Archives For space exploration

skylon

This might seem a little odd, but think about it. Single stage to orbit, or SSTO, space flight is the holy grail of aerospace design right now. If you can fly a plane into space, you can easily reduce launch costs by a factor of ten and still build a profitable business. Not only would you make it a lot more tempting for companies and universities to exploit space, but you can also offer shorter commutes between far flung, attractive destinations, and take space tourism to the next level. A big problem with SSTO however, is that it’s been tried before with few positive results because physics tend to get in the way of a smooth ascent to orbit. If you need to drag tons of oxidizer to incredibly high altitudes, you may as well just use a rocket. If you try to gulp down the incoming air, you’ll be dealing with blistering heat that will be monstrously difficult to compress and use to provide thrust. But the brainchild of engineer Alan Bond, Reaction Engines, has recently shown that it has a solution to a viable hybrid engine for the SSTO craft it wants to build.

By cooling the super-heated air coming into the intakes at the speed of sound with liquid helium, the SABRE engine can ignite a rocket motor while traveling at supersonic speed. Now mind you, this was only a test and we’re still a few years away from an engine ready to go to market, but a technical audit by the ESA found no flaws with the design. So while Reaction Engines may seem like it’s pitching something out of a science fiction movie, its technical chops seem to be in order and it’s not hiding behind invocations of or trade secrets when faced with tough questions. This is why they’ve gotten several grants from the ESA to keep working on SABRE. However, the final tally for the Skylon spaceplane fleet is estimated at $14 billion, several orders of magnitude more than government grants being offered and out of reach for the vast majority of private investors. So far, the plan seems to be to solicit another $4 million or so in funding to finish SABRE to then license the engine to other manufacturers and use the proceeds to start building Skylons. It’s certainly an interesting idea, but who exactly would want to license an SSTO engine?

How about SpaceX? Right now, to advance its strategy of licensing SABRE, the company has a derivative design called the Scimitar and bills it as already being 50% funded by the EU to bring intercontinental travel at Mach 5 to the world at large. Now, this would certainly help big airlines make more profits by flying trans-oceanic routes more often in theory, but in practice, the really, really burdensome regulations against supersonic travel thanks to the kind of NIMBYism which played a major role in preventing the supersonic travel revolution predicted by many futirists, as well as the lead time to finish, test, and prove these planes in operation, Reaction Engines may as well forget about Skylon for the next several decades. If it wants to raise money and interest for a spaceplane, it should focus on creating a spaceplane and selling the Scimitar to militaries as the child of the successful SABRE. Yes, SpaceX is working on its Dragon capsule for sending humans to the ISS, and it has rockets capable of getting there, but if it can offer rocket launches to deliver larger spacecraft into orbit, ready for a Skylon to deliver the crew, it can build a major competitive advantage. An extra 20 or 30 tons of cargo capacity can help enable a less spartan mission beyond Earth orbit, and Dragon could be an emergency habitat in deep space.

We should no longer have just one launch stack for sending humans into space, but instead, we need to mix and match our technology for optimal results. Doing heavy lifting with rockets while the orbit is given to SSTO craft and inflatable space stations for staging, assembly, research, or all of the above, is probably our best way to steadily expand upward into space. So maybe Elon Musk should consider working with Reaction Engines in the near future. The investment wouldn’t be small and returns on it won’t be quick, but they’ll not only be an investment in furthering how far SpaceX can go and what it can do for its clients, but also an investment in the infrastructure of the dawning space tourism and exploration industry. And judging from many proposals for the future of NASA and space travel in general, he’s rather likely to find deep-pocketed and willing partners to make it all work. After all, sticking to space capsules and heavy lift rockets for almost everything would be a huge technological step back to doing what we know rather than using all our past skills to build something for the future. Why should we circle back now, especially when there’s promising technology to make it happen just waiting for people with a big vision and the resources to make it come together, especially at a profit when all is said and done?

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mystery astronaut

As long time readers know, I’m a sucker for a good counter-intuitive think piece and pretty much every professional blogger knows that to start a big debate and draw a crowd, you need a view way out of left field once in a while to mix things up. But the really big catch for posts like these, especially in science and tech, is that they need to be based on sound criticism and have logical consistency and flow. This is why Morozov’s rebellion against TED was spot on while the attempt at a shot across the bow of human spaceflight programs by Srikanth Saripalli in Future Tense is basically a train wreck of an argument. Unlike Morozov, Saripalli isn’t willing or able to explore or engage with the issues he brings up, and his grasp of some very basic technological concepts comes off as shoddy at best. He even veers off into Singularity territory to argue for that future robotic probes will be smarter and uses transhumanism as an excuse to ground astronauts. The whole thing was so badly written that I was dead sure Saripalli must have been a journalist with exactly zero STEM credentials, but shockingly, he’s actually a robotics researcher at ASU.

Maybe he’s a terrific robotics person, but it certainly doesn’t get conveyed in his piece because much of it is spent on rehashing the very same claims from Kurzweil and his disciples that I have debated time and time again on this blog. From promises of digital immortality to artificial minds that can out-think all of humanity, Saripalli parrots it all with zero caveats or skepticism and then barrels right ahead to transhumanist effots in life extension to declare the future of our bodies to be very much uncertain, and thus reason enough to replace astronauts with robots. Then, after seemingly providing for cyborg space exploration he never returns to the topic again, wandering off to the current buzzword in bleeding edge robotics, evolving robot networks. Yes, they’re very awesome and their potential is mind-blowing. But put light years between them and you’re going to have to radically rethink how they could be deployed and used. Though you know what, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s come back to his sneaky misuse of transhumanism…

Given that the future of our bodies is uncertain, it makes more sense to send robots with intelligence to other planets and galaxies. Nature has built us a certain way—we are best-suited for our planet "Earth." Future space explorers will quickly realize that the human body is not the perfect machine for these environments. We will also want to explore other planets such as Venus and maybe even think about living on those planets. Rather than make those planets habitable, does it not make sense to purposefully evolve ourselves such that we are habitable in those worlds?

You know, this attitude is surprisingly common in Singularitarian and transhumanist circles, and there’s a widespread disdain for human spaceflight as simulations and beaming one’s mind in a laser beam across the universe in a hypothetical future are praised as the solutions to the issue of our biology’s limitations in space. The problem is that beaming yourself around the cosmos is not only biologically implausible, but the physics and orbital mechanics don’t work out either. So while it’s true that we actually should send cyborgs into space, something for which I argued in a few articles on Discovery News, we’re not going to send human minds to ready made bodies, or disembodied brains ala Project Kronos to wander through space. Even less desirable is trying to evolve to live on an alien world as if evolution can be directed on cue and we aren’t better off as the generalists we currently are. We want to upgrade our bodies to survive alien environments, but we don’t want to do it just so we get stuck on another planet all over again, which is what the question seems to propose. Ignoring this line of debate, Saripalli then lunges into robotics.

Several articles in popular press have argued that humans on the moon have produced far more scientific data than the robots on Mars. While this is true, the robots that have been used till now are not at all "autonomous" or "intelligent" in any sense. [...] Indeed, we are very far from having autonomous robots on planetary missions, but such machines are being built in university labs every day. Robot Magellans (with scientific skills to boot) could be here long before colonists take off for Mars.

There are two problems with this train of thought. Powerful, intelligent robots are extremely hard to build when you’re going to send them to other planets because physics is the universe’s Buzz Killington when it comes to boldly going into the final frontier. It comes down primarily to weight and power placing some very harsh limitations on how smart our machines can be. I can think of ways to make them much smarter, hypothetically speaking, but all of them involve humans and a lunar or orbital base with giant clean rooms and heavily shielded supercomputers. And while I’m not a gambling man beyond playing with a few bucks in Vegas between shows or attractions, I’d be willing to bet that even the smarter machines we’ll build in the next half century will not totally eliminate the need for human guidance, strategy, and corrections. Our robots will be our trusted help and we’ll use them to do jobs we can’t, but they’ll in no way replace astronauts, just make a very tough job easier and allow us to cram even more science into a mission. But Saripalli plays dirty when it comes to astronauts, summoning politics to rid the space program of humans…

Contrary to popular belief, there never has been a groundswell of popular support from the general public for the space program. Even during the Apollo era, more people were against the space program than for it. Getting robots into space costs a lot less than humans and is safer —so we can keep the space program going without creating budgetary battles.

Yes, it’s true that despite today’s near sacred status of the Apollo missions, people just wanted the government to beat those commie bastards and go home at the time you could turn on your TV and see humans walking on another world. This is what killed the lunar program and future plans for the launch stack, and arguably, what ails NASA to this day. However, you can’t argue that space probes don’t face the scorn of politicians when budgets are being decided since they pretty much loathe all science spending as wasteful, and despite singing praises to science and technology, much of the public doesn’t understand the people who do science or engineering in any way, shape, or form, and really don’t care to. Take quick a look at all the snide dismissals of Curiosity as a colossal waste of $2.5 billion and tell me with a straight face that you’re not going to get budgetary battles by sending robots instead of humans. Of course none of this can get in the way of Saripalli’s rosy view of a galaxy buzzing with our networked robotics along with a huge flop that makes me wonder if he actually understands distributed computing.

While NASA is interested in sending big missions with large robots to accomplish tasks, I believe future robots will be smaller, “distributed,” and much cheaper. To understand this, let us look at the current computing environment: We have moved from supercomputers to using distributed computing; from large monolithic data warehouses to saving data in the cloud; from using laptops to tablets and our smartphones.

All right, let’s stop right there for a minute. We did not go from large monolithic data warehouses to saving data in the cloud. We went from large monolithic data warehouses to even larger data warehouses that are basically a modern riff on mainframes. As explained before, the cloud isn’t magic, it’s just a huge set of hard drives in enormous buildings housing the modern equivalents of what mainframes were originally developed to do at a much higher level of complexity. To say that the cloud is different from a data warehouse is like saying that we moved from penicillin to antibiotics. Maybe he means something completely different than what came out, but since this isn’t a piece from a professional blogger trying to submit five articles a day, he probably wrote it, proofread it, and reviewed it multiple times before submitting it, and had plenty of chances to fix this sort of major error. Unfortunately, the continuation of his thought uses this factually incorrect assertion as the linchpin for his vision of robotic space exploration, which just makes it worse.

The future of space exploration is going to be the same—we will transition from large, heavy robots and satellites to “nanosats” and small, networked robots. We will use hundreds or thousands of cheap, small "sensor networks" that can be deployed on planetary bodies. These will form a self-organizing network that can quickly explore areas of interest and also organize themselves into larger machines that can mine metals or develop new vehicles for future exploration.

Let’s get something straight here, people at NASA are pretty damn smart. They prefer fairly big missions because they’re easier to power, easier to coordinate than many small ones, and can do more science when they reach their destinations. Thousands of tiny bots means very limited power supplies to instruments and many expensive pings between them. Factor in the distances involved in space travel and you’ll spend most of your time waiting to hear back from other bots, while a large, integrated system already got the job done. These are not things that will improve with new technology. There are hard limits on how small logic gates can be and how fast lasers and radio signals can travel, and changing these limits would require a different universe rather than a different manufacturing process or communication technique. It only really makes sense to distribute these robot networks across a single planetary body overseen by humans who had a number of modifications to their bodies to help deal with the alien environment. And there are reasons beyond efficiency for sending humans into space on a regular basis.

Humans are natural explorers, our minds are wired to wonder from birth. If we’re going to try and explore the universe, we need to do more than send our robotic proxies and stay on Earth. And as was mentioned a few times in the comments to Saripalli’s post, there’s a huge psychological effect of going into space. Seeing the entire Earth as a blue marble floating in the void makes a lot of astronauts extremely aware of just how mindlessly, ignorantly petty some 95% of the stuff that we bicker about with no end in sight, really is. We can’t expect to end political battles about things that seem huge to us here but mean nothing in the grand scheme of things when we take into account where and who we actually are just by flying politicians to space. But if we are more and more involved in space travel, we’ll get a much broader perspective. We’re one species, on one planet, wasting lifetimes arguing about magic sky people and their wishes for us, and on all sorts of petty spats about what is and isn’t ours on a tiny blue ball spinning in space. And when we finally let that sink in, maybe, we’ll devote a little more time to something far more important, like advancing ourselves. Sending robots to take our place in space only delays that.

[ illustration by Ian Wilding ]

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valles marineris

Despite the flimsy plans and questionable premise of the Mars One project, there are now tens of thousands of people who signed up to possibly die on another planet and only a few of them will be chosen for the reality show style mission. Which is still many years away from being ready in any way, shape or form. But as would-be colonists are preparing to leave Earth behind for an alien tundra, one of the big things going overlooked is their mental health, according to a post featured in The Guardian. No, no one’s implying that the applicants are not in their right mind to sign up for a once in a lifetime trip, literally, but that their psyche is in serious danger because a number of studies on human behavior in isolation, under scruitiny, and in confined spaces for a long period of time point to a very high probability of boredom, depression, and anxiety. And the last thing you want a space colonist to be is bored, depressed, and agitated. That’s when really, really bad things can happen and with no one to intervene, they can spiral out of control while a shocked audience powerlessly watches from up to 140 million miles away. This would make for an unforgettable night of TV, but it’s certainly wouldn’t make for a good mission to Mars.

As I recently argued, this is why we need spacious, almost luxury spacecraft if we want to really explore the solar system and beyond. We want our astronauts to be stimulated and have every possible comfort of home. The excitement of a mission to another planet would be powerful, but it’s only going to last so long until the monotony of a long trip takes over and all the experiments and chores turn into tedious tasks on a checklist. We need interplanetary internet with Netflix as well as games, the ability to leave messages to friends and loved ones on Earth at any time, the schedule should a lot for weekends, and the habitats should allow for both communal areas, and big private spaces to counter the feeling of being confined. Certainly this sounds like a wish list of a spoiled teenager rather than necessities for astronauts, but astronauts are humans too and we need to take care of their mental health while they’re doing things no human has ever done, and exploring places no human has ever been. Considering that they’re trying to build a city in an icy, poisonous, alien desert, is trying to give them a way to play Halo or surf the web really an unjustifiable luxury, especially if it will keep them from possibly developing a mental illness?

[ illustration by Tiago da Silva ]

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space station concept

Not too long ago, Ars ran an article detailing proposals for modifying the proven and successful hardware built for Apollo for flyby missions to Venus and Mars.None of these plans are new by any means because they were actually made in the 1970s, when the lunar program was coming to an end and NASA’s big wigs wanted to show Congress and the American people how far their flagship spacecraft could go. Of course we know that nothing ever came form these plans, but in recent times, the Mars One idea, and the Inspiration Mars project, seem to be planned in much the same vein. Let’s use what we have, make the crew as comfortable as we can in an austere ship for about two years or so, and do some attention-grabbing missions to show we can do the kinds of things emerging space powers can only dream of attempting one day. As the sage and endlessly quotable Mark Twain once said, history might not repeat itself but it does rhyme and in the case of rushed, crewed flybys of other planets, the second go-around is likely to end like the first: we talk about it and nothing gets done because the ideas are just too rough and costly.

I have to say though, the notions of explorers cramped in tiny vessels braving the harshness of space in the name of our species’ progress have a romantic ring to them. But for the majority of the population, this is going to be something for someone else to do. If more people could work on space exploration and actually travel into space as a part of their job to clean up space junk, launch and repair scientific probes or spy satellites, and even go beyond to mine valuable parts of asteroids, allowing us to tap into the immense resources of the solar system, wouldn’t you see a lot more support for the space program? I’ve written more than I can count about the benefits of investing in space travel and exploration, from medical, to engineering, to energy generation, but the bottom line is that people have to see an immediate benefit to them from the program to pressure politicians to invest; a benefit like potential careers in space. For that to happen, we’re going to need to think beyond flybys and short excursions with long travel times. We’re going to need to think about launching interplanetary space stations with artificial gravity and a whole lot of creature comforts to help astronauts do their jobs and have fun as they’re traveling.

You could argue that we’d have no shortage of would-be explorers willing to travel to Pluto in a rusty, old, sardine can if given a chance, and you’d be right. But odds are, most of them will not be qualified to make that trip and the ones who do will face mental challenges for which we can’t really prepare them. Consider NASA’s latest astronaut class. Out of 1,500 applicants, only eight have been deemed worthy of living in a space station in LEO. What do you think will be the rate of selection for deep space travelers in spartan conditions for years on end with no hope of help from Earth in the event of emergency? We shouldn’t be focused on finding tougher people and billionaires who want to throw technology built for brief orbital travel into interplanetary space. It won’t help us in the long run. We should be focused on developing efficient and powerful means of propulsion, large, comfortable spacecraft, and setting up self-sufficient ready-to-go-anywhere ecosystems that will let us launch more people in space, keep them there longer with less risk to their muscles and bones, and enable them to do more and more jobs there.

Would the price tag be high? Absolutely. But the trade-off is that we could tell more than one in roughly a million people that they’re astronaut material and we have a job for them. Now, space travel would still be challenging, even with a lot of attention paid to the amenities, but it will make long term exploration missions more viable and generate more spin-offs we can apply right back on Earth while testing new generations of materials, medical devices, genetic engineering, and cyborg technologies for applications in space. We’ve been treating the Final Frontier as fodder for philosophy and romanticism for a little too long. We need to start seeing it as a business and an investment in new industries vying to make a real world difference, and old industries that will once again be needed to work as full capacity after they’re upgraded to meet the demands of a new space-faring age. As I said before, I can think of no nation that ever went bankrupt investing in science, technology, and education. But many have collapsed when they tried to cover for the shortfalls of their economy with bread, circuses, war, and zero-sum political brinkmanship…

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Project Kronos, the short fake documentary by visual effects artist Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull about first contact and the possible origins of interplanetary travel by humans in the relatively near future, recently got plenty of attention on the web. And it should have. It’s a well done piece of work, its premise is developed enough to keep you glued to the screen, and its pacing and storyline are open ended and somewhat disturbing enough to provoke a lot of speculation. As a piece of art, this is really, really good. But before anyone gets ideas about sending our artificially reanimated brains in spherical vessels to roam the cosmos in a dream-like state, I’m afraid that a skeptic will need to step in to do some fact checking on the science regardless of how well Project Kronos was put together. Considering that I’m in one of the key fields involved, it may as well be me, so let’s unpickle some flying cosmic brains and figure out whether you really want to analyze fuzzy dreams on your way to meet an alien intelligence trying to summon you to the stars.

Believe it or not, mapping the neurons responsible in remembering what someone saw could be done, and there’s been some success in trying to see what another person has seen by looking through his memories. With enough time and more accurate devices, it’s not implausible to get much better resolution, maybe even as good as some of the fuzzy images of the brain implanted into the Kronos probe. But then again, you’re spending hundreds of millions, if not billions to get to interstellar space. Don’t you want extremely powerful high resolution images taken with crystal clarity so scientists can study what the probe gleams on flyby? Don’t you want a sensor array to measure everything from the solar wind to atmosphere of the gas giants’ moons? The film’s very ambitious space agency basically decided to take a shortcut to nearly human equivalent AI with an actual human brain, then launched it into deep space bereft of the tools to make the probe a source of good data for planetary scientists, focusing instead of establishing first contact based on the idea that a human brain would handle aliens better than a recording. But would it?

One of the more disconcerting things for me in the documentary is the notion of the brain kept alive after the person using is has presumably died of natural causes. Now, as someone who’d happily donate his body to science after I’m done using it, on the one hand, I would welcome the opportunity of being essentially resurrected as a space probe. In fact, on the surface, it sounds like one of my wildest dreams come true. To be brought back to life in some form and launched to travel the stars for eons on end. The concept is poetic, really. But the reality? Not so much. It would be the most extreme kind of sensory deprivation you could imagine. Yes, you could travel the cosmos and see planets no one has even seen before, but for the vast majority of the trip, you’d be surrounded by silent blackness. No friends, no family, very little interaction from Earth, and most of said interaction would be one way. Your thoughts and memories would be decoded and played back like a movie, complete with images of the life you once lead. What you have to look forward to is eons of solitary confinement in a completely alien environment.

Of course this is presuming that your brain will still be usable after death. Unlike the machine, it will deteriorate. Over time its functions will degrade, memories would be difficult to keep, and the probe will grow less and less reliable. Add this to the isolation it will experience and any aliens in range of a Kronos orb will more than likely be trying to make contact with an entity suffering from mental illness and with rapidly deteriorating cognitive abilities. At this point, a recording would be much more preferable. Now, you might wonder if the brain in a Kronos probe would actually live in any real sense. After all, it is just being zapped with a little electricity and given some nutrients so it can function but it’s not really embodied anymore and kept in a dream-like state. The film is not really clear on this point, oscillating between the scientists treating the brain as a substrate, and indicating that it would be capable of an emotional response, meaning that it may be sort of alive in a conventional sense. Maybe this is why the Human 2.0 project meant to respond to the alien attempt at first contact uses a fleet of probes. Maybe they’ll keep each other sane.

Still, note that first contact happens after aliens hack a human brain in robot form. That’s a very disconcerting feat. It means that the extraterrestrial life form either managed to figure out binary protocols for our electronics and how they map to analog buzz produced by our neurons, or had a machine capable of doing that. More than likely, they’ve either done it before or developed an absolutely amazing grasp on how to decipher brain machine interfaces in other species. They’d have to basically torture the brain in Kronos to figure this out from scratch, not on purpose, but they would more or less have to wire into the orb and zap the brain to see what happens so the inference map for how it works could be built. Does sending a hundred more Kronos probes to the coordinates they provided seem like a good idea in this light? Certainly not to me. Seems a tad dangerous to put it mildly. Sure it’s first contact, but with what and why? I could imagine this encounter suddenly diverting trillions around the world into building a heavily armed space fleet just in case, should the memories of the Kronos brain give the aliens too much information.

But all this aside, I can understand what Project Kronos was trying to show. Humans, as we are today, are more or less marooned on Earth. We’re not ready to live in deep space until we start to change ourselves through genetic engineering and significant augmentation, until we defeat aging as we know it and learn how to encase our bodies in materials that will keep us save from radiation and let us stand on other worlds without worrying about toxic chemicals, radiation, and the bone, joint, and muscle damage from changing gravities. The odds of us being brains in tiny orbs floating through the vastness of space are non-zero, especially if bean counters have their way with the future of space travel, but it’s not the best way to explore the final frontier. No, the best way forward for us is roaming space stations, vast interstellar ships, and cyborg bodies. It’s our need to be social, our embodiment, and our sense of community and adventure that define us, and if we want to boldly go into interstellar space, we need to carry them with us. That and a lot of weapons in case random aliens start giving us trouble by trying to hack into our brains…

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approach to mars

According to Wired’s laundry list of technical and political issues with getting humans to Mars by the year 2030 or so, exploring another planet many millions of miles away won’t be Apollo 2.0 in many ways. It will be an order of magnitude more expensive per launch, require 30 months for a round trip, and needs to be financed, overseen, and executed by an international group that will include space agencies and ambitious aerospace companies with plans and launch vehicles of their own. And yet, the designs being drawn up sound remarkably like Apollo on steroids. We’re basically working with the same basic mission plans we had in the 1980s with a few workarounds for handling fuel and oxygen. Come on folks, this is another planet. It’s not just a status symbol and we don’t need to rush there just to say we went. Really, we don’t. Flag planting is great for propaganda and PR purposes, but it’s disastrous for long term exploration, which needs to be a very boring, consistent, and yes, expensive effort. We need a better plan than this.

Now, as much as this blog will support my assertion that I’m all about space exploration and will go as far as to advocate augmenting humans to travel into deep space (which led to numerous arguments with the Singularity Institute’s fellows), we don’t have to go to Mars as soon as we’re able to launch. It’s been there for 4.5 billion years. It’s not going anywhere for at least another five billion, and we owe it to ourselves to do it right. This is why instead of sending a much bigger capsule or an updated ISS for a 30 month round trip, we need to send inflatable, rotating space stations powered by small nuclear reactors. Instead of landers, we need to send self-assembling habitats. Instead of going to Mars to stick a flag into the ground, collect rocks, and do some very brief and limited experiments to look for traces of organic compounds, we need to commit to an outright colonization effort, and we need to test the basics on the Moon before we go. We won’t fulfill our dreams of roaming the stars and living on alien worlds if we don’t get this right.

Yes, it sounds downright crazy to propose something like that, especially thanks to the political climates of today. And it is. But at the risk of repeating myself, when we have trillions of banks to erase their bad bets from the books and nothing to aid the paltry budgets of space agencies or labs working on the technology of the future, the issue isn’t money. It’s priorities, vision, and will, and today’s politicians have the first one skewed, and more often than not either lack the other two, or envision our society going backwards as if this is a good thing. And we can keep right on placating ourselves by saying that we’ll at least get to roam around the solar system a bit like we did once, but that’s not how we should be exploring space. We know it’s not. if you want to really reach out into space, you go in for the long term with your eye on the spin-offs and benefits that will rain down from massive, ambitious, integrated projects that try to do what’s never been done before not by reinventing the wheel, but by attaching said wheel to a new airplane.

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mars one habitat

The Mars One project generated a good deal of media attention by promising to fund its efforts to colonize the Red Planet with a reality show which would follow the crews on their one way trip and chronicle their efforts at living on another world. Now while this sounds like the most far out premise for the next season of Survivor, it’s a terrible idea for an actual mission. If you’ve ever seen a reality show, you know that producers don’t really cast people as much as they cast the stereotypes they think will give viewers the most bang for their buck. If Gordon Ramsey didn’t go on epic tirades over every dish not up to his par, slamming trays, punching the food, and having fits of apoplectic rage that would put a banshee to shame, you’d be left with a fairly boring hour of TV that would be more at home at the Food Network than on a broadcast channel. Could you imagine Hell’s Spacecraft as a real mission to extend human cities to a new planet?

And that’s not even getting to the fact that Mars One is asking anyone to apply for what should be a mission for extremely well trained professionals with numerous actual space flights on their resumes, and charging as much as $38 just to look at an application, and that it will rely on new rockets built by SpaceX to do the actual work, as well as the fact that it’s spending no time at all trying to address all the problems with flying to Mars in capsules? At the end of the day this has to be either a scam, or just a really terrible idea that will never pan out. Make no mistake, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to colonize Mars or that we can’t pull it off if we really devoted plenty of time, energy, and resources to it. We absolutely should and we’re probably very close to the place we need to be to safely and comfortably send crews to the Red Planet. But making reality shows out of it, raising money by promising one way trips to alien worlds, and relying on brand new technology not really meant or tested for these missions is not the way to go about it.

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europa

We’ve long known that there was an ocean or something very much like it under the icy crust of the Jovian moon Europa, and that this icy wasteland offers one of the best chances to find life in our solar system despite living in a very turbulent and radioactive neighborhood. And now, the same astronomer who stunned Pluto before the IAU’s planetary double-tap, Mike Brown, found strong evidence that Europa’s ocean is leaking to the surface and is salty like ours. Basically, a short summary of the elegant details I encourage you to read from Dr. Brown himself is that the chemical residues on the moon’s surface match up with exactly what we’d expect if it had a thick, salty, liquid ocean which periodically rises through the cracks in the ice and leaves deposits as it recedes with the tides. We could learn even more, but radiation scatters other compounds we could measure from our post right here on the blue marble. So far, though, so good for bacteria and multicellular colonies that could potentially call Europa home.

Now it’s very important to know that organic chemical signatures do not always mean life and a distinct lack of experience with alien organisms on our part means that until we actually see one with our probes and run several hundred tests and a few thousand reviews of the data from all those tests, we won’t know if we found alien organisms. Well, unless an alien fish just wiggles to the camera and waves hello. That would speed up the announcement. But in all seriousness, as far as cases for promising habitats go, everything we find about Europa makes it look better and better for exploration. The only problem is that the ocean where so much life could exist lies so far down, in some cases under several miles of ice. Drilling through it is complicated and really dangerous for robotic probes, so the focus has been on trying to get access to the ocean with a minimum of digging, using something like a rover with a tiny submarine to explore the shallows. If what Brown has found is any indication, we might find even more about Europa’s chemistry this way since some of the more scientifically interesting chemicals could just float up to us.

However, keep in mind that the moon’s surface is bathed by radiation and microorganisms that evolve under several miles of ice and meters of water would be instantly fried to a crisp if they’re exposed to it, leaving promising but ambiguous residue on the surface. For anything more alien and complex than extremophiles that may have even survived the trip from Earth, we will need to be ready to dive deep and look far and wide. It’s actually another reason for human exploration of the outer solar system. Robots can only be made so clever in space, and they’re not good at dealing with the unknown and the uncertain, having no instinct or useful previous experiences from which to make decisions about new environments. Having humans guide them as they look for alien life on an unknown, largely unfamiliar world would be a terrific fusion of our brainpower and machine endurance that could lead to something as big as proof that we’re not alone. That knowledge alone should justify the effort of making the trip.

[ illustration by Guillermo Krieger ]

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printed moonbase

By now it’s hard to argue that modern 3D printing isn’t one of the hottest and most useful trends in engineering today and in the next five to ten years could well change the balance of powers in global manufacturing. Why deal with customs, foreign officials on the take just looking to dip into your business model to make a knock-off or wrest control of your factory on their soil when you could simply print superior, higher quality designs in your own lab? But that’s not the only thing that’s got engineers and high-minded VCs excited about 3D printing. It turns out that you could print your own Moon base and there are now two architectural firms pitching a design for sleek, futuristic habitats on the lunar surface using regolith. Why fly your habitats to another world and work in tiny, cramped spaces until you can chain more of them together when you can send an intelligent swarm of remote-controlled robots to print you a roomy base when you get there?

This is another reason why instead of aiming for our triumphant pre-victory lap around Mars, we should get back to the Moon because while we’ve been there, we haven’t done it all and printing lunar bases can translate into printing habitats on Mars. True, just because you could heat up a chunk of lunar regolith with microwaves and fuse it into a solid smooth, safe wall that will protect astronauts against radiation and extreme temperatures does not necessarily mean that Martian regolith would behave exactly the same way. But we do know enough about the composition of the red planet to make the necessary little tweaks in the process and construct resilient, roomy habitats before the astronauts even get there. Though there is the catch that building on Mars with remote-controlled robots involves a significant lag from Earth so the best method may be to send a space station with a compliment of engineers to closely watch the robots’ work and pitch in when something goes wrong or the process needs to deviate from the plan.

It wouldn’t be the cheapest method, but it would be quite efficient and get the bases built pretty quickly. On top of that, 3D printing your alien outpost gives you the freedom to create shapes that aren’t only functional and aesthetically pleasing, but uniquely suited to the world on which you’re now living. Sleek shapes on Mars virtually grown out of the rocks below mean resistance to powerful wind storms, while large, leaf-like forests of solar panels on the Moon mean catching as much solar energy as needed with the capacity to generate even more as the base grows. If we tried to completely 3D print homes and skyscrapers on Earth, things like zoning laws and the construction industry’s lag behind the cutting edge to save costs would quickly get in the way of completely new kinds of urban development. But in space, where 3D printing means invaluable creature comforts and protection for astronauts with the only zoning restriction being a lack of a military base on an alien world, this approach makes a lot of sense and can drive demand for 3D printed structures here after showing their utility and strength in harsh wastelands.

Suddenly, people might wonder what a 3D printed condo that can withstand a hurricane costs to build, and residents of skyscrapers in South Korea very unhappy with the swaying that happens during monsoons and architects trying to build higher and higher might be interested in growing a new building rather than come up with ever more complex stabilizers and aerodynamic shapes for their structures. There’s certainly precedent for a major space effort resulting in interest in a new kind of technology. After integrated circuits got Apollo to the Moon and back, chip makers used the lessons learned to build modern electronics like powerful desktops, laptops, and even portable music players. Perhaps 3D printing in space for scientists and tourists funded by starry eyed businesspeople like Musk, Tito, Branson, and Bigelow could provide a huge push for new generations of efficient, disaster-resistant cities on Earth while helping us achieve our dreams of solar system exploration? Maybe I’m a dreamer, but this doesn’t seem too far fetched to me…

[ illustration of a 3D printed lunar base by Foster + Partners ]

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inspiration mars

There’s been plenty of news coverage regarding the Inspiration Mars mission being funded by space tourist and tycoon Dennis Tito, who says he’s willing to pay whatever it takes to make the manned flyby of Mars possible by 2018, when the planets best align for a 501 day round-trip. He needs the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, a manned version of the Dragon tested and ready, and some way to address the intense cosmic ray bombardment in interplanetary space. So as far as ambitious missions go, this doesn’t sound technologically unfeasible Difficult? Certainly so, but not impractical. Expensive? Absolutely, but not so much that it would be impossible to raise the money, especially with crowdsourcing and the participation of other space-minded, wealthy, big picture human exploration enthusiasts. And there’s very unlikely to be a shortage of the married couples with engineering experience Tito suggest should make the flyby. However, there are big problems with what Inspiration Mars wants to do and how, despite the technical feasibility.

Basically, it’s a mission to show the world that the United States still has the lead in space travel and can send humans to Mars and back, just a flight or two away from actually landing them on the surface, as with the Apollo 8 flyby. This means that not only is 2018 important from a purely mechanical perspective, but as Tito says, the next opportunity in 2031 could see attempts from other space powers and would make it harder for the United States to be the first to fly by Mars, much less land on the Red Planet. Remember what happened to Apollo after it achieved its PR goals? Inspiration Mars might not have the same problem if it’s funded by wealthy supporters of long term human space exploration, but these supporters don’t have endless pools of money to pour into mission after mission and after a bad enough market crash, might not be able to justify the expense of supporting the foundation. Even worse, when the country is preoccupied with its unemployment rate, debt, and runaway political brinkmanship, who’s got time for Mars?

Just like the chorus of well meaning but horribly short-sighted voices protested Curiosity, and a pundit or two were unable to resist assailing Musk for not spending his fortune the same way as Bill Gates chose to, there’s bound to be a narrative of a rich old guy wasting money that might have fed some of the poor and needy in this country on some Martian pipe dream. That’s not a great PR project for STEM in the making, especially when we consider that the supposed decay of American science and technology isn’t what it’s made out to be and in fact, we don’t have the jobs for all the engineers and scientists we churn out. Inspiration Mars is one way to create jobs for some scientists and engineers for seven years, but certainly not a long term solution to a big problem that by now is downright institutional. Likewise, the five year design to launch time table seems aggressive to a fault because it doesn’t seem willing to take the time to mature any more efficient ways of getting humans to other worlds in order to make the schedule.

Using a version of a naval nuclear reactor fitted for spacecraft to power a new VASIMR plasma engine could get the crew to Mars faster, provide more energy, allow for more space, and more efficient and ambitious missions. Right now, Tito is planning to launch two people in a tiny pod to travel millions of miles for a year and a third, far away from any visual sign of home and no way back should something really bad happen far enough along in the mission just to show that this could be done. This seems downright inhumane and every simulation of spending a lot of time in crowded isolation on Earth came with familiar gravity, air, and knowledge that should things not work out, the participants can just leave. Even year-long stays on a space station came with the familiar blue marble constantly below and a short trip home possible in an emergency. But over one year in the space of an RV floating in the darkness with one other person, no niceties and creature comforts as part of a PR push for a well equipped, major mission? Seems rather harsh, and like the Mars 500 experiment shows, mentally exhausting for the astronauts.

Look, I’m one of the last people to say no to a Mars mission. My view on space exploration has consistently been that we’re under-funding it and not doing enough of it. But I also know that we have to do things the right way, plan for long term outposts and missions on another world, and we need to return to the Moon to help us do it. Then, we can build an inflatable space base that uses nuclear reactors adopted from submarines to power plasma engines and send larger and more diverse crews for long term missions to Mars, protected by an artificial magnetosphere and with ample supplies and materials for sustaining the station for years. Having a massive effort to start a Mars outpost and create comfortable, safe, efficient mission options would be a better PR effort than a flyby with what we have laying around just to say we can do it. After all, we won’t be exploring the rest of the solar system using chemical rockets if we want to get humans anywhere within a manageable time schedule. Why start an effort to land on Mars using an updated Apollo concept rather than develop a strategy for long term discovery and outpost building?

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