Is light pollution harming the space program?

I know, a pretty ridiculous claim. Perhaps.

But I as I sit here in Central Hong Kong, looking up at the night sky (on those days when you can actually see through the air pollution in Hong Kong) isn’t quite the same experience I had as a boy growing up in rural Illinois.  Now that my own children are starting to take an interest in outer space, the wonders of looking up at the night sky and point out objects is something lost for them due to the abundance of light radiating upwards from Hong Kong Island.  The incredibly cool iPhone app “SkyView – Explore the Universe” which is an augmented reality astronomy program, doesn’t quite work that well when I have to point out “you see the blinking light on the Bank of China? Behind that is Venus”.

What happens when the power goes out.


Follow this line to outer space.

A classic scene from the must see movie October Sky comes at the beginning when the townspeople of tiny Coalwood, West Virginia step outside on the night Sputnik is flying by, looking up on the dark sky until they can see the fast moving speck of light heading across the night sky.  With this observation (and hundreds if not thousands of others around the country) the space program was launched.  I myself remember seeing the moon during the days of the Apollo program and saying to myself “Mission Control is in the moon”, my five-year-old self not knowing any better (and my older self much more disappointed to discover we did not already occupy the Moon).  Does a child who has never seen the moon wonder similar thoughts?  I wonder if the lack of seeing the stars will keep my sons from dreaming of visiting them one day.  I wonder if the lack of stars present to most Americans as we see the new urbanization and suburbanization off the farms has started to diminish our support for sending people up into space.  How do you drum up support to send probes or people to someplace most people cannot even see?

Beyond the technical implications of sending rockets into space, the other importance of a clear night sky is that there is something about the unpolluted night sky that actually helps ground a person a bit better.  While I’ve spoken of looking up and dreaming of the stars and places yet unseen, there is also a sort of a epiphany others reach when seeing the vastness of the universe.  That is that you, as an individual, really are not that important. Your life, your entire being, in a universe made up of billions and billions of stars and planets, well, quite frankly, is a bit unimpressive.  This also means, however, that the problems and troubles that you face are also equally unimportant.   Trouble at work, disagreements with friends, etc. — it’s of little importance overall, really.  While the initial shock of your worthlessness might be rough to take, the resulting freedom from worrying about the other stuff is actually pretty liberating.

Those who have never really seen the stars have never really come to this realization.  Some are actually frightened when they do see the sky for the first time.  It’s a oft-quoted remark that during the Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles a decade ago a number of 911 emergency calls were made regarding “strange clouds of light up in the sky”. People were seeing the Milky Way for the first time and actually a bit concerned.   That the ordinary person is now shocked to find out we live in a vast universe is distressing.  I’ve yet to hear anyone on reality TV shows speak the wisdom of one who has seen the other spiral arm of the Milky Way.

Astronauts too have spoke of similar realizations when seeing the stars and the heavens.  Here is a great interview from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell on his return from the moon and many other Apollo astronauts have reached similar realizations.

We learned a lot about the Moon, but what we really learned was about the Earth. The fact that just from the distance of the Moon you can put your thumb up and you can hide the Earth behind your thumb. Everything that you’ve ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself—all behind your thumb. And how insignificant we really all are, but then how fortunate we are to have this body and to be able to enjoy loving here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself.

— Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 & 13 astronaut, interview for the 2007 movie In the Shadow of the Moon.

It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.

— Neil Armstrong

If somebody’d said before the flight, “Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?” I would have say, “No, no way.” But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried.

— Alan Shepard

But for now, without the stars to gaze upon I’ll just have to make due with an iPhone app and a few glow in the dark stick on stars.  I’ve heard that on some of the outer islands of Hong Kong you can get a pretty decent view of the stars if you get far enough away from the people. I gather the MTR doesn’t stop at those places though.