May 08, 2006
Space Cowboys -- The Builders & The Dreamers
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When Michael Haney, President of the Mentor Graphics User Group, stepped up to the podium in the San Jose Convention Center on May 4th to introduce this year's User2User conference keynote speaker - Rick Tumlinson - he described Tumlinson as "Part Agitator, Part Advocate." For those of us in the audience who knew little about Mr. Tumlinson, the ensuing hour was a revelation.
It's possible that most of the hundreds of people in the audience Thursday morning were there because it was one of the many events and sessions associated with the 3-day U2U conference. But the reason I was there - in my seat at the Convention Center by the distinctly early hour of 8 AM - was because I had been so intrigued by last year's U2U keynote speaker, and this year's address looked to be a continuation on a theme.
Last year's keynote speaker at the 2005 Mentor Conference in Santa Clara, was aviation and composite materials pioneer Burt Rutan, who had a standing-room-only audience eating out of his hand for over an hour. Of course, if you're easily offended by someone as supremely self-confident as Burt Rutan, a keynote address showcasing his accomplishments and ego would not be a good thing. But even those put off by Rutan's cockiness, can't help but respect the engineering and scientific advancements he has helped to realize - the various legendary aircraft that have come out of his company, Scaled Composites, and his team.
When it comes to engineering and technology, Rutan's the real thing. And he's got a lot of kindred spirit-ness with the folks who come to a Mentor Graphics Users Group meeting. His presentation last year and the dynamics with his audience - less than a year after winning the X-Prize with his SpaceShipOne sub-orbital vehicle - were a thing of great fascination. Even ESNUG's John Cooley seemed dazzled by Mr. Rutan, and stood in line with the rest of us afterwards to get his signature on our U2U conference badges.
Now fast forward to May 2006. Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, stands in front of a large Mentor Users Group audience of engineers and potential kindred spirits.
In his biography, Tumlinson is described as "one of the top one hundred most influential people in the space field by Space News." He's also described as a writer, a space exploration advocate who has testified numerous times in front of Congress, and someone who has been published or quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, The Economist, Readers Digest, and The Chinese People's Daily. He's also been seen on ABC, CBS, and the BBC. In addition, Tumlinson edited the newly released anthology of expert commentary, Return to the Moon.
That Mr. Tumlinson is a lively, impassioned speaker is not in doubt, it's his engineering credentials that fall a bit short - particularly as contrasted with Mr. Rutan's - not withstanding the fact that Tumlinson is one of the "founding trustees" of the now famous X-Prize that put $10 million in Rutan's pocket. (Actually, Rutan shared the prize money with many of his SpaceShipOne team members at Scaled Composites and his billionaire "angel" investor, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.)
Rick Tumlinson is a New Age Space Junkie and that's fabulous, but the longer he spoke, the more I wondered how quite so much psuedo-science could get a full hour of time in front of so many smart, scientifically literate people. But don't let me color your impressions prematurely. Here's what Tumlinson had to say - with the caveat that his comments have been filtered through an hour's worth of writer's cramp and bad note-taking penmanship.
Welcome to the Revolution - Tumlinson started by verbally genuflecting to the engineering talent arrayed across the room in front of him: "Welcome to the revolution - what you all are doing is feeding into this!"
He said he had originally planned over 50 slides for his PowerPoint presentation, but had decided instead to pare it down to just a few. He started by putting up a cartoon of several astronauts on an extra-terrestrial surface facing a pile of luggage. Tumlinson said the first reason we need to go further into space is to discover the planet where all lost luggage - and the odd sock here and there - end up. He got a big laugh from his audience, and then added the next two reasons: Going into space is the thing that gets him up in the morning, and "challenges are fun."
Tumlinson declared himself to be part of the New Space Establishment and said, "We have an opportunity today to create a synthesis between the Old Space Establishment and the New Space Establishment - an opportunity to create something that's incredible, amazing, and exciting."
From there, Tumlinson warned that his comments would veer into the distinctly philosophical, and he was right.
Rick Tumlinson, Philosopher - I grew up in the desert where I could easily see the sky, and I constantly asked myself, "Why are we here?" Unfortunately, we humans avoid the answer to that question by burying ourselves in a materialistic society.
It's true that some people look to faith for the answer, or to MTV, or by acquiring bling - one more silver Mercedes, or another car or a bigger house, through lots and lots of work. We're driven to get our kids into better and better schools, but we never stop and ask ourselves, "Why are we here?"
But we humans are a force for intelligence in the universe, a force to battle death. It's all about entropy. Life has arisen out of this entropy and created complexity and intelligence. We humans can be seen as custodians of life, and it's imperative that we take life out to those places that have never seen life.
Are there other planets that have life? Use an empirical method and you'll see this is the only planet with life, with intelligent life. Life on other planets is just not what I would wish for, or dream about. Don't expect ET to be arriving to meet Bubba in Arizona. Therefore, if you get Mr. Spock-like, you'll see that this is the only planet that has ever had life. That cockroach that you crushed today, might be a one-of-a-kind life form. It's like the Buddhists that move the worm aside to protect a living thing. The life forms here may be the only ones created.
We sit on a world that's precious. Is there a world somewhere else with life forms that are blobs with 3 eyes? No - the answer is almost at a theological level. It's our job to protect and spread life. We serve as the sensing mechanism for the universe. We are the eyes, ears, touch, and taste mechanism for the universe. Without us, the universe doesn't know itself. It's without senescence.
Does the tree that falls in the forest make a sound when it falls? No - it creates pressure waves. It doesn't create sound if there isn't a being present to receive it.
Rick Tumlinson, Theologian - We are the interpreters. We decide what is out there. Without us, the universe doesn't know it exists. We are how God knows of humanity, which knows of him. Without us, the universe is just dead matter and energy.
Robert Heinlein, the godfather of an entire genre of science-fiction literature, said in Stranger in a Strange Land, "I have reason to exist." His character, Valentine Michael Smith, gets killed in the end, but people in the book greet each other with, "Thou art God." To me, that's where it gets Biblical - God created us, and Adam and Eve's job was to name the things that are in God's creation.
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