Sunday, October 01, 2006

An Uplifting Topic

In light of all of the depressing news of last week, where the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of torture and injustice on a number of fronts, I want to spend a day discussing a topic that is more uplifting.

Readers might have heard some buzzing in the background regarding progress in moving humans into space.

As I have argued in the past, I consider this subject vitally important for two reasons.

(1) We live in a universe that is indifferent towards our survival or extinction. We risk becoming nothing more than a collection of archaeological relics for some other civilization to find unless we take steps to improve our chance of survival. That is best done by spreading out into the solar system.

(2) Future generations will be better off to the degree that they are getting their resources from dead space, rather than cutting deeper and deeper scars into the living Earth.

One of the events of the past month involved Iranian immigrant Anousheh Ansari’s 10-day trip to the International Space Station. During her adventure she maintained a blog, where she did an excellent job describing her experiences and her feelings about them.

There was one blog entry where she addressed the issue of spending so much money on this trip when there were people starving on Earth and other problems that the money could have been used for. A part of her answer attempted to justify her mission by pointing out that space science actually does help to feed the people of the world in the form of earth-monitoring satellites.

This is a bad argument. It is like justifying the purchase of a huge yacht because fishing vessels feed the world with all of the seafood they bring in. The purchase of the yacht needs a much tighter connection to harvesting seafood to give this connection any merit.

Yet, I find it strange that people who complain about the amount of money “wasted” on space spend $300 billion per year on the sports industry – buying tickets, building stadiums, collecting artifacts. This does not include the billions of hours spent watching sporting events. This is just in the United States. Imagine the good that could be done if we spent this $300 billion fighting disease and these billions of hours educating ourselves on issues that we will be making important decisions on in the next election – so that we actually know what we are talking about.

If we are going to complain about a “waste of money,” I would say that we first eliminate sports. There are other wastes of time that can be added to the list – such as the filming and watching of television sit-coms, going to movies, eating in restaurants, making and playing computer games, and the like. We have a long list of wasteful activities to eliminate before space tourism will make it any where near the top of the list.

Ansari’s trip does not have the link to feeding the world that she claims it to have.

However, it does not need that link.

More importantly, unlike the other activities mentioned, Ansari’s trip does link to the two goals that I described at the start of this essay. Read the comments to her blog, and read about people being inspired to pursue an interest in science and engineering that she generated. It is quite possible that her trip, and her writing about it, will produce far more than $20 million in world-wide benefit just from the additional scientists and engineers that she has brought into the world.

As Ansari wrote in her blog, “As you can see there are many ways to tackle a problem. What you choose is up to you.”

In Other News

When it comes to developing space, I view NASA to be largely a waste of money and effort. The real news can be found in the private space industry. In past blog entries, I have argued for taking the money that will be spent on NASA projects, and use that money to give a boost (in the form of prizes and other awards) to the private space industry.

Here is some recent news:

Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites released a mockup of SpaceShipTwo – designed to carry 2 pilots and 6 crew members into space, to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and, more important, to see the Earth as one large globe instead of a set of fractured communities.

Bigelow Aerospace has revised its plans to build a private space station. Bigelow tested a scale model of its inflatable space habitat, Genesis I, in July with great success. Because of that success, they are revising their private space program.

Part of this revision involves working with Lockheed Martin to man-rate the Atlas rocket. That is, the rocket will be made reliable enough to carry people into orbit – probably to a Bigelow Aerospace private space station.

(Note: As I mentioned earlier that NASA has selected two private space companies, SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, as winners of its $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition to develop private man-rated rocket systems to carry people and supplies to the International Space Station.)

Bigelow Aerospace is scheduled to fly its second test mission, Genesis II, in January, 2007.

Lockheed Martin has unveiled three models for a new lunar lander. What I find most exciting about this is that two of the three models come with wheels – a lunar “mobile home”.

A new research technique suggests that there could be 1,000,000,000,000,000 (one quadrillion) small objects orbiting the sun beyond the orbit of Neptune. That’s 150,000 space rocks for each person on Earth. I’ve been thinking about what I would like to do with my 150,000 rocks.

The number of extrasolar planets discovered to date: 208. However, these are almost all really big planets orbiting very close to their suns – “hot Jupiters.” Yet, when this solar system structure is fed into a computer model of how solar systems form, the models suggest that 40% of these solar systems could have earth-like planets – earth-like, that is, except for the fact that they are ocean worlds.

I do not believe that we will ever have “warp drive.” Yet, humans will, some day, load themselves onto huge space ships and prepare for multi-thousand-year journeys to distant solar systems to set up homes. I do not think we will be looking for earth-like planets. I suspect that future generations will think of planets as huge gravity wells not worth the effort to climb down to our up out of. They will live in free-floating habitats. This means that any system with a star in the middle (to provide energy) and a gaggle of smaller rocks floating around it (that can be mined) can be a future home.

But that is way down the road. To get there, we have to focus on our survival today.

These efforts are not just a matter of fighting against all of the evils that humans do to one another on this world. There is also the prospect of fighting for an exciting and interesting future.

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