Monday, March 8, 2010

Budget Cuts Killed the Radio Star

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I belong to the BlogCatalog community, where I am the lucky recipient of continual invitations to other science blogs, and occasional comments or questions in my "ShoutBox". A fellow BC blogger recently lobbed this delightful grenade:

BlogCatalog Community
Great questions, Mike! Wow... bright, handsome, and politically correct to boot! Thank you for implying that women might make it to Mars, just as the Russians announce that they've set their watches back a century.

Didn't our mothers fight this battle already? I distinctly remember the smell of burnt brassiere in the morning. Of course, that was back in the 20th century when people actually cared about space exploration. Boo, hiss.

Do you think it's possible for people endure 6 months of weightlessness?
Yes, I do believe we will reach that point. Research and resulting counter-measures made it possible for routine long-duration stays in space, with far less ramifications to bodily health. A Mars voyage, however, might take nearly two years -- that's a long time in micro-gravity! Varied medical simulations are continually exploring how to ensure minimal impact on the immune system, sleep patterns, heart health, bone density and muscle fitness.

Other behavioral and procedural sims, such as the Mars500, are exploring the unique psychological stresses that might be factors on a long, isolated space flight. Still other teams in multiple nations are examining nutritional requirements, and which exercise equipment might be most effective.

The remaining major question mark is radiation in space. How will a human body react to un-blocked cosmic rays and solar flares? This remains to be seen, and the research on this, unsurprisingly, moves at a slower clip than other biological or psychological simulations.

Mars
Are we even there yet technologically to attempt such a voyage?
In some ways, yes. In some ways, no. So, no.

We have the knowledge to build a craft to withstand the journey, and we have the materials, if money was no object. Chemical rocket or plasma rocket? Shape and design of the craft? Hotly debated. Any ship aimed toward Mars would have to be gigantic, in order to carry the necessary fuel, crew, food, water, breathable air, medical equipment, space suits, tools, and of course a lander.

If you had asked me any of these question back in 1977 when Star Wars came out, I'd have chirped happily: sure, Mars will be a reality in no time! I'll be married to Han Solo by then and we'll be neighbors under a big glass dome! Give me a break, I was 8 years old. But even just five years ago, my response would have been far more inspirited.

Today... well, it's become clear that we're all at the mercy of a dispassionate public, and struggling to find the money.

Why don't they send people to the moon first to see if they can bring them back in one piece and then go for Mars?
I am also squarely on the Moon First team. While the processes of getting hardware and warm bodies to the lunar surface are complex and not what I would casually call a "piece of cake" -– I do think it makes sense to work out the kinks close to home before we risk the sheer distance to the red planet. Common sense, right? But I am in a shrinking minority.

NASA's leaders say that Mars is the main goal… but have yet to outline a clear path, and I am not sure why the "elephant in the room" is not a larger factor in the current discussions about Mars –- i.e. the obvious reality that we could not possibly launch a ship directly from Earth to Mars. The gravity of our planet is too strong, and a ship of the necessary life-sustaining size would make take-off impossible with our current rocket technology.

FICTION.

I think this is the part that comes as a genuine shock to many people who believe this has all been sorted out, and we're such a clever little heap of hairless apes that we can launch whatever we please so long as it's a sunny day in Florida. One of my relatives recently asked me how close we are to "warp drive"?

One solution is to assemble a ship in the micro-gravity of Low Earth Orbit, or the one-sixth gravity environment of our lunar satellite. Y'think?

9 comments:

Roy C. said...

"We're such a clever little heap of hairless apes that we can launch whatever we please so long as it's a sunny day in Florida." I sprayed coffee on my monitor when I read that! Unfortunately, that was the only funny thing, because most of the space news these days is bumming me out.

Mole Barry said...

Righto, WOULDN"T IT BE GREAT if we had a comprehensive program that could accomplish all these goals in sensible order, one that included a new launch vehicle, a new crew module, a new lunar lander and plans for a lunar base where a Mars craft could conceivably be constructed? Oh, wait, we did. IT WAS CALLED CONSTELLATION and $9 billion dollars in, a decade of planning and work was totally scrapped so we could skip the moon and go to Mars. I really can't wait to see how that will magically occur.

Missy Frye said...

Hi Heather, I've bestowed upon you the Prolific Blogger Award. Thanks for all your hard work.

DianeD said...

I actually figured the rockets weren’t powerful enough yet, but here’s my misunderstanding about what you said above. Why nutritional requirements? Don’t they already know what sort of food carries well in space already? I thought they would have to grow some of their own along the way too.

Jo Campbell said...

Well, they could always start to research Anne McCaffery's idea of kinetics who can throw ships into space (unfortunately it also requires another kinetic at the other end to catch).

PillowNaut said...

@RC - Sorry about your monitor, dude, but not sorry overall, heh ;)

@Mole - Didn't mean to flip your crazyswitch there, but yeah, you said what I was trying not to rant.

@Missy - THANK YOU! I'll come have a look and link back to you! :)

@Diane - I had another post lined up tomorrow, but I'll push it ahead to answer your Q, because the food angle is actually quite interesting... and one of the most misunderstood.

@Jo - Would it be cheaper?? LOL :)

Muscle Car Reviewer said...

A question for you. Let's say NASA reached the point of launching a spaceship to Mars, would you be willing to go on that voyage?

Sach said...

Can't point to people and say 'BE INTERESTED IN SCIENCE'! The reason why the program was scrapped was because it was threatening to take up-to 2027 (for the lunar lander) to complete! Not to mention much more additional funding!

EVERYTIME a person/company perishes its because they gave into short term thinking and never thought about the long term vison until it was all too urgent/late.

I remember Braun saying in a 1968 interview how he had been spending MOST of his time trying to stop the govt from scrapping the launch facilities after the moon missions! We hadn't even gone to the moon yet!

All because no one bothered to set up the future in peoples mind and we just let people think it was a race with the russians!

Once the race was over - no one cared anymore!

If NASA has taken steps to look for a replacement vehicle for the shuttle in 1990's (as was originally planned) they would not be in this situation where the politicians had to step in and ask private companies to submit plans for new launch vehicles!

:)

PillowNaut said...

You got that right about the short-term thinking. Also reminds me about a crack von Braun made about government paperwork, LOL. Just goes to show, the human condition never changes. I’m sure way back in history, some administrator was fussing to some pharaoh, “See now, if you’d thought ahead to what the Nile valley commerce was going to be, we could have built ANOTHER pyramid even bigger than THAT one.” ;)

However, I don’t think the “future” wasn’t set up in people’s minds. Arguably, TOO MUCH FUTURE was set up in terms of science fiction. Everyone thought it would be so much easier, and that it would just happen as a natural progression – hopping to other planets and such. In 1965, von Braun said we’d be on Mars by 1986. Makes one wonder… would they have truly figured out all the practical issues by then? Was it only a money problem? It always comes back to funding.