Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Time is a Fire in Which We All Burn

There is much to talk about as there have been a number of news stories which haven't been prominently featured in the media that indicate we are rapidly losing the window where manned missions to anywhere, much less places like the Moon or Mars, are going to be seen as practical. (I would argue that this makes such things more imperative, but I simply don't have the time.)

I have been working on a number of things which will, hopefully, when they are completed, lay out an inarguable position that the time for us to begin our expansion into space is not only now, but that all other considerations must be considered to be of minor importance.

Regretfully, however, I find myself incredibly pressed for time, at the moment. I was fortunate enough to receive a full scholarship to college, and in order to keep it I must maintain a B average. Were I taking a bunch of "fluff" courses, it would be easy to go to school and continue to post updates regularly. As I'm an engineering major, I am having to slave through some rather difficult math and design courses. This makes it nearly impossible for me to do much of anything other than go to school, study, and work.

This raises a particular problem with the ADD nature of the Internet. If I'm not constantly posting something, then people quickly lose interest. Unfortunately, I can't yet turn this over to anyone else because I haven't fully articulated the position I'm advocating as of yet (and I've not seen anyone else expressing it to the degree that I feel it needs to be articulated). Waiting until I have the time to fully lay everything out runs the risk of my losing the ground I've gained to this point.

So, I have come up with what I hope will be an adequate solution. For some weeks now, I have been roughing out a manifesto of sorts in which I attempt to lay out exactly the reasons why I feel it is so imperative that we begin the effort to colonize Mars immediately. It is incredibly raw, just the thoughts that I have been able to put down using my iPod when I've had a few idle moments. There are, as of yet, no footnotes or citations, though when I'm able to polish it and shape it into a cohesive form, every claim will be extensively cited using reputable sources and not simply pointing to the claims of some tin foil hatted crank on the Internet. What I will be posting are merely excerpts from the rough draft of this work, they should be seen as a signpost pointing towards the direction I am aiming for and should not, in anyway, be mistaken for that final direction. Think of it as one looking over Darwin's shoulder while he was making notes on the Beagle and not reading his Origin of Species.

While I hope to be able to correct spelling mistakes and other minor errors before I make a post, I am certain that this will not always be the case and that some mistakes will slip through. Hopefully, however, there will be enough of a glimmer of what I'm driving at for people to comprehend my comments. If someone wishes to assist in the endeavour, then I am more than willing to discuss the matter with them.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

America Matters Only if NASA Matters to America

A recent piece by Michael Mealling asks if the suggestions before the Augustine Commission could rival the dawn of the internet.
Prior to 1993, the National Science Foundation ran the Internet as an exclusive tool for university and government research (commercial speech was completely banned from the Internet prior to 1991). The NSF then decided to turn over the operation of the Internet to the private sector. Just two years later, Netscape’s IPO set records for first day gains. Despite the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the Internet industry has been one of the largest economic drivers of the last 15 years.

The suggestions coming from the Augustine Commission are somewhat reminiscent of NSF’s decision. By relinquishing its domination of low Earth orbit and partnering with commercial providers for beyond low Earth orbit infrastructure, NASA can better accomplish its exploration goals and foster a whole new industry. While we won’t see a space startup in every garage the way we did with Internet startups, the returns for using and developing space resources can be very interesting.

It raises some interesting possibilities, but it doesn't mention a much greater issue that is going to become crucial, not only for the US, but the world as a whole.

The fastest growing economies in the world presently belong to a bloc of nations commonly referred to as BRIC, comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Brazil and Russia's economies are on the rise because of their ties to energy. In Brazil's case, its because of sugar cane ethanol, in Russia's, its because of their oil and gas reserves. Brazil's economy can expect to keep growing as the switch to renewable sources of energy intensifies around the world. Russia's economy may not.

While it is unlikely that our demand for fossil fuels will decrease any time soon (as developed nations switch to "green" energy, developing nations industrialize by whatever means necessary, and take up any "slack" that might be introduced into the market by developed nations cutting back on fossil fuels), it is far from certain that Russia will be able to continue its rapid growth. It currently lacks the infrastructure to export much of is energy production outside of Europe (a Europe which is rapidly trying to wean itself from fossil fuels, not only for environmental reasons, but for fear of a repeat of Russia cutting off its exports during its recent dispute with Ukraine over payments). Building up that infrastructure will be costly and take time (its also hindered by geography, with warm water ports being a bit of a problem). Too much time, and Russia will find itself with few customers for its fossil fuel exports. Additionally, its widely believed that the Russians are not properly reinvesting in their existing operations, allowing them to crumble. Which means that as demand increases, Russia will be forced to allow international companies to take over those operations, if Russia's to have any energy exports at all, thus cutting out much of the profits that have been propping up their economy.

Russia's economy (and Brazil's to some extent) is rather "thin." There's only a single point driving it, that of the energy sector. This, as should be obvious to those of us living in the US, is a Really Bad IdeaTM. If that sector has a slowdown, or as in the case of the US, where the economy was driven by the financial sector, completely collapses, your economy quickly winds up on the wrong side of the shitter. Without large scale investment in other areas, its highly likely that Russia will be back begging for help, as it was in the wake of the Fall of Communism.

In the end, however, neither Russia nor Brazil really matter, no offense meant to those nations. China and India both have populations which dwarf the combined populations of Russia and Brazil. As the income levels in China and India rise, they will have the largest economies on the planet. By 2020, it is estimated that the middle class will be some 700 million people. More than double the population size of US. (That date of 2020 is also important for other reasons I'll get to in a moment.)

I am going to ignore the figures about India (and its really only a question of who gets to the largest economy slot first: India or China) for one reason. India's a democracy. If the US can't be the largest economy on the planet, but the number one slot is held by a democratic nation, I'm content with that. Democratic nations tend to give at least token respect for human rights. China? Not so much.

All of this matters, because the nation with the largest economy on the planet, gets to dictate a lot of things. Some of them are rather subtle, such as scan rates for TVs, others of them can have far reaching consequences, as when a country signs an economic pact with another country. While the US has done its fair share of propping up less than pleasant regimes, we did, at least, raise the issue of human rights within those countries. China is unlikely to do that.

With global attention focused on China, what reason will there be for the world to pay much, if any, attention to the US when it objects to a human rights violation in some part of the world? One reason will be because we've got a bunch of nuclear weapons, but let's face it, do we really want that to be the reason? That puts us at the level of Russia in the days after Communism, where people only worried about keeping tabs on nuclear material and the folks involved with it. Nor is the lure of freedom enough to keep immigrants coming to the US in large numbers. Already, thousands, if not tens of thousands, Indians and Chinese (many who were born here in the US) are leaving the US to settle in China and India because they see the greater economic opportunities which those nations are providing.

Since the US cannot hope to compete in terms of economic size, we're left with really only one choice: Technology. The US must lead the world in technology, and it cannot be only in one or two areas, but it has to be in every area. Space exploration, and specifically, manned space exploration is the definition of "cutting edge." The spin offs from that touch every aspect of our lives, in a myriad of different forms, and it is the only one to drive all those areas at once.

Remember that 2020 date? Here's why it matters: Because that's the date NASA is supposed to return humans to the Moon. And right now, that's not going to happen unless funding levels for NASA are increased. To make it happen, NASA needs to have its budget boosted to at least $25 billion/yr. Ideally, what should happen is that NASA's budget should be immediately bumped up to $25 billion, with incremental increases given to their budget so that by the time 2020 rolls around, its double present levels. Neither of those things are going to happen, however, unless people start screaming at their elected representatives. And I mean screaming. NASA is the red-headed step-child of the US government, and people think that money spent their is a waste because they're too stupid to realize the impact that it has on their lives. If we want a decent space program, if we want the US to still matter in the coming decades, then we have simply no choice but put the national focus on the space program and keep it there, like our very lives depend upon it, because they surely do.

Friday, July 31, 2009

How a Manned Mission to Mars Can Help With Health Care in the US

Right now, everyone is obsessed with the high cost of health care, and there is much weeping and wailing about the costs and how to solve the problem. It sounds absurd to think that sending humans to Mars could help with this, but there is a connection.

One of the requirements for sending humans so far away from home is going to be a small, compact, medical diagnostic system. If any of the astronauts becomes ill, they can't run to a doctor for treatment, they need to have a way of running all the standard tests on the mission. A med unit would solve this problem.

It would also be a huge benefit here on Earth. Such devices are slowly being developed for Third World nations, however, the potential profits from sales to those nations would be rather small, so the amount of R&D being devoted to them is minuscule. Furthermore, since the primary application of those devices is seen as being in the Third World, most Americans are unaware of research efforts in that area.

Now to the debate on health care in the US, one of the issues being raised is how much it all costs. An automated system, which works well enough to perform standard diagnostic tests millions of miles away from home, or in a developing nation, is certainly capable of replacing a doctor visit when one has something like the flu.

Since it is highly likely that any manned mission to Mars will be closely followed by the general public (not merely in the US, but all over the world), astronauts using a med unit will attract a great deal of attention. This will inspire both individuals and insurance companies to bring pressure to bear and make these machines available to the general public.

No doubt there will be considerable opposition to the widespread use of the devices from groups like the AMA, but with the combined weight of the general public and the insurance lobby, it seems almost certain that this will fail. A side benefit, besides lowering the cost of health care for the general public, the greater demand for the machines will lower the cost of each individual unit, making it easier for developing nations to purchase more of the devices.

Granted, it may not immediately occur to people that such a device could take the place of their doctor for most routine visits, but it certainly will occur to someone in the insurance industry, and if an astronaut says something like he wants one of those things when he gets back home, many more people will pick up on the idea.

If the units are relatively ubiquitous, and having a series of tests run costs a modest amount, like say $5, not only will people be inclined to use them when they know they are sick, but if they're at the pharmacy (or somewhere else one might expect to find one of the machines), they're liable to give it a whirl, simply for entertainment value. If the machine spits out a result indicating that they have a potentially serious condition, even though they haven't begun to display any symptoms, the machine might well be a lifesaver for them. Many cancers and other illnesses are easily treatable if caught early enough.

Additionally, by collecting data (stripped of any personal identifiers to help preserve privacy) on large groups of people, epidemiologists can better track the spread of disease, as well as being alerted to potential outbreaks of new strains of flu, or other diseases far earlier than they are now.

Doctors will still be needed to oversee treatment of a number of different illnesses, as well as handling such procedures as surgery or setting broken bones, but the machines will reduce much of their workload, enabling them to spend more time with each patient that they see. Additionally, the diagnostic machines will help individuals better manage their health, in conjunction with their doctor. They will be able to do more frequent monitoring of their health, and this will enable the doctor to better adjust the treatment based on more frequent test results.

Again, there are those who will argue that none of this requires a manned mission to Mars to happen, but this ignores the reality of human behaviour. The need for such devices, in the developing world at least, is great, and probably obvious to the people who provide medical care in those areas. It is not, however, obvious to enough folks with the necessary resources to design and build such a machine. Nor is it readily apparent that such devices could benefit those in the developed world, who have more or less ready access to medical care. Putting it up on the world's radar by showing it being used on a manned Mars mission will drive home the fact that everyone on the planet could benefit from such machines being readily available.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bolden's Got the Job, But Can He DO It?

Former astronaut and retired Marine General Charles Bolden confirmed as the new head of NASA.
Charles Frank Bolden, Jr., was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday as the twelfth administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Lori Beth Garver was confirmed as NASA's deputy administrator.

As administrator, Bolden will lead the NASA team and manage its resources to advance the agency's missions and goals.

His resume is impressive, and his statement in response to his confirmation has some good bits in it:
If we choose to lead, we must build on our investment in the International Space Station, accelerate development of our next generation launch systems to enable expansion of human exploration, enhance NASA's capability to study Earth's environment, lead space science to new achievements, continue cutting-edge aeronautics research, support the innovation of American entrepreneurs, and inspire a rising generation of boys and girls to seek careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The "If" at the beginning bothers me, however. There should be no "If." Kennedy didn't come out at Rice University in 1961 and say, "If we choose to go to the Moon. . ." He said, quite simply, "We choose to go to the Moon. . ." There can be no question about America's leadership in space. The US must remain the leader in space, if we as a nation are going to remain relevant on the global stage in the coming decades.

China will soon overtake the US as the largest economy in the world, which means that global attention (and respect) will be focused on them, and the US will be as much of a forgotten afterthought as the USSR is now, unless we hold the edge in technology. We can only do that if we are pushing the boundaries of space back as far as possible. We don't need to simply keep sending astronauts up to the ISS, we must push for a return to the Moon, while simultaneously preparing to set foot on Mars. Bolden needs to come up with a clear, concrete and aggressive vision for NASA soon, and then he must make the hard sell to Congress so that it gets done.

I hope that Bolden puts forth such a vision soon, the longer he delays, the harder it is going to be to convince Congress that this is what must be done. The most dangerous days for NASA will be during the interregnum period after the last shuttle mission, and before the launch of the Orion (if it is ever done). The New Inquisitors will be working hardest during that period of time, to crush the manned NASA program (if not all of NASA). Bolden's actions will determine if they will win or not. Audacity is what is called for, not meekly accepting whatever Congress chooses to throw in his direction. If need be, he should look at selling the shuttles to a private corporation, willing to launch them for commercial ventures of one kind or another (space tourism, building a private hotel in space, etc.) from their own facilities. The more dynamic Bolden is, the more exciting his ideas, the more inspiring they will be to the general public, and the less likely it is that NASA will wind up getting axed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

NASA Holding "Open" Meetings on Manned Space Flight

Open in the sense that they've invited the media.
WASHINGTON -- The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee will hold three public meetings July 28-30. The meetings are open to news media representatives. No registration is required, but seating is limited to location capacity.

The first meeting will be July 28 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. CDT at the South Shore Harbour Resort and Conference Center, 2500 South Shore Blvd. in League City, Texas. Agenda topics include NASA's Johnson Space Center operations, NASA's Constellation program, committee sub-group reports and public comments.

The second session will be July 29 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. CDT at the Davidson/U.S. Space and Rocket Center, 1 Tranquility Base, in Huntsville, Ala. Agenda topics include NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center operations, committee sub-group reports, NASA's Constellation program and public comments.

The third public session will be July 30 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. EDT at the Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront Grand Ballroom, 1550 North Atlantic Avenue, in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Agenda topics will include NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations, committee sub-group reports, NASA's Constellation program and public comments.

Following each meeting, committee chairman Norman Augustine will be available to answer questions from reporters. NASA Television will carry the meetings and news conferences live on the agency's media channel. The events also can be viewed on the agency's Web site.
Note that they're not requiring pre-registration by the press, so they might not be checking press credentials.

Space flight fanatics in the areas should make an effort to show up at the meeting, and raise some hell! Smuggle in some banners saying things like, "Space Now!", "Space Means American Jobs!", "We choose to go to the Moon!", etc., and you'll probably get the mainstream media to broadcast clips of the meeting on their nightly news segments. (Since that will be far more interesting than the dry discussion which doubtless would occur otherwise.) Even if you can't in, raising hell outside of the meeting will get media attention. The higher the profile of the committee in the public perception, the better chance we have of getting a decent space program again.

The louder and more enthusiastic folks are, the greater the chance that the media will pick up on it. Be creative, be noisy, but most of all, be there!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

How to Kill Your Manned Program in One Easy Step

Somebody at NASA has a "new" idea.
Shannon's alternative plan uses the current space shuttle fuel tank and solid-rocket boosters. The rocket would be carrying two new vehicles — a generic cargo container and the Orion capsule for astronauts currently being developed for Constellation. The new vehicles would have the capability to go to both the moon and the international space station.

This less expensive option would likely not be as powerful as Ares I and V, but would be simpler.

The cargo container would have to be developed. It, and the Orion capsule would sit on the external fuel tank like the shuttle does now. When the crew capsule flies, it would be inside the cargo carrier at the top, with an emergency escape system.

This is simply a rehash of the old Shuttle-C design, and it cannot put the necessary hardware into space for a greater US presence. As this article points out, all you could send to the Moon in terms of astronauts, with this system, is a mere two, limiting any lunar missions to simple "snatch and grab" missions like the original Apollo, and no possibility of an extended human presence on the Moon. Given this fact, we can unequivocally conclude that any manned missions to the Moon will not happen using this system. The moment its proposed, the modern heirs of the Roman Inquisition in Congress will kill it, by making the argument since the astronauts will "only" be doing the same things that they did during the Apollo era, there's no point in sending them, as the Apollo astronauts didn't discover anything "interesting." (Absolutely inaccurate as to what the Apollo program did and discovered, but you can bet money that's the argument the New Inquisitors will use, and they'll trumpet it at every opportunity.)

This, then, will lock us (if the program goes forward) into LEO only missions, but don't get your hopes up that even this program will fly. The New Inquisitors will not simply rest on their laurels, by any stretch of the imagination. The SDLV (Shuttle Derived Launch Vehicle) is being pitched as a "faster" and "cheaper" way for us to replace the space shuttle. The moment a delay or cost overrun appears (which it will, as they do with almost all things), the NIs will call for the death of the program as being an "expensive luxury we can no longer afford." They will cite whatever happens to be the cause du jour at the moment as a justification for their actions. The hue and cry will be to let the private sector (which is only focused on short term profits and not long term survival of the species) come up with a solution "some day," and without a "despicable" enemy like the USSR to worry about, the fact that the US has no ability to send humans into space will not seem to be a big deal. ("After all," they'll no doubt argue. "We've not been doing it for a couple of years now and the world hasn't ended so we don't need it." Nevermind that similar arguments were made about a large US military in the years leading up to any number of major wars.)

Equally as bad, in the unlikely event that the US does go to the SDLV and uses it to send humans into LEO, we will not make full use of what the design offers. NASA will continue to dump the External Tanks into the ocean, rather than parking them in orbit where they could be used at some point in the future to build an orbiting habitat or other structure.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

NASA's Limited Resourrces Delaying Important Science

The current delays with the space shuttle Endeavour launch, are holding up the launch of some lunar probes.
NASA will try again to launch the space shuttle Endeavour on June 17, and still push to get the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) under way this week as well.

Both spacecraft were scheduled to launch from Florida that day, after a gaseous hydrogen leak forced the shuttle program to scrub Endeavour's planned June 13 launch. But in an effort to "maximize" the space agency's launch opportunities this week, the LRO team relinquished its June 17 slot to the space shuttle program to give Endeavour one more chance to lift off to the International Space Station (ISS) before its launch window closes until July.

The glitch with the shuttle is not a big issue, since things as complicated as aircraft (or in this case, a spacecraft) always have problems. The big issue, however, is that NASA is apparently unable to launch the rocket with the probes while the shuttle is still sitting on the pad. The official NASA press release on the matter, doesn't mention the reason why this is the case.

There are a couple of reasons why this might be, but they are immaterial. The fact that NASA can't send the probes up with a shuttle on the pad, is inexcusable. If this nation is going to be serious about space, then it must be able to launch a vehicle, manned or unmanned, at any time, with no delays or hitches because there's something else waiting to go up. Costs for spaceflight will only go down as they become more commonplace, and that can't happen if NASA's facilities are tied up because something on another launch pad is having problems.

As I write this, NASA is twittering that weather conditions are making it impossible to fuel the shuttle. If the shuttle doesn't get fueled by a certain point, then they can't do the launch of the shuttle, and its mission to the ISS will have to wait, so that the lunar probes can be launched. Again, not at all what we want in a spacefaring nation.

UPDATE: NASA is now saying that they're fueling Endeavour's tanks.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Mars Needs Oceans, It Seems

A controversial new theory holds promise for terraforming Mars.
The controversial new paper, published in New Journal of Physics (co-owned by the Institute of Physics and the German Physical Society), will deflect geophysicists’ attention from postulated motion of conducting fluids in the Earth’s core, the twentieth century’s answer to the mysteries of geomagnetism and magnetosphere.

Professor Gregory Ryskin from the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University in Illinois, US, has defied the long-standing convention by applying equations from magnetohydrodynamics to our oceans’ salt water (which conducts electricity) and found that the long-term changes (the secular variation) in the Earth’s main magnetic field are possibly induced by our oceans’ circulation.
If this theory holds true, then one of the big objections to settling Mars, its lack of a magnetic field, might be removed.

Warm the planet up enough to keep water liquid, and as oceans form and flow around the planet, a magnetic field might just form around the planet, protecting colonists from radiation.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

US Gov't Projects Energy Demands to Increase 44%

While CO2 emissions will increase 39% over 2006 levels.
World marketed energy consumption is projected to grow by 44% between 2006 and 2030, driven by strong long-term economic growth in the developing nations of the world, according to the reference case projection from the International Energy Outlook 2009 (IEO2009) released today by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

World carbon dioxide emissions are projected to rise from 29.0 billion metric tons in 2006 to 33.1 billion metric tons in 2015 and 40.4 billion metric tons in 2030—an increase of 39% over the projection period. The IEO2009 reference case does not include specific policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions

With strong economic growth and continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels expected for most of the non-OECD economies, much of the increase in carbon dioxide emissions is projected to occur among the developing, non-OECD nations. In 2006, non-OECD emissions exceeded OECD emissions by 14%. In 2030, however, non-OECD emissions are projected to exceed OECD emissions by 77%.

As I pointed out in a previous posting, current climate models (which have served as the basis for forming legislation designed to combat global warming) are wrong, and demonstrate that we've underestimated the amount of damage that's being done by our current emissions. I'm not going to claim that these estimates of projected energy growth are wrong, but if we want a "clean" source of energy to power the future, we're going to have to find a lot of it, and quickly.

Biofuels are often touted as being a way to reduce our carbon footprint. That overlooks a significant problem with them, however.
Study Finds Water Footprint for Bioenergy Larger Than Other Forms of Energy; Bioelectricity the Smallest, Biodiesel the Largest

Researchers at the University of Twente, Netherlands have calculated the water footprints (WFs) of bioenergy from 12 crops that currently contribute the most to global agricultural production: barley, cassava, maize, potato, rapeseed, rice, rye, sorghum, soybean, sugar beet, sugar cane, and wheat. In addition, their study includes jatropha, an energy crop.

In general they found that bioelectricity is more water-efficient than first-generation biofuels (due largely to the ability to use the entire biomass to produce energy, rather than just the starch or oil fraction of the yield for liquid fuel production). They also found that the WF of bioethanol on a m3 of water per GJ of fuel basis appears to be smaller than that of biodiesel. Their results appeared 2 June in an open access paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

This is bad news, because supplies are dwindling.
Global Environmental Outlook 4, edited by Mirjam Schomaker and published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in October 2007 claims, “Available water resources continue to decline as a result of excessive withdrawal of both surface and groundwater, as well as decreased water run-off due to reduced precipitation and increased evaporation attributed to global warming”.

So, biofuels do not look to be the savior of us as many people once thought. One can speculate that fusion power will finally hit that breakthrough we've been promised for the past 50+ years, but betting on it seems like a foolish proposition when the survival of the species is at stake. Solar and wind are viable, of course, but not without their own environmental problems.
It begins with agreeing which sensitive areas should remain undeveloped. Wind and solar power are pollution free, but they are not impact free. They leave an industrial footprint on the land, and some pristine places would be forever altered by their presence.

That's why my friends at NRDC got together with Google Earth and started mapping out public lands where renewable development is not appropriate. Some of the spots colored in on the map are obvious--national parks, wilderness areas, and national monuments where energy development is already prohibited by law or federal policy.

But the map also illustrates places where development should be avoided, even if it isn't illegal. These include the hundreds of state parks that visitors rely on for hiking and other recreation. They also include proposed wilderness areas being considered by Congress, such as the 9.5 million acres of stunning scenery in Southern Utah that I hope gains protection through America's Red Rock Wilderness Act.

The remarkable thing is that even when you set these areas aside, there is plenty of land to develop solar and wind projects. The state of California recently did a similar mapping process and found that when it removed all the environmentally sensitive lands, California still has renewable potential of about 500,000 MW--that's greater than the state's peak demand.
So, solar and wind could exceed California's current peak demand levels, without being sited on environmentally sensitive land, but what about their peak demand in 20 years? Will it be enough then? How about 50 years? One thing is certain, energy demands are not going to be decreasing, so long as our technological society continues to advance.

Yes, devices will become more efficient, and use less energy, but we'll have more devices in the future, not less, and things which presently do not use energy, will no doubt have energy demanding circuits added to them. Books have never been powered, and now we have the Kindles from Amazon which use a modest amount of power. Of course, their demands are more than off-set by the savings provided by not having to print and ship physical books around (and as someone who has worked in the publishing industry in the past, I can state that immense amounts of energy are wasted by book companies and retailers). However, for one to use a Kindle, you need some kind of cellphone connection (the towers require energy) or an internet connection, and unlike a printing press which can be shutdown for periods of time, must always be on, if they're going to be meaningfully useful.

Perhaps one day we'll have a device which is an "all-in-one" PC/phone/book reader/MP3 player/game device/etc, but we'll also have other things we can't even imagine now. Perhaps our walls will be video monitors, or we'll be able to borrow the processing power in our dishwashers and other appliances when we need to do some heavy duty number crunching. What good does it do you to reduce the power demand of a device, if the number of devices needing power outstrips the savings by an order of magnitude or larger?

Space, however, offers us a rather benign source of solar power. Orbiting panels can generate power without worry of weather or the dark of night, and require no land (while the antenna arrays to receive the beamed power do take up space, building a space elevator, having power fed down the main cable, and then distributed from there, takes up almost no land by comparison). Of course, someone living on Mars wouldn't have to worry about having a large carbon footprint or if their solar panels were installed on an environmentally sensitive stretch of land.

More Money for Space Exploration Means a Stronger Economy

A recent story on Marketplace about the housing market, makes the claim that until the housing market recovers, the economy won't recover, and there are plenty of problems with the housing market which can sabotage an economic recovery. This story does not address the whole issue, by any means, in my opinion.

Here is something to consider:

1.) The US economy (and the global economy as well) is presently in the toilet because the "engine" which drives the US economy (housing and the financial markets) has collapsed.

2.) "Monoculture" farming (i.e. growing one type of crop) is generally recognized as a Really Bad IdeaTM because if anything happens to the crop (And monoculture crops are exceedingly vulnerable to disease. Ask the Irish or banana farmers.), then your entire economy will implode.

3.) The efforts at restoring the US economy are primarily focused on "correcting" the problems with the system and not ensuring that other industries play an equal role in driving the US economy. (We'll prop GM up, but we're not looking at putting other industries in Detroit, even though many of the jobs that have been lost at GM will not be replaced once GM is out of government control.)

4.) Putting boatloads of money into the space program helps create a diverse economy and can put many of the unemployed autoworkers back to work (the machinist who made car parts can make parts for a spaceship just as easily).

5.) The spin offs from the space program have lead to things like improved fire retardant gear, medical devices, and the like. The spin offs from the financial sector lead to Collaterialized Debt Obligations, ARMs, and the like.

6.) Having a large high tech industry attracts highly educated people to the US (who tend to make a lot of money), which adds to the economy and the tax base. Many highly educated folks are leaving the US to go to work in India and China, because the opportunities are greater there, even if the money isn't. If we put more into the space program than anyone else, a lot of those people will be inclined to stay in the US (since they're not likely to work on a manned mission to the Moon/Mars in India).

Monday, June 1, 2009

NASA's Human Spaceflight Review Committee Announced

Two former astronauts make up the group.
Norman Augustine will chair the independent review of U.S. human space flight plans. During the course of the review, the panel will examine ongoing and planned NASA development activities and potential alternatives in order to present options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable and sustainable human space flight program following the space shuttle's retirement. The committee will present its results in time to support an administration decision on the way forward by August 2009.

"I look forward to working with the members of the committee to assist in defining the future U.S. human space flight program," Augustine said. "The members offer a broad spectrum of professional backgrounds, and we are all committed to offering sensible proposals that will serve the White House and NASA in their deliberations."
There's only a short period of time before they announce their findings, so start composing your emails to them now. (Sally Ride and Dr. Leroy Chiao being former astronauts can probably be reached via NASA.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Is NASA Losing Its Edge Again?

That's the complaint of one Hubble scientist.
David Leckrone, the senior project scientist for the Hubble, said NASA's new strategy for the post-space-shuttle era does not include servicing scientific instruments in space, and he fears that vast amounts of accumulated knowledge and technical expertise will quickly vanish.

"It just makes me want to cry to think that this is the end of it," Leckrone said at a news conference earlier this week. "There is no person out there, there is no leadership out there, there is no vision out there to pick up the baton that we're about to hand off and carry it forward."

He raises some good points. Fixing Hubble is good not only from a science standpoint, but also a public relations standpoint as well. Missions to repair Hubble get people's attention about the space program and make them have positive thoughts about the program. If he's right that NASA is losing the ability to repair things like the Hubble, then the program is losing something far more important than the knowledge of how to do this: They're going to lose popular support for the agency as a whole, which means that those shortsighted politicians who seek to curry favor with the idiots out there will be able to gut NASA in coming years.

Does Obama's Nominee to Head NASA Have "the Right Stuff"?

President Obama has nominated retired astronaut Charles Bolden to be the new director of NASA. Looking at his biography on Wikipedia, he clearly has a similar "pedigree" to the original Mercury astronauts, who were more than enthusiastic about heading into space. So it looks promising.

However, Obama's proposed budget for NASA is only about $19 billion. This is absolutely not enough money, if the agency is going to do more than just "mark time." GM has burned through that much cash this year, and its a mere pittance compared to what the government has handed out to the banking industry. If NASA is going to be the kind of inspiring agency which Obama has said he wants it to be, and if we are going to aggressively expand into space, then NASA needs to have its budget increased. Ideally, they'd be handed an annual budget around $100 billion or so, but that's unlikely to happen any time soon.

Still, if Bolden does have "the Right Stuff," and Obama meant what he said when he campaigned on making NASA an inspirational agency again, we'll see an increase in NASA's budget shortly. Raising NASA's budget to $25 billion would be a good start in showing that Obama is serious on space. Let's hope that Bolden is willing to fight for it, if Obama doesn't propose it on his own.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Climate Models Are Wrong. Again.

A recent MIT study says:
a median probability of surface warming of 5.2 degrees Celsius by 2100, with a 90% probability range of 3.5 to 7.4 degrees. This can be compared to a median projected increase in the 2003 study of just 2.4 degrees. The difference is caused by several factors rather than any single big change. Among these are improved economic modeling and newer economic data showing less chance of low emissions than had been projected in the earlier scenarios. Other changes include accounting for the past masking of underlying warming by the cooling induced by 20th century volcanoes, and for emissions of soot, which can add to the warming effect. In addition, measurements of deep ocean temperature rises, which enable estimates of how fast heat and carbon dioxide are removed from the atmosphere and transferred to the ocean depths, imply lower transfer rates than previously estimated.

It goes on to say:
And the odds indicated by this modeling may actually understate the problem, because the model does not fully incorporate other positive feedbacks that can occur, for example, if increased temperatures caused a large-scale melting of permafrost in arctic regions and subsequent release of large quantities of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. Including that feedback "is just going to make it worse," Prinn says.
In short, the scientists admit that they have underestimated how bad global warming is going to get, and that their best estimate to date, has a high probability of also underestimating the rise in temperatures.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who's followed the discussion on global warming. Consistently, and without fail, scientists have found that previous estimates have always been overly optimistic. It should be further noted that simply cutting the level of greenhouse gas emissions is not going to be enough to reverse the changes. For that to occur, radical carbon negative policies are going to have to be introduced, of which there has been little to no discussion, so far as I am aware.

For those of us on Earth, this means that we can expect more aggressive efforts to try and limit the level of greenhouse gas emissions. It also has implications for the terraforming of Mars as well. Given that the warming effects of CO2 appear to be stronger than previously believed, it seems reasonable to conclude that the estimates of the amount of time needed to begin the warming of Mars are equally wrong.

While some might argue that we shouldn't begin tampering with the Martian atmosphere until we better understand our own, "playing" with the Martian atmosphere now gives us a controlled environment in which we can better understand how CO2 affects planetary conditions, with fewer variables to try and account for.