Why We Need Curiosity   2 comments

Since the new NASA Mars rover touched down on Mars, I’ve been somewhat distressed to see a lot of complaints about its cost, some even calling it a “waste” of funds that could be used to feed the hungry hear on Earth. All of these posts seem to be based on a series of staggering misunderstandings, which I would like to address here.

First off, Curiosity did not cost $100 billion, as one popular meme is claiming. The price tag was not even 3% of that–for a measely $2.6 billion, we sent a 900 pound nuclear-powered science lab to the surface of another planet to open the way for humans to explore a possible second home for humanity, and to look for extraterrestrial life which could revolutionize our understanding of biology in a way that literally no earthbound discovery could.

All for a whopping cost to American taxpayers of about–$7 per person. Not “per year”–that’s a

We got to see Curiosity’s wheel on the ground moments after touchdown on Monday. Thank government funding for science.

total. We all could have bought a hamburger, or cooperatively sent up the first device ever capable of really searching for life on another planet while simultaneously testing unprecedented landing techniques necessary to eventually send human explorers to the most human-friendly known world outside of Earth. For $7 a piece.

Since the space race ended, Americans have gradually stopped appreciating–and funding–NASA. A lot of this probably has to do with the perception that the space program was military in nature–since we went to the Moon mostly to show our dominance over the people we were also seriously considering nuking.

Things like satellite imaging and GPS have become so commonplace that we scarcely give thought to the fact that it was NASA who pioneered these things–and who continues to pioneer new technologies with specifications more exacting than any that private industry could impose.

But that is such a tiny part of what NASA does. The Moon landing was a singular event that captured the world’s attention for a brief moment in time. The work of NASA over decades, on the other hand, is responsible for virtually everything we know about anything that goes on outside our own atmosphere, as well as a good deal of what we know about physics and Earth’s climate.

What else have we gained from NASA over the years?

Teflon-coated fiberglass used as roofing for many buildings and stadiums was invented by NASA. Portable cooling systems used for heat-sensitive injuries and illnesses were invented for astronauts. Modern firefighters’ light-weight breathing systems were developed for–who else–astronauts. NASA technology has gone into our cars, our airplanes, our cleaning products, our medical equipment–even our artificial hearts, for decades. After all, there’s nothing to spur innovation like charging a team of the world’s top scientists with developing lightweight, portable equipment that will function to support human life in a vacuum under fluctuating temperature extremes.

Knowledge of other worlds, and all this technology too! All on an annual budget of $16 billion, which is about half a percent of our total federal budget. Or about $53 per American per year. Not a bad subscription, if you ask me.

As such, I’d argue that Curiosity is arguably the best way our government could possibly have invested a mere $2.6 billion. Here’s why:

First and most obviously, we have the potential scientific boon. Will Curiosity discover life on Mars? No one knows. But it is a very real possibility–not just some sci-fi fan’s pipe dream. We’ve long known that the Martian atmosphere undergoes mysterious chemical changes throughout the Martian year–chemical changes quite consistent with the presence of bacterial life.

I will shoot you with laser beams until you talk, Mars. Failing that, I’ll just use my lasers to spectroscopically analyze your chemical makeup.

Perhaps it takes a biology geek to understand just how huge of a deal this would be. Currently, we have precisely one type of life to study: Earth life. Since all earth life is descended from the same cellular ancestor, this means we literally know nothing about the fundamentals of life or biology.

We’ve never seen any type of life except Earth life: we’ve never seen any cells that have a different way of passing on their hereditary traits, or of turning genes into proteins, or of doing any of the fundamental functions of life. If we found an independent origin of life on Mars, who knows what those organisms could teach us?

Who knows what staggeringly better ways of getting things done they might have developed, simply because they never thought of doing it our way? Who knows what this could mean for academic science, let alone medicine?

And of course, the question of life on Mars goes far deeper than the practical applications of such a discovery. One of the things we don’t know, since we’ve only ever gotten to study our own origin of life, is how common life might be in the universe. Or how common intelligent life might be in the universe. We don’t even know for sure that there is other life out there. This is kind of huge.

What does it mean for us if our neighbor has a whole separate origin of life from ours? It means that maybe life is common–maybe we need to expect to find ecosystems on other worlds as we explore further out, maybe we need to expect to get visited by extraterrestrials and maybe shut our interstellar radio transmissions down like Stephen Hawking said, so we won’t get invaded. I feel like “don’t get invaded, because seriously there is other life out there” might be a worthwhile thing for us to know, medical and philosophical boons aside.

Secondly, we have the new technology that Curiosity is testing. Humans just aren’t going to Mars on the technology that got the featherweights Spirit and Opportunity there. Those things were so small–and comparatively scientifically feeble–for a reason. It turns out that it’s really hard to land on Mars. In fact, 60% of Mars missions to date have crashed or otherwise been lost (though the U.S. has done slightly better than that in recent years). Curiosity‘s landing was so nerve-wracking because a ridiculously complicated string of precise, unimaginably complex calculations, computer programming, and mechanics had to go off without a hitch in order to safely lower the half-ton rover onto the planet which lacks an Earthlike atmosphere to slow spacecraft.

Guess what a manned capsule would need to land on Mars safely? That same technology. That we just tested for the first time on Sunday night. That worked. While the nearest human was 300 million miles away. Even ignoring the ultimate goal of landing on Mars, do we think that kind of technology doesn’t have some pretty serious commercial implications for things like, say, unmanned vehicles here on Earth, or computer programming of robotics in general?

The last major benefit of Curiosity I want to address is purely psychological. It may also be the most important. Some people will take “purely psychological” to mean “not real,”  because it’s not an object you can pull out and put on a table and go “look, SCIENCE!” Which is completely stupid, given that virtually all of the problems in the world are purely psychological. Well, maybe not all–illnesses and earthquakes, not psychological. But that fight you had with your parents? Purely psychological. The part of world hunger where we have plenty of resources to feed everyone, but can’t seem to get them in the right place to do it–purely psychological. All war, everywhere, for any reason? It’s psychological, guys.

Carl Sagan was HUGE on the psychological benefits of the space program. Why? Because images and  from space, unlike literally any piece of writing or art or photography or anything else done by another human being, show us reality as it really is. Not a human-centric universe, but an unimaginably huge one in which Earth is just a tiny speck. Not an Earth divided into color-coded territories, but a whole, finite, and objectively interconnected planet. Space exploration makes us aware of the dangers we face that we don’t like to think about and/or haven’t experienced as a species–“never mind that 99% of all species on Earth are now extinct, that won’t happen to us because it hasn’t happened before in living memory.”

Sagan believed that space exploration, as it showed Earth to be united and fragile in the universe, was a fantastic way to combat war. Space exploration is a concrete, physical sign of humanity transcending its violent, instinctive, short-sighted animal origins–and it is by necessity a cooperative effort.

In a staggering feat of cooperative science, the European space probe orbiting Mars took pictures of the American rover as it landed on Mars. Now we just need to get China in on this and we’ve got us some world peace.

As it shows us the true nature of things, it rallies us around a common cause.

Part of the reason some folks today don’t like the space program is that once upon a time, it was a powerful rallying point for the “in group” of the U.S. and its allies, against the “out group” that was the Soviets and their allies.

But everybody seems to have forgotten what Sagan once saw–that cameras turned back on the Earth from space show all of humanity as a single “in group,” a perspective which may be our only hope for surviving our own growing power over the material world in the face of our collective psychological problems. We won’t address these problems if we’re afraid of each other. If we all feel we’re on the same team, we just might.

Here’s a thought I had: NASA currently costs us about $53 per person, per year. How’d you feel about chipping in an extra $10? If everybody in the U.S. did that, it would put NASA’s budget up from $16 billion to $19 billion–that’s an extra $3 billion, more than the total cost of Curiosity. Every year. At a cost of $10 per person to us.

I think it may be time to lobby some Congresspeople. Or start a donation jar. Whichever comes first.

Book Review: The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain, by Kevin Nelson, M.D.   4 comments

This book is a godsend (no pun intended) for anyone with an interest in both neurology and spirituality. Dr. Nelson, a neurologist, describes how one particular patient’s account of a life-changing vision at death’s door inspired him to begin researching near-death experiences.

It turns out that these experiences are ridiculously common in medical settings. One study showed that 1/4 of patients who suffer cardiac arrest and live to tell about it have some sort of “divine,” “afterlife,” or “out-of-body” experience during their crisis. Dr. Nelson relates to the reader dozens of accounts of such experience, ranging from the traditional (one of Nelson’s own patients had his life changed by the sight of Jesus and the Devil arguing over his soul) to the downright bizarre (one atheist met the Egyptian gods, while another woman was greeted at the pearly gates by Elvis).

In addition to this wealth of case studies, Nelson puts his neurologists’ specialty to good use–he describes several wiring systems in the brain which he believes could cause aspects of near-death experiences in response to adrenaline and low blood pressure in a time of crisis. He puts together evidence from far-flung fields and their implications for our understanding of life, death, and the divine. I had no idea, prior to reading this, that nerves in the heart related to blood pressure can cause REM sleep disturbances, or that there’s such a thing as Cotard’s syndrome, in which a person believes, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that they are dead.

Though some may be frustrated by Nelson’s insistence upon finding an explanation for our most powerful spiritual experiences in evolutionary biology, he shows a profound respect for the power of these experiences–he states at several points that finding a neurological basis for such experiences will not make them any less “real,” and his interest seems to be in learning how to make use of these life-changing experiences rather than in debunking them. As a neurologist, he has no choice but to have a unique perspective–while many people see their own near-death experience as proof of a particular religion, doctors are witness to both the power and variety of these experiences.

I don’t wholly buy Nelson’s attempt to explain every single aspect of mystical near-death experiences through known mechanisms in the brain. As scientists who aren’t working off a great deal of hard data are wont to do–Carl Sagan himself once attempted to explain near-death experiences as memories of exiting the birth canal–Nelson indulges in a lot of speculation that is not yet backed by experimental evidence. But by pulling information on everything from rare autoimmune disorders, psychedelic drug research, and military fighter jet training, he offers some very convincing leads for where in the brain we might look for the mystical as our tools for studying it improve.

In his epilogue, Nelson poses a fantastic question–if, in some future, we untangled the mystery of the profound mystical experiences which are today a once-in-a-lifetime event for a lucky few–could we produce a drug that would produce these reliably? And if so, how would we use it? What would it do to our daily lives, and to our societies, if the indescribable “oneness” which for many has wrought positive life-changes beyond the reach of any medicine or therapy, were available on demand? Who would regulate it? And how would doctors like Nelson himself have a responsibility to use–or not use–such a drug on terminally ill patients?

Now there is a question for science fiction.

In the Here and Now: Who’s Doing What In Space?   4 comments

I’d like to pull it back to the here and now–to see what humanity as a whole seems to be planning in terms of space exploration. I’ve complained a lot about NASA’s woeful lack of funding–our National Aeronautics and Space Administration gets about 0.48% of America’s federal budget, while our Department of Defense gets 28%-38%.

But how does NASA stack up globally? Turns out we’re still on top in terms of space exploration funding–by a lot. NASA’s annual budget of ~$16 billion–while pitiful compared to our $700 billion+ in annual military spending–is about three times larger than that of any other governmental space organization on Earth. I’m not sure whether to find that encouraging or discouraging.

Without further ado, here’s how NASA stacks up compared to other national space programs capable of manned spaceflight, and the world’s most ambitious private space technology startups:

NASA – United States of America – Annual budget: $16 billion

Compare budget to: $16 billion is also the total amount of aid international donors promised to Afghanistan today.

Current projects include:

  • Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity Rover) – An SUV-sized exploration rover which will land on Mars in August of this year. It is equipped to search Mars for signs of life, study its geology and climate, and help pave the way for a future manned mission.
  • Kepler Telescope – This telescope was responsible for locating over 1,000 extrasolar planets in the past year alone, including five potentially earthlike worlds. Of these five, so far only Kepler 22b has been confirmed to be of earthlike mass and well within the habitable zone around a relatively sunlike star.
  • James Webb Telescope – A planned telescope so staggeringly large and powerful that it would orbit the Sun instead of the Earth. James Webb would, among other things, allow spectroscopic analysis of the atmospheres of many alien planets, enabling us to look for signs of life and/or habitability. Its launch date has so far been pushed back due to funding issues, from 2015 to 2018. Some question whether the 2018 date is feasible with future budget projections.

Funding for the James Webb Telescope was nearly nixed altogether in 2012’s fiscal budget. It was reinstated at the last minute after a fight between the House (whose budget nixed it) and the Senate (who wouldn’t pass said budget).

  • Others: NASA continues to run countless projects studying our Sun, the other planets, the Earth itself, and even theoretical physics and the human body. NASA’s other projects include experiments in zero gravity medicine, enclosed agricultural systems, and seeking confirmation of predictions of general relativity and other key physics theories.

European Space Agency – European Intergovernmental – Annual budget: $5.83 billion

Compare to: $5.83 billion in housing loans were approved by the Saudi Arabian government to construct 14,000 houses last week.

Current projects include:

  • COROT – This forerunner to the Kepler telescope is still in operation, and detected a couple dozen extrasolar worlds in the years before Kepler came online.
  • Mars Express – A Mars probe mission beginning in 2004. A forerunner to NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, Mars Express also studies the Martian climate, geology, and potential biology.
  • Mars500 – ESA astronauts cooperated with the Russian-based Mars500 simulation, in which a team of 6 astronauts lived together in a metal can for two-and-a-half years to test the psychological challenges a real Mars mission team would face.
  • Others – like NASA, the ESA runs a fleet of projects including studies of Earth’s climate and magnetic field, the Sun and other worlds, new space navigation technologies, and physics phenomena that can only be studied from orbit.

Russian Federal Space Agency – Russian – Annual budget: $5.17 billion

Compare to:$5.17 billion is also the amount of money that Paramount Pictures made worldwide in 2011.

Current projects:

  • International Space Station – Up to 50% of Russia’s space program resources has gone to participation in the International Space Station, to which the Russian Federal Space Agency has contributed two core modules and many astronauts.
  • Mars500 – Russia conducted the Mars500 simulation, addressing the psychological challenges that would be faced by Mars astronauts living in an enclosed space for years on end. The ESA also contributed to this project.
  • Angara rocket family – This line of rockets is intended to improve performance for the launch of unmanned vehicles, and is expected to become the workhorse for Russia’s space probes and other unmanned launches in the future.
  • Like other space programs, Russia conducts studies of Earth’s climate, astrophysical phenomena, and other bodies in our solar system. Though its satellite fleet is somewhat smaller than the NASA’s or the ESA’s due to the large proportion of its efforts Russia has dedicated to the ISS.

Indian Space Research Organization – India – Annual budget: $1.32 billion

Compare to: $1.32 billion is also the amount of money paid to buy Collective Brands shoes away from Payless this past Spring.

Current projects:

  • Chandrayaan-1 – This lunar probe was launched in November of 2008.
  • Mars Orbiter mission – India is planning a Mars rover mission, which it hopes to launch by 2014.
  • Satellites – Like all space programs, India has a fleet of satellites. Most are used for meteorological and telecommunications purposes, rather than theoretical science.

China National Space Agency – China – Annual budget: $1.3 billion (monitors’ estimate; official claim is $500 million)

Compare to: $1.3 billion is also the amount that Intel was fined by the European Union in an anti-trust lawsuit this week.

Current projects:

  • Tiangong-1 – Billed as China’s first space station (they have never participated in the ISS), the Tiangong-1 module was launched in 2011 and first boarded by three Chinese astronauts in June of 2012. The astronauts have since returned to Earth, but follow-up missions are planned leading to a full-time manned Chinese space station in orbit
  • Chang’e 3 – This Chinese lunar lander-and-rover project is slated for launch in 2013, when it will become the first Chinese hardware to reach the Moon. Also it’s named after the Chinese moon goddess, which is pretty cool.

SpaceX – Private, U.S.-based – Annual budget: ~100 million

Compare to: the most expensive private family home in the U.S., located near Silicon Valley, is valued at $100 million.

Current projects:

  • The Dragon – In May of 2012, SpaceX’s Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to ever dock at the International Space Station. Previously only the governments of the U.S., Japan, Russia, and the European Space Agency had managed to launch manned vehicles to dock with the ISS.
  • Falcon Rockets – This line of rockets currently being developed by SpaceX are already an integral part of the future plans of other agencies on this list, including NASA and Mars One. SpaceX looks as though it’s going to have a lot of customers in the future.
  • “Red Dragon” Mars Mission – SpaceX has floated plans for a low-cost, privately-funded unmanned Mars mission, with the specific goal of using unique drilling technology to look for evidence of life in the ice and soil beneath the Martian surface. The “Red Dragon” mission would also pay special attention to analyzing possible hazards for later human Mars explorers. Though the project is still under evaluation by SpaceX and NASA, it has released a hoped-for launch date of 2018.

Planetary Resources – Private, U.S.-based – Annual budget: Unknown, investor-based

Planetary Resources has not yet conducted any launches, and the status of its technological research is not known. The company was founded in 2010 under the less eyebrow-raising name of Arkyd Astronautics, and only unveiled its true intent this past Spring.

  • Asteroid mining – Planetary Resources is a U.S.-based startup founded by several American investors with the express commercial goal of eventually using robots to mine asteroids for industrial minerals.
  • Satellites for sale – As long as they’re developing space technology, the founders of Planetary Resources figure they may as well develop a line of satellites-for-sale, which could be purchased by governments or private companies.
  • Potentially Hazardous Objects – As part of its mining operations, Planetary Resources hopes to develop systems to alter the orbits of asteroids. Planetary resources has stated that this technology could be used to avert future asteroid collision extinction events for as long as Planetary Resources is operating.

Mars One – Private, Netherlands-based – Annual budget: Unknown, investor-and-merchandise-based

  • Human colony/reality show on Mars – In arguably the most brilliant proposal I’ve ever seen, the founders of Mars One believe they can raise the necessary funds for a small human colony on Mars by 2023–by making life on the Red Planet into a reality show.Mars One plans to contract SpaceX to deliver four human colonists on Mars in 2023.

This would be a one-way trip: Mars One plans for colonization, not exploration, so the idea is to build a permanent human population on Mars. Subsequent missions would deliver more settlers, four at a time, every few years.

How much will investors and cable companies pay to get the ratings that a Red Planet reality show would bring? Only time will tell.

Are Planets Overrated?   4 comments

The distance between stars may seem impossible for us; barring the discovery of the warp drive which would allow us to travel faster than the universe’s absolute speed limit–the speed of light–travel to the nearest star would take years or decades. And that star doesn’t even have anything of clear interest to us; the only potentially habitable planet currently known to man is centuries away at best. It may seem that, barring the long-shot which is the warp drive (current physics doesn’t look great for this technology’s feasibility in the near future), humans will never spread beyond the tiny patch of space ruled by our own parent star.

But this line of thinking rests on a single major assumption: that humans need planets. It’s pretty easy to see why we assume this: presently, we do. Even our best space environments are far from self-sustaining, and require frequent shipments of essentials like food, water, oxygen, and spare parts from the surface of the Earth. But must that always be the case? Several sci-fi authors have made convincing arguments to the contrary.

The ideal for any off-of-Earth settlement is a completely closed, self-sustaining ecosystem. The ideal space station in orbit around Earth would produce all of its own food, water, oxygen, and energy. The same holds for an ideal settlement on Mars or the Moon. And for any starship that hopes to ferry humans between habitable worlds at sublight speeds.

There is no reason any of this is theoretically impossible. Water is found in asteroids, in comets, on pretty much every rocky body and in every gas giant atmosphere. It’s even found in deep space. So, too, are the building blocks of life–the carbon and nitrogen that make up the proteins and sugars our bodies use for food. All we would need would be to find a way to harvest these carbon and nitrogen compounds and convert them into forms we could use–a feat which his arguably possible with advancing biotechnology–we’re already making our own bacterial species from scratch. Who knows what a century or two of experimentation in harvesting organics from alien atmospheres could bring?

Even energy is free; near stars, the potential for solar power is theoretically limitless. Between stars, a properly managed nuclear fission reactor can produce energy for centuries.

Now, if the humans of the future manage to build these self-sustaining space environments, they’ll be faced with a new question. If we can become self-sustaining in orbit–then why on Earth do we need planets at all?

Why travel 600 light years for an Earth analogue when the Sun’s nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, is likely to host water, organic molecules, metal, and solar power just like our own solar system? Humans could spread to Proxima Centauri–and every star–without need for anything so kushy as a habitable planet like the one that birthed our species.

It is entirely possible that in the future, humanity may exist spread across dozens or hundreds of star systems. These humans may look back on a distant era in which we relied on our parent planet in the same way that we view our own ancestors who hadn’t figured out how to use fire yet.

The changes such a lifestyle would bring about to human form and culture may be unimaginable. But a few writers have tried. In Hyperion, Dan Simmons’ “Ousters” are star-faring nomads who see no necessity for clothes (except pressure suits for spacewalks). Their rituals, cultures, and art forms developed in zero-gravity. Isaac Asimov’s Nemesis deals with the first self-sustaining orbital “settlement” of humans who decide to strike out for a nearby star, realizing they have no further need of Earth or worlds like her.

Others have speculated that, freed from the demands of planetbound life, humans may take on almost unrecognizable forms; becoming human brains with machine bodies, merging minds like computer programs into collective consciousness, adapting or discarding whole new body parts through cybernetics, bioengineering, and nanotechnology as a given “human” society’s environment requires.

These last speculations are far-off thoughts, of course. But it’s a very interesting question, and well worth considering. In the grand scheme of things, is sticking around habitable worlds our best survival strategy? And what forms may humanity take when we have the power to gather the resources we need from any star system, as well as the computing power and biotech we’re now beginning to glimpse in our current age?

Government vs. Private Industry: Who Should Colonize The Stars?   7 comments

Two very interesting points were brought up by commenters on the previous post. One point is legal–what is the role of government in space exploration and interplanetary colonization? Up to this point virtually all space exploration has been conducted by governments who saw space as being in their people’s best interest, simply because these were the only agencies who had the resources to do it.

But as technology advances, private companies have begun to announce their intent to get in on the game. In April, a group of private billionaires has formed a company with the goal of mining asteroids for profit. A month later, SpaceX became the first commercial entity to dock a spacecraft at the International Space Station. Shortly thereafter, a Dutch company announced plans to establish a permanent colony on Mars by 2023–which it would fund partially by making life on the red planet’s surface into a reality show.

(Image below by the privately owned and operated MarsOneTimeline.)

Anybody who’s been paying much attention to politics in the U.S. has heard the impassioned debate over the virtues of government control vs. private industry. These concerns are especially poignant when it comes to the matter of space colonization–where the stakes may involve the very lives of interplanetary colonists, or the entire future of a human society to be established on another world. Who does it best: big government, or big business?

Extending the arguments applied to other inudstries, proponents of government-led space colonization would say that only an elected government can be trusted to hold people’s best interests at heart. The only sure interest of any entity is self-interest; for commercial entities that’s profit, for elected entities it’s voters’ opinions. For this reason, our socialists would say, government is more likely to take care of its astronauts–caution costs money, after all, and for nobody would the cost-benefit ratio of safety be higher than for an entity which is (ideally) completely controlled by public opinion.

Industrial disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (which occurred because many warnings from government regulators about safety violations were ignored by corporate higher-ups), or ongoing workers’ rights issues such as the Apple factory suicides might be cited as arguments against private control of space colonization. After all, these humanitarian catastrophes have gone largely unnoticed in public dialogue, and the Deepwater Horizon spill negatively effected its parent company almost only due to government action. The same sort of conditions in a government-run operation, our proponents would argue, would have a huge impact on public opinion and hence the subsequent elections. So, who do we want to put in charge of the future of humanity on other worlds?

Now let’s look at it from the flip side. Proponents of privately-spearheaded space colonization might point out that profit motive can be a very powerful impetus for technological progress. They might also point out that our governments appear to have simply lost the will to move forward–a half-century after the first Moon landing, few governments are even talking about getting humans to Mars, and those who are seem incapable of raising the funds for it. While our governments scramble to cut costs and divert money to urgent humanitarian issues like healthcare, private entrepreneurs say that a commercial angle is what is needed to fund a Mars mission. Could the colonization of other planets, even further out, end up playing out the same way? If so, to whom would we be handing power over, say, the second genesis of history on Kepler 22b?

And then, an even stickier question: if a private entity does muster the immense resources needed to colonize another planet, should government, under any circumstances, stop them?

Project Icarus and The Tau Zero Foundation: To the Future!   5 comments

It’s no secret that the greatest obstacle to colonizing the stars is distance. Living in a time when the Earth can be circled in 24 hours, the prospect of the “light year” is unthinkable to us; that unit means that even at the speed of light, the fastest speed allowed by the laws of physics, our “instant” wireless communications themselves would take a year to get from point A to point B. That means that at a mere one light year from Earth, the time from sending “Hello, how are you?” to receiving “Fine thanks, and you?” is two years.

The nearest star to Earth is 4.2 light-years away. That’s eight and a half years between “How are you?” and “Fine.”

It’s interesting to consider what we see as the biggest obstacle to crossing that distance. Once upon a time, it was technology; how would we feed human colonists through the dozens or hundreds of years it might take to cross interstellar space at sublight velocities? How would they breathe, or generate power? But as modern science advances at an ever-accelerating pace, we have some pretty good ideas about how to answer those questions. It could be argued that with sufficient funding, a self-sustaining colony ship could be constructed within our lifetimes.

No, the seemingly insurmountable obstacle to space colonization is no longer technical–it’s social.

Our biggest anxiety about sending astronauts to Mars is that, if something should go wrong, they’d be utterly out of reach of Earthly help. This was not an overpowering concern when we sent astronauts to the moon decades ago, even though they were in basically the same situation; they were days away from Earth, but in an era when space shuttle flights were far from routine, those in the Moon’s orbit were just as effectively separated from Earth as today’s astronauts would be on Mars–a journey that takes months or years, one way.

No rescue missions would get to our Mars explorers before they ran out of air. Those bound for Proxima Centauri would have even dinner hope of rescue–once their expedition left the range of easy radio contact, we would not even hear of its success or failure for years.

Now, let’s crank this up a notch: Kepler 22b, the possible Earth analogue, is a staggering 600 light years away.

That’s 1,200 years between “How are you?” and “Fine.” That is dozens of human generations spent aboard a starship traveling at sublight velocities.

The payoff would be amazing. A second Earth. An entire second human history. A continuation of our species, should catastrophe happen here. A second base from which mankind could colonize even more stars.

But to we as a society have the collective will to do it? Could we invest the trillions of dollars necessary to create such a journeyship, for a payoff we would not see for centuries? Could we send dozens, hundreds, or thousands of personnel into unknown territory beyond reach of our help? Them, and their great-grandchildren?

Paul Gilster writes  for the Tau Zero Foundation, a society dedicated to answering just these questions. He–like many scientists and science fiction authors–believes that travel to the stars, as soon as possible, is the best way for humanity to ensure our continued survival. And through the Tau Zero Foundation, he aims to nurture not just the physical underpinnings–the funding and the technological advances for such a mission–but also the psychological foundation needed for humanity to again undertake risky, long-term endeavors.

Endeavors which would not have been alien to our forefathers, who spent months crossing the Atlantic Ocean in wooden boats, without even the benefit of electricity; endeavors which have now become alien to us, shaped by the comfort, safety, and instant gratification of the information age.

Will our modern safety standards and needs for short-term payoff be our downfall? Weigh in in the comments.

To the Stars!   2 comments

Whenever I come back to science, I find that all roads lead me to the stars. Why? Astronomy is but one area of science–and some would call it the least relevant of the sciences to our daily lives. For how can we be effected by what is literally millions of miles away (beautiful picture at right illustrating the possible commonality of planets in our galaxy courtesy of ESO/M. Kornmesser)? Some pragmatists even protest that it is irresponsible to think about outer space when the crises that threaten our species are going on right here at home.

My answer would be that this argument against spending on space exploration is in fact precisely why we need it. So many of the issues of our time are about resources–where are we going to get energy in a way that won’t destroy our planet? How can the Earth feed all of our people? Under what circumstances is it ethical to make new people when we can’t answer those questions?

The fundamental reality we’re beginning to face is that the Earth is finite. We don’t know exactly how many people it can support–but the fact is that there are four times as many people living on our planet now as there were 100 years ago. And with our increasingly complex societies posing all new logistical and psychological risks, we may not have much time to figure it out before Mother Nature starts keeping us in check the way she did in the pre-technological era–by killing people off faster than they can reproduce.

This issue has been near to my heart lately for a number of reasons. On one hand, there is the science–even biological studies keep attracting me to other worlds, to the question of what they’re like, how we get there, of how many Earth analogues may exist in the Milky Way.

At the same time, in my own country, one of our nation’s largest religious groups is up in arms at our President for violating their religious freedom–by requiring them to include birth control among the health benefits they cover for their employees.

The American Catholic bishops are so outraged by this requirement to cover pregnancy prevention–which is viewed as a grave sin in the Catholic religion–that they’ve launched a “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign with the slogan “Help Save Our Religious Freedom” (the image at left is a screencap from their website)–all because they see artificial pregnancy prevention as a grave violation of God’s will.

This story is in stark contrast to another recent American political flap–the revelation that our military receives so much more funding than our space program that our Department of Defense recently donated to NASA two telescopes, both better than the Hubble, which they just happened to have lying around unused. The best part? It’s going to take NASA eight years to scrape together enough savings to actually put these things into orbit on NASA’s current meager budget.

This says something about our priorities, doesn’t it? While major cultural forces protest that birth control is a terrible sin they shouldn’t be forced to enable, our space exploration agency receives such a tiny fraction of our nation’s budget that it will take them nearly a decade to make use of the two incredibly expensive and powerful pieces of equipment that our Department of War just happened to have lying around and “didn’t have use for anymore.”

I really worry about the future of our species.

And that’s why I’m going to devote an upcoming series of entries to the problems of Earth–and how space exploration may be able to help solve them.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 47 other followers