Archive for the ‘Humans in Space’ category

Outpost Tavern and the End of an Era

October 17, 2010

The Outpost Tavern burned down Friday night. The Outpost was a rickety little tavern in Houston a couple miles from Johnson Space Center, famous as a hang-out for astronauts and other NASA folks. It went out of business earlier this year and it has apparently now met its fiery demise.

I first visited the Outpost when I was in the 2006 Goddard NASA Academy. 20 of us showed up without notice at this little bar with one bartender and a couple of regulars. They were completely overwhelmed by the sudden burst of business, but amazingly, the regulars got up and lent the bartender a hand in the kitchen, and we all got our burgers and beer in impressively little time. We followed the tradition and signed our names to a dollar bill and posted it on the wall along with all the other signed bills and various astronaut paraphernalia.

Future NASA heroes enjoying dinner at The Outpost.

But I mention the end of the Outpost not just so I can share that anecdote with you. I mentioned it because I came across an interesting commentary on the Outpost as a metaphor for NASA in general over at Elliott Potter’s blog Implementation, Detail.

This excerpt really stood out to me:

Now it’s 40 years later. Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo moon landers, yet the Space Shuttle’s proposed successor has barely more computing power than the one on the desk in front of me. Why? Not because it’s hard to put electronics into space, or because spacecraft design somehow excludes modern technology – it’s because small-minded people won’t let science fiction become reality.

Those are the people who I think will most lament the passing of The Outpost. Those are the people who bow to the supposed wisdom of yesterday’s paper heroes – Shuttle astronauts who can’t bear to just be scientists or engineers because scientists and engineers aren’t viewed as heroes.

I agree with most of this, but I think more than just the Old Guard lament the loss of the Outpost and the era that it stood for. I certainly am sad to see it go even though I share Potter’s disappointment with the tendency for NASA to cling to the past. The early days of NASA have become almost mythological precisely because there were heroes, and it’s very difficult for people to imagine a different type of NASA with different types of heroes. But that’s exactly what we need. The tendency has always been to try to recreate those glory days of NASA, but we live in a different world and we have to accept there are other ways for space exploration to advance.

I sincerely hope that as NASA attempts to move forward and send humans to Near Earth Objects and other destinations beyond low-earth orbit, it also remembers how to get the world excited again. I’ve talked about this before and Potter puts his finger on it: NASA needs heroes again, and people need to be comfortable with scientists and engineers being those heroes rather than Buck Rodgers-style steely-eyed missile men. You can show the average person all the spectacular pictures of space that you like, but they won’t truly get excited about what NASA does unless there is a human element to connect with. Human space exploration is perfect for building this connection with the public, but somehow NASA has lost the ability or the willingness to play on the inherent human drama of what it does.

I’ll close with the eloquent conclusion to Elliott Potter’s post because it sums things up better than I can:

America already has the resources to achieve greatness in the future. We already have the knowledge and power to go to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond. It doesn’t require additional support from the President or senators or congressmen or contractors. All it requires is that we learn from the past without being bound by it – that we respect the heroes of our youth without requiring all future heroes to be the same. My children should aspire to be astronauts not through feats of strength or military training, but through preparation, knowledge, and ability – the strengths that make humanity most unique and powerful and able to deal with the unknown.

Let The Outpost rest in peace; with it, let our past heroes rest in peace. Let new heroes arise from the ashes: the engineers and scientists who can actually perform the technical miracles we expect from NASA.

Russia’s Steampunk Lunar Lander

October 8, 2010

I always found the contrast between Soviet and US engineering fascinating. The goals were generally similar, but while the US seemed to aim for elegant, lightweight, optimized designs, Soviet spacecraft always look like they’re bolted together out of cast iron or something. That’s why I love this gallery of photos of the Soviet lunar lander that they developed during the space race. This thing looks like it should be used for deep sea exploration! Between this, and the always-awesome Lunokhod rovers, I’m pretty sure the Russians inadvertently started the steampunk movement.

Can Life Survive in Space?

August 12, 2010

I’ve got a new post up at The Science of Starcraft! This time I tackle the question of whether unprotected living things could ever survive in the vacuum of space. Go check it out!

Force Fields and Plasma Shields

July 29, 2010

Force fields are common in lots of science fiction, but how realistic are they? That’s the question I tackle in the latest Science of Starcraft post. Head on over and check it out!

We Didn’t Fake the Moon Landings

July 29, 2010

But I want to get one of those dramatic glowing tables!

Space-Based Solar Power: a solution to our burning need for energy

June 20, 2010

People burn things. This crude way to get energy has done wonders for us as a species, but I think it’s about time we moved on.

It’s easy to forget how important burning stuff is in modern times because the burning is mostly hidden. Most of our electricity comes from burning coal and gas, but the furnaces are far away and instead of huddling around our campfire to cook and stay warm, we now huddle around the glow of computers and televisions. But somewhere, something is burning to make that possible.

If we want to go somewhere, we hop in a car and drive. Occasionally we have to fill the gas tank, but the explosions under the hood of the car are muffled and hidden, out of sight, out of mind. If we need to get somewhere far away quickly, we launch ourselves into the sky in airplanes, propelled by fuel burned at an incredible rate.

It’s easy to take for granted all the cheap energy that we get from burning things, but we have known for a long time that it is not an ideal solution. It’s dirty and inefficient and the looming threat of a fuel shortage is always present. All the easy sources of fuel have been tapped, so we turn to the difficult ones: shearing off the tops of mountains to get at their coal or pushing the limits of human technology to drill into oil reservoirs deep beneath the sea floor. Now, inevitably, something has gone wrong and the fuel that we prize so greatly is gushing from a wound in the earth and there is little we can do to stop it.

I’m reminded of the line from the Lord of the Rings, giving the reason for their downfall:

The dwarves delved too greedily and too deep. You know what they awoke in the darkness of Khazad-dum… shadow and flame.

The BP oil spill in the gulf forcibly reminds us of the price of our prosperity. The gusher will be capped eventually, and deep water drilling will resume eventually, but it’s clear that burning things for energy isn’t as easy as it used to be. Our demand for energy is exceeding our supply, and it is time to start developing alternatives.

Of all the alternative energy sources, solar and nuclear power are the most appealing to me. When you think about it, there are really only two sources of energy here on the Earth: radioactivity and solar. You may protest and say “what about wind, hydroelectric, geothermal?” But what drives the wind? The sun. What drives the water cycle? The sun. And what provides the earth’s internal heat? Radioactivity. And of course, all the energy that we have unleashed burning wood and coal and oil through the ages was originally solar energy as well.

Solar power has the potential to not only revolutionize our energy needs, but to stimulate space exploration. How, you ask? By putting the solar panels in space.

The idea of space-based solar power has been around for a long time, but we are just now getting close enough technologically for it to be feasible. Essentially, it works by launching huge solar arrays into space, where the sun is always shining and there is not an atmosphere to block the light. The arrays collect the sunlight and turn it directly into electricity, which powers microwave transmitters. These transmitters beam energy down to the Earth’s surface, where it is collected by antenna arrays and converted back into electricity. No need to mess around with giant steam turbines and dynamos anymore.

Initially, space-based solar power would be used in situations where there is no reliable power infrastructure: particularly military and disaster operations. As long as a receiving antenna can be deployed, energy can be beamed down to it from the panels in space. As the solar power technology improves, and launches become less expensive, and other sources of energy like coal and oil become more expensive, the demand for space-based solar power will increase.

The key turning point will be when space-based solar power becomes profitable. All of a sudden, it will no longer just be a neat technology used by advanced military forces, but a commercially viable technology with tons of room to grow. More demand for launches will drive the cost down, allowing other missions to be launched for much more reasonable prices. Astronauts will be trained to maintain and repair the solar arrays, and human spaceflight will become commonplace.

And of course, we will finally be able to move beyond the primitive practice of burning stuff to get our energy. Almost. Rockets still burn fuel to get into space. Some of them, such as the Falcon 9 even burn hydrocarbons: typically kerosene.  It seems fitting to me that rockets, the culmination of thousands of years of burning stuff, will finally free us from that necessity by providing nearly limitless, clean power.

I can’t wait.

The Biological Singularity

June 15, 2010

If you’re a sci-fi reader, you are probably familiar with the idea of the “technological singularity“. For the uninitiated, the Singularity is the idea that computational power is increasing so rapidly that soon there will be genuine artificial intelligence that will far surpass humans. Essentially, once you have smarter-than-human computers, they will drive their own advancement and we will no longer be able to comprehend the technology.

We can debate whether the singularity will or will not happen, and what the consequences might be, for a long time, but that’s not the point of this post. This post was inspired by the final chapter in Denialism by Michael Specter. In that chapter, Specter talks about the rapid advancement in biotechnology. Specifically, he points to the rapid increase in computational power and the resulting rapid increase in the speed of genome processing.

I always sort of knew that both fields were advancing rapidly, but for some reason it clicked while I was reading that chapter. A lot of people talk about nanotechnology as some sort of miracle technology that is just around the corner: we will be able to create tiny machines that can do our bidding to build things at the molecular level. Traditionally these machines are seen as tiny robots, but as I read that chapter in Denialism, I realized that nanotech is both closer than I expected and not “robotic” at all!

Maybe custom-designed organisms will make nano-scale machines like this unnecessary.

Nanotechnology already exists: it’s called life. Think about it. Why construct little robots to do our bidding, when living cells fit the bill perfectly? With exponentially increasing computing power, we will be able to sequence genomes in seconds or less. Sooner or later, we will understand the genes well enough to start designing entirely new forms of life.

So if we’re using our super-intelligent computers to design new forms of life, what happens when the computers become smarter than us? The singularity might not end with a catastrophic “grey goo” but with an explosion of bio-diversity. Of course the line between biology and computers might become so blurred that there is no meaningful distinction between the two.

The post biological singularity world might be a very strange place indeed. On the one hand, it could be great. Imagine instead of factories, huge colonies of carefully tended micro-organisms. Need a new car? Just culture some bacteria that deposit steel the way corals deposit carbonate. Keep them fed with raw ore and tended, and they grow the car for you.Or perhaps we do away with the distinction between life and technology. Maybe our vehicles will be living, intelligent things along the lines of those in the novel Leviathan. Of course, post-singularity, there might not be humans anymore. The post-humans might take over and see humans as obsolete.

Another thought that occurs to me is that this level of biotechnology might open up the solar system in a way that previous technologies could not. Terraforming could become much easier if you can design micro-organisms that can survive and thrive on Venus or Mars under current conditions. But why stop there, why not just design your astronauts so that they can survive on the surface. Instead of terraforming a whole planet, Areo-form the individuals who will explore it!

I think this is a really cool but also sort of disturbing idea to think about. One of the difficulties with science fiction these days is that the pace of advancement is so fast that it’s difficult to say what the future will be like even ten years down the road. I think the only thing we can really say for sure is that it will surprise us.


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