Thursday, October 9, 2008

Thoughts on the Space Program

From a recent e-mail exchange:

>I was in my economics technology class, when a brawl over the
>Columbia and the space program in general broke out. I was
>wondering what the opinionated Scruffy Scirocco thought.
>When you have time, I would enjoy reading your thoughts about
>the subject.

Opinions? Moi?

The surprising thing is that this hasn't happened more often. Shuttle travel is now running just over 98% safe -- an amazing feat when you consider the complexities of what we're trying to do here, and when you consider that the previous administration cut funding for NASA to the bone. There are other safety issues, and experience from the Challenger disaster showed how political NASA is -- even at the cost of safety.

If you look at every aviation rule or law regarding safety, you will have a manual bigger than the New York City phone booth. And every one of those regulations is in there because someone died. Pushing the envelope is dangerous, and when you strap a rocket to your butt and go blasting off at mach 17, every now and then it's going to bite you.

Is it worth it on a personal level? Not one astronaut resigned in the wake of Challenger, nor do I expect any to do so now after Columbia. If we were launching a shuttle tomorrow, there would be no shortage of volunteers. As major explorations go, space is the safest in history. Ferdinand Magellan left Spain with 250 crew and 5 ships and circumnavigated the world (well, he was killed in the Philippines). His crew returned to Spain with 18 crew and 1 ship remaining. The expedition was hailed a tremendous success and actually turned a profit.

Is it worth it, period? Yes and no. The drive into space spawned huge numbers of small technologies which would not have been pursued otherwise, yet have a subtle yet profound impact on our lives today. I'm not that much older than you, yet I marvel at some of the things that didn't exist when I was your age, yet you take for granted because you don't know any better. Just because space has not yet become commercially lucrative does not mean it never will. We have only just begun scratching the surface of this frontier. What if Columbus had landed, said "Nope, no gold here!", and returned to Spain and not said anything to anybody?

I get turned around at least once every time I travel, but I don't waste any time getting lost, because I always know exactly where I am, due to the miracle of a GPS receiver that fits in my pocket. My TV comes through a satellite dish on my roof. A touch of the mouse, and I can see a satellite photo of the weather in my hemisphere.  The next time you take a home movie, stop and think about that camcorder you're using. The CCD array that collects your images is a direct commercial application of technology originally designed for satellites. These are just a few obvious examples; there are literally thousands of other items that we take for granted that wouldn't be possible without the space program, from new plastics and materials, to advances in medicine, new drugs, and even increased food production (courtesy of land sat analysis of our land utilization).

The infrastructure isn't in place at this time, but eventually it will be, to perform manufacturing in space. There are many manufacturing processes that would be cheaper, safer and more productive in micro gravity than here on earth. Frictionless bearings, more perfect crystal growth for microelectronics, more pure chemical process are all possible in free-fall.

The shuttle is not necessarily the best vehicle for repeated trips to orbit and back. The shuttle is the largest payload delivery system in history. Believe it or not, the shuttle has more lifting capability than a Saturn V rocket. The curious thing is that the Shuttle has never launched fully loaded. So basically we have way more gun than is necessary to, for example, service the space station. The shuttle is old, using technology that has been obsolete for twenty years in some cases. But nay-sayers like the folks you're conversing with refuse to fund development of a new lift vehicle which is cheaper and makes more sense. Given adequate funding, space exploration will become cheaper, and the potential profits will grow more within our grasp.

The technology is nearly within our grasp - in fact I recently heard there is a venture company collecting capital to do so - to create an earth-to-orbit tramway. This idea was first floated in the early '60's by Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke (for those who poo-poo Sci-Fi, I invite them to go back and watch the Star Trek re-runs, and then contemplate their cell phones and PDA's. Dreams can't come true unless someone does the dreaming.). The idea is that a cable can be suspended in geosynchronous orbit to the surface of the Earth at the equator, with an equivalent mass extending beyond geosynchronous orbit. Such a structure would allow traffic to literally climb the "beanstalk" to orbit, thereby eliminating the most expensive part of the space deal - the cost of getting out of this gravity well. When conceived, it was pie in the sky, because no material existed which was strong enough and light enough to do the job. Now we have carbon nano-tubes, which ARE strong enough and light enough.

Why do we need to go to space? In the short term, we don't NEED to. In the long term we will have no choice.

Contrary to what a lot of doom-sayers promote, our ability to grow enough food is increasing faster than our population, and in developed countries population growth is zero or even negative as our lifestyle has adapted to the highest standard of living ever seen in history. Population pressure may make things uncomfortable, but it will not force us off the planet. The human race is here to stay. Nor will we be changing significantly in the future. Evolutionary change occurs in very small populations which are under stress of some sort. The Human race is too big to change much. To understand this, drop a singe drop of food dye into a test tube and observe the change. Now drop the same amount into an olympic swimming pool. Same with genetic variation and population size. So, safe to say, the people here a million years from now will probably be physically very similar to humans today.

However, the greatest threat we face in the mid-future is that of a giant asteroid impact. It's not a matter of if we're going to get smacked by another dinosaur killer, but when. There are a lot of debates over the probability of the event, and whether we're due or not. These are moot. Whether it happens ten years from now or a million years from now, it will happen, and when it does, mankind's joke is over if we're still earthbound. All of life is a risk vs. reward evaluation. You can make an argument that we don't need to spend resources to avert an asteroid collision, because the probability is vanishingly small. However small, though, it is not zero, and if you are wrong, we all die - all 6 billion of us. No matter how small the proximate risk, the danger is infinite; we cannot afford not to develop a defense against this.

In the very long term, mankind will go to the stars - or it will cease to exist. We live in a unique little greenish blue bubble in a very hostile universe - and the life span of that bubble is not infinite. We had better be well-situated to move when that bubble pops. Given that there are no other greenish blue bubbles ready to move to (see "Rare Earth" , by Ward and Brownlee), we had best get busy making some, because it may take as long as we have left to get even one made. If the human race chooses to stick it's head in the sand and stay earthbound today, we are dooming our descendants.

The space shuttle today is the Wright Flyer of the space era. I just recently read that they're building a replica of the Wright flyer, and that it's difficult to impossible to fly, and pretty dangerous. Ask your classmates if that sort of a history gives them second thoughts as they board a 747 bound for Europe. Remind them that "Man will never fly." Remind them that "The telephone has no practical commercial application." Remind them of the patent clerk who resigned in the early 20th century because "There was nothing left to invent."

I personally find it hard to believe that while we're on the threshold of the greatest age of exploration in history, that there are people who want to step back from this threshold. Someday someone from Latin America will take up residence on the moon. May be 50 years from now, may be 500, but it will happen. When it does, I hope to hell there will be someone grousing that "If they plan to live here they should at least learn English!"

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