Not Forgotten

What would happen if a spacecraft and its crew were lost tens of millions of miles from Earth, where there were no ground-based cameras and radar watching, no clues from telemetry data, and no way to retrieve and study the wreckage?

This week marks the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident, and the 8th anniversary of the Columbia accident.

Abandon in Place

Each of these accidents were heavily publicized and widely mourned, with the latter two happening (essentially) live on television. Even though much time has passed, the accidents are well known to the general public, and even many people who are not space buffs could probably at least come close to identifying the official cause of each accident.

In each case, though, the wreckage was retrieved and studied, lessons were (mostly) learned and put into practice, and the affected programs continued on. But what would happen if a spacecraft and its crew were lost tens of millions of miles from Earth, where there were no ground-based cameras and radar watching, no clues from telemetry data, and no way to retrieve and study the wreckage?

This is exactly the problem which confronts the fictional Ares Project two decades before the events of In the Shadow of Ares. So how did they handle it?

The program was halted for four years so that the habs and Earth-return vehicles under construction on Earth could be thoroughly inspected and their designs reassessed for hidden flaws. Finding none, and still having no solid evidence of what happened to the Odysseus and its crew, the project proceeded cautiously with the remaining two missions. And as it turned out, the program was right to accept the still-unknown risks inherent in exploration rather than give up and stay home.

One big difference between then and then: with no images of the accident, and no wreckage found by the subsequent missions, the public soon forgot about Ares III. Except for a few who kept the memory alive until an answer could be found…

(For those who have read the book and may be wondering, we devised Odysseus‘ demise exactly fifty weeks before Columbia met her own.)

Life Imitates Art: Smart Goggles

Something akin to what we use in In the Shadow of Ares as part of the telepresence control system made its appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show this past week:

The Android-powered micro-LED screen in these goggles turns average skiers into cyborgs, displaying everything from GPS-enabled trail maps to your current speed and altitude. If that’s not cool enough, it can sync with Bluetooth compatible devices, creating an in-goggle viewfinder for a camera, or display songs or incoming calls.

No word yet on whether they’ll be useful in controlling swarms of semi-autonomous mining robots.

Life Imitates Art: Portable DNA Sequencers

FuturePundit points to a NYT article describing something very similar to a piece of technology readers might recognize from the Oasis scene of In the Shadow of AresTaking DNA Sequencing to the Masses:

Dr. Rothberg is the founder of Ion Torrent, which last month began selling a sequencer it calls the Personal Genome Machine. While most sequencers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are at least the size of small refrigerators, this machine sells for just under $50,000 and is the size of a largish desktop printer.

While not intended for the general public, the machine could expand the use of DNA sequencing from specialized centers to smaller university and industrial labs, and into hospitals and doctors’ offices, helping make DNA sequencing a standard part of medical practice…

Rather than culturing a bug to identify what is infecting a patient, for instance, a hospital might determine its DNA sequence. Massachusetts General Hospital is already sequencing 130 genes from patient tumor samples, looking for mutations that might predict which drugs will work best. It has won an Ion Torrent machine in a contest and hopes to put it to that use…

While most experts agree that sequencing will become commonplace in medicine, some say they think Dr. Rothberg is overselling his machine. Like the early Apple II of Mr. Jobs, it is too puny for many tasks, including sequencing the entire genome of a person…

Dr. Rothberg acknowledged that the existing model was good for sequencing a virus or bacterium or a handful of genes, and indicated that future models would be more powerful.

Indeed. Just imagine what forty more years of technological evolution might do to this device, in terms of cost, power, speed, and size.