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Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you. I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size. Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.


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Do we need to go to space?                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Aug/16/2010 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Perspectives,

Space travel is cool stuff. I was born in the late 1950’s. This meant that during those young and impressionable years I was totally transfixed as I followed every detail of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. Other than a brief period during elementary school when I read Hardy Boy Mysteries, my genre of choice has always been science fiction. Of course the border between current science fiction and future science fact is part of what drives creativity. Setting aside the thrill, adventure, and pride aspects we have to honestly ask ourselves what is the best way to spend our tax dollars that benefits the most people now and into the future. We are facing so many real-time challenges right here on earth, healthcare, poverty, hunger to name but a few.

First of all let’s dispel a few myths. Much as I enjoy Star Wars and Star Trek, these shows are more about the human condition than they are real science. Traveling faster than light (warp or hyper drive) is cool literary tools, but in our real world it is just not practical science. The nearest star to us beyond our own “Sol” is Proxima Centauri at a mere 4.22 light-years away. Based on our current rocket technology it would take an engine the size of an aircraft carrier to move a payload the size of a common refrigerator there. Additionally the trip would take hundreds of years. Now let’s apply “Moore’s Law”. Moore’s Law speaks to the advancement of human developed technology over time. Traveling great distances means that time and technology advancement count a lot. For my Moore’s Law discussion I am going to pick a closer target. If I launched today on a 3.67 billion mile journey to Pluto it will take me about 100 years to get there with current technology. There is the good possibility that with technical advancements my grand children could launch in 40 years and using the technology of their day get there in 1 years, set up house and have their grand children greet me on my arrival, kinda makes going now seem ridiculous.

Let’s return to the Proxima Centauri trip. Even if we could travel at the speed of light, this trip would take over 4 years and we still have no idea how to make something move at the speed of light. Let me give you a brief lesson in Einstein's theory of special relativity. I am going to keep this very consequence oriented as it relates it to practical application. Einstein said that the speed of light in a vacuum is the ultimate speed in our universe. Honestly, we do not know why this is so, and we do not know if any objects exist traveling faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. We only know that we have not seen any such objects yet. We measure all things visually so if something moved faster than light we would not be able to see it anyway. This means we have to trust Einstein until someone proves him wrong.

This ultimate speed thing is a bit more subtle than what I presented above, so I will be a bit more precise here to avoid any confusion. In our universe, we have two major kinds of particles, massive and massless. The massive particles, electrons, cars, apples, spaceships for example have a mass greater than zero. The massless particles, photons for example (the stuff light is made of) have a mass of zero. Einstein's theory of relativity dictates that in a vacuum, the massless object will move with the speed of light, and the massive particles will always move slower than the speed of light! No matter what you do, you cannot accelerate a massive object to the speed of light. You can approach the speed of light, but you will never reach it. Why so? Because theory dictates it and because you would need an infinite amount of energy to do that.

Don’t be glum, many of Einstein’s theories have been disproven and with enough time this one may also. Until that event happens our understanding of real space travel is governed by Einstein and we are stuck on or near earth.

By the way, even if we could travel in a practical time frame to another star or planet it will not solve our population and earthly resource issues. For the last 50 years the earth’s population has grown at an average of 60-90 million people a year. I suspect we would consume every resource on the planet to move just 1-2 million people to Mars. This means that the notion of beyond earth colonies relieving our population problem is only the stuff of books and movies.

I did not intend for this to be a science lecture, but I wanted to be very clear about “extra-terrestrial” travel. The reality is that until we disprove Einstein’s theories, going very far from earth is just not practical. This means that any space oriented missions need to be earthly oriented. So the debate goes on for the merits of space exploration. The real mission for NASA appears to be research and new science in space that helps Earth.

Years ago we did 199 test flights with a research rocket aircraft called the X-15. At the time of the X-15 there was no vision for a space shuttle, yet surprisingly, many of the flight characteristics learned in the X-15 program define the ultimate operational parameters of what we have come to know as the space shuttle. The X-15 also disappeared from radar repeatedly. This was initially viewed as a catastrophic event, but reverse engineering analysis led to the development of “stealth avionics.” It is interesting how in science our discovery process is often driven by the unexpected rather than the expected.

Many of the things we take for granted now, were cutting edge and risk intensive just a few years ago. It took Western Europeans and North Americans nearly a thousand years of putting ships to sea before open ocean sailing became a reliable way to move goods across the globe. Just because something is not yielding results right now does not mean it is not a viable effort for the future.

I know, while gasoline is hovering around $3 per gallon it is hard to justify a multi-billion dollar budget for NASA. The answer it that space is an investment in the future. The federal government has invested in universities based research for many years to produce many technological advances that make our life better. Any time you attack large and difficult tasks you develop new technologies and new operational concepts along the way.

I am going to try and share a short list of advancements that came from our space program and are now part of everyday life.
•   Computer-based scheduling system that uses artificial intelligence to manage thousands of overlapping activities
•   Semiconductor cubing resulting in faster data processing and lower power consumption
•   Computer aided Structural Analysis now used extensively in automobile and machine hardware design.
•   Air quality monitoring systems now used to enforce compliance with smokestack emission standards.
•   Virtual Reality, initial implemented for advanced training is now entering other sectors.
•   Regeneration water purification systems
•   Scratch resistant lenses
•   Portable coolers and warmers using thermoelectric technology
•   Cardio-muscular conditioner and sports training
•   Athletic shoes utilizing materials midsoles shock absorption developed for Moon Boots
•   Advanced food packaging and freeze-dried technology
•   Quartz crystal timing technology (the basis of all digital watches)
•   Microspheres now used to calibrate industrial and medical research equipment
•   Photovoltaic power system (solar cell energy generation)
•   Weather forecasting aids including the “Barorator”
•   Satellite scanning forest management system monitors radiation reflected and emitted from trees
•   Photo-refractor technology used to analyze how children’s eyes respond to light
•   High resolutions wind monitoring and prediction systems
•   Telemetry monitoring technology now used in commercial aviation, manufacturing, and medical systems.
•   Plant research to identify Hydroponics techniques for growing plans without soil
•   Fire resistant materials
•   Radiation insulation and advanced radioactive leak detector systems
•   Stereotactic large-core needle biopsy systems currently used extensively in breast biopsy exams
•   Laser angioplasty with a “cool” excimer laser minimizing damage blood vessel walls
•   Ultrasound skin damage stuffessment for burns
•   Chronic pain and involuntary motion disorders management through electrical stimulation of targeted nerve centers
•   Cool Suite technology to lower patient's body/ temperature, producing dramatic improvement of symptoms of various illnesses
•   Programmable pacemakers
•   Ocular Screening
•   Medical Gas Analyzer
•   Voice controlled wheelchairs
•   Portable x-ray machines
•   Welding sensor systems used to automatically welding torch distance and height
•   Magnetic Bearings to increase machine efficiency
•   Advance synthetic lubricants
•   Interactive computer training
•   Self-locking fasteners
•   Emergency response robots
•   Personal alarm systems now commonly used by prison guards.
•   Emergency rescue cutters
•   Self righting life rafts
•   Doppler radar for storm detection and warning systems
•   High temperature braking materials
•   Robotic hands
•   High efficiency aircraft engines
•   Advanced wing design
•   Fly-by-wire functionality
•   Velcro

If you were wondering “what does the space program do for me?” now you know. That’s quite a list and I know I only scratched the surface. It is true that private industry under contract to NASA actually came up with the majority of these, but they did so at the spurring of the space agency and its missions. NASA does not own the creativity realm, but it takes time, money and big vision to solve problems that you did not know existed just a short while ago. Research and problem solving on this scale often takes more money than many corporations are willing to allocate and this is where government needs to step in. Government tax dollars through predetermined NASA missions has sparked a lot of invention. More importantly, many of these inventions are either public domain or rapidly transitioned into the private sector.

If you look back to all the things that have come out of the space program, there's probably not an activity you do at any time during the day where there isn't something that came about as a result of investing in the space program. So I think it's a great investment in our future. If a company spends no money in research and development, then their product stands still and eventually that company dies. We all know this and recognize the value in investing in additional research that inspires future technologies and solutions.

In the short-run, what is the next step for NASA?
The shuttle fleet is planned to retire sometime in late 2010 or early 2011. I have mixed feelings about this. We are continuing to support research tasks on the orbiting space station and the shuttle along with the Russian Soyuz are the only vehicles ferrying staff and supplies to and fro. After years of development the space station is now providing good science and research and should not be abandoned. Maintaining a small the shuttles fleet would appear to be a good investment until a viable replacement vehicle is available and minimizes the risks stuffociated with being entirely dependent on the Soyuz platform.

There is no doubt that the shuttle is old by spacecraft standards, but the replacement vehicles regardless of NASA or the private sector appear to be years away. With the Soyuz currently the only other vehicle for getting to the space station I think we have to maintain a modest shuttle service fleet for the next few years.

What is really important is to define a clear science mission for the next decade. There are a number of serious problems that humanity is facing, population growth, food shortages, weather disasters, along with drinking water and energy to name but a few. Near earth space based science can contribute to all the challenges.

Out of a $2.4 trillion federal budget, less than 0.8% is spent on the space program. That's less than 1 penny for every dollar spent. The average American spends a higher percent of their personal budget on their cable bill or eating out annually. Some analysts have conservatively estimated that for every dollar the U.S. spends on R and D in the space program, it receives $7 back in the form of corporate and personal income taxes from increased jobs and economic growth. Besides the obvious jobs created in the aerospace industry, thousands more are created by many other companies applying NASA technology in nonspace related areas that affect us daily.

President Obama is calling for an incremental development of NASA's deep-space capabilities, leading to a crewed mission to an asteroid by 2025 and flights to Martian orbit in the mid-2030s. In the meantime, operations on the space station would be extended to 2020. I am really hard pressed to see the value in a manned mission to Mars, but extending the useful life of the space station fits. Unfortunately, outside of contracting with the Russians for use of Soyuz there is no clear path with respect to how we get to and from the station.

We need a clear vision for space based science and research. Until we redefine what we know about science we are not leaving this planet. Without better resource management we are facing some significant challenges ahead. Space can be a major part of finding earthly solutions, there is no reason to continue in space without clear aims and a larger purpose.

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