Update, May 8, 2010. Please see the next-to-last paragraph.
What are we to make of the Obama administration’s change of direction in manned space
programs? This is a subject I am unsure of. The question not only involves science, but national pride and a big dose of politics. Buzz Aldrin seems to stand alone among the astronauts of the past in defending the new direction. I think he is courageous to do so.
I believe we do need some new direction. Revisiting the moon or sending people to Mars doesn’t make much sense to me unless we can find some meaningful purpose. Robots are getting better at such things all the time, and are much cheaper. I wonder if it would make sense to have an astronomical observatory at the moon’s pole, just over the horizon from Earth, so as to block radiation and light? Maybe it could facilitate the search for other Earth-like planets. Or, are satellites like Hubble just as good? Or have adaptive optics made space telescopes unnecessary? I can’t help but wonder if politics has hampered a free discussion of these issues, but then, politics and money issues always go together. It would be really nice if we had a better mission. As Robert Burns said, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
I have been an avid reader of science fiction, especially in my youth. My heroes were the
likes of Isaac Asimov, Fredrick Pohl, C. M. Kornbluth, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C.
Clarke. The genre deteriorated in the 1970’s, but in its golden age it exemplified the excitement of exploration through engineering and all the sciences, including medicine. There is no question that the excitement of space exploration, combined with the challenge of the Cold War, brought out America’s competitive spirit and inspired many of us to pursue science and engineering. At its height we were devoting 4% of our GDP to the race to the moon! Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 provided unrivaled real-world dramas. My personal interest in space flight was
heightened when as a young naval officer I received orders to my first shore duty at the Naval Ordnance Test Unit, Patrick AFB, Cape Kennedy (changed back to Canaveral later). I spent two years there helping Polaris subs do their test firings. The excitement of the space effort was palpable!
Asimov and others in their fiction also explored goals beyond interplanetary exploration. These included alien life, e.s.p., robots with artificial intelligence, artificial gravity, and faster-than-light propulsion systems. They did not include the excitement of Martian geology – it doesn’t have much. Space flight to other solar systems is impossible unless something in basic physics changes. We appear to be stuck with geology and looking out of the big new window of the ISP at a planet that is destroying itself through pollution, religious hatred and intolerance, and overpopulation. Other than that, I think things look just peachy.
Update: Following are the opening paragraphs of a pertinent article published on space.com on May 7, 2010:
New technologies and the growing number of alien planets being discovered
are fueling a new look at a plans for a futuristic interstellar probe into deep space. A dedicated study team has formed Project Icarus, an international initiative of the U.S.-based Tau Zero Foundation in collaboration with the British Interplanetary Society (BIS). The multi-talented group is delving into everything under our the sun to develop designs for the (unmanned) interstellar spaceship, from inertial confinement fusion to reviewing the latest in nanotechnology, computing, and electronics, as well as identifying target star destinations.
Today’s Project Icarus signals a bit of a baton-passing from a BIS-backed star ship appraisal called Daedalus that was done in the late 1970s. “The Project Daedalus theoretical engineering design study took place over three decades ago. In the time since, there have been many advances in science and technology,” said Kelvin Long, a key Icarus designer.
It is an ironic fact, according to my readings, that the greatest strides in science and technology (and weapons systems) are made in the spirit of war and/or international competition. I know that is the tribal nature of human beings. Is manned spaceflight justifiable (in the present era) just so we can say, “ha, ha, we got there first, again? What price, inspiration? What price, “face”?