On Post-Apocalyptica

If you watch enough apocalyptic films and TV shows, you start thinking that the end of the world is right around the corner. You start thinking about what you would do if there was a zombie apocalypse right now, at this moment. You get awfully genre savvy. Of course, odds are (and these are big odds) that you are one of the six billion or more people who get crushed by a tidal wave, burn to death in a nuclear fireball, get trampled in a riot, etc. But if you were one of the few not instantly killed, you like to wonder how good you would be at handling the intense situation. Would you have your wits about you, and find ingenious ways to escape the dramatically impending doom? Anecdotally, we know that you never really know who you are in a time of stress and snap decision-making until you are actually there.

This of course brings up an interesting point, which is the fact that if there was a zombie apocalypse, there would be at least a good number of people who had given the situation some thought. There might even be people with a good plan of how to survive. In movies and TV shows, people are generally caught unprepared. No real effort goes towards adopting a sustainable set of rules and building a long-term societal system. I suppose this is a manifestation of not using the Z word. Perhaps I’m just not very well versed in the genre; I’ve heard World War Z (the book) is very good about exploring those sorts of aspects.

I’m Not Part of that Generation

There is something that really irks me. People have this tendency to assume that kids are ignorant when it comes to “older technologies”. This is akin to assuming that anyone of non-Caucasian ethnicity is a recent immigrant. Please don’t assume I don’t know what a landline is. I’m 17, but I’m sure this applies to younger kids.

Here is a list of the most common ones:

  • Records: I have a friend who owns a record player and shops at record stores.
  • VHS tapes: My childhood memories include watching movies on VHS. I still own VHS tapes and a VHS player.
  • CDs: Really? This is not an outdated technology.
  • Floppy disks: Again, I can remember using floppy disks, and it wasn’t that long ago.
  • Landlines: Everyone I know has a landline.
  • Manual transmissions: I have a friend who recently bought a new car with a manual transmission. He prefers them.
  • Dialup: I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve used dialup before.
  • Dedicated flip phones: Some of my friends still use those.
  • Cassette tapes: Most cars still have tape players, and most people probably have a selection of tapes sitting around somewhere.
  • Life before the mainstream Internet: I was there.
  • Radio: NOT AN OUTDATED TECHNOLOGY.
  • Books: Stop that.

So, for the sake of everyone, please don’t immediately assume a kid doesn’t know what a given technology is. Maybe they don’t, but it’s offensive either way.

On the SLS

NASA has always built its house on political sand, not rock. While they can get lots of funding at the political high-tide, they can also get bogged down to failure. For instance, the ill-fated Space Shuttle program (or STS) was a result of shifting goals and influences on design from disparate sectors.

Similarly, the new Space Launching System (or SLS) is the brainchild of political forces. Its first stage is an extended Space Shuttle External Tank, and its first-stage engines are Space Shuttle Main Engines. Its solid boosters are STS-derived. This means that most of the STS tooling can be kept, and thus constituencies keep their jobs. I have to admit, this re-use reduces design times, but it is not the most efficient way to build a heavy launch vehicle, especially since the technology is more intricate than it needs to be (jacking up production costs).

The SLS is designed to launch the Orion capsule, which was designed as part of the under-funded Constellation program. The Orion spacecraft uses the Apollo architecture, and NASA helps this comparison by painting the SLS with white-and-black roll patterns reminiscent of the famous Saturn V rocket. Combined with the use of STS systems, the SLS threatens to become one big nostalgic mash. Unfortunately for NASA, this means its shortcomings will be overlooked in the future, much like the Space Shuttle program.

For instance, nobody is quite sure what to do with the damn thing after we’ve designed and built it. NASA has recently released that instead of a circum-lunar flyby, the first manned mission of the Orion/SLS will visit an asteroid that will be tugged into orbit around the Moon. After that, everyone seems to throw up their hands and say, “Mars? I guess?”

Criticisms aside, its good that we are developing any sort of heavy-lift manned capacity, because eventually it will enable deep-space missions. I’m just worried that the SLS program isn’t coherent enough to survive shifts in funding or vision. Not that NASA is particularly gifted in either of those departments. With their limited funding, I’m more interested in their robotic missions (or potential thereof — submarine to Europa, anyone?), because any manned program in the near future will consist of paddling around in the metaphorical kiddy pool.

Boosterspice

I wrote this short story over the summer for a writing course.

Boosterspice

In the media room of their modest estate, Stephen and Jane sat watching the news.

“Another spice riot. Just what we need: poor people complaining about things that aren’t any of their business.”

“What I don’t understand is the idea that the booster treatment is a God-given right. Just imagine if we gave it to everyone: they keep copulating, but don’t die themselves. We’d be overrun!”

The TV showed a news anchor.

“The biggest discussion of the century is still ongoing in Washington: should the prohibitively expensive treatment known as boosterspice be included in the Medicaid program? Advocates are claiming that current research indicates the treatment is capable of extending a person’s life for up to forty or fifty years; some are even claiming it could let a person live forever. We have with us here a researcher from Kurzweil Technologies to explain the latest breakthroughs in his lab.”

It transitioned to a scientist.

“Well, as you know, the boosterspice treatment was designed almost eight years ago. It uses a fairly common drug, but the method of deploying the compound into patients using nanobot boosters is a radical advancement. So far, in human testing, we’ve seen powerful regenerative cycles. As far as we can tell, most cellular processes are refortified with almost 100% effectiveness. Essentially, the procedure restores the subject to the vitality they were experiencing around age forty.”

The anchor returned.

“The Medicaid inclusion movement suffered a major setback last week when the Catholic Church officially denounced boosterspice…”

The noise faded into the background when Jane spoke up, “Oh, Stephen, did you call Mark yet today?”

“Yes. He and Kathy are meeting John and us tomorrow at the hospital. I don’t know why he’s coming to the intervention. It’s not his dad. It should just be Kathy, John, and me.”

“Well, I’m coming.”

“Yes, but you aren’t bad news. I still can’t understand why Kathy married Mark of all people.”

“Just be polite to him. Remember that we’re there for your dad.”

* * *

The group of five sat in the waiting room, praying. Last week they had met and compared speeches, decided on a tone. Now an attendant came, showed them the room.

On the bed lay William Rowe, father of Stephen, Kathy, and John. A photo of Christie, their late mother, stood on the bedside table.

Kathy began. “Dad…”

Stephen stepped in, “This is an intervention. We want you to take the boosterspice treatment.”

William looked at his children, and then broke out in a wheezy laugh, which turned to a convulsive cough. He finally settled back down, but his face still glowed in amusement. “What the hell are you going to do to me if I don’t? Kill me? Stop paying for my care?” And he laughed again, this time more of a giggle to avoid straining his lungs.

Stephen looked to John, who looked down, with nothing to add. Kathy looked to Stephen. Stephen just stood there, flapping his mouth. They hadn’t really thought this through, Stephen realized. This entire venture was ill-conceived and even worse planned. Jane stepped forward, putting her hand on Stephen’s shoulder, and said to Bill, “We just want you to be happy.”

“I’ve lived a full enough life, and now I want to spend eternity with my wife. I wouldn’t blame you for taking the treatment, but as I’ve said many times before, I won’t.”

Stephen took over again. “But we haven’t lived full lives, and we want you around for as much of it as possible.”

“Sorry, son, everyone dies eventually.”

Kathy muttered, “Not anymore.” But the group turned and started shuffling out of the room. Stephen stayed behind, and heard Kathy explode at Mark in the hallway. “Why didn’t you speak up?”

“Well, I never really found a good time to intercede…”

Jane glanced at Stephen and left as well. Stephen knelt beside the bed. His eyes kept falling to the oxygen tube running into his dad’s nose.

“You won’t reconsider? Not for anything?”

“A new age is dawning, son. But I don’t want to be there for it. I belong in the past.”

Stephen put his hand on his dying father’s shoulder and left. In this day and age, nobody should have to be dying. A thought like that used to be entitled, or naive. Now it was… fact.

* * *

Later that day, Stephen was having coffee with two friends.

One of his friends said, “Those boosterspice riots are a pain in my ass. I had to drive twenty minutes out of my way to get around the mob.”

“It’s kind of ridiculous for people to demand it,” agreed Stephen.

“It’s ridiculous for them to block the streets. What, like we’re gonna pay for them after they get in my way?”

The second friend butted in. “400 million treatments. I really don’t think they understand the magnitude of that order.”

“The only order they understand is a double cheeseburger with fries, am I right?” Stephen’s two friends chortled.

“Maybe they wouldn’t want it if we told them they couldn’t have kids anymore,” Stephen suggested.

“Or jobs. No, I guess they can have one: kids or jobs. But not both.”

“Well, they already don’t have jobs.” Again, the friends chuckled.

Stephen coughed after a vaguely uncomfortable pause. “So, are you guys going to get the treatment?”

“Well, yeah, of course.”

“It would be wasteful not to.”

Stephen nodded and followed up, “My treatment is in a few days. Actually, it’s gotten me thinking about death. Now that we’ve cured it, it’s even scarier–”

“Well… nobody is certain that the treatment ʻcuresʼ death.”

The other friend jumped in. “All they can predict now is that it extends life by forty or fifty years. Maybe it works indefinitely.”

“You can still get diabetes and blood clots from lifestyle choices after the treatment.”

“And prostate cancer. Although it’s less likely.”

“And obviously it doesn’t protect against bodily harm. It doesn’t make you invincible.”

“But even so, it’ll still stagnate the economy, et cetera, et cetera,” Stephen replied.

* * *

It was ironic, considering the state of things, that as Stephen’s car accelerated onto the freeway, time slowed down and Stephen glanced sideways out the window to see Death looking back at him. To the serenade of screeching rubber and twisting metal, Stephen’s eyes watched the sky vanish and a tractor trailer spin by, seemingly miraculous and counter to all worldly physics, passing Stephen again and again. Finally the sky ceased to be a blur and became concrete. Upside down, next to a twisted guardrail, Stephen passed out.

He awoke slowly, painfully. He was in a hospital room, a bandage across his midsection. How much time had gone by? A vague dream, or memory, of waking in Intensive Care, with a tube down his throat. Stephen’s stomach roiled. The only thing he could think about was how close to death he had come. Internal bleeding, concussion, rib fractures: the works. Miraculous that he had survived. Was it miraculous that the accident had come days before his boosterspice clinic appointment?

When Stephen arrived at his home again—after furiously protesting his being driven home on account of a newly developed fear of cars—the first thing he did was reschedule the appointment to the next open slot: the following week. For the interceding days, Stephen kept off work with sick-leave and refused to depart the house. Often he stayed in the bedroom, away from the stove and stairs. He paced the room for exercise, wary of catching pneumonia or having his muscles atrophy.

Jane tried to reason. “There’s no point in living longer if you’re just going to spend that life hiding here.”
But Stephen would have none of it. He took the bus (the safest form of transportation) to his first boosterspice treatment. He wore a surgical mask on the bus. At the appointment, Stephen sat before a desk, with a paper in front of him, and a doctor talking to him.

“The actual application of the process is fairly extensive and time consuming. We’ve performed all the necessary pre-tests. This is your point of no return. If you sign this, we will move you into our care facility and perform the treatment over the course of the next 12 days. Afterward, your natural lifespan will grow by at least 45 years with your current lifestyle. The decision lies fully in your hands at this point: do you want to receive the metabolic retro-senescence treatment?”

Stephen rocked slightly in his chair. He looked at the paper. The signature line stared back. For the first time in weeks, Stephen really thought. Stephen thought about his father. A lifetime of memories began to come to him, of good and bad times with his parents. Then Stephen thought about his wife. About the terrible car accident. About the hospital, about his job, and about his lack of children. It was his life. His life. No matter how he felt, the accumulation of events is what composed the entity known as Stephen.

In all this thinking, Stephen entered a world of imagination. A world of undying people, afraid of death. Liability was no longer the drive behind safety measures. This world had rounded corners (too easy to hurt oneself on a sharp edge), no fallible machinery. A world abandoned by the adventurous, who would escape to humanity’s frontier among the stars. Such a world would succumb to a slow death by fire, or poison. Centuries of climate change and overpopulation would slowly choke the planet to death, because the inhabitants couldn’t look farther ahead than the dangers of today. Ethics would become twisted, and humanity would become a shell of itself. There would be no war, no violence, only inevitable decay from the relentless march of entropy.

“I’ve decided to forgo.”

* * *

Stephen entered a bagel shop, accompanied by two of his buddies. He ordered and pulled a third chair up to a round table.

“Wow, it’s been a while, Stephen. What, a little over a year since your big accident? How has it been going?”

“It was rough for a while. The car crash and my dad’s death did a number on me. I was in therapy for six months, I think.”

“And then the divorce… wow. When was that?”

“Three months to the day.”

“How are you holding up?”

“Fine, you know. Jane didn’t want to be with a ‘purist’. It would get awkward real fast with her taking boosterspice. I thought I might have trouble letting her go, but she’s dead to me. Rather, I’m dead to her. In my mind, she’s already faded into the mists of the future.”

“Stephen, that’s a little messed up.”

Stephen shrugged amiably, and rose to claim his order. When he sat back down and the group started in on their food, the conversation paused for a moment. One of his friends idly asked, “So you really gave up boosterspice?”

“I’ve come to believe in purity more than anything else.”

“Think of it: last year, nobody even dreamed of purists. There were the initial rejects, but certainly no culture. Now… it’s crazy. No offense.”

“I don’t care about that. It’s the philosophy, not the culture.”

The conversation continued.

Suddenly Stephen rocked in his chair and pressed his palms to his forehead. A wooziness, cold on his insides, pulsated. He felt his sense of direction go.

His body fell to the floor; his mind seized for tense, terrifying moment, and then it seemed to drift away. For a split second, his mind was in a timeless ether. Then he returned to consciousness hours later, in his own body, in the hospital. Stephen hated hospitals. The décor always threw him back to the night of the crash.
The doctor came in eventually. He took some readings before breaking the news.

“You are suffering from kidney failure. The waiting list is too long. The only viable option is to have the boosterspice treatment applied as soon as possible. It will rejuvenate your body long enough to receive a transplant. I see you were initially slated for a dosage last year, but you rejected it. Are you morally opposed to the treatment?”

“I’ve become a purist—” the doctor wrinkled his nose at the term “—as a result of that time in my life.”

“But do you reject the treatment as a medical procedure, rather than a cosmetic, non-essential measure?”

Stephen hesitated, just a moment. It had been a long time since the belief system he had built up around himself had been questioned.

The doctor interceded before Stephen could work out a response. “I’ll check back tomorrow. You have until then to make up your mind.”

Stephen had come to accept an existence without immortality. When a person comes to terms with a reality that may scare them at first, it becomes a building block of their life. If Stephen accepted the miracle drug back into his life, it would wreck the philosophical barriers he had constructed to protect himself. Tomorrow he would deliver his answer to the doctor: no.

* * *

During visiting hours, Kathy and John showed up. Stephen eyed them. The family had fallen out of touch after Bill’s death. John, with a newly acquired air of sureness, approached Stephen.

“This little experiment of yours has come back to bite you. I told you it would never work out. That you would come back to your senses after a while. You’re a fool for not getting the procedure done earlier. If you had gone much longer, you could have died before anyone diagnosed–”

“John!” Stephen broke his brother out of it before a rant precipitated. “I’m rejecting the treatment.”
Kathy started. “Wait, what? Stephen, how can you do this to us? Also, how can you do this to yourself? If you don’t get the treatment, you’ll die!”

“Yes. I know. That’s the point. Look, I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

John stepped forward, jaw high and imperious. “I know you took dad’s death hard, and that you’re somehow punishing yourself for his death, but you need to think about this.”

“I see you’ve been going to those ‘make the most of an endless life’ seminars. Too bad those don’t teach you how to use your brain. Death is a choice now, brother. You’ve decided one way, and I’ve decided the other. It’s as simple as that.”

John snorted, stood up, and walked out.

Kathy also turned and began walking out. She paused at the door.

“You are unbelievable, Stephen.”

* * *

That night, he woke up in pitch black. The lights from his bedside monitors were out. The hospital must have even lost its backup generators.

The light in his room flicked on. His father stood in the doorway, the pall of death bearing heavily on his face. “Stephen,” his dad spoke. Stephen was hanging, held upside down by the thousand tentacles of a nightmarish seatbelt. He hung above a beach of shattered safety glass. Beyond the walls of his world sat a semi and a guardrail, both clinging to the ceiling of the universe. William Rowe crouched down by one window, dressed in his finest Sunday clothes, fresh from the coffin.

He began to speak, slowly and deliberately. “When you have time, you may decide that you don’t want immortality. But when you are stuck with the hard choice between death and life, you always choose life. You think of that one lifetime activity you never got around to: swimming in bio-luminescent algae right after sunset, nobody around for miles; parachuting into the Grand Canyon; having the love and respect of all your neighbors; raising a kid who goes on to be wildly successful and happy. Procrastination turns out to be the ultimate life-saver.”

The world rotated and hardened into the topography of a hospital room. The doctor stood before Stephen. “Oh good, you’re awake. Now, have you made a decision about taking the boosterspice treatment?”

Stephen groaned a long, hard, satisfying groan into his hands. “Yes, fine, I’ll take the treatment this time.”

Does Space Exploration have an ROI?

It’s easy to dismiss the current space program as a giant waste of money. Collectively, the world spends billions upon billions of dollars launching tiny pieces of metal into the sky. How could that possibly be better than, say, building a school in India or providing clean water to poor African countries, or even spending it domestically to improve our country? In the face of recent budget crises, this cry gains even more clout.

And indeed, a lot of space programs are very wasteful, especially NASA and the Roscosmos. However, this is generally due to the fact that politicians treat space as a football — another barrel of pork for their constituents. When politics and space exploration mix, you get bloated programs like the Space Shuttle and the new SLS. It’s much better when the politicians set broad goals (AKA land on the moon), fork over the money, and let the engineers work their magic. Otherwise you get a twisted maze of bureaucracy and general management which ends with wasted money and subpar designs.

But let us not forget that NASA has produced a number of very tangible technological advancements, which is summarized here better than I could. In addition, satellites are a cornerstone of the global communications network, not to mention the Global Positioning System, which is satellites. Although communications satellites are now built and launched by commercial ventures, NASA was the first and only customer for a while, and allowed companies to get some expertise in designing and building rockets. Furthermore, the space industry employs tens of thousands of people, all possible because of initial government funding.

However, those examples involve geostationary orbit at the most. What is the practical value of going out and scanning the other bodies in our solar system. Why should we launch space telescopes and space probes? If you don’t believe in the inherent value of knowledge, here is a very down-to-earth example (so to speak): the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) watches the sun 24/7 from L1. It gives us an advance warning for solar flares, allowing satellite operators enough time to turn their expensive pieces of equipment away from the sun, shielding the most delicate electronics from the impending wave of radiation. It is estimated that SOHO has paid for itself 10 times over in this fashion.

Finally, part of space exploration is the attempt to answer some of the big questions. Deep space telescopes answer some part of “Where did we come from?”, and probes to the surfaces of other planets and moon are often trying to answer “Are we alone?”. If you think this is far too sentimental an appeal, I urge you to imagine the ramifications if a future mission to Europa found microorganisms living in the oceans under the ice, or a mission to Mars found lithophiles buried under the Martian regolith. How would world philosophies change?

Regardless, we may be spending too much money and spending it in the wrong places. I submit to you the Indian space program, which designed and launched a mission to Mars for about 75 million dollars. I think the US should follow India’s example and lean towards frugality and very specific, directed goals. Accomplishing a single mission for a small amount of money is better, in my opinion, than developing several high-profile, high-cost programs simultaneously.

While my language and previous post may make it seem like I am opposed to any sort of space exploration, I am merely of the opinion that our society views space exploration in the wrong way. Space exploration should not be about sending humans to other bodies, at least not right now. It should be about trying to find out more about the rest of our solar system, so we can extrapolate and make predictions about the other systems and exoplanets we are discovering. And if all else fails, it can be a platform for many kinds of materials and electronics research.

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