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Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...

The Earth, The Heavens(and beyond!)

…assuming that we DID manage to get all the bugs and most of the risks involved in launching craft into space pretty much ironed out, down pat, old hat, that kind of thing, what would the next step be? Would a new space station be the first Big Project, or would investors, explorers, daring souls and so forth make a beeline for the Moon? Or, would it be Mars? Or, will it be to the asteroids? Or, will we sit home and just watch satellite TV? 

 

When you’re talking about space, you’re talking vacuum, and hard radiation, no more Van Allen belt to hide behind. Maybe they’ll figure out how to do some magnetic ship shielding, but that stuff’s still mainly the purview of science fiction. You’re talking A Lot Of Power to do that trick. So, the shielding will not only have to be 100% airtight, but will also have to do a really good job of keeping radiation off the astronuts brave enough and crazy enough to spend several months together in the beer can while it drifts to wherever. The Moon, that would be short transit, probably short enough to get passengers there without sedating them, but Mars, that’s like, 6 months, to a year or more worth of space travel. Now, previous and current astronauts, Skylab, Mir, and now the ISS, have done extended ‘tours’ Up There, in zero-G, and they’ve had some problems, but so far no one’s gone postal, that we know of. Well, there was that one astronaut-lady in her diaper that went driving cross-country, but that was after the landing.  How about the rest of us? If you had to spend 3,6,9 months cooped up with people you didn’t really know very well, or like very much, and you literally couldn’t go anywhere else, how would you fare? Would you go barkers, not being able to go take a walk, get away from annoyances? Some people are very tolerant and able to get along even under hard circumstances, others, not so much.  Could you still do your job? Would The Others have to tie you up in the storage locker?   Indeed, many questions about the innerspace, in outer space….

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Going UP

“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap, for Mankind.” -Neil Armstrong, 1969, in a live broadcast from the Moon.

But, WHAT a step, it was. Actually, it was the final step in a journey of a quarter-million miles, begun centuries ago by scientists, philosophers, and people with nothing better to do than play with hot steam and gunpowder, and theories and ideas. The Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon, decades ago, was a powerful instrument, advanced for its’ time, but largely under human guidance, constantly piping back its’ telemetry, its’ digital vital signs and those of the astronauts, to a cluster of trained specialists huddled around monitors and readout screens like a group of nervous husbands in the maternity ward waiting room, chain-smoking and biting their nails, waiting for the latest news.

But, where did the Saturn come from? Did someone just take Goddard’s toy and feed it ’til it got bigger? For he, too, was a ‘father’ of the modern space program, or at least, distant relative, in the woodpile back there somewhere, as were the German rocket scientists that worked on Hitler’s superweapons, the V-1, and V-2 rockets, designed and built to smash England like a bug, or at least, so went the theory. But, even Robert Goddard was not the First Rocketeer, no, the Chinese were really the first to build functional rockets, though even their success was roughly predated by europeans with their steam toy, for every action, there’s an equal, and opposite reaction, so quoth the science teacher, and with the Saturn, many tons of propellant were ignited under dangerous and somewhat-controlled conditions to propel the manned missile first into orbit, then in stages, all the way to the Moon.

To say that the Saturn project was a massive undertaking would probably be to make a serious understatment, for the development of Saturn was expensive, beyond expensive, incorporated barely-tried technologies, the support that could only be gained from an entire country and its’ good credit, using materials that were basically developed FOR the space program, that did not previously exist. It required the accumulation of resources, talented people, organizational geniuses, time, more money, and a good portion of luck, because in dealing with the forces involved in throwing 200+ tons into the heavens, catastrophe constantly awaited both the engineers as well as the astronauts whose lives were directly imperiled by any kind of malfunction once the launch had taken place.

So, pioneers duly honored, advancing forward to the 21st century, on the far end of many space launches from many countries, how can we do essentially the same job, but better, faster, and cheaper? And, more safely, and repeatedly?   How many Saturns’ worth of payload will it take to assemble the Mars mission, or on an even grander scale, the ambitions of the billionaire club to mine the asteroids and glean their untold riches?

HOW do we get there?

How, indeed. With the Shuttle now retired, on its’ way to a permanent parking spot at the museum, American presence in space has been diminished, at least for the short term. What will take the place of the Shuttle? That’s a good question, with several private companies working to take the X Prize idea, and run with it, Branson, Rutan bros., Cameron, Bezos, as well as Mr. Google, Larry Page all turning their gaze skyward/spaceward, as well as continuing efforts by other countries including Russia, our current ticket to space, there is that which wishes to find out what lies beyond the atmosphere, and gaining traction and momentum. Which is all good and fine, until you start talking about the sheer scale and scope of this Enterprise, because that first step to space is a Real Bear. A step that’s 70 miles tall. And, that’s just the first step.

 

Russia was the first country to successfully mount it, their satellite, Sputnik, bringing awe and some paranoia to a world that previously only had one, namely the Moon. Today, comsats and so forth circle the globe like V’ger’s destroyers, only on a more benign, benevolent mission of keeping us connected ’round the world. Still, there’s more to space than just a place to bounce your signal to rebroadcast the Home Shopping Network in 92 different languages around the globe. Indeed, the launch bodies that have ascended a fiery plume into the vacuum beyond our sphere and sent by NASA on quests still continuing today, have now left our solar system completely, fulfilling the desire to quest for those strange new worlds. Pioneer, Mariner, Voyager, long since largely forgotten, but still traveling, probably forever. 

Where will they end up? Will they one day return to Earth, perhaps on a ‘hook’ behind some other spacecraft, with a tow bill due, and a fine and a citation for littering? Will they fall prey to the ravages of time and space, power systems finally failing, frozen solid, pockmarked by micrometeorites, reduced to inert, practically meaningless interstellar space junk, trapped like a fly in amber in some nameless gas cloud or debris field? And, will they be our last offerings to the star-gods, such as they might be? 

 

WILL there even be a future, for space travel, or will government monies be more wisely spent ‘on the ground’, tending the perennial torrent of human problems here on Earth? For it’s very arguable that if you’re going to spend tax money on something, it may as well be to help somebody, not on somebody’s science project that will probably never amount to anything, the probable rhetoric to be expected from critics of stellar/interstellar exploration.

Now, enter the billionaires, visionaries, entrepreneurs, ground-breakers, mavericks, people of means and desirous of seeing visions come to life, and one such vision now involves mineral extraction from the asteroid belt. Untold fortunes are presumed to lie in the space between the planets of our solar system, but accessing them will itself require untold fortunes, developing new technologies to solve new problems that are only now even honestly really being speculated about. 

With talk of a Mars mission, the challenge is to to keep a number of people alive, and sane, in confined quarters probably no more spacious than a Navy submarine, and probably even more confined, ironically because to get to space, you have to save a lot of space, and weight, at least when dealing with craft built here on Earth. Now, could such craft be constructed in orbit, and how would they be constructed, what shape would they take, what would you make them out of? Space-age materials have been superseded by next-generation polymers, alloys, composites(Rutan bros), and now they have this stuff called, ‘carbon fiber’. What materials will be used to build your Mars craft, and what materials will be used for modules and equipment finally destined for the asteroid belt? And, how many decades and hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars will elapse before space-boot ever touches asteroid?

In space, no one can hear you scream. (Alien). Or, just go barking mad from being trapped in the endless darkness, millions of miles from the green hills of Earth. Whether or not the equipment holds up to the trip, how will the ‘spam in a can’ respond to such extended confinement?   In our natural state, we walk on two feet under 1g, and go to sleep when the sun goes down, eat green things that grow out of the ground, and require gravity for certain other personal reasons. The astronauts aboard the space station are learning about things like extended weightlessness, and its’ impact on the human body. But, years, years upon years, the likely period of time to be spent by some future hypothetical generation of ‘rock hounds’, and will they be produced in orbit along with the craft ultimately destined to bear them hence, true denizens of that new frontier, no longer of Earth, but descended from it, while having adapted to their new environment?  What will a ‘rock hound’ look like, Niven’s ‘belters’, and once adapted to the heavens, would they even be able to set foot on dear old Earth, without collapsing or succumbing to some ailment related to being under the influence of Earth’s gravity for the first time in their lives? 

 

Here, we are discussing an undertaking no less massive and sweeping in scale and scope, than the conquest of the New World. Not just one ship, but many ships, from many points of origin, perhaps chartered by government, perhaps independent ventures, but all in the common quest, to explore, to discover, to acquire new wealth potentially, but resources to build future colonies at any rate, then comes the question of processing.

What would a space mining operation look like? How do you handle molten steel safely, in a zero-g environment, how do you produce that heat, first and foremost, and how do you move the ore into position and process it so it can be fed to the forges to begin with? 

How, indeed…

Space, The Final Frontier…

…so quoth William Shatner, in his world-famous monologue at the beginning of every episode of Star Trek(TOS), in his role as James T. Kirk, of the Federation starship, Enterprise, it’s 5 year mission,” to explore strange new worlds, to seek out civilizations, to boldly go, where no man has gone before.”

Thus was born a concept, an idea, that has lasted on to this day, Stardate 65781.2, 4/25/2012 for you non-Federation types. And, it will continue to be represented in our thinking, our writings, our dream for the future, not of a 3-bedroom mansion, but rather a lasting human presence in the heavens above, far beyond the reaches of gravity and atmosphere, breaking free the surly bonds of Earth and voyaging onward into the far reaches of the cosmos, someday. Someday.

But first, a physical challenge.

Hello! Anybody out there?

I signed up for this thing a while ago, never really have got going with it, but that’s something I intend to make amends for here directly. I want to talk about space. Not the gap between my ears, but the space up there, out there, outside the atmosphere, where treasure and peril lie. Back soon, hopefully, to carry the topic forward.