Sunday, May 31, 2015

So what's the Moon? Chopped liver?

I've been meaning to comment on this for a few days now, but other stuff keeps coming up. For that matter, this came up in front of other stuff that I've also been meaning to comment on it. C'est la vie.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
public domain. via Wikipedia
OK, so here's the story: The Space Reporter and just about everybody else has reported a 'plan' by Neil deGrasse Tyson to revitalize space. Just get the Chinese to leak plans of a Mars mission. "The US would just freak out, we'd all just build spacecraft and be there in ten months," he's quoted as saying.

"Neil deGrasse Tyson Advocates 'Militarized' Space Race to Mars" ran the headline.

What a lot of outlets that ran with this story failed to notice is that he was joking. It's tongue-in-cheek. He's communicating a desire, not a plan.

Yes, he would like to see the excitement and the focus and the urgency and the drive and the budget of the Apollo years.

No, he's not really advocating a militarized space race with the Chinese. At least I hope he's not.

This is one of the problems with being the Celebrity Brain. People take everything you say at face value. If Tyson advocated going half-shod and hopping on one foot to save shoe leather, you can pretty much bet that half the geeks in America (at the very least) would be making like Dufflepuds as they bounded to work the next morning.


The thing about the "space race to Mars" is that, as a way of expressing his desire for that climate of innovation goes, it's highly descriptive. But as an idea, it sucks the cosmic egg.

I'll refer you to some recent thoughts I've had on the subject of those glorified Apollo years, here and here. Basically, I've come to think that the Apollo strategy did at least as much harm as good. The Apollo project got us to the Moon. It was bold and adventurous. But it also sapped our budget and had us doing things that didn't make a whole lot of sense. And then we never went back. And we're all set to do the same silly exercise on another planet.

Everybody's chanting "Mars! Mars! Mars!" while ignoring the uninhabited bright orb next to us, which still can have great utility. You have to remember that though the surface of Mars isn't a complete vacuum, its atmospheric pressure averages around 0.6 kilopascals (0.087 psi). For comparison, the pressure at the summit of Mount Everest is 33.7 kilopascals (4.89 psi) and you'll die there. Mars' atmosphere weak enough that for habitation purposes you need to treat it much like a vacuum. Yes, it's different in that there is that thin atmosphere that will have to be accounted for, but we're still going to have to bring, make, and recycle our own air and food. Waste will have to become an obsolete concept.

And look, we happen to have this practical laboratory right in our back yard! The Moon is only three days away, near enough for a rescue, if push came to shove. Certainly near enough for near real-time conversations. It's subject to hard radiation bombardment, not unlike Mars. It provides a nearby platform for testing of long-term habitats. It has its own benefits, which may include mining, if we can get people away from the quaint notion that it's pristine, hallowed ground that Must Never Be Touched. It's an obvious, obvious, obvious waypoint.

But nope. When NASA unveiled their bold new plan for the future, their view of the Moon was "been there, done that"; with the lunar orbit being the goal of an asteroid capture mission, but no planned landings. No, seriously. When the plan was unveiled in 2010, President Obama made the lack of vision painfully public: "I just have to say pretty bluntly here, we've been there before," he said. [1]

As late as April 8th of this year... last month... the public plan was to attempt no landing there.

Meanwhile former NASA flight director George W.S. Abbey had been pointing out the same intuitively obvious things I just did. Whether Abbey changed their mind or they came to the realization independently, NASA's current vision includes extended visits to the lunar surface, but no permanent habitation. And it's the permanent habitation that they need to test before embarking on a trip to the Red Planet. Honestly, I'm sure NASA has known all along that they'd have to return to the Moon. But politicians set the goals and the budgets, and the best the engineers can do is quietly keep pressure on with internal studies and reports that reiterate the necessity of this step.

This fickle dependency is one of the reasons we really need to lose NASA in its present form. NASA is populated by "Leif Eriksons". They may have 'discovered Vinland', but they didn't go back and made no use of the discovery. We didn't need that for the Moon, and we don't need it for Mars. We cannot visit Mars with an attitude of "been there, done that" regarding the Moon. It needs to be "are there, doing that, daily".  It needs to be old hat. Routine. And for that to be viable the reasons need to be economic, not political.

Here's a dramatization of NASA's basic execution of any manned mission to anything: [2]
Geek 1: Yay! We went there! Isn't that cool?
Geek 2: Yeah, that sure was cool. REALLY cool!
Geek 1: Yeah, that was cool.
Geek 2: Yup.
Geek 1: *sigh*
Geek 2: *sigh*
Geek 1: Wanna do it again?
Geek 2: I dunno. Maybe a couple of times. I'm kind of bored.
As Popular Science magazine reminds us, the technology for surviving on Mars is far from ready. They go on to list numerous ways to die there. There are numerous ways to die here on Earth, too. The difference is that we have even more ways to survive.

The old kind of space race... the kind that yielded Apollo... didn't deliver the goods. With all respect to Tyson, a new space race built on that same militarized model won't either. The first place to apply our creativity and fortitude is in promoting a new kind of space race, with increased privatization and a slower but vastly more sustainable expansion plan; one based on results rather than timetables; logic rather than emotion; economics rather than politics.


In the meantime, as we wait for NASA and the world to get their shit together, click on over and download a free copy of Virtual Moon Atlas so you can scope out some prime real estate for your future summer cottage:

[1] I've only witnessed such a complete lack of intellectual attachment once before. While consulting for a multinational, I was tasked to design a Business Rules Engine. Realizing that it's far easier and cheaper to adapt proven technology than create it from scratch, I engaged a company who created a rules engine used by several autonomous deep-space probes. It was clearly flexible enough to do the work we were asking of it. Our only chore would be to create an interface that would take rules written in 'business-speak' and compile them in to a format usable by the engine. Piece-of-cake. The vendor's presentation highlighted their systems flexibility, and the fact that it was flexible enough to make a spacecraft capable of reacting to its own environment. The response of our CIO (recently a CFO) was to listen with disinterest and respond, "But we don't make rockets." I then designed an engine from scratch. Honestly, it cost more and did less.

[2] This, of course, is not entirely NASA's fault. Their current vision and mission statements really have little to do with the concepts of human travel and colonization. they are about the advancement of science, and frankly, right up until the unveiling of this poorly-conceived manned Mars mission, NASA could do almost everything they're tasked to do without ever putting a human ass in a rocket. Contrary to the old tasteless post-Challenger joke, NASA doesn't 'need another seven astronauts'. By the same token, when we're talking specifically about the exploitation of space as opposed to fact-finding exploration, we shouldn't rely on NASA. 

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