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.