Posted by: bkivey | 11 May 2010

Boldly Going, Going, Gone

This week, if all goes according to plan, space shuttle Atlantis will light up the sky over Cape Canaveral on Friday and some time in mid-November space shuttle Endeavor will leave the planet for the last time. bringing to a close a manned spaceflight program that launched 134 missions in 30 years, on an annual budget considerably smaller than the GSP of Vermont. Because there are no plans for a follow-on program, the only time an American will get into space will be by buying a ride from the Russians, or possibly the Chinese.

It costs upwards of $60 million per head to hitch a ride on a Soyuz, and the Shuttle costs about $500 million per launch, but it seats seven, can carry 65,000 pounds of anything you can fit in the cargo bay, bring 35,000 pounds back from orbit, and you get all the expensive parts back for the next trip. In contrast, to get an equivalent amount into orbit using Russian launchers would require five launches, three Soyuz for the people and two Protons for the cargo, and you don’t get any of the hardware back.

There are a lot of folks who question why we are going into space at all, which brings me to the main reason for this post, and that’s to draw attention to this column written by Aaron Robinson for the May issue of Car and Driver. Aside from the fact that getting off the planet is the only way we are going to ensure our survival as a species: extinction-level impacts do happen, every society needs concrete validation of it’s ability to do great things that redistributing the wealth doesn’t quite cover. And if we don’t learn how to exploit the resources of our solar system, there’s going to be less and less wealth to redistribute, because people aren’t going to stop having babies.

The new paradigm for space operations in the U.S. seems to be for private companies to take over the operations once funded by government, and by and large that’s something I support and people like Paul Allen, Richard Branson, and Burt Rutan are doing their best to make happen. But as Mr. Rutan has pointed out, businesses are in business to make money, and are unlikely to invest in expensive basic research with unknown benefits. And to attract the nation’s best talent you need to give them a visible goal. It’s a lot easier to inspire kids to become engineers and scientists from watching crewed space launches than reading about the latest developments from Bell Labs.

Star Trek invents the future

There is a blog post that makes the case that the TV show Star Trek (the O.G.) invented the future. There was a TV show a few years back hosted by William Shatner with the same premise, and it’s not a big stretch to say that it’s true. If you were to watch a documentary on science or technology in the ’80’s or ’90’s you would have seen that when an engineer or scientist was asked why they got into their field they would nearly always say they were influenced by Star Trek.

For a TV show that was canceled over 40 years ago Star Trek has had amazing staying power. Dr. Michio Kuko regularly alludes to the series in his TV show Sci Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible and Dr. Miguel Alcubierre has said that his inspiration for devising the theoretical basis for a supraliminal drive was Star Trek, although he is young enough that he probably means The Next Generation series.

Sure, lightsabers are cool and all, but Star Wars came out nearly 35 years ago, and I haven’t seen lightsaber One, or any other related tech, available for sale.

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