Thursday, July 30, 2009

Moon, Mars, Space Stations, Warp Drives, Whatever...Just Pick One

THIS linked article from ABC News illustrates why our manned space program isn't much farther along than it is.

Every four or eight years, either we elect a new president and/or a new political party takes power, and the space program undergoes yet another overhaul. Programs that have been moving forward for years are often suddenly disrupted, delayed, or canceled altogether. The history of NASA is literally littered with the epitaphs of otherwise promising projects like the SSTO or X-33/Venturestar.

Unfortunately, space has proven too difficult an environment in which to do anything quickly or easily. Apollo with its breakneck pace of historic accomplishments turned out to be the exception, not the rule. We need long term commitment to a single vision of space exploration/exploitation in order to really accomplish any major worthwhile goals.

Though I doubt we'll ever see one any time soon, what we should have is a national referendum on space. The public should weigh in on exactly what we should try to accomplish in space, and whatever administration is in power should follow that as a guideline, instead of just canceling or downgrading projects out of spite against the previous administration, something both political parties have been guilty of for decades now.

But which general plan would the public back? Actually the best way we can decide this is educating people on the general directions the space program could take.

As an example, four feasible general strategies are outlined below. It should be noted that none of these are mutually exclusive; one can eventually lead into one or more of the others very easily.

Return to the Moon: This is the strategy outlined by the Bush administration in 2004, which NASA had been working toward since. I should note that I was not a fan of many of the previous administration's science policies, but I do think its 'refocusing' of the manned space program was spot on, especially since the retirement of the shuttle fleet was inevitable. The Constellation vehicle system under development was specifically geared for this mission.

The purpose of this strategy was not only to send more Apollo-style manned missions to the Moon, but to establish a permanent manned presence there in the form of a moonbase. The advantage of a Moon goal is that it has been underway for half a decade now and is already fairly well developed. As a result it could probably be achieved sooner than the other strategies outlined here. Also, the experience of building and maintaining the ISS would come in very handy in creating a slowly expanding moonbase. For long term benefits, the Moon offers vast resources, particularly the potential fusion fuel helium-3, that could produce a potential windfall for any country that gain a significant lead in developing them.

Mars: The second most talked-about path, many Americans want to forge directly ahead to the Red Planet on one or more grand voyages of human discovery. It is perhaps the most romanticized of the strategies, very appealing to generations of Americans who grew up on the space exploration adventures of various scifi heroes.

The advantage of this plan would be mostly in the technology that would developed in order to make it viable; namely long-term space habitat systems and true interplanetary manned spacecraft. The human exploration of another whole planet would also be very valuable, conducting observations and experiments that current robotic probes aren't easily capable of. But more, a human being stepping onto the surface of another planet would be a monumental historical event that would resonate for generations.

Going to Mars would be the longest-range goal discussed here because of the immense distances and logistics involved, and could actually incorporate a return to the Moon and/or a manned asteroid rendezvous as an intermediate step.

Orbital Infrastructure: Instead of manned exploration, NASA concentrates much more on building up potentially useful and profitable structures in Earth orbit. This is not necessarily a stay-at-home strategy. Post-Apollo, NASA had a 'Grand Architecture' vision for space, focusing on building up a 'step ladder' of stations leading out into the solar system. The shuttle and the ISS as they were originally envisioned were just the first two major projects of this architecture.

In this vision, NASA maintains the ISS as long as possible and follows up with bigger, more advanced stations, as well as other useful orbital structures, such as solar power satellites, orbital hot labs, zero-g factories, or perhaps even a launch tower or space elevator. The idea would be concentrate as much as possible on making space much more of a money making venture than it is now, and use the built-up infrastructure to eventually build the interplanetary craft needed to carry humans further into the solar system.

Asteroids: Somewhat of an underdog compared to the others, its still mentioned occasionally in various sources. Instead of concentrating on 'major' bodies such as the Moon and Mars, emphasis for this strategy is placed on the manned exploration and exploitation of near-Earth asteroids. Technical difficulty would be somewhere between returning to the Moon and sending expeditions to Mars. And with thousands of potential destinations, NASA could be constructively busy for decades.

This strategy has two major potential pluses over the others. First, Asteroids taken in their thousands represent an immense treasure trove of mineral wealth; an estimate of single typical nickel-iron asteroid from a few years ago put the worth of the asteroid's minerals and metals at over $12 trillion.

Second, asteroids can be made mobile using even today's technology. It would be a very slow and gradual process, but valuable asteroids can be 'herded' closer to Earth, inserted either into an L4 or L5 Lagrange point or into Lunar orbit, where they can be much more easily studied and harvested. Hollowed asteroids also offer ready-made armor against radiation and impact hazards in space, and small, properly hollowed and modified asteroids could serve as the chasis fo interplanetary craft.

Which strategy would be best? That would depend on the goals people wanted to accomplish. All have advantages that could benefit not juts the US, but the world beyond as well. However, if we want to see any of these objectives succeed in our lifetimes, we have to pick one and stick with it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hidden Treasures Of Science Fiction: The Dirty Pair!

This is the first of what I hope to be a semi-regular feature. These SF works aren't so much "hidden" as they either were once popular but have since fallen off the cultural radar, or never found the audience they very much deserved.

The Dirty Pair is one of the former. It started as a series of comical scifi novels created Haruka Takachiho that were adopted into manga and anime in Japan and later comic books in America. The Dirty Pair's heyday was in the late 80s and 90s, with the last major work featuring them coming out in 2002. Though still fondly remembered by many fans, they have faded somewhat into the pop culture background.

The stories center around Kei (the red-headed, bad girl tomboy) and Yuri (the sweet-mannered intellectual brunette) as they work for an interstellar peacekeeping agency tracking down criminals and foiling terrorist plots. Though officially code-named 'The Lovely Angels', they're much more widely (and notoriously) known as 'The Dirty Pair' because of the habit of their missions often ending in one cataclysm or another. Buildings, cities, colonies, and sometimes even whole planets are often left in smoking ruins in their wake. Though technically the disasters are never their direct fault, their very presence seems to precipitate destruction and chaos.

This tongue-in-cheek approach to action and ultraviolence, combined with the curvy Pair's ballistic-weave work bikinis, would probably be enough to ensure a decent amount of popularity. But surprisingly, though many of their stories can't really be called deep, they are often very smartly written and sharply plotted. Imagine the best of the James Bond movies set in a scifi future and recast with two scantily-clad female leads, and you'll have a decent starting point for Dirty Pair stories.

The best of the original Dirty Pair took the form of anime, through a TV series, a series of direct-to-video productions, and a theatrical film. Of these Affair On Nolandia and Flight 005 Conspiracy are the stand-out episodes in my opinion. Here's a decent collection including both of those, along with the so-so Eden Project

But something surprising happened to The Dirty Pair when they were licensed for American comics and fell into the hands of artist Adam Warren; they got even better.

The original Dirty Pair took most of its cues from traditional Space Opera stories, both from anime and manga as well as popular western versions. Adam Warren, with help for the initial stories by writer Toren Smith, evolved the series into a much more cyberpunk/transhuman direction, and coupled it with his uniquely dynamic anime artistic style, produced a uniquely entertaining property.

In Warren's version (which is officially licensed by the Japanese rights holder), The Dirty Pair become more than talented young women with big guns. They are now genetically-bred, cybernetically enhanced fighting machines wrapped up in deceptively curvaceous barely-adult bodies with big guns. Their personalities, looks, and usual modus operandi are still very much in keeping with their 'classic' japanese versions, but now with a newer, and often darker and more subversive, subtext.

For example, the Fatal But Not Serious storyline hints that the current Kei and Yuri may only be one of a series of Lovely Angels, not the first and not the last, and that when and if they die, they'll simply be replaced by cloned and memory-implanted copies. In another storyline (Run From The Future), the Pair both use and run afoul of drugs that can easily be used as an insidious form of mind control, one inducing an emotional break down and the other inducing near-religious euphoria.

Of this version, A Plague Of Angels, Fatal But Not Serious, and Run From The Future are probably the best. Go Here to find these and more in trade paperback form.

It should be noted that all versions of The Dirty Pair, despite the obvious cheesecake and violence, never really teeter into truly adult territory, as some people assume. There's a lot of curves and cleavage, but rarely any real nudity. Tons of flirty innuendo but no actual sex. Gunplay and explosions in abundance, but very little blood or gore. The Dirty Pair are perhaps demented fan-service fun distilled into its purist form--sexy, kinetic, and smart.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Our Near Space Future

(Image courtesy NASA)

Many people today will be pontificating about the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, as is only right. But I'd like to take the opportunity not to talk about the last forty years of space travel, but the forty years that's immediately ahead of us.

In my last blog entry, I talked about how people have trouble intuitively grasping just how vast the scale of space is. Which is partly why I think that for the next few generations, despite the current push outward for exploration to the Moon and Mars, I think the aspect of space travel that will have the most impact on normal people will be the opening up and exploitation of so-called 'Near Space.' Near Space extends from the upper reaches of the atmosphere up to about 500 miles altitude, or the inner edge of the Van Allen radiation belts. That's a scale well within most peoples' understanding, and still is on the shore of this exciting new frontier.

We're already seeing a number of exciting developments along these lines recently. The successful SpaceX launch, the construction of the Virgin Galactic "spaceport", the US Military's tentative plan for a near space 'stratostation' that could permanently occupy suborbital space. Combined with the enlarging community of space-capable nations (particularly China) and renewed interest by private companies just chomping at the bit to market space, it seems that we're poised for a renewed flowering of space travel and exploration. But this time, instead of just being limited to two competing nations, it seems the whole of the industrialized world will take part.

After the world more fully recovers from the recent economic chaos--which admittedly might not be for a full decade yet--I think space tourism will begin to fully take off, with Virgin Galactic and its inevitable competitors offering first suborbital flights, then full orbital excursions. Bigelow Aerospace is already hard at work designing and constructing the first 'space hotels', which would be no more than small, modular, inflatable space stations in which tourists and small crews could stay for up to a few days. And in their footsteps will follow other companies eager to cash in.

Even now, many countries see the ability to at least launch their own satellites as a matter of pride, and a number of them are beginning to launch their own space exploration probes as well, as exemplified by the recent lunar probes launched by India and Japan. How long before they begin launching their own manned space craft, and building their own space stations?

So by 2050 or so, I'm hazarding an educated guess about what we'll see: many different nations and probably at least half a dozen private companies involved heavily in human space exploitation. Those that don't already have a manned presence there will be planning on it. There will be at least a dozen space hotels, most small, but perhaps a few as large as the old Mir station. Companies will start ofering point-to-point suborbital flights. Russia, always a major proponent of space stations, may have an ISS-like large station, and will probably have plans for something even larger, like a ring station. China may still be playing-catch up, hoping to industrialize Near Earth Orbit, and close on its heels will be alliances and nations like the ESA, Japan, India, Brazil, and others.

But where will the US space program fit into all of this?

For some reason, the slow but deliberate process of constructing orbital infrastructure does not seem to sit well with the American public. This seems to go beyond just its high price tag and the old manned vs robotic exploration debate. I think it goes back to why the Apollo program is such a jewel in the eye of the American public, and why space efforts since, despite their on-paper practicality, haven't been as popular.

I think there's a very deep need in the American psyche to explore. Most of the population in the US is descended from people who left their homelands and set off toward someplace unknown in the hopes of something better, and I think that tendency is pretty much embedded in our national DNA. We love building things and making money, but even more fundamental than all that is that we, as a people, want to go.

Apollo spoke to that very deeply. Man landing on the Moon was an amazing technical achievement, but I think to many around the world, especially Americans, it felt right. Like it was what we were destined to do all along.

But many at NASA, in that era and since, realized that sending humans beyond the Moon would need an extensive orbital infrastructure to be practical. You need someplace to construct the giant vehicles necessary, you need workhorse vehicles to haul all the material to orbit, as well as a place to test out long-term habitation and industrial techniques. Thus the need for a shuttle and the space station, and the other plans NASA had its old 'grand architecture.' This goes back to what I talked about last time--just how vast the scale of space is. We're microbes trying to cross an ocean on specks of dust. With our current level of technology, there really is no other way to go about sending humans out into the solar system without this infrastructure.

In the coming era, I think space agencies and companies may begin to specialize--instead of being a catch-all for all space efforts the way many agencies have been, they may begin specializing according to what they do best. For example, the private companies will be all about tourism, the fledgling countries will want to compete for launch services, Russia I'm sure would love to be at the forefront of space stations and colonies in orbit, Japan seems determined to create solar power satellites, and so on.

And Americans I think will work very hard, as they have historically, to be humanity's great explorers of space, to always push the envelope of where humanity goes and what we go out in the Great Dark. The next great age of American manned exploration may not start until the other countries catch up and build the infrastructure that the US needs to explore but still seems very reluctant to participate in. I'm sure that there will be American stations and moonbases and what not, but the US will not fully wake from its current ennui about space until we once again can finally start taking great leaps for all mankind.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Public vs the Scale of the Universe

Most people have trouble intuitively grasping the scale of the universe.

Its not that we have problems with the numbers. Most people can bandy the facts and figures around pretty easily. Approximately 238,000 miles to the Moon, 93 million miles to the Sun, 4.3 light years to Proxima Centauri, and so on. Not too much difficulty there.

But visualizing those distances accurately is not instinctive at all. In a way, we're built against that--we have only these analog animal brains of ours, after all. Our minds are hardwired by evolution to deal with things on a human scale, and as a result we tend to mentally shrink everything down to that scale so we can more easily handle it, no matter how inaccurate that view may be.

You can see this popping up a lot in science fiction. The popularity of Space Opera science fiction, for example, can at least partially be credited to how it shrinks travel to other solar systems down to a human scale, with interstellar travel taking days or weeks at the most and entire planets usually represented by over-simplified sets of cities and environments. Space-borne disaster movies such as Armageddon or the more recent Moonfall suffer from this as well, portraying human nuclear weapons as being able to do more than imperceptibly nudge massive celestial objects like the Moon or a moon-sized asteroid. Trying to move the Moon with nuclear weapons would be like trying to propel an aircraft carrier out to sea by hitting it in the stern with a handful of firecrackers.

But I think this lack of understanding scale also colors how the public perceives a lot of scientific endeavors, and usually not for the better. For example, there recently have been a rash of blogs and opinions online complaining about how NASA has waited so long to return to the Moon or to mount an expedition to Mars...almost as if the Moon were right next door and Mars was just a jaunt down the street.

But the failure here is really in understanding just how far away even the Moon is, and how difficult it currently is to send people there. A round trip would cover a distance of roughly 20 times the circumference of Earth. When was the last time any one of us circumnavigated the globe even once? Even with modern commercial jets, how much would 20 such trips cost you in terms of time (both in preparation and in actual flight), resources, and money? And that would just be a taste of the raw distance involved. A trip to the Moon, performed entirely in hard vacuum and microgravity, would be far more difficult and expensive than that.

It was done before during the Apollo program, of course, with great difficulty and risk. But the problem is, we found nothing on the Moon that made it worth the expense for astronauts to return. Its not that the Moon doesn't have valuable resources we can use, its just that with our current level of technology we can't build up the infrastructure there to profitably exploit them. Why? Because the Moon is just too damn far away, and sending things there has proven just too expensive so far as a result.

And Mars is much, much worse. At its closest approach, Mars is about 36 million miles from Earth, or about 1440 times the circumference of Earth. How long and how expensive would 1440 trips around the world on commercial airlines be to you? Now imagine doing it twice, as you'd probably want a return trip back to Earth as well. Now imagine how difficult and expensive a flight that distance through a hostile, deadly void would be in a spacecraft using current technology.

Like the Moon, its not as if Mars isn't ripe with valuable resources and potential scientific discoveries. But we just don't have the technology yet to reach all that distance and set up all the infrastructure that would be needed to make it worth the expense.

In the future, of course I think things will turn around, with the development of faster, better propulsion ssystems and more long-enduring and reliable life support systems. But as much as we may want that to happen in the near future, its much more likely that it will not happen for decades yet.

If people, especially those controlling the purse strings in Congress, understood just how vast the distances were out in space, I think they'd understand the need for more long-term planning and execution in the space program. We have to break out of the short-sighted cycle of trying to restart the space program every 4 or 8 years whenever we have a new president.

And I think the public in general would be more supportive of space efforts, knowing how daunting the task faced by NASA and other space agencies are. I think educating people on the true scale of things should begin in the science classroom, and science writers--and even science fiction creators--should be mindful of trying to convey that when it comes up.