The Administration’s proposed budget cuts include abandoning upcoming Mars robotic missions in 2016 and 2018. While it appears that NASA might be able to salvage a 2018 mission by extreme cost cutting and siphoning money from other programs, the damage could be irreparable. The US Mars exploration program is a pipeline of projects scheduled at approximate 2-year intervals. Cutting that pipeline could set back Mars exploration by decades, and is a betrayal of commitments to our international exploration partners.
Some cost cuts are certainly justified in the current climate, and the shift to private launch systems could pay off in the long run. However, there is no reason to expect private interests to take up purely scientific endeavors like Mars exploration, at least anytime soon. Planetary exploration is and should be a core function of NASA, and a setback of even a couple of years cannot be justified.
Over the last couple of weeks a video of a marriage proposal at the Chicago Comic Con got a lot of hits. That’s because the couple was blessed by none other than Patrick Stewart, the actor who made quite a career out of playing USS Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard. A cute (if nerdy) moment, and good for them:
However, for me the video brought to mind something less pleasant. Back in 2004 the same actor took the time to poo-poo human space exploration in a BBC Interview:
I would like to see us get this place right first before we have the arrogance to put significantly flawed civilisations out on to other planets.
Stewart repeats one of the oldest and most flawed arguments against human spaceflight. Exploration, and especially exploration that challenges us as a trip to the Moon did (or as a trip to Mars would), provides tremendous benefits here at home. At the same time, it is ridiculous to expect a time when there won’t be problems on Earth. Who will be the judge as to when we are good enough that we can go out and play?
Seven years later I’m still irritated when I see him. Maybe I need to get over it, but in this case it’s not just what was said, but who said it.
3-D printing may be more advanced than I had thought:
I am a little bit skeptical. For example, how does the optical scanner determine the dimensions and configuration of individual internal parts, for which there is no line of sight? That is not explained in the video, though perhaps it’s a simplification for the casual viewer.
Nonetheless, what a great technology for off-world travel. No need for spare parts. Of course, you need a feed stock for the process that will meet the specifications for the end product, and it helps if that feedstock can be manufactured at your destination. We already know that we can make breathing air and rocket propellant from elements readily available on Mars, so why not other compounds?
NASA has posted the following image of the return of the Space Shuttle Atlantis to Earth earlier this week:
Taken from the International Space Station, it’s a unique view of the craft’s fiery re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Soon thereafter, Texas Governor (and likely presidential candidate) Rick Perry issued a strong statement that included the following:
Unfortunately, with the final landing of the Shuttle Atlantis and no indication of plans for future missions, this administration has set a significantly different milestone by shutting down our nation’s legacy of leadership in human spaceflight and exploration, leaving American astronauts with no alternative but to hitchhike into space.
Though it’s not just the Obama Administration. There has been a lack of leadership in space policy since the end of the Apollo era. The next few years will reveal the success (or failure) of efforts to shift the emphasis to the private sector. While I do see the merits of such a move, I don’t foresee the economic incentives necessary for the private sector to reach Mars in my lifetime. That’s profoundly disappointing.
On the other hand, I don’t trust NASA to manage such an effort within the austere limits the US Government will have to abide by for the foreseeable future. So is there an alternative? How about financial incentives for (American) private companies to meet milestones that get us progressively closer to the red planet? Think a scaled-up version of the Ansari X Prize. It’s not a new idea, but maybe one whose time has come. Lots of private money going to work, with much lower risk and cost to the taxpayer. What’s not to like?
I was dusting off some files from the early development of In the Shadow of Ares, and in a way it was like flipping through baby pictures. Included was a summary of themes we were aiming to include in the book, classified as “General” and “Exploration”, and I think we achieved our goals:
Technology is good
Capitalism is good
We need a frontier
Exploration is not without risk
Simpler is better
Live off the land
Exploration and settlement go together
Settlement and the role of property rights
We’ve been asked if the sequels will share the “pioneer” theme of the first book, which I suppose is included in the above. The sequel picks up two years later, and will include more cosmopolitan settings than the first book, but it’ll still be a new, untamed world. Several of the other familiar themes will be present (though perhaps de-emphasized because they are less critical to the story), plus a few yet-to-be-revealed.
Does the forecast nuclear renaissance include smaller nukes? The folks at NuScale Power in Oregon seem to think so: Small Nuclear Ready for Big Splash. I’m a strong supporter of nuclear power, but disagree that small nukes will be practical for electric generation anytime in the foreseeable future. At least on Earth…
In the Shadow of Ares includes what we consider technically achievable near-term Mars settlements, meaning ones heavily dependent on nuclear power. Solar will play a role, but most other terrestrial power sources will have no relevance. What too many humans today irrationally fear on Earth will be indispensable as we open up a new world.
Chilean scientists along with scientists from several other countries will construct a base in the most-arid desert in the world, Chile’s Atacama (where the 33 miners got trapped) aiming to simulate life in a space colony on the planet Mars, which shares a lot of characteristics with Atacama.
While the tie-in to the Chilean mine rescue is interesting, it is not clear if mining will play a significant role in any simulations. It would certainly seem to be relevant. As we portray in “In the Shadow of Ares”, mining will certainly be a crucial part of the economic development of any off-Earth settlements.
At least the Chinese seem to think so:
In March 2011, a delegation from the Chinese space agency will visit the Chilean desert project. The Chinese are projecting that by 2020 they will have below-ground bases on the Moon to extract minerals and are eager to research and test their cutting edge space technology.
Where can we expect the United States to be in 2020? Will the recent shift to private enterprise see the economic and regulatory incentives necessary for this fledgling industry to survive and thrive?
Commenter Wally expresses concern over the development of space: Besides, who wants to go to McDonald’s Restaurant on Mars? I do. Not because I find the food appealing, but because of what the fact of a McDonald’s on Mars would say about the planet’s level of development. Shipping in from a distribution center on Earth […]
Commenter Wally expresses concern over the development of space:
Besides, who wants to go to McDonald’s Restaurant on Mars?
Not because I find the food appealing, but because of what the fact of a McDonald’s on Mars would say about the planet’s level of development. Shipping in from a distribution center on Earth all the mystery meat, synthetic cheese, pickles, onions, buns, soft-drink syrup, shoestring potatoes, condiments, service items, and other consumable products a franchised fast-food restaurant would require would be prohibitively expensive, at least by the modes of transportation available in the near term, so the existence of a simple McDonald’s on Mars would imply a whole range of other complex economic activities:
the ranching (or decanting) of various types of meat;
agriculture capable of supplying oil seeds, wheat, cucumbers, onions, sugarcane/corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and assorted spices;
silviculture providing pulp stock for paper goods;
processing facilities for the meat and other raw agricultural goods;
secondary processing facilities, such as bakeries for the buns, plants for conversion of sugar or corn syrup into soft-drink concentrate, other plants producing ketchup, mustard, pickles, etc.;
transportation for moving the raw materials and processed items (not to mention the consumers);
a local construction industry capable of building a structure to house the restaurant, and a supply of building materials;
a local manufacturing industry with the ability to produce the various pieces of specialized machinery and fittings required to turn the aforementioned consumables into final product and deliver them to customers — freezers, refrigerators, fry vats, grills, microwave ovens, soft-drink dispensers, cash registers, communications systems, preparation tables, sinks, water heaters, icemakers, customer furnishings, etc.;
the constituent items (gears, motors, electromechanical elements, control devices, refrigerants, sheet metal, advanced plastics) that go into the production of such equipment;
the miscellaneous secondary items involved in the running of the primary business, such as cleaning equipment and supplies;
items taken for granted in a terrestrial McDonald’s: a supply of breathable air, potable water, and reliable electricity;
a reliable supply chain making all of the above available on short notice;
enough unskilled and surly teenagers to staff the restaurant;
all of the above available at a cost which still allows the restaurant to make a profit;
a trustworthy means of exchange (i.e.: money), and the financial infrastructure that goes with it;
applicable legal structures (contract law, property law, etc.) and appropriate enforcement institutions; and
enough customers to keep the restaurant profitable.
Not to mention the fact that a McDonald’s would be a pleasant alternative to a communal cafeteria that would be a more practical and efficient if drab means of providing meals. That is, the restaurant would indicate a level of development at which options for enjoyment are available, and people can concern themselves with quality of life (in this case the enjoyment of a simple pleasure) versus mere subsistence.
Who would go to a McDonald’s on Mars? I would — to celebrate the accomplishment that the existence of such a thing would symbolize.