What’s the Value of Liberal Arts?

There was an NPR article today about how the pressures of the economy are casting some doubt on the value of liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education.

I have a bit of an opinion on this, since I went to the best liberal arts college in the nation and I found gainful employment in my field immediately after I finished with graduate school.

To me, the argument about the value of a liberal arts college seems a bit silly. After all, a huge percentage – if not the majority – of the members of my Williams class majored in physics, biology, chemistry, math, psychology, computer science, or economics – all very practical things that translate directly to various industries and enterprises. A liberal arts college is a tremendous place to study those disciplines: science is a collaborative and inquisitive endeavor, and learning to work with an expert to thoroughly understand scientific principles gave me a much better experience than I think I would have received in the back of a hundreds-seat auditorium getting lectured by a TA.

But Williams did more than give me an incredibly solid grounding in physics, which I could then take towards a doctorate and career in spacecraft engineering. While I studied physics, in very demanding and rigorous classes, I also studied linguistics. And studio art. And history. And even political science. All these things did more than make me a “more well-rounded person.” Study of these subjects gave me exposure to ideas, concepts, and frameworks to help me put all sorts of things in context. So now, when I hear political candidates talk about America’s founders, or invading Iran, or health policy, I have a relevant understanding to evaluate their statements against. When I read about the economy, I have a basic understanding of the principles that govern the situation we face. When I read a good book, or see an engaging film, or view a piece of artwork, I can appreciate the efforts the artists put into those things and understand how they have the effects they do on me. In short: I have gained more than a narrow, vocational perspective on the world – I can approach many subjects from many angles. This is not merely a good thing for its own sake, but it also helps me in my chosen vocation. I’ve used my rudimentary skills as an artist and my experience with writing (Williams grads know what I’m talking about!) quite frequently as an engineer. If this also means that I have a few still lives and unfinished manuscripts in my apartment, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

For the same reasons that I appreciate having a liberal arts background in my academic training, I also appreciate that we have “pure” liberal arts majors in our society. We need historians, writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians in our society. We need them to remember, curate, create, and teach their liberal arts so that we can keep churning out well-rounded, multi-talented workers instead of narrowly focused drones.

Planetary Resources: Prospects and Challenges

A number of well-funded and well-connected entrepreneurs are kicking off Planetary Resources, a company devoted to harvesting materials from near-Earth asteroids.

Now before you go scoffing (or wondering how to “greatly enable” things) – this is by no means a crazy idea. Many of the technologies one might want to prospect asteroids are not difficult to conceive of today. Commercial launch services seem to be on the brink of an explosion. And, yes, there certainly are resources on asteroids! I’m eager to welcome to the space community a group that is willing to embrace greater risk in order to reap greater rewards.

I’d like to point out just a few of the challenges Planetary Resources will face, and why asteroids might be an interesting target for resource exploitation.

First of all, asteroids boast uniquely available resources, if only we can get to them. Some classes of asteroids are wholly or partially composed of metals – or even other useful substances, such as water or carbon compounds. It might be easier to access those resources on an asteroid, if it has a “rubble pile” structure, than it would be if we have to drill down into the surface of a planet or moon. We are also not likely to have to drill or dig as far. Once we get our precious asteroid resources in hand, it’s also much easier to move them to another space destination than it would be from the surface of a moon or planet: we just have to give the blocks of metal a shove to push them out of the asteroid’s wimpy gravity well!

Second, having resources available to us in space would be a tremendous boon. The biggest obstacle to the commercial, industrial, scientific, academic, Starfleet, or any other kind of development in space is straightforward to identify: launch costs. What if we could take that all or part of the way out of the equation? What if, instead of building spacecraft on Earth and launching them into space, we instead build them right where we need them, and shuttle asteroids or special components up as necessary?

The challenge preventing us from jumping right on a von Neumann-style space exploration architecture is that we will have to develop this remote-controlled manufacturing base. Figuring out how to steer robots in space is not an unsolved problem, but figuring out how to control a robotic mining and fabrication facility is something else. I don’t think it’s intractable – but there are going to be a lot of difficulties with reliability and robustness. I don’t think Planetary Resources has self-replicating machines on its immediate business plan, but it is going to face some similar obstacles: how does the robot (or human miner, even) dig into the asteroid in microgravity? How does the miner get ore to the surface? What other processing has to happen?

Then, once the resources are in hand, what will Planetary Resources do with them? It is very tempting to make statements about the value of those materials to the global market…but, remember, it’s always harder to send a spacecraft to a destination and back than it is to send it one-way. If we want to return asteroid mine products to Earth, we will have to boost them with delta-vee of the same order as that we used to send the miners on their way – which means we need to send return vehicles with the miners. Perhaps the mining can solve its own problem by providing fuel for its return rocket, but still, the cost and complexity of the mission will mount up. On top of that, once the resources get to Earth, we will have to decelerate, capture, and eventually do-orbit them. All that takes energy: de-orbiting, in particular, is tricky because we often rely on ablation to carry away the energy from an object moving at 7 km/s…and we don’t want to burn up the resources we just spent all that time and effort extracting. For that reason, I think it may make more sense to keep those resources in space and find ways to use them there.

From Planetary Resources’ descriptions of fuel depots and expanding the exploration of space, that may be what they intend.

Woah wait, what?!

If you follow space news, you’ve likely seen one of the articles on this event. Woah!

I’ve like to contribute just a couple things to the wild speculation at this point. The MIT Technology Review article concludes that asteroid mining is the only possible thing of interest in space – but really, that is just one writer’s blog. I want to point outthat there are other possibilities:

  • Space-based solar power systems: either a constellation of satellites or a system of stations on the lunar surface that collect solar energy and beam it back to Earth, with the potential to provide inexpensive (after the initial investment!), reliable electricity to anywhere on the globe. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy correctly identified this as a possibility. Tom Jones’ involvement makes me think this possibility less likely, though.

  • Lunar mining: not only are there potential resources on asteroids,  but there are some on our nearest planetary neighbor! While the Moon had higher gravity than an asteroid – requiring a little more than a token kick to lift return vehicles – its proximity makes it a more reachable target.

  • Water mining: outer solar system moons are often covered with water ice laced with minerals or organic compounds. A robot could land on the surface, cut out blocks of ice, and thenshove them Earthward.  I’m not sure there is an economic case for this activity, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a bad idea for all time.

My bet is that they are going for asteroids or the Moon, but I think space power systems are a potential line of business for Planetary Resources. Maybe they plan on becoming a general space-based utility company! 

Wired’s “Danger Room” has an article which presents a good overview of the military’s (and NASA’s) move from expensive mega-scale spacecraft to smaller missions. It presents some interesting perspectives on the forces driving these trends in the space industry, and explores a few of the reasons why things are the way they are – and way they might be evolving in the future.

I’m a big fan of the idea that our space programs should embrace smaller missions: spacecraft that are less expensive and have a faster development cycle can explore higher-risk, higher-reward technologies and mission architectures than can monolithic “heritage” programs. I want to see technology demonstrators in space, and I want to see the fruits of those programs feeding into a robust research and development effort that pushes our space program where it has truly never gone before: robots to sail Titanian seas or burrow into Europan ice, observatories to unveil Earthlike planets in other star systems, and ships carrying humans to our neighbor worlds.