Thursday, November 11, 2010

Flying the Coop

Well, it seems that most people reading this blog cannot wait to get out into the Solar System and further out into Space - as quick as we can.

Being of very much of the same frame of mind, I find it hard to think of reasons why we don't go - but I'll get to that. First I'd like to start with the sunny side of the equation.

Why should we boldly venture forth? Going out into nearby space, say the Moon and Mars, can teach us so much about our own planet, or even the origins of life. Understanding why Mars has a thin atmosphere and is relatively cold, as apposed to why Venus has enough atmospheric pressure to crack stainless steel nuts and has pretty raindrops composed of super-heated sulphuric acid could tell us a lot about how to manage our own world.

Then there is the technology. Without the moonrace we would probably still be using slide rules. The integrated circuit - among dozens of other critical technologies - were spin-offs from that rapid technological advancement. How much of our current economy depends on these new innovations and discoveries?

What about survival of the species? How long before we get the one-in-one-hundred-million year asteroid that wipes the ecological slate back to little scurrying creatures? Do we really want the descendants of the cockroaches to fill all the ecological niches? No fair!

Come on! We have to get off this rock!

Exploration has always had tremendous benefits for society: accessing new resources, opening up new horizons. Even giving persecuted minorities the chance to carve out their own future. At one time modern democracy was a political experiment created in the heady atmosphere of a new frontier. What new cultural experiments might be possible in the vast frontiers of Space?

Don't we owe it to future generations to be the ones who start the glorious second Age of Exploration?

OK. Now for the other side. . .

Can we really justify spending billions of dollars to hurl a few hundred kilograms out of orbit when the world is falling apart? What about the Great Ape? The White Rhino? The Dwindling Rainforests? The rapid heating of the atmosphere? How can we ignore what is happening right here on Earth: the starving millions, the failing ecosystems? How long can we go on before the lights go out right where we live?

Is retrieving a few kilograms of rock from some cranny on Mars at the cost of half a billion dollars really worth the death of one starving child? Do we really need to know the composition of lunar regolith?

Can't people see that this is nothing more than a distraction perpetrated by the political elite to take people's attention from the real issues by dangling shiny new toys? What about providing clean drinking water and education for the other three-quarters of the planet instead?

Don't we owe it to our descendants to get our own house in order before we start building new ones in orbit? Won't reaching for the stars now just perpetuate the same imbalance and inequality somewhere else?

OK. So what do you think? If there is anyone reading who thinks we should not go? Please tell us why. Who thinks the moon landing was a hoax?

PS: Anyone looking for a laugh could also cast an eye over the 10 movie reasons not to go into space. Featuring everything from energy-sucking space vampires to the ever-present threat of the astronaut's wife getting some sort of automaton back from orbit that is under the control of an evil many-tentacled space-entity:)


Chris L said...

Hi Chris,

Let me preface my ideas on going out into the void by saying that we actually have the technology to negate the reasons against already.

If we wanted to stop burning stuff to make energy (mining coal and cutting down forests etc.) we could simply go nuclear. Forget about coal and fossil fuels - sooo yesterday. Providing reliable, clean energy would go a long way to fixing many of the problems you've identified.

Most of the other ills you list are self-inflicted. I'd be more worried about saving the black rhino than the white, but either way, it's a social issue and that means education, not squillions of dollars.

As an explorer myself, I would say it is vital that we get out into space and start looking at, sampling, analysing, discovering, modelling, colonising and potentially terraforming other worlds. Just look at how successfully we've spread across the face of the Earth. It's what we were born to do.

It's in our nature to find out what's around the corner, over the hill, or in that really deep hole. We just have to. Back in the day, crazy risk-takers got on a leaky boat and sailed around the globe in search of territory to claim. What do those guys do now to get the same rush? Basejump? drive really fast cars? What a waste! Send them into space!

There will always be naysayers, democracies are riddled with them. It might not be until we're ruled by a tyrant with a vision that we finally crystallise the will to do what we all know we must.

*Steps down off the pedestal*


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

What happened to our moon stations and flying cars?

On the other hand I now have a phone I can carry around in the palm of my hand and take pictures with.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Chris
Getting robots into space is well within our grasp but there are currently insuperable biological problems putting people into space - apart from short hops in Earth orbit.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Rowenna - and ladies in skin tight uniforms - whatever happened to that promise.

Mike said...

John? They're making a fortune doing music videos, I think?

Brendan said...

We are just developing the materials with the tensile strength to allow the building of space needles which seems to be the only practical long term solution to escaping our gravity well. My guess is it will be twenty or so years before we get enough serious infrastructure to make proper exploration possible though and I think we should be looking at asteroids as our main priority since they will be easiest source of resources for our eventual expansion.

C Kelsey said...

I read a great article on Moore's law a couple weeks ago. Before going into how Moore related the development curves to computer processors, the concept was actually from a 1950's US Air Force study. The study was mind blowing. The Air Force looked at the amount of money spent on technology and how quickly technology developed. The conclusion? Provided enough money, technology would develop at insane rates. They started plotting just for aviation. Man's first flight. WWI. Record breaking flights. WWII flights. Breaking the speed of sound, etc. Then they projected where things *should* go based on previous trends. Using that curve they predicted the rough time we should have our first satellite. Sputnik hit exactly as predicted. Part of why we *knew* we could go to the moon before 1970 was that the curve said we could. The really cool thing is that going to the stars was on that plot too. We should be there in the next 50 years or so if the law is true. So, we should go because we can. And ultimately I think we *will* go because technology is already on that path.

MataPam said...

Problems to be overcome for space exploration:

(1) Getting out of a gravity well routinely.

(2) Self sufficient mini-ecology for atmosphere and water recycling.

(3) Sustained drive for maneuvering asteroids and building up velocities.

Now, mind you, FTL would be nice, but if you can keep up a 1/10th G acceleration more or less indefinitely, you’ll get places soon enough for practical purposes.

Problems to be overcome to Save The Earth:

(1) Nuclear power for concentrated needs.

(2) Solar power for homes, especially important in the third world where desertification is being driven by the need for cooking fuel. In parts of the world that lack a regional electric grid, it’s even cost effective. Although not compared to just letting people live hand to mouth, cooking over twigs.

(3) [Insert rational, intelligent discussion of the climate] (In the unlikely event you can find one) Admit that petroleum is a finite resource and the above suggestions will be necessary _sometime_ no matter what a brief uptick in the CO2 does, or doesn’t do, to the climate.

The thing is, all the money that is spent on space gets spent down here on Earth. It pays everyone from the brilliant scientist to the practical engineer to the refinery workers to the miners grubbing the rare ores out of the ground. It provides jobs all the way up and down, leaks support jobs and will even make the solar panels cheaper, more efficient, and more available.

We can pick both, if we want to.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

A species must expand or die. The cogniscenti tell me ours deserve to, but being human (no, I DON'T think THEY are) I'll cheer for humans and being a mother (at least everyone tells me that) I'll cheer for my genetics.

Go humans! (Waves pompoms) Leave the basket where we were eggs and expand. The more places we are the harder to kill.

Jim McCoy said...

I think we need to go. This planet is only so big and the human race is expanding at an ever increasing rate. It will be necessary to get resources somewhere else soon and space is the only option.

The thing that people who complain about the cost of space exploration forget about is the cost of NOT going. Talking about starvation and poverty is never easy, nor is finding a solution to the problem. How many more people will we lose to the same causes if the planet becomes resource depleted though? How many people are we willing to sacrifice in the future to save people in the present?

Anonymous said...

I agree with both sides of the argument, but the reason that the "expand" argument wins with me is that so much of our current technology is a result of space research and exploration. Who'd have guessed all the nifty things that are all now a part of our daily lives began as a part of the space program? And who knows what nifty things are still awaiting their discovery. Maybe one of those things is a cure for our planetary problems. We won't know until we get there.


Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris L. I have very much the same feeling about the need to go out and explore, it is certainly something core with me. I'm not sure how many people share that.

I agree on the other issues. There is not reason that we cannot work on both fronts - I think that is one of the major holes in the whole argument against. There is nothing stopping us from fixing our local problems and getting out there. Let's face it a LOT of money is spent on other stuff right now - Defence for example - or maintaining nuclear stockpiles.

As for the dictator's job - It's like I always said, what we need is a benevolent dictatorship, but noone wants to give me the job:)

Chris McMahon said...

Ohmigod, Rowena! You meant you don't have a flying car? That is so seventies:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, John. I think the low gravity and zero gravity effects on biological systems is one of the biggest hurdles that no one seems to talk about. Having said that, they have managed to keep people on the ISS in resonable health for up to 6 months through exercise and medication. The proposed Mars mission is for 6 months during. What I haven't seen discussed is the additive effect of the lower gravity of Mars for the planned 18 months after that, then the 6 months return.

I suspect that low gravity pregnancy, even at Mars gravity, will be really problematic. Have you seen anything on pregnancy studies in low gravity, John? LIke on the ISS?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, John. There is always seven-of-nine from Voyager:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Mike. Yes they are, but can you tell which ones are the aliens?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Brendan. I agree I think keeping the DeltaV low for resource extractin will be the key. Perhaps a combination of low speed robotic missions and easy asteroid targets? I've never seen anything on the feasibiity of asteroid mining, but the lower gravity would seem to make it energy friendly.

20 years for the space elevator? I would add another zero onto that - 200 years, if the materials are solveable. Do you have any links you can throw me on the materials development?

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Chris. That sounds fascinating. I'd love to have a look at that if you have the link. Man I hope you are right! That means I get to see it (fingers crossed) in my lifetime - even if I have to watch it from old tatty armchair with legwarmers:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. I agree. I think that is one of the traps of the whole argument - it is not an Either/Or scenario. There is plenty of money wasted all over the place.

The Nuclear Thermal Rocket is achievable right now and would be a great little workhorse for the solar system. For getting off Earth a solid core rocket with hydrogen propellant gets more than 8000 m/s impulse - that leaves the oxygen/hydrogen chemical system at ~3600 m/s for dead.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. Spoken like a true partisan of the revolution. Viva La Space! Where do I sign up?

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Jim. Gret point! The cost of NOT going is a really good perspective for counter-argument. The incredible technological spin-offs from the moonrace support than in hard $$s. But as you say, it goes well beyond that - if you look at the exponential growth of energy usage (even if population stabilises), we need to get out there and start accessing the He3 for Fusion!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. It is really exciting to think of those unknown technologies entering our lives. We have a lot of technological refinement at the moment - but no quantum leaps. If you think of 1980 Vs 1990 - man the change in how we lived was amazing! Internet, personal computers, mobile phones, faxes. From 1990 to 2010 its just been more of the same, just smaller and faster and in more pretty colours.

What could the next leap be?

C Kelsey said...

Hi Chris. I'll try and find it again. I can't even remember where I originally found it. :(

MataPam said...

We need to get away from rockets. They limit us, badly.

I'm hoping for a breakthrough on something like antigravity. Once we can warp the shape of space and fall off of the Earth, anything becomes possible. Take off, move to Mars, land and take off, head for the asteroids, assay a dozen, and push one into a smaller orbit for later retrieval, return to rock hopping, shove another into a short orbit, drop down and intercept the first and steer it into a very careful, minimum delta V Drop on to the Greenland reentry zone, land and go out for dinner... Take a week's vacation before you have to head back to work and steer the other rock for the zone.

That's when you've got the ability to go anywhere, and do anything.

Better rockets just improve access to earth orbit.

Kate said...

We need to get the heck out there as fast as we can, with whatever tech we have now and boost it on the fly.

As Matapam said, most of the expenditure and research will happen here and will have benefits here. Plus, we're not going to know how humans adapt to living on a different planet with different gravity until people actually do it.

Nor will we be able to really manage self-contained habitats until we're out there building them, living in them, and adapting them to what we encounter.

In my view, one of the first things that needs to happen is to get a whole lot less risk-averse. If we're going to shut down space exploration whenever there's an accident, we'll never get anywhere.

MataPam said...


I recall experiments with chicken eggs. The conclusion being that there was an early stage where gravity seemed to be crucial for the proper differentiation of cell types, as the blastocyst went from all identical cells to the beginning of systematic differences in the cytoplasm, leading to speciallized cell types.

I think it was one of the early shuttle experiments, pre ISS.

How much gravity the minimum is, whether spin or acceleration induced "artificial gravity" would substitute is something that needs to be studied. Along with radiation shielding.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Antigravity would indeed be cool, but probably way out there in terms of the technology curve. But who knows?

I agree we really need to get out there and learn by doing. Can't wait to see it happen. These little probes every decade are like death by a thousand cuts.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. The whole gravity effects thing intrigues me. So little has been done on it - or at least I can't find anything.

So no Chicken Coops on the ISS, eh:)