and research may well point to the number of people who are employed in the industry. “Jobs are good,” they say. Well yes, but is this a totally logical line of reasoning? Not really. Couldn’t we justify pornography in much the same way? In California alone the porn industry employs 12,000 people, but unlike many space-related initiatives it isn’t financed by vast sums of public money. Both are addictive and controversial.

The “Wow!” factor of space bewitches even intelligent people. (It happened to me, if I qualify as intelligent.) It’s fantastic! It’s right next door to science fiction! In fact, the distinction between the two may get a little blurred. We need to step back. We may not need to boldly go anywhere.

Speaking to protesters before the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969, Thomas Paine, NASA’s administrator, said, “…if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button.” At best this is a peculiar logic, justifying a massive and questionable expense ($35 billion) because it would allegedly have little impact if spent differently. Is that the point? And of course, the issue isn’t just poverty. Cherished predilections can easily blind us to the bigger picture.

Paine, who was already getting carried away thinking of a $10 billion trip to Mars[2], suggested to the protesters that NASA might be able to help address our problems some day. But what do we find? Over four decades later we continue to hand out billions to space scientists so they can satisfy their curiosity. Exploring Saturn’s biggest moon Titan is a particularly good example.

Let’s not forget that the outrageously expensive space race of the 50s and 60s was fuelled by Cold War paranoia. Everything possible was done to better the perceived achievements of the Red Menace in Moscow. Prestige was paramount. A huge amount of cash was handed over to scientists and the military to further develop the V-2 rockets originally designed in Nazi Germany and dropped with deadly warheads on Britain. Sound scientific reasoning was virtually nonexistent, not that it mattered. Getting a man on the Moon became synonymous with global superiority:

Prestige, a thing which neither filled bellies, nor kept people warm, nor kept predators at bay, was suddenly the number one priority of an embattled nation… If the United States wanted to regain world prestige lost to the Russians because of their achievements in space, it should embark now on a trip to the moon. Here was a race that Americans might just be able to win…

Few paused to consider how walking around on the Moon in a space suit brought progress to mankind. How, exactly, did it help the starving in Africa?…

Whitney Young of the National Urban League, commented at the time… “A circus act. A marvellous trick that leaves their poverty untouched. It will cost thirty-five billion dollars to put two men on the Moon. It would take ten billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year. Something is wrong somewhere” (extracts from Gerard DeGroot’s Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest).

On the 12th September 1962 President Kennedy made a speech in which he famously said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade…” But I’ve read that in private he asked his advisers, “Can you fellows invent some other race here on Earth that will do some good?” (Rocket Men, by Craig Nelson.)

I remember coming across an online essay that attempted to defend space exploration expenditure by highlighting how others spend their cash and how governments generally allocate funds. The author (a big fan of science fiction it should be noted) defended space ‘investment’ by pointing to society’s wastefulness in general.

Stop the bus! This is an astonishing opinion when you think it through. Two wrongs will never make a right, not even in space. Why not justify NASA’s funding by highlighting the fact that the Pentagon’s annual space budget has been even higher? Or how about the mega-fortune spent globally on junk food that’s literally killing millions each year? A daft rationale if ever I heard one. No, we must assess this problem on its own merit.

(As a sobering aside on the subject of waste – several years ago “workers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama accidentally threw away parts of the International Space Station worth almost $1 million” [James Oberg, Houston, we have a problem, New Scientist magazine, April 2000]. And let’s not forget the $100,000 toolkit lost in space.[3])

No doubt somebody will pull text off the pro-space sites and tell us that we’ve got better frying pans (a myth in fact), stronger hip replacement joints and indestructible materials for bulletproof jackets worn in Iraq, or whatever it is. Someone’s sure to mention how lucrative moon-mining could be – but the logistics!

Of course, it’s not all bad news. It’s true that we now have thermal blankets (opportunistically shown by NASA wrapped around earthquake victims), improved defence technologies and scientific satellites providing indispensable telecommunications and vitally monitoring earth’s weather patterns and solar storms. And so on. We can appreciate such benefits. But the glowing PR can have a hollow ring to those whose thinking isn’t compromised by bias and favouritism.

The claims that there have been over 1000 spin-offs are possibly accurate, but where in the world are we going if we think such productivity gives credence to the lavishly financed space sciences as a whole? It’s both logical and realistic to assume that billions can be intelligently and systematically ploughed into scientific invention and innovation here on terra firma. We really don’t need the prop of most space-related endeavours to get the job done, so crowing about it can be considered something of a ruse.

The selfish need to do very expensive stuff in space is the mother of NASA’s contributions[4]. It’s a fact that there are brainy highly qualified people in silly hairnets in labs who will deliver similar results in most fields if only they could get the resources they need. When Hitler took a shine to Europe his enemies employed big brains to come up with some great technological advances that drove him back into his bunker. Let’s hope we don’t have to rely on WW3 for the next far-reaching wave of revolutionary science and engineering. Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking into space either.

Spotty Jupiter

Spotty Jupiter

Space exploration and astronomy are arresting subjects. It’s certainly interesting seeing pictures from the edge of the universe. It was fun watching the Great Red Spot swirling about in Jupiter’s poisonous soup. But my mother just lost a lifelong friend to an incurable illness. Where on earth do our priorities lie?

Lifeless on Mars

Lifeless on Mars
Shots captured on other planets have to be the most expensive in history. This is Mars of course, an endless rocky desert as lifeless as a prehistoric fossil, but even so our scientists are spending huge sums primarily to discover just how dead it really is. This is part of a composite image of Victoria Crater taken by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. The far side of the crater is about half a mile away. At one time there were a couple of these machines beavering away in the iron-red dust. To date each cost around $400 million to develop, test, build, deploy and utilise. Naturally, being unique to the mission, the digital cameras on each Rover don’t come cheap. Due to the extreme conditions they don’t have mechanical shutters, adjustable apertures or delicate focussing mechanisms. Each camera has a 12x12mm 1MP CCD sensor that delivers high quality images.


[1] “The Space Shuttle is the most effective device known to man for destroying dollar bills” (congressman Dana Rohrabacher).
[2] It’s worrying that someone in such a position of authority as Paine should fantasize about getting to Mars as early as 1983. Today such a mission would cost countless $billions. If it never happens (which is likely) $100s millions will probably be wasted in R&D.
[3] In November 2008 spacewalker Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper let a tool bag float off into space. “Despite my little hiccup, or major hiccup, I think we did a good job out there,” she said.
[4] To date NASA (an agency of the United States government) has received over $430 billion (actual dollars) since it was established in 1958. It currently gets a staggering $17 billion each year from the United States federal budget. Its percentage of the overall budget is low, a fact used by many supporters of space sciences and exploration to justify the expense. But, inevitably, they present the stats in reverse to serve their bias. It’s a colossal government budget to start with. Emphasising NASA’s ‘small’ .7% share can never mask the fact that annually it soaks up a huge amount of public money.



A Camera To Paint With

The Camera Obscura

One festive evening while wearily channel-hopping I came on an eye-catching scene. At first glance it seemed that an ageing rock star was taking a fancy to a bashful serving wench in a silly hat.

But before I lost interest, a large box was carried in and set on a table. Suitably meek and demure, the girl was very curious indeed. “Do you know what it is?” he asked. She shook her head. He told her to look into the wooden box and threw his cloak over her head. To her astonishment she could see an image of the room they were in – the box was a camera obscura*.

It’s true that it was a bit too advanced for the period with a fairly impressive lens designed maybe 100 years or more later. But this was Hollywood where factual details never get in the way of a good story. And it is a good story.

The movie.

The movie.

In the 1660s the camera obscura (meaning dark room, or dark chamber) was a bit like one of our modern SLRs, but without a neck strap. Because an image of the real world was projected onto a flat surface it could be argued that this device represented the very inception of photography. Back then people got a kick out of sitting in the dark looking at anything that moved. Something like today really, but blissfully without the X-Factor and dancing celebrities.

It’s particularly interesting that it was possible to trace the outline of the projected image on a sheet of paper. In time this simple method of drawing a real scene using a box and lens evolved into an amazing device that threw the image onto a sensitised surface that resulted in an accurate and permanent record. Today we use a sensor and electronics, or film and chemicals.

The movie I’d unwittingly hopped into was an adaptation of a novel that touched on the fascinating theory that painter Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura of sorts to create his paintings. His work is said to have distinctive photographic qualities. Well, it would, wouldn’t it.

In fact, a clever professor has written a very interesting book on the subject.

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).

The Music Lesson. An early photograph… sort of?

The Music Lesson by Vermeer. An early photograph… sort of?

After a highly detailed examination of The Music Lesson’s perspective and vanishing points, and so on, the professor was able to accurately calculate both the scale of the painting and the height of its viewpoint. Not only that, other paintings by Vermeer seemed to suggest that they too were created in the same room.

The professor meticulously analysed 12 paintings in total and was able to calculate exact measurements and similarities that strongly suggest the artist traced his work before applying more traditional painting methods. Indeed an X-ray of one of these paintings revealed a black and white version underneath that is probably an outlined version.

It has been noted that details in Vermeer’s paintings are remarkably accurate. We should expect this if they are based on actual projections. These intriguing details include furniture, elaborate maps and bright highlights.

The professor went further. He created a scale model of the room depicted in the paintings. After this impressive investigation he concluded that there could be only one clear, rational explanation: the original artist projected each scene through a lens.

So what can we say about Vermeer? He was certainly clever and innovative. Possibly a talented cheat? Maybe he knew he was on to something different and tried to keep it to himself as much as possible. He was surely doing all he could to accurately depict reality.

In fact he was much like today’s photographers. In truth we are now working with more advanced camera obscuras, polishing off our unique creations by manipulating them in image-editing software. Vermeer would be astounded.

*The term camera obscura was first used in the early 17th century by German astronomer Johannes Kepler. He used the device in Austria for astronomical observations.



Nothing Worth Doing Is Easy

In my opinion, this is an unintentionally strong shot. It was taken by my mother who doesn't consider herself to be a serious photographer, yet enjoys taking hundreds of family snaps each year.

John, Donna (a serious shooter herself) and George. In my opinion, this is an unintentionally strong shot. It was taken in 2011 by my mother who doesn’t consider herself to be a serious photographer, yet enjoys taking hundreds of family snaps each year. Camera: Olympus – µ-mini DIGITAL (2005 model).

A dedicated hobbyist writing online seemed to repeatedly suggest that photography is basically easy and simple to grasp. It could be I’m slow on the uptake and misunderstood his point. Perhaps in one sense it is straightforward: pick up a modern camera, set it to auto everything and point it in the right direction. You might get lucky.

Last year I saw an image on an outdoors forum that was taken in this way by a non-photographer. The horizon seemed level and a dominant, clear blue sky over the tops of the mountains had turned a solitary, distant climber into a silhouette. It’s a fantastic shot, so good in fact that a magazine chose to publish it. Makes you want to cry, doesn’t it…

These days half the world’s population is recording daily life around them on their phones and very compact cameras. Sometimes the results are really good. But really, the craft of photography is altogether different. Yes, great shots can happen by accident and sheer hopeful persistence, but an insatiable desire for intelligent and inspirational creativity is key to capturing strong images. As someone once said in a tough ‘n’ dusty TV western: “Nothin’ worth doin’ is easy.”

It’s unrealistic to expect to find the arresting essence of photography in easy or simple scenarios. After mastering how a capable camera actually operates, we must typically practise very good technique to be sure of producing our strongest images.

That’ll be about exposure then. And focussing, and camera-shake, and depth-of-field, and shutter speed, and flash, and composition… These can be a tad tricky, especially all at the same time. Not only that, but at some stage you’ll probably have to carry a sturdy tripod with you wherever you go, maybe up to the blustery tops of mountains where you’ll get rained on all day, or eaten alive.

The following day finds us recovering from our aches and pains sitting in front of the computer screen. Yes, it’s time for image-manipulation.

Back in the day the amateur shooter pulled on his old cap and rode a pushbike to the town’s “camera shop”. He handed his precious negative strips over the counter to a nice man wearing a tie. After explaining what he needed he left the shop and his bike was still there. Back in the darkroom the printer would analyse each frame and use creative techniques at his enlarger to produce a balanced print.

But today image processing is our job.

So we need the tools of the trade: a powerful computer, lots of storage, a reliable monitor and equally powerful software. If average amateurs believe all they read they’ll end up buying several very expensive programs that allow them to process images in an infinite number of ways. They’ll have to learn how to use all those tools properly. Eventually, crouching over a keyboard well past midnight, they’ll  sweat over 100% on-screen detail till their eyes glaze over and they miss their kids growing up.

None of this will be simple or easy. And then, to make things even more complicated, there’s the average photo forum to contend with. What an experience that can be for the developing amateur.

In Photo Forum World we face a dozen diverse opinions on every subject imaginable. We’ll get pointed advice that might have more to do with a lack of experience or personal preferences than anything else. Just ask the question: Should I shoot RAW all the time? Or, Do I need an expensive lens? Or, How many megapixels do I actually need? Or, Do I need to calibrate my monitor? Or how about, Do I need protective filters on my lenses?

It’s all there – grey-haired experience, reliable information, personal bias, theoretical opinion, misinformation that merely sounds good, and downright bad advice, all in one handy resource. Beware.

Anyway, let’s ask another question: Can we make photography less problematic for the average amateur just starting out? Well now, that’s different.

Start with learning how your camera works. Use it a lot, in all kinds of circumstances. Practice, practice, practice. After you’ve done that, be sure to practise some more. Don’t get bored. Don’t lose patience. Don’t be disheartened.

While you’re doing that, get a few really good books (and authoritative online resources, if you can) that deal with basic camera and processing techniques. Read them over and over, and over again, till the covers come off. While you’re doing that, get your best images into software packages that don’t cost the earth to see what each picture needs most. Don’t get too carried away. Be subtle. Use basic and fundamental processing skills to get the look you’re after. All good photo-editing programs have the essential tool-set you need to get excellent results. Even those that don’t have the Adobe label.

Don’t get distracted by the abundance of software frills and gimmicky plug-ins. It’s fun to experiment, but it’s best to concentrate on more straightforward processing methods so you don’t put a dent in your confidence. The goal is images that please you. Get into a proven processing routine.

When you’re done, get your processed images printed up to the biggest size possible for your camera’s pixel output (that will be at around 250 ppi – a good lab will have the details you need for each size). When you get your prints back, pin them to a wall and look at them from a sensible viewing distance.

There’s no point in getting so close you’ve got the hairs on the end of your nose in focus too. If they look a little dark (the prints that is), check the contrast and brilliance of your monitor. If they look a bit soft, you may need to think more about sharpening techniques, or maybe try another lab. Results can vary and in some contexts the word “professional” is meaningless.

As part of your photographic hobby, make your own DVDs and covers. Mock-up image created in Corel PHOTO-PAINT. CD cover created in CorelDRAW, (2003).

These days more and more amateurs are creating quality DVD slide shows to watch on their TVs. The effect can fall a bit flat when looking at images shot in the portrait format, and rotating TVs is a hazardous solution. But generally this is a reasonable way to share your best work if you’re not keen on actual prints that fully match the aspect ratio of your images – typically the 3:2 35mm format and not 16:9 widescreen. Shadow detail is more obvious on a good TV screen than in a quality print, and the colours can be strong and clear.

So, maybe we can’t say that creative digital photography is ever ‘simple’. Nevertheless, as a keen amateur you can make life less difficult by practising a lot.

Patiently gather practical information from more experienced shooters who aren’t gearheads. Avoid the hair-splitting critical exactness that’s bogged down in dreary formula and scientific rigmarole. That stuff puts us all to sleep. It can turn a pleasurable hobby into an endless and bewildering chore.

Throw yourself into it as life allows. Major on the majors and take pleasure in your results.