After Inspiration

We space exploration fans and practitioners live in heady times! But I’m going to take a step back from all the SpaceXes and KickSats of the moment to do some philosophizing. Let’s start with the adage that the military is always fighting the last war: I think the saying may be true of science and space exploration advocates, too. Just hold that thought…

Over the last several weeks, I have been enjoying the “Cosmos” reboot. One of the justifications put forward for the show is the need to inspire a new generation to pursue scientific and technical careers, as Carl Sagan’s original did in the early 1980s. Airing prominently in support of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is a Boeing advertisement, perhaps suggesting a career path to those young Americans inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the show proper. It portrays engineers hard at work building – among other key Boeing-associated products – communications satellites, rockets, and solar panels. As the music crescendos, it displays footage of the International Space Station while the narrator declares that Boeing engineers have built “something the whole world can share.” The way the ad spot is cut, one might almost get the impression that the aerospace giant puts forth equal effort – and promises equal opportunities – in civil space exploration as it does in the areas of military aerospace and commercial aviation.

There’s a problem with STEM (that’s “science, technology, engineering, and math”) in the United States, but this “STEM crisis” isn’t really what it’s made out to be. There’s not really a shortage of STEM graduates. There’s a shortage of jobs for STEM graduates. This fact raises a question: suppose “Cosmos” inspires a large number of young Americans. Suppose it makes them want to learn the fundamental science underpinning the physical processes of the universe. Suppose it encourages their passion to build space telescopes and Mars rovers. Suppose it pushes them to wonder if there is alien life on Europa, or Enceladus, or an exoplanet. What do the newly minted young engineers and scientists go on to do?

The things we value as a country, and how much we value them, are effectively determined by the budgets set in Congress. In 2013, Congress spent about $63 billion on science and technology research of any kind. Yet the Department of Defense gets ten times that amount, and about 25 times that dollar value goes toward nondiscretionary entitlements. On top of that, over half of what little federal R&D funding there is goes toward defense programs (which means the fruits of that R&D don’t really percolate out into wider society). NASA does everything that it does on a paltry $18 billion dollars annually – about half a percent of the federal budget.

The message is clear: our country values keeping its social obligations. Fine, good. But the next thing on our national priority list is defense. (And, of course, much of our defense policy is based around big-ticket systems fighting a Cold War that ended when our adversary ceased to exist almost a quarter-century ago. As that adage goes…) As for research and development, fundamental science, medical advancements, or space exploration…well, according to the money, our country barely cares about these things at all in comparison. As a result, some of the most secure opportunities available to STEM graduates are in military-related positions – contrary to what that Boeing advertisement suggests.

This situation is extremely sad and problematic, both for our young engineers and scientists and for the United States as a whole. And it suggests to me that the best target of science advocacy should not be the young Americans working their way up through school. It should be Congress.

Private companies don’t produce fundamental innovation without a clear financial incentive. They don’t do basic science research, and they hesitate to invest in product development that stretches beyond the next quarter, let alone the next fiscal year. We can’t rely on private enterprise for awe-inspiring scientific and engineering feats. Most of the really blockbuster stuff – the continental discoveries and global circumnavigations and Hoover dams and Moon landings and Saturn probes – comes from governments. Not just any government fits the bill, either: only those that take the long view engage in such risky and rewarding activities. Historically, the United States federal government has been an incredible innovator. NASA is an exemplary contributor, holding 1 in 1000 US patents! (And that’s not even mentioning the tangible or intangible economic benefits.) Lest one think that academia will step in on its own to provide the fundamental research, consider that government grants support the scientists in academic institutions. We need the government to be doing this stuff.

Basic research, innovation, and exploration is potent, inspiring stuff. With their ad spot accompanying “Cosmos,” Boeing demonstrated that they have a strong grasp of this concept: giving the Space Station top billing among their projects is a sure way to tug on the heartstrings of future-minded young people. (They’re not the only “Cosmos” advertiser to capitalize on the excitement of space exploration, either.) But in a time when our Congressional leaders simultaneously don’t seem to care about science and lack the courage to close even the unneeded military bases, there’s very little chance that a young engineer gets to work on space exploration. Sadly, one probable outcome is that after their technical education our aspiring space explorers will end up doing what the military-industrial complex calls “capability maintenance” – which easily means work that has all the technical, social, and political value of a “bridge to nowhere.” To a congressperson, military pork is the most valuable and secure kind of jobs program; to a defense contractor, bloated programs are steady income.

I’m in my early career. I’m not as bitter as, say, NASA Watch yet (and the ire I do have goes straight at Congress rather than at NASA administration). I consider myself fortunate that, even though I don’t work for NASA, I am working on a NASA mission that’s relevant to civil science. But I do see that there are hard, important problems out there that we need to solve – some, problems of national import – while we divert resources elsewhere. I imagine if we decommissioned a few surplus ships, we could instead land humans on Mars. I think if we could close a few extraneous bases, we might instead determine that we are not alone in the universe. Or I wonder, if we shut down our arsenal of Minuteman missile silos – leaving our ability to combat modern threats unaffected – could we instead attack what is probably the greatest known future national security issue: climate change? I want to make the world a better place by working on those problems, and by stretching human capabilities and knowledge out into space. And I, for one, view a lack of investment in science and innovation as more relevant to the United States’ national security than many overt military programs.

We have to remember that the point of NASA is not just to inspire. And the point definitely isn’t to be a jobs program for targeted areas of Alabama, Texas, California, and Florida. Historically, it wasn’t even to explore space. The point of NASA was to move our nation forward in scientific and technological capability. Popular inspiration is a nice, and effective, bonus. But our leaders in the Capitol are clearly in more need of science advocacy than we are. If we could inspire a little more political courage from them, to move money from safe-but-unnecessary programs to critical development agencies and unleash those agencies to innovate, then the rest of America can go on to great things – after inspiration.

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A debut of sorts

I completed another map over the past few months – and this one has some special distinctions. Namely, it was my first commission and sale! So, be it known that I do that now.

I started from sketch maps, place names, and some stylistic suggestions, but for the most part my own input comes in the artistry and execution. The layout, terrain, and languages are not my own. As I’ve gradually stopped tying maps to my own fantasy world and started drawing them as art for their own sake, it was interesting to put one together based on a set of stories belonging to someone else!

Plains, rocky isles, temperate forests, and ocean

I used the opportunity to try some new(er) techniques, of necessity. I made the decision to do the entire map in black and white, which meant finding ways to distinguish different terrain types with shading and symbols. Grasslands got a light wash, with little grass symbols in two shades. I indicated deserts with a wavy dune-like pattern in very dilute ink. And water took on texture from rough brushstrokes. I also had to have some idea how to handle labels early on (rough though my own lettering may be).

Desert, mountains, and tropics

One of the challenges was that this map depicted a region of continental scale. I indicate this by scale: the mountain ranges I drew here don’t reach the heights they do on other maps. I’m particularly happy with the mountains; I think their shapes and shading worked out nicely to give a rough, natural feel to their slopes. The scale of the map also made forests tricky. On a map like Zarmina, I could show forests – and their type – by color. Here, that was not an option. I did some experiments on scratch paper with shading ideas, but in the end I came back to my first idea: tiny trees. Tiny scalloped symbols for deciduous trees, tiny jagged angles for pine trees, and tiny swoosh-topped wedges for tropical palms.

I MEAN REALLY TINY

Seriously. Tiny trees.

This all came about thanks to my discovery that my superfine pen nib was terrible, but I had a second one that I’d never tried lying around. Turns out that one was much easier to control.

The mixed-up tree styles worked very well, giving me a simple mechanic to distinguish different parts of the map and giving this map something (so far) unique, in the way it divides the viewer’s attention from the larger, broader scales to the smaller, more detail-oriented bits. I also learned more about how the ink behaves in washes, and I’m looking forward to manipulating some of those effects in my next personal project – already underway!

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…how about half an elevator?

If you’ve paid any attention to science fiction in any form, you’ve probably seen the concept of the space elevator. A super-strong tether or tower extends upward from the surface of the Earth, past geostationary orbit, and beyond; to get into orbit you just need to ride a car up the elevator to the geostationary point and…step off.

The space elevator solves a fundamental problem with access to space: speed. Getting height up from the Earth is fairly easy – just point a rocket up. But to get a spacecraft to stay in orbit, you also need to accelerate your vehicle to orbital velocity, which is at least 7 km/s. That’s where all the big booster rockets come from. The elevator, though, lets you get this speed without even trying. Since the whole structure remains oriented radially out from the Earth at all times, as your car climbs up the tether you automatically gain rotational kinetic energy. At the geostationary point, you will have enough energy to simply push out of the airlock and remain in orbit. Easy!

(This energy is easy to get, but it doesn’t come for free. Every time you go up the space elevator, you slow down the rotation of the Earth.)

Space elevators have some problems of their own, though. For one thing, we need materials and technologies sufficient to support the tether against the forces of gravity and rotation. For another, the Earth’s troposphere has some pesky disturbances that we call weather, and the space elevator has to be near the equator – where tropical storms happen. And then there’s…politics.

Great concept art from DVICE's article about the partial elevator. (Tony Holmsten)

Great tangentially related concept art from DVICE’s article about the partial elevator. (Tony Holmsten)

There was an article the other day about a paper examining a “partial” space elevator. The idea is to place a station at geosynchronous orbit, and run a tether only partway down to the Earth. The tether doesn’t have to deal with cyclones or touch the surface. Rockets bring payloads just to the bottom of the elevator, where they can ride the rest of the way up.

The idea reminds me of Robert Forward’s “rotovator,” which involves placing a long tether in orbit and making it rotate in the same sense and at the same rate as its orbital motion. Each tip of the tether traces a cycloid around the Earth: a trajectory that momentarily stops (relative to Earth’s surface) at the low point where it can pick up a payload, and swings back up to a high point where it flings the payloads forward much faster than the orbit velocity. It also has some similarities with cyclers, which are hypothetical objects in orbits that visit two (or more) celestial bodies at regular intervals without propulsive maneuvers. (Buzz Aldrin is a fan of these; he has an Earth-Mars cycler orbit named after him. That vehicle would alternately visit the Earth and Mars, with a 146-day transit time.)

Fundamentally, what all these concepts are trying to do is establish infrastructure in space – infrastructure that lets us offload some of the delta-v requirements from individual spacecraft, at the expense of an initial investment.

A more near-term such architecture would be an orbital propellant depot: a place where space vehicles could pause, after launch, and “top off” before they proceed onward to destinations beyond Earth orbit. Lots of technologists and policymakers have given thought to these depots, with many concepts nowadays revolving around the Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy launchers.

I’m a fan of these ideas. Any infrastructure that lets us explore space freely, without our launches being tied to landing requirements or our excursions on other worlds being limited by how we take off from the Earth, will only help our efforts to discover our place in the universe and establish humanity on other worlds. I think it’s high time our space program got back to thinking about the nuts and bolts of working in space and building the space-based vehicles that will take us to other planets and moons.

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“Europa Report”

I just watched “Europa Report.” Finally; I’d been holding off because it gets categorized as horror and I didn’t want random slasher aliens invading my sci-fi suspense thrillers. Also I don’t like horror movies in general.

But I have to say that, first, the movie was a terrific portrayal of near-future space exploration; the filmmakers were clearly watching a lot of NASA TV and boning up on their science and engineering before they started. Many of the things that seemed hokey to me did so more because I have a lot of really specific knowledge than because they were blatantly wrong. (Ahahaha, Conamara Chaos isn’t going to have thin crackling ice ready to break through at any moment! Clearly, it must have re-frozen to a thickness sufficient to push the ice rafts up to a higher level than the surrounding terrain, which must be at least…oh, right, I’m watching a movie.) In fact, on the engineering side of things, a lot of the movie was very well-done.

Second, I was refreshed to see that the tension in the movie comes largely from the technical challenges of space exploration. About halfway through is a particularly intense scene revolving around oxygen depletion and the toxicity of hydrazine, which – while somewhat contrived in its specifics – ended up giving the plot a novel way to introduce one of those psychological horror situations that is really unique to the space environment. No aliens, pop-up scares, or spurting blood needed. In this way, the movie harkens back to a lot of Clarke-era hard sci-fi.

(Sadly, that sequence did illustrate one of “Europa Report’s” shortcomings, which was its relatively shallow focus on the characters themselves. We see allusions to the interpersonal issues, and allusions to the emotional impact of the scene I’m talking about on the rest of the characters, but it’s not really explored in detail. In some ways, the form of the movie as a series of documentary recordings may have forced that lack of depth. Fortunately, I found myself filling in some of the pieces on my own.)

Third and finally, when there are aliens on the scene causing the movie to become more suspense-thriller-like, the movie never devolves into straight-up horror. Instead, it focuses on the characters’ choices when faced with that awful situation. The movie makes very clear that the characters are motivated by a love of exploration, a desire to complete their mission, and a strong awareness of the significance their discoveries will have on the rest of humanity. Self-sacrifice becomes the theme of the film: the crew may have all met their ends on Europa (don’t worry, not a spoiler – this aspect of the plot is established in the first few minutes of the movie), but they know the service they are performing. And, in the universe of this movie, they are going to live forever. I found the overall message to be quite positive toward exploration.

I liked it.

Oh, by the way, there are totally space lobsters under the ice on Europa.

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Ignition!

The National Ignition Facility – a humongoid stack of lasers all aimed at a tiny target to try and compress it until it fuses – announced today that they had “positive fuel gains,” meaning that fusion happened and that more energy came out than went in.

Clearly, this is big news for power generation on Earth.

But, with this breakthrough, I want to do something slightly different.

The ignition rocket!

The ignition rocket!

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Space fleets

A couple days ago, an article on NASASpaceFlight described an architecture of vehicles Bigelow Aerospace allegedly presented to NASA. Bigelow is a company developing inflatable space habitats – they’ve launched a few technology demonstrators already, and an inflatable module is set to go up to the International Space Station in the near future. Apparently, they presented a series of modular, inflatable habitats along with a set of space-based utility “tug” vehicles designed to carry out various support functions.

I like this general idea – it fits in with my own vision for a successful space exploration architecture. Specifically, rather than a multipurpose vehicle that must shuttle up and down from Earth’s surface, I want to see a set of many vehicles highly specialized for space exploration purposes. Those vehicles should be native to the space environment – designed never to enter the Earth’s atmosphere. They might even be built in space in the first place.

It would be really terrific to see a company ready to provide that space exploration fleet.

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Jove’s Moon Shot

Here’s a bit of wild speculation for the weekend:

Suppose there is intelligent life in the globe-spanning ocean on Europa. Given how small our space exploration budget is, and our generally declining investments in R&D, how likely is it that the Europan life would discover us before we discover it?

An artist’s concept of Europa’s structure. (Britney Schmidt/DEAD Pixel VFX/University of Texas at Austin)

Any life or societies that evolve on Europa would do so underneath a shell of water ice. A human would no doubt find the environment claustrophobic, whether near the bottom of the ice shell or at extreme depths. Native Europans, though, would live comfortably with the perpetual presence of hydrostatic pressure. The creatures’ science would be familiar with the concepts of temperature and pressure. Some intrepid Europan theorists may even have extrapolated their equations to pressure = 0, but it’s likely that none of the creatures would have any firsthand experience with vacuum. The surface environment of the moon would therefore be totally alien and inhospitable; possibly, many of the creatures would have died in attempting to breach the ice before any succeed.

Would they even think to go up to the surface? I think so, as there is a strategic rationale. Without viscosity to slow them, and with about the same gravity as Earth’s moon pulling them down, a Europan army could move much more quickly over the surface of the moon than through the ocean. Europan kingdoms could launch surprise attacks if they were able to access the surface. Of course, the notion of doing this requires that the creatures realize that the ice over their heads has a surface. There may be ways to determine this from below, perhaps by watching for minute changes in lighting conditions, or even by direct observation of one of Europa’s surface cracks during its process of formation. Or maybe the Europans will just have to rely on explorers analogous to Earth’s Ferdinand Magellan.

Still, even with that strategic rationale, I think penetrating to the ice surface would be the Europan equivalent of the United States’ moon shot in the 1960s. That is, there would have to be a certain high level of technology, as well as a sufficiently well-organized political organization to support a successful attempt. The creatures of Europa would need to figure out how to support their high-pressure life requirements in the vacuum of space, not to mention figuring out how to tunnel or otherwise travel through anywhere from one to one hundred kilometers of ice. If the creatures aim for one of the cracks which may provide surface access from the ocean, then they would have only about a quarter of a Europan day (7/8 of an Earth day) to make the traversal before Jupiter’s tides close the crack again. Any way I look at it, I think that the creatures getting to the surface represents a tremendous achievement of technological prowess.

Once they get to the surface, the creatures would make a stunning array of discoveries. They may already know that their own world is spherical, but suddenly and immediately they would become aware – for the first time in their history – of Jupiter, the Sun, and the stars. In short order, they would discover the other large moons of Io, Ganymede, and Callisto. After spending some time making astronomical observations, they would see other Jovian moons, followed quickly by objects that orbit the Sun rather than Jupiter: Saturn, Mars, Earth, Venus, Uranus, comets. It would be an astonishing and groundbreaking time to be a Europan, as their worldview would experience revolution after revolution.

However, the downside of all this rapid discovery is that the Europan creatures’ science may lag behind the science of Earth. They would not have the long history of looking at the stars that we do. They might not have very good models for gravitational force. Until they get very good telescopes trained at the Sun, the very idea of fire or explosions might be foreign to them.

This is important for my main question, because without the concept of a gaseous explosion, the creatures would find it difficult to conceive and build rockets to begin a true space exploration program.

There is a way the creatures could start to explore their local system without developing rocket propulsion, though: it is conceivable to build large-scale catapults capable of accelerating objects to Europan escape velocity, which is only 2 km/s compared to the Earth’s 11 km/s. (“Only,” though that’s still very fast…Wolfram Alpha tells me that a reasonable comparison to the speed of 2 km/s is the X-15 rocket plane, though, which suggests to me that 1960s-equivalent Europans might have some hope to reach that speed technologically.) Surface-based accelerators would give the creatures the ability to explore the Jovian system.

Maybe a surface catapult plus a gravitational slingshot around Jupiter would allow the creatures to explore the wider Solar System. But I think that they need to develop some kind of rocket propulsion to have control over their efforts – or to return again. They also need to develop the sciences of orbital mechanics and Newtonian motion. These are disciplines that humans have been studying since the dawn of civilization. Our quantitative study of orbits and classical physics goes back to the 1500s.

I think the bottom line is this: if the Europan civilization has the same 7000 years of recorded history that human civilization does, and they reached the surface of their moon around the 1950s-1970s, even if they are more inherently curious and more willing to put forth exploration efforts than we are…they aren’t going to discover us first.

Unless we sit on our hands for a few hundred more years.

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