Posts Tagged ‘Solar System’

Losing the race to survive

2011/03/31

The United States, the most technologically advanced nation in the world, is surrendering its access to outer space.  With the retirement of the space shuttles, the U.S. will be totally dependent upon Russia for getting people into space.  Only the refusal of the U.S. government to fund NASA adequately can be blamed for this debacle.  The shuttles have many more missions in them, they are safe when operated properly, and they are the first of what I hope will be a long line of reusable space planes.

Getting people into space is the biggest challenge we face right now, one which the U.S. has decided to avoid.  In spite of doing all of the work necessary to build a safe, reliable, economical way of accessing space, the U.S. is not taking the next step.  Outer space is the key to the survival of the human race, because only there can we find the resources and the energy to lift the human race out of poverty, disease, and eventual extinction.  Everything that we need is out there, in vast quantities, just waiting for us to come along and make use of it.  We can process materials out there without fouling our air and water, or putting more strain on our energy production system.

Getting into space means accelerating to 17,500 miles per hour, or 5 miles per second.  Every pound that goes into orbit requires large amounts of energy to reach that velocity.  Coming back to Earth, that same energy must be dissipated somehow, so that the vehicle is slowed enough to land.  We are going to give up landing on a runway like an airplane for landing in the ocean, like a rock falling from the sky.

Because the space shuttle was vehicle designed by Congress, it was horribly expensive to operate.  But the basic principles that it pioneered are sound, and should be the basis for the design of our next space vehicle.  But we must avoid the problem that the space shuttle faced, and that was trying to do too many things with one vehicle.  We need a space plane that is designed to carry about 10 to 15 people, and only people, into orbit, and to bring them back and land on a runway at the place where the vehicle takes off.

We also need to get beyond vertical launching.  We now have the technology to build an aircraft that would serve as a first stage, taking off horizontally, and carrying the space plane to an altitude where most of the atmosphere is below it.  This would utilize the oxygen in the atmosphere for burning the fuel, instead of having to carry it onboard, and it would take advantage of the thick atmosphere to provide lift.

Building such a system would take less than 100 billion dollars, and could be accomplished in a few years.  We already know everything that we need to now, all of the science has been proven, all we need is the wherewithal to make the future possible.

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Spaced out

2010/05/15

Recently, three Apollo-era astronauts, including the first man to walk on the Moon, attacked the new program of space exploration proposed by the Obama administration.  They contend that terminating the Constellation program to build a new rocket for carrying Americans into space is wrong, and that the proposed reliance on private space companies to send astronauts into space is flawed and unworkable.

The United States is on the brink of an abyss, a time when there is no American spacecraft to carry our astronauts to their work.  This happened before, during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, between the Apollo spacecraft and the space shuttle.  The space shuttle is being grounded, because NASA does not have enough money to fly it and to do anything else.  The costs have not increased, the money that Congress gives the agency every year has stagnated, and inflation has reduced the ability of the dollars to buy what they used to.

When President Bush announced the Constellation program, it was expected that the new rocket would be ready by 2015, so there would only be a 4 year gap in our space faring ability.  But, because of the new kind of rocket that is to be used in the Constellation program, delays have mounted, and the earliest that it would carry people into orbit had been pushed back to 2018.  Plus, the capsule that was supposed to ride the new rocket into space, the Orion, had been too heavy to begin with, and so the number of people it was supposed to carry shrank from 5 to 3.

The Constellation program had become so expensive that NASA was considering shutting down the International Space Station 5 years early to free up money for Constellation, something which our partners in the space station were not likely to agree to.  NASA was proposing to build a rocket that would have nowhere to go, at least until the year 2020, when a new, larger rocket was supposed to make it possible for people to go to the Moon.  But there had been no money in the budget for developing the equipment needed to explore the Moon, so we would again have a rocket with nowhere to go.

What the three Apollo astronauts did not say was that we are not spending enough on space exploration.  They avoided mentioning budgets, and focused on prestige and scientific standing.  But the sad fact is that we are losing our ability to go into space, unless we reconsider the decision to stop flying the space shuttle.  The Constellation program would not have solved that problem, because there would still have been nowhere to send the rockets once they were finally built.  Our current budget for manned space exploration, including development of new spacecraft, is about 7 billion dollars.  We could double that amount and still not approach what we spend on the War on Drugs, for instance.

Without space, the prospects for the human race are bleak, because we will be trapped in a petri dish, stuck in a closed system, more and more of us competing for a finite amount of resources.  Without space, our consumption of energy will eventually destroy our environment.  Without space, the pie that everyone wants a bigger piece of cannot grow.

2010/03/07

What happens when government shirks its responsibilities?  If the US government had decided not to play a part in opening up the American west, how long would the process have taken?  Without some kind of assistance, the railroad companies would not have been willing to risk millions of dollars to build a railroad from St. Louis to San Francisco.  Without government involvement, aviation would still be primitive, limited to short hops with few passengers.

One of the primary purposes of government is do that which the private sector can’t, or won’t do, when the results would be very beneficial.  The interstate highway system could never have been built by the private sector alone, because of the high cost.  Many people in rural areas would still be living without electricity if the Rural Electrification Act of 1915 had never been enacted.

Investors are constantly seeking ways to make more money.  Without leadership from government investment, they will put their money into whatever seems to offer the best returns.  Thus, we had a period where money was invested into financial derivatives, real estate, and leveraged buyouts.  Several trillion dollars of investor money poured into making more money, but the investments were not sound, and over 1 trillion dollars disappeared because of that.

It is my belief that the government refused to invest in what should have been the most rewarding technology we have ever discovered, choosing instead to focus on weapons technology and extending American influence into energy-rich parts of the world.  Without clear leadership from the government, investment capital was thrown at any idea which might possibly pay off.

Now, we are seeing the consequences of that lack of leadership.  The American economy is collapsing, our industries are moving overseas, and debt is choking growth.  America is creating very few things that the rest of the world wants, and is forced to sell off land and infrastructure to purchase what we do not produce here.

It didn’t have to be like this.  In the 1970’s and ’80’s, the US could have been creating the infrastructure of the next industrial revolution.  We had the know-how and resources to pave the way for wealth creation on a scale that dwarfs anything that has gone before.  Instead of using the most advanced technology in the world to open up the next frontier, we choose to squander it.  We could have been building space stations, more advanced versions of the space shuttle, and exploring the Moon.  We could have been learning to process materials in zero gravity, creating products which can not be made here on Earth.

Had we taken the path into space, investment would have followed.  Private space stations would have been built, private expeditions to the Moon launched, and real wealth would have been created.  Investors would be putting their money into new industrial techniques, new transportation systems.  Products would be available that would revolutionize life on Earth.  Right now, we have no idea what can be done out there, just as no one could have conceived that aviation would completely alter the world.

So, instead of creating new wealth, investors are chasing imaginary wealth, wealth which evaporates overnight.  Instead of building the next generation of spacecraft, which would be in use for generations, we are retiring the only working spacecraft that we have.  Instead of expanding our world, we are watching it shrink.

A new economic model

2010/02/21

Right now, we don’t have time for dealing with health care costs, new legislation regarding the financial industry, or immigration reform.  We have a great need to re-invent our economy, immediately, before we slip further into recession.  Our old economy depended too much on manipulating money to make money, on huge profits on inefficient automobiles, and credit.  Consumer spending was the engine of the economy, accounting for 70 percent of all economic activity.

Those days are long gone, and they are not coming back soon.  But our economic model has not changed, and millions of people are sliding into permanent unemployment.  Somehow, we have to find a way to create things that other people, people outside the United States are going to want.  They do not want our automobiles, they do not want our computers, they do not want our clothes.  What does America do better than anybody else?  Besides screw, start wars, and piss people off in general, I mean.

We are the world’s leader in advanced aerospace technology right now.  We are currently operating the only reusable spacecraft in the world.  We have learned tremendous amounts about getting into space and getting back.  By applying that knowledge to the development of a new generation of spaceplane, spacecraft designed solely to climb a short distance out of the atmosphere, and then return, we could lay the groundwork for another industrial revolution, one which would create more new wealth than has been made in all of Earth’s history.

The most difficult part of space travel is the getting into space.  We have to accelerate ourselves to a velocity of 5 miles per second, 17,500 miles per hour, to be able to stay in orbit.  There are several different rockets that can put freight into space, but only a few which can carry people.  The space shuttle is one of them, and it is set to be retired this year.  After that, the United States will not have a way to reach space, and will have to buy seats from the Russians to send our astronauts to the International Space Station.  NASA had been developing an old-fashioned rocket to carry a small number of people into space, but it duplicates the capabilities of several existing American rockets in most ways.  And none of the current or projected rockets will be able to carry more than a few people at a time.

This coming industrial revolution is going require people, lots of people, people who will be living and working in space.  Getting them there is the only thing holding up this new revolution.  Once that bottleneck is broken, investment in space stations; laboratories and orbital factories, is going to start.  The United States has a head start in building the type of spacecraft that will be the backbone of space travel in the future, which will look a lot like the space shuttle.  But, unlike the space shuttle, this spacecraft will only carry people, at least at first.  The parts for the space stations can be sent up on freight rockets that already exist.

But having people use a rocket means that it has to be ‘man-rated’, which means that the chance that a malfunction will result in the death of the crew is minimized.  These requirements add so much weight to existing rockets that they cannot be used.  That is because they all take off straight up, which means that failure will have the crew right in the middle of a whole bunch of explosive materials.

But there is another way of reach space, besides going straight up in a rocket.  By carrying the spacecraft to about 50,000 feet of altitude, the spacecraft can be launched where the air is thin enough that the spacecraft can fly horizontally and still go fast enough that it will reach space.  Lower down in the atmosphere, the air is too dense to be able to do that, which is why rockets launch straight up, then curve toward the horizon.

The United States, under the guidance of NASA, could build the immense carrier wing needed to carry the spacecraft to launch altitude, and the spacecraft that will then fly to orbit, and return, to land where it took off, where it will be prepared to fly again.  This kind of launch system can operate in bad weather, which rockets generally avoid, and does not require huge numbers of people to monitor every aspect of the spacecraft, the launch site, and the surrounding area.  Because a malfunction will simply result in the spacecraft flying back to the landing sight, and not blowing itself apart, with the crew section floating to earth by parachute, it is not necessary to be aware of every detail.

Space flight which does not have to wait for perfect conditions, perfect performance, is the prerequisite of this industrial revolution.  It must be low-cost, safe, and reliable.  We have the ability to make it happen, and doing so in a short time would require the work of many people.  It would also result in many people being paid enough that they could afford to hire housekeepers, gardeners, and music teachers.  Coupled with a national program to improve the energy efficiency of the United States, employment for all could be achieved in a matter of months.

What was spent on the fiscal stimulus program would have paid for the complete development of this new spacecraft, the carrier wing, and the launch and recovery facilities, as well as the ground support needed to operate it, several times.  No other investment we can make offers the potential for larger returns, for new wealth to be created.  Other nations are anxious to take part in this revolution, and some are planning to start it themselves.

But this revolution will need people on the spot, people who can perform experiments, people who can figure out how to make things work, people to keep things working.  Lots and lots of people.  People who will ride to work on spacecraft that take off and land like airplanes.  Spacecraft that we can, and need, to build.

The estimated value of debt

2010/01/29

This financial crisis we have just started dealing with is not a surprise, nor was it unexpected.  And it isn’t over.  We are dealing with the consequences of our actions, the paybacks for the greed we all have been guilty of.  Sure, we believed that our homes were appreciating at astronomical rates, and why, of course we took our banker at face value when he said that it would wise to take out a home equity loan.  We wanted to have that money to play with.  We wanted to buy a nicer car to commute to work with, that boat that was on sale, or put in a pool.  Could we afford to do these things without borrowing money?  Not no.  Hell no.  We shoveled debt onto our heads like we were digging foxholes under fire.

What has all this economic activity created, all the money that we spent bought?  And how could so much of it just evaporate overnight?  People think about credit, but what about debt?  How many people think about the fact that most of the wealth that has been created in the last 20 years or so has been nothing more than numbers in computers, based upon the value of debt.  The more people owe you, the richer that you are.  People invest in debt, banks sell it, and nobody seems to want to pay it off.  What a wonderful concept; buy today what you cannot pay for until tomorrow, if you are lucky.

Did anyone figure in the effect of laying off millions of the highest paid consumers on the planet?  Is it really growth when you take jobs away from one group of people and give them to a different group?  Or is that just financial manipulation, to create wealth by cutting costs.  What happens when the cost that you cut is the buyer of your product?

Real wealth does not evaporate, it does not diminish in value, it is durable, and serves all the people.  Real wealth is roads, bridges, fiber optic cables, transmission lines.  How much real wealth has been created in the United States in the last 20 years?  And it is not creating new wealth to repair old roads, it is investing in what you already have.  So, we built a lot of buildings, but were they needed, or were they funding for a developer?

On every level, Americans have chosen to ignore the future, to resist real change, to accept that they were no better than anybody else.  Other people could ride trains and busses, we were going to drive.    So what if our new building doesn’t have any insulation.?  It is cheaper that way.  And the whole time, we have been insisting that everything is worth more.  Not because of any discernable reason, but just because we said so.

We have invested in trying to be wealthy enough to not have to work, not in making our futures better.  Now, we are paying for sitting on our butts.  We don’t create anything of value anymore, and we can’t even govern ourselves without borrowing money to do it.  Instead of spending money to develop the technologies needed to make a future possible, we have invested in moving production from America to some overseas country.  But we have not invested in giving Americans anything to do.  Normally, economic growth means that the leading countries improve their technology, and move from building one kind of product to one which is more complex, advanced, or somehow beyond the abilities of other producers.  Displacement happens as new industries replace old ones, and people have to learn new skills.

We veered off from advancing our technology, because it would have required a long-term investment, tying up our money for decades.  And we wanted to keep our technology to ourselves, so that no one else could use it against us.  In the 1960’s, during the administration of Richard Nixon, it was decided that the United States would not invest substantial resources into outer space.  The Apollo program would be cut, and no other manned exploration would be funded.  The military was going to handle space exploration, and only for the purpose of defense.

Since that time, the United States has spent more on cosmetics every year than has been spent on developing space manufacturing, mining, and processing.  Typical budgets for manned space exploration have amounted to a few brief missions every year, and nothing else.  The US would not have built a space station except because of pressure from its allies to contribute to one.

It is almost like we are committing suicide by starvation.  We give away all of our food, and do nothing to find more.  The world is fighting over a pie, each person wanting a bigger slice, and more people wanting slices all the time.  We need true growth, growth that results in wealth that will not evaporate.  The Earth is being used up, corrupted in our quest for wealth, while everything that we could possibly need exists somewhere in our Solar System.

Americans should be building space ships, working on space stations, or the Moon, doing work that produces tremendous value, so that they could bring home enough money to buy cars from Japan without having to borrow the money from China.  General Motors would be the worlds leading producer of launch vehicles, and Ford would be making deep space probes.  But we chose to be wealthy instead.

Scott P. Holman

2009/01/29

Space is the place for industry!

2009/11/08

Probably, you have heard something about ‘global warming’, ‘greenhouse gases,’ and some kind of ‘carbon tax’.  These are symptoms of our growing awareness of the fragile nature of our planet’s ecosystem.  Even though ecology is now an accepted discipline, it is a long way from having a complete understanding of all of the things that affect our home.  Most people feel that we should err on the side of caution when it comes to protecting that home, even going so far as buying hybrid automobiles and compact florescent lamps.  Even though the human race’s impact on our climate is still controversial, there can be little doubt that we are not going to be able to expand our industrial base enough to provide everyone on the planet a standard of living equal to that enjoyed in the United States today.

Why?  Because the United States uses nearly one quarter of all the energy consumed every year, yet only has a population of about 300 million people, while there are over six billion fellow human beings riding this spaceship with us.  You can do the math on that.  We already have experienced what happens when energy starts getting really expensive, and all indications are that we ain’t seen nothing yet.  Does this mean that we are doomed to a future of declining standards of living, fewer benefits from technology, and conflict over dwindling resources?

Only if we choose so!  We have an alternative to polluting ourselves into another Stone Age, destroying the life support system of Starship Earth, and poverty from paying for energy.  We are in the midst of plenty, far more than we can conceivably use for many thousands of years.  All around us are mineral and chemical resources, and energy, energy, and more energy.  Where?  Starting about 100 miles over our heads, on the other side of the sky.  Space, which will probably not be the ‘final frontier’, but which will suffice for now.

Our local star, the Sun, produces millions of times the energy we consume worldwide every year, pouring out so much that we have to be shielded from it to avoid turning into puddles of grease.  That is one of the reasons for protecting our ecosystem, because without the ozone layer, tanning would take about 5 seconds.  Most of the plants that we eat would not grow, and strange critters would start showing up, the result of rapid mutations.  Almost all of the energy that we use today comes from or came from the Sun.  Petroleum is sunlight which was captured by plants, and then concentrated by the heat and pressure of the Earth beneath us for millions of years.

Hydro power, the kind that come from the dams that kill the fish, is a result of sunlight heating the oceans, which lifts water far over the land areas, resulting in precipitation.  Wind is a side effect of that process, so even wind power comes primarily from the Sun.  If we were to utilize that energy in space, it would be undiminished by our atmosphere.  And we would not have the by-products and waste here on our home that are a result of every material process, but outside of our ecosystem, where they can’t hurt us, or anybody else, for that matter.

No matter how expensive it is to make things in space, eventually it will be cheaper than making them here on Earth, simply because the penalties for using energy in large quantities will be prohibitive.  And I’m not talking about legal penalties here, but the one’s that Nature imposes upon us.  When we overdo it, Nature has ways of restoring the balance, without any regard for our welfare.  If we disrupt the ecosystem too much, it will cease to support us.

Rather than spending our resources and energy trying to figure out how to do things here on Earth in such a way that they will not have so much impact on the air conditioning, we should be learning how to do them outside, beyond the atmosphere.  Pumping carbon dioxide into the ground will work for a little while, but it is not a final solution.  The final solution is we stop burning stuff here on Earth.  Period. Buying an electric car may seem like a way of protecting the environment, but where does the electricity come from?  For most parts of the U. S., it comes from coal.  Replacing our gas burning cars with electric ones will mean building many, many new coal-fired power plants.

Unless we get the power from outside, and bring it in.  There are ways of collecting the energy of the Sun in space, and then transferring that energy down to the Earth’s surface, safely and cleanly, with much greater efficiency than any feasible collection system working here in the atmosphere.  Converting sunlight to electricity is not easy, unless you have lots of energy to work with.  We can cover vast stretches of the world with solar panels, or we can put a few solar power satellites in orbit, and build a few receiving arrays, and get our power from off-planet.  Most people don’t know this, but the batteries in electric cars wear out after a few years, and solar panels are only good for about 25 years.  So we are looking at making substantially larger investments to stay where we are, if we don’t invest in the future.

The future is off-planet, at least when it comes to energy-intensive, resource-hungry, dirty industrial processes, or producing large quantities of energy.  Our future is off-planet, because that is where the new wealth will be created after a few years.  And there could be something off-planet which will decide our future for us, if we do not have the means to deflect it.  Large rocks, some a mile or more across, are still floating around the Solar System, and running into one of those would make life much more difficult.  It might even kill us, just as one did the dinosaurs.  We can’t even see all the junk that is out there, and we often don’t realize that we are going to have a near-miss until after it happens.

To have a future, one that is certain, one that is brighter than today, one that is worth striving for, means getting off of this rock, and learning to live outside, to work, and to create the things that we need, outside of our ecosystem.  We are fouling our nest right now, threatening the future of our children.  We have a choice, all we have to do is think outside the box.

Fouling the nest.

2009/10/18

Up until recently, a business could always find a haven from environmental regulations somewhere in the world.  Governments eager for growth would gladly allow a pit mine, smelter, blast furnace, or chemical plant.  But the leaders of nations today are more aware of the long-term costs of industrialization, and the whole world is waking up to the consequences of producing large amounts of carbon dioxide.

The technology that has become the lifeblood of our modern economy is beginning to threaten our existence.  Do we sacrifice the benefits of advanced technology to survive, accepting life without automobiles, computers, or  washing machines?  If making something means destroying something irreplaceable, what is the real cost of that product?  Currently, only a fraction of the world’s population enjoys the standard of living of the average American citizen.  Yet, we are producing greenhouse gases weighing billions of tons every year.  Energy consumption is nearly equal to the available supply.  What will happen as more and more of the world’s billions try to improve their standard of living?  Does raising the living standard of one person require the reduction in another persons?

If we treat our planet as a closed system, with finite resources, and limited ability to repair environmental damage, is there any hope for a peaceful future?  Greed and jealousy motivate people to take whatever they can, even if it belongs to someone else.  Will we let our cherished comforts be taken by someone else without a struggle, or will we fight tooth and nail to go on enjoying a shower every day?  Are we willing to sacrifice our solitary ride to work to allow someone in another country to survive?  Is there any alternative to treating our planet as a closed system?

Without the Sun, there would be practically no energy on Earth, because there would be no plants growing, no evaporation of water to make rain, nothing except heat from volcanoes and radiation.  So the Earth is not a closed system.  And the Earth exists in a neighborhood which is rich in material resources.  Everything from hydrogen, the lightest of all the elements, to uranium, one of the heaviest, exist in abundance in our Solar System.  There is unimaginable amounts of energy available, the constant output of the small star we call the Sun.

People perceive space exploration in many ways, perhaps as a search for knowledge of the origins of the Cosmos, or maybe as a quest for places to create colonies independent of Earth.  But one thing unites these perceptions;  the belief that they have nothing to do with everyday life, with the average person.  Nothing could be further from the truth, because space exploration is the only way that we are going to be able to continue the lifestyles we have come to take for granted.  It may take a few generations, but, eventually, all of humanity will sink back to primitive ways, as the resources needed for our advanced ways of life become prohibitively expensive.

In that same span of time, we can secure our future forever, by tapping into the resources all around us, and performing our industrial processes outside of the Earth’s environment.  Lifting our industries into space will only cost a fraction of the world’s annual income, while creating new wealth in excess of all that has ever existed.  People think of space travel as being hugely expensive, which it is, compared to travel on Earth.  But the actual costs are a tiny fraction of what is spent on the world’s military every year.  What is spent on cosmetics every year in the United States would finance the construction of a permanent base on the Earth’s moon in 20 years or less.

The solutions to the world’s problems do not exist in the world.  Only by going outside of our world can we solve our energy shortages, greenhouse gas production, and pollution problems.  We are fouling our nest, just as young animals do in nature.  But we must grow, as they do, and venture beyond our nest, into the outside.  Or we will die in our nest, destroyed by our own wastes.  Space exploration is not science fiction, it is not fantasy, it is here today, albeit in its infancy.  Lifting our industries into space will take many years, as we learn to move about easily in this new environment, and how to survive there.  But waiting to start will only make the starting less likely, as resources become even more precious.

Sometimes, small steps don’t work.

2009/08/23

President Obama appointed a blue ribbon panel to study our space program, and make recomendadtions to him.  Prior to this panel being formed, the Office Of Management And Budget stripped 3 billion dollars a year out of the proposed NASA budgets for the next few years, probably as a way of saving money during this economic crisis.

As a result, under the current budget numbers, NASA cannot do any space exploration.  There is barely enough money to keep the International Space Station in operation, and only for a few more years.  There is no money to develop any kind of new space craft, in spite of the space shuttle being scheduled for retirement next year.  The only way that Americans will be able to get to the space station is if they ride in Russian space craft.

Now, saving money is a good thing, and there are many ways that the US government could save money.  The money being taken away from our space program is only three billion dollars, a tiny fraction of the total US budget.  But that three billion dollars was all that had been allocated for building new rockets and space craft to take us to the Moon.

Space exploration is not like building a highway, where construction can simply be halted for years at a time.  Without continuous investment, the investment that we have already made becomes worthless, because it must be maintained.  If NASA gets rid of the International Space Station, and lets it fall into the ocean, they will have the money to begin building new space craft.  But there will be no where for those new space craft to go.  Even if new space craft were to be built in the next few years, there is no money to design and build equipment to use exploring the Moon.

Without investing in the future, it is unlikely that the future is going to be better than today.  We as a nation have several trillion dollars invested in various businesses, and our national government is now spending over one trillion dollars a year.  What is needed to fund a sound, practical program of exploration beyond Earth is a fraction of one percent of our budget, less than is spent on cosmetics in this country every year.

If we cannot resolve to spend a few billion dollars to expand the sphere of human activities, the United States is not going to be sending people into space much longer.  Other countries will be, but not the US.  More wealth than has been created in all of human history awaits us off planet, where energy and resources are free for the taking.   Don’t we want to be a part of that bonanza?

Even more importantly, the solutions to many of our environmental problems will not be found until we turn our eyes away from the Earth and look beyond it for what we need.  We do not have to figure out how to make steel without polluting the environment if we can figure out how to make steel outside the environment.

Space exploitation instead of exploration!

2009/07/17

Most people who are space exploration advocates believe that Mars is the big goal for the foreseeable future.  They talk about colonizing the red planet, terraforming it so that humans can walk under the open sky without protective equipment, and establishing a back-up culture for the one on Earth.  Many of these people believe that we should be sending humans to Mars right now, in spite of all the things that we don’t know about Mars, the long transit times to go there and back, (about 6 months each way,) and the fact that we have never developed a self-contained life support system.

A lot of these folks bristle at anything which they perceive delays going to Mars, or diverts resources from a Mars mission.  Some of them are quite opposed to sending people back to the Moon, because they don’t believe that the Moon has anything to offer humanity.  They want everyone to pay for making their dream a reality, with no thought of any other applications for space flight.

If the only reason to invest in space flight were the colonization of other planets, we would be a long time getting off of Earth.  Fortunately, there are other reasons to put money into space technology, reasons that are likely to generate extensive investments off planet.  The constant search for new products will be one driver, and the escalating costs of extracting resources and processing them here on Earth will be another.

We will be able to do things in space that simply can not be done here on Earth, because of gravity.  In a weightless environment, it is possible to mix oil and water, and have them stay mixed.  We probably don’t need any mixtures of oil and water, but that illustration demonstrates that in zero-gravity, density differences don’t have any effect.  So, we will be able to create new alloys,  because we can mix two metals with very different densities together, and they will not separate before they cool.

This effect also means that we can make foams out of almost anything, such as aluminum, steel, or any other metal, or even ceramics, because the bubbles will not rise to the top before the material cools.  And keeping some materials from cooling quickly makes them much stronger, through a process called annealing.  By keeping steel, for instance, at a high enough temperature for a long period of time, the crystalline structure of the metal is able to properly align itself all through the material.  This makes any steel item properly annealed much stronger than an item which is allowed to cool fairly quickly.  By ‘fairly quickly,’ I am talking days, not hours.  To anneal a steel wrench might take several weeks, which requires huge amounts of energy.

But that energy is free in space, so there is no prohibitive cost in annealing.  Extracting aluminum from bauxite is extremely energy-intensive, but we can tap the huge resources of the Sun in space, and create temperatures which are will allow the smelting of any ore, without having to burn anything in the Earth’s atmosphere.  The Moon is made up of nearly the same things as the Earth is, so we can find precious metals like copper, titanium, and gold on the Moon, extract them, and purify them, all without doing any damage to the Earth’s environment.

These are the reasons that big business will invest in space exploration, not building colonies on distant planets.  But the investments that big business makes will pave the way for the colonists, by creating more efficient launch systems, building Orbital Transfer Vehicles to move payloads around in Earth orbit, and developing ways to protect people from radiation, always a hazard when in space for long periods of time.

Encouraging business to invest in off-planet development, aerospace technology, and the study of zero-gravity processing will speed the exploration and colonization of the Solar System, by making available much sooner the technology needed to get large payloads off of Earth,  as well as people in a safe and reliable manner.

A different perspective

2009/04/24

It is long past time that we change our view of space exploration.  Historically, space exploration has been viewed as scientific research, little different than looking through a telescope.  What was being learned was thought to have little or nothing to do with our everyday lives, and would never be more than abstract knowledge.  Perhaps this point of view is partly the result of the failure of American politicians to identify any long-term goals in outer space.  The primary justification for spending money on space exploration since the Russians launched the first satellite has been the need to maintain scientific superiority over the Russians.  Never has any mention been made of opening up new frontiers for the extraction of resources and energy, it has always been about science.

This perception has made cutting funding for space exploration easy, because science rarely, if ever, has any immediate impact on our lives.  Politicians do not view reducing space exploration funding as limiting or threatening our potential, it is only about cutting back on the science that we are conducting.  No one thinks of space exploration like they do of building roads or bridges, because they don’t think of space as somewhere real. Certainly, we have learned many wonderful things by going out into space, but it has nothing to do with our everyday lives, most people think.  They still visualize the Earth as being inside a bottle, complete unto itself, isolated from everything else, limitless.  They may intellectually acknowledge that the Earth is not endless, but their everyday experiences reinforce that point of view, just as it is difficult to imagine the Earth as a globe, not a flat plain.

The perception that the Earth goes on and on forever makes it difficult to comprehend the idea that Man can have any effect upon it.  Only when the average person pictures the Earth as a tiny sphere floating in space will people understand the importance of protecting our environment.  Only when we view off-planet exploration as the opening up of resources beyond those on Earth will space exploration be given proper funding.  Only when we view space as an alternative to our own environment for industrial operations will we have a hope of surviving our own greed.

It is all a matter of perspective.