Or should I say Happy Belated Birthday? Atlas Shrugged was published 60 years ago yesterday. Here John Stossel summarizes the history of this provocative novel and the controversy it whips up to this day.
If I were setting up a space settlement, this is exactly how I would go about weeding out those unsuited to the undertaking: What Tops the Agenda for a New Space Colony? A Debate Over Taxes
It’s more than just taxes, and so much less. The project is tailor-made to draw in weirdos and whackjobs and busybodies and control freaks, who would at best (as is apparently happening) cause the whole undertaking to collapse in strife, and who were it to actually get off the ground would turn the place into a hell on orbit.
Back online after a couple months of proposal work, two rocket engine designs, and a promotion. Whew. And despite all that, I’ve been writing quite a bit, having now completed the roughing-in of the “true crime” Dispatch and nearly completed the same for the “Marineris expedition” Dispatch. Next weekend, Carl and I will finish the third act of Ghosts of Tharsis…or else.
And then, a break from outlining to do some actual Dispatch writing. Which will be fun.
In the meantime, enjoy last year’s April Fool’s Day story, Anatomy of a Disaster, fictional freelance journalist Calvin Lake’s first (and perhaps not entirely canonical) Dispatch From Mars:
At 09:04 the position sensor data from Margaret Steadman’s Mobile Agent shows that she was rushing around her apartment, from one room to the next, presumably searching frantically for her missing pets. She appears to have deduced the answer, as at 09:05 she climbed onto a chair below one of the open vents through which the animals had escaped.
At the same moment, Rudolph Alexander had found the source of the mystery noise. What sounded like mewing and an occasional screech was just that, and it was coming from the air vent above the process display wallscreen in the Box.
“There was fur poking out. Whatever was in there was pushing, pulsing against the diffuser, making it bend and bulge. My first thought was the vent was blocked by something, a large cluster of lint or whatever, and that that noise was the air whistling through it. Then I saw the claws. And the eyes.”
There was no time to call for help. The diffuser broke free, and strange animals poured out into the Box like a waterfall—a screeching, angry, hissing waterfall of fur. “Fifty, a hundred, more and more of those things were between me and the door to the main corridor. I-I panicked, sure, I admit it. Wouldn’t you have? All I knew was I had to get away. And there was only one way I could go.”
With unknown and terrifying creatures flooding into the Box, Alexander took the only other way out: the hatch into the production area.
“All our training said that hatch was supposed to stay closed when a batch was running, but nothing trained me for anything like this. I tried to shut the hatch behind me, really I did! I must have crushed a half-dozen of those monsters doing it. But I couldn’t get it to latch—pressure hatches won’t close if there’s anything blocking the jamb. At least I remembered to hit the emergency shut-down button. What more was I supposed to do?”
While Alexander’s account of these events was initially seen as an attempt to evade blame by faking a psychological breakdown, evidence recovered from the scene later exonerated him.
“Nobody believed me at first. But then they found the video from the Box. And those bodies in her freezer. And, boy, then people understood!” he declares with wide-eyed triumph, leaping to his feet and stabbing a finger into the air. “Then, then everyone knew old Rudolph Alexander hadn’t lost his marbles after all!”
Starting Monday November 14, The National Geographic Channel is airing a 6-part miniseries about the first human mission to Mars in 2033. You can set your DVR and wait, or watch the first episode on-line now, in addition to related digital shorts.
Based on my initial screening it appears to be a mix of documentary–including interviews with the likes of Elon Musk, Robert Zubrin and Andy Weir–and dramatization.
While I might take issue with a few of the assertions in the piece, I certainly don’t disagree with the overall message that we will go and that this time it is to stay. However, the timing is bizarre, and the message odd from a President that hasn’t displayed an overwhelming interest in space exploration. I do not tend to be cynical, but to me this screams of a transparent attempt at legacy building on the cheap.
On a curious note, right below the President’s piece is another by Michelle Obama advocating improving access to education for girls the world over. Right now the link is titled “Michelle Obama: Let’s get girls to school”, but here’s what it looked like earlier today when it was originally published:
The Mars Society recently announced the winner of the Gemini-Mars competition, the culmination of a program that was originally announced last year. Awhile back I described the benefits of such a program here and here. Gemini-Mars is a proposed Mars flyby mission, so named because it would include a two-person crew and also because it would pave our way to reaching the Martian surface, much like the Gemini Program did for the Moon in the 1960s.
The top team, from Cranfield University in the UK, was one of 10 teams invited to present their plan at the 2016 Mars Society Convention held last month in Washington DC. Details of the plan were not included in the announcement, but will presumably be contained in the conference proceedings. I was unfortunately not able to attend this year, and thus haven’t yet seen the presentation.
The original contest announcement included the statement that the plan “could be placed on the desk of the President-elect in late 2016 and be completed by the end of his or her second term”. Well in a matter of weeks we’ll know who that will be, and hopefully that individual will have an interest in taking this next bold step.
Robert Zubrin was quick to post some suggested improvements to Elon Musk’s recently announced Mars plans (quicker than I was to post this follow-up):
The key thing I would change is his plan to send the whole trans Mars propulsion system all the way to Mars and back. Doing that means it can only be used once every four years. Instead he should stage off of it just short of Earth escape. Then it would loop around back to aerobrake into Earth orbit in a week, while the payload habitat craft with just a very small propulsion system for landing would fly on to Mars.
Used this way, the big Earth escape propulsion system could be used 5 times every launch window, instead of once every other launch window, effectively increasing its delivery capacity by a factor of 10. Alternatively, it could deliver the same payload with a system one tenth the size, which is what I would do.
So instead of needing a 500 ton launch capability, he could send the same number of people to Mars every opportunity with a 50 ton launcher, which is what Falcon heavy will be able to do.
The small landing propulsion unit could either be refilled and flown back to LEO, used on Mars for long distance travel, or scrapped and turned into useful parts on Mars using a 3D printer.
Done in this manner, such a transportation system could be implemented much sooner, possibly before the next decade is out, making settlement of Mars a real possibility for our time.
Readers of In the Shadow of Ares will recognize this invention: FarmBot is an open-source CNC farming machine — it even resembles what I imagine the prototype of the farmer ‘bot at the Jacobsens’ homestead would look like:
The three-axis machine employs linear guides in the X, Y, and Z directions, which allows for tooling such as seed injectors, watering nozzles, sensors, and weed removal equipment to be accurately positioned. Impressively, FarmBot can cultivate a variety of crops in the same area simultaneously.
FarmBot is controlled via mobile device or laptop, while its web-based interface makes customizing your garden as simple as playing FarmVille. You can also build and schedule sequences by dragging and dropping basic operations, adjust the parameters to your liking, and save. Meanwhile, a decision support system adjusts water, fertilizer and pesticide regimens, seed spacing, timing, and other factors based on soil and weather conditions, sensor readings, location, and time of year. And of course, FarmBot can be manually operated in real-time as well.
I liked their term “precision agriculture” – we may have to adopt that for the name of one of the Martian startups.
Note that in the comments, they refer to using machine vision and grippers to weed the robotic farm – while that wouldn’t be an issue in Martian agriculture since weeds would not be imported from Earth, that same capacity gives the farmer ‘bot the ability (described in the book) to automatically recognize and prune unhealthy leaves/plants and to harvest produce at its optimum moment.
Now take this technology and scale it up to 20m-wide gantries hovering over kilometer-long fields, and mate it to automated fulfillment center pick-place robots in city-block-sized hydroponics installations, and you get the bubbles at the Green.
Reuters reports that SpaceX apparently plans to send an unmanned Dragon capsule to land on the Martian surface as soon as 2018.
We’ve landed numerous craft on Mars, and this wouldn’t have capabilities that have made robotic explorers so useful. However, it would be the first designed to bring humans to Mars, quite a milestone. While the company has indicated that it doesn’t intend to provide details on the program until September, there is some very interesting potential .
Besides demonstrating the descent and landing technology, the mission could add greatly to our knowledge of radiation exposure and the long term performance of life support systems without a team of highly skilled (and motivated!) mechanics in the loop. I wonder if the mission could include a simulated crew, consuming oxygen, expelling CO2 and other waste. Of course the Dragon craft wouldn’t be the only habitable volume for the six month trip in a manned mission, but any opportunity to test systems under challenging, real-world conditions would be welcome.