Space Program As Important As Any Poverty Programs

October 9, 2014
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Destination: Mars

The problems of poverty and disease may take care of themselves sooner or later, according to SpaceX founder Elon Musk.  But that will be because of nature’s “carelessly terrifying violence”, not for anything we do.

He says we have all our eggs in one basket–we live on only one planet and that’s not a good thing.  It’s a terrible risk management strategy. That makes space exploration as important as any poverty program because it will get some of us off Earth where we can survive if anything happens to the home planet.

Nature can be extremely violent.  We haven’t experienced its full violence yet because we’ve only existed for a very short time in cosmic history.  In that sense, an extinction level event would solve all our problems, but there wouldn’t be any of us left to celebrate.

Musk thinks there may be a whole lot of dead, one planet civilizations in our galaxy alone which ought to be teeming with life. He offers this as one explanation for why we haven’t discovered any intelligent life so far.  Violent cosmic events such as gamma ray bursts, asteroid strikes, extreme volcanism, or species suicide events may keep civilizations from developing much beyond the stages we are at now.

Musk says he doesn’t intend to stop with just developing vehicles to get people to the international space station.   His intention is to found a colony on Mars.  His Mars One plan will send the first humans to Mars.  Over 200,000 people have applied for the one way tickets so far.

Before we can live even semi-comfortable lives on other planets or moons, more advances in science and technology will need to take place.  We will need the ability  to terra-form Mars, to hollow out asteroids, to protect space farers from dangerous radiation, and to provide unlimited 100 per cent reliable power supplies for electricity, heating, and oxygenating whatever environment we choose to live in.  There is water on Mars, which can be used for providing  fuel as well as drinking, but it may be difficult to get at in any easy abundance.


Travel to Extra-solar Planets Possible? Well, Not Now But…

April 20, 2013
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So the Kepler telescope has discovered two new planets, not too much bigger than Earth, and located in the “goldilocks zone” of their stars, meaning that liquid water, and presumably life, might exist there.  The nearer planet is “only” 1200 light years from us.  The farthest, 2800 light years.

To put that into perspective, it takes light about 8 minutes and 20 seconds to travel the 93 million miles separating us from the sun.  Traveling at the speed of light, it would take a ship 1200 years to get to the nearest of these planets.  That doesn’t take into account speeding up and slowing down.  We could make 50,478,400 round trips to the sun in the time it would take to get to the farthest of the two planets. And these two planets are relatively close in terms of just galactic distances.  So why bother even thinking about the possibility of life on these two worlds, or of some day visiting them?

Well,  back in Columbus’s time nobody had conceived of steam power or the internal combustion engine either–or of being able to plot a course with a computer.  On Star Trek, the Enterprise is powered by anti-matter conversion–right now the concept that would produce the most energy per unit of fuel.  We don’t have anti-matter conversion yet.  We don’t even know how to make enough anti-matter to give it a try. But  the best “scientists” in Columbus’s time didn’t know how to produce gasoline either.  Even if anti-matter engines became real they would produce only enough energy to make travel in this solar system an everyday occurrence.  It would still take hundreds of years to get much of anywhere else in the galaxy.  So Star Trek goes one step further.  The Enterprise uses dilithium crystals powered by the anti-matter to warp space.  Its engines shorten the fabric of space ahead of it and lengthen the fabric behind it.  That shortens the actual distance the ship has to travel.  Sounds fantastic but some parts of cutting edge physics suggest that space actually has a “fabric” that might be malleable.  For example, we know that the universe is expanding.  And when cosmologists say that, they don’t mean that galaxies are rushing away from each other.  They mean the actual fabric of space is expanding in all directions.    Still pretty far out.  But so would a passenger jet be to Alexander the Great.

Each generation prefers to believe that it has discovered most of what is important about reality, and all researchers have to do is fill in some of the details. We are in that mode now.  But sooner or later, a discovery or invention occurs that changes the world and the whole way scientists look at things. Einstein’s theories would be one example.  The invention of gunpowder might be another.  Computers and the internet a third.  I would prefer to believe that there is much we still don’t know and that one of those discoveries in the future will put us on a path to the stars.  Limitations are always challenges to human beings, and the accumulation of knowledge is proceeding at a much faster pace today than it was in Columbus’s time.

Billionaires Support Science research

March 12, 2013
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Several Silicon valley billionaires, including Mark Zuckerberg,  are combining funding to start showering riches on unsuspecting scientists.  They have already given away $60 million in awards to 20 scientists in the last six months.

Zuckerberg said, “Our society needs more heroes that are scientists and researchers and engineers.”  He hopes these continuing prizes will inspire and give incentive to young people to go into science as a career.

The “Breakthrough” prize will award five $3 million prizes each year.  Whether these prizes will lure people back  who are leaving research for careers in Wall Street remains to be seen.  Prizes given to only five of the thousands of scientists out

there don’t seem like much incentive unless all scientists think the way lottery ticket buyers do.  But we have to applaud the billionaires for at least a start at  rewarding people who toil in obscurity for not much money, yet contribute hugely to our welfare.

Music Parody illuminates NASA Accomplishments

December 20, 2012
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Nothing makes it more obvious that we need to keep supporting NASA than a record of its past accomplishments.  No government agency (exept possibly social security) has been more effective at doing good for people.  At present NASA is at sea, uncertain of what ports it should be sailing toward.  It needs leadership from the people who supply its funding, and that leadership should be considering what’s the long-term best for this country and the rest of humanity.

Being given a vague mandate to develop more heavy lift rockets is not enough.  Heavy lift for what?  To where?  With what cargo?  The President should be setting a vision for future development, not just giving vague pronouncements not backed up by adequate funding.  Write to the White House.  Tell President Obama to create a vision for NASA equivalent to or better that John F. Kennedy’s vision that led to astronauts exploring  the moon.   We and our children and their children will reap the benefits.  Meeanwhile enjoy the video below.

Human Future Needs to be In Space

November 23, 2012
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Humans have always been a species not satisfied with the way things are.  At least certain members of the species want to move on, move up, make a name for themselves doing things that nobody else has done.  But we have reached the point where individuals can no longer conquer the greatest challenges we face.  Now it takes groups–whole governments in fact.

The question is up in the air whether the United States will continue its intellectual spiritual, and financial domination of the world.  We seem at this point to be a country too self-satisfied and comfortable with our two car garages, and extreme shopping trips on Black Friday.  We worry more about whether our kids will have the latest power ranger than about where we are headed as a nation.  In order to avoid laziness and stagnation as a people, we need new fields to conquer.  Space exploration provides that field, and it is the ultimate field, offering a literally infinite series of new worlds to conquer (literally).

But it is an area that will take more ongoing systematic, carefully planned effort than anything man has ever attempted.  It will take the combined resources of both government and private industry, perhaps of several nations to get very far with this undertaking.  It would be foolish to devote so many resources to this effort than other areas of need–military, health care, education, welfare were seriously neglected.  Yet, a reasonable part of our GNP could be devoted to space without endangering any of these programs.  We did it in the 1960’s to put men on the moon and nobody starved as a result.

What has seemed to be lacking in the last 25 years or so is the will.  There is a mistaken notion that putting people in space is really expensive, yet NASA is run on only one-half of one per cent of the government’s total budget.  Increasing that to one penny as Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson and others are advocating would allow NASA to begin an effective manned program with goals that could be reached in a reasonable future.  NASA should be out in front, doing the hard research and development in space exploration with private enterprise following up taking over projects that stand a reasonable chance of eventually producing a profit–like mining asteroids for the precious metals that are used more and more in our electronic devices or taking tourists to the moon.

Columbus had no idea of the eventual riches that would come from exploring and colonizing North and South America, and neither do we have much of an inkling of what riches will be made available for this world through the exploration of the solar system, and eventually, the stars.  Just the industry and skills needed to carry out the job would put thousands of people to work in all kinds of industries.  And the new items that would  be invented would further enhance our lives.

New Direction for Society Needed–Guest Article

October 26, 2012
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Still, I would, were I running for President, encourage the industry of a (deep) space economy. Heeding the warning of Eisenhower on the Military-Industrial  Complex, and wary of Newt Gingrich’s Sci-fi colonization schema, I would revise the 1989 Rockwell Integrated Space systems flow chart for manned space travel (see below), and pursue areas of manned and unmanned research. We are prime for it. Our technology needs a new direction and new context to grow or construct new meaning, our workforce needs a new “cathedral industry” to build. We need new and appropriate benchmarks and goals. Space should become our new development of math/science/cultural growth, our new pyramids to build, our new castles that require generations to finish, our new mystery to send explorers into, our new transcontinental railroad, our new interstate system, our new race to put a man into space. We have an unexplored Louisiana Purchase before us. We are Jefferson and we need to hire Lewis and have him hire Clark and commission research.

As we found in the 1960’s with racing to put a man in space and then on the moon, this would reframe our education priorities and our industrial priorities and initiate new culture and new heroes and help us manage the transition into the 21 century. We have been doing international research for more than a decade. In this realm, nations are partners, research is community.
Lately by reading, revisiting Marshall McLuhan I have come to realize that medium is the message. Media is the discovery and medium in the new environment. We need to develop new media to catapult us forward: new language, new metaphors, and yes new frontiers. So we need to embrace artists, innovators, visionaries, serious “poets” like Steve Jobs (NASA has revised STEM into STEAM–adding the arts into the formula)…this will wake us up and re-energize us, our lives, our economies, our existence. This will establish new areas of accomplishment. This will dwarf and embrace the auto industry, the aerospace industry, the telecommunications industry, the energy industry, the medical/healthcare industry, the education industry, the agriculture industry, the real estate industry, Wall Street, Main Street, Government, International cooperation, retail…it will stimulate all economies.
Think about this: it addresses poverty, it creates jobs, it gives us a common purpose, it embraces diversity, it grows technology, it provides a utilitarian argument for education and training, it supports progress, it transcends Biblical (think Noah, think Moses, think the Israelites) and sectarian myth (think Alexander, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, Roman Empire, British Empire, evolution, scientific development …Am I wrong here?
–from Dr. Joseph McBrayer, former educator and current visionary
See also (from a prattrich previous blog):
Select and magnify this integrated chart. We need to revise for what we now know and add unmanned space development.
Note: you will notice that we are about 20 years behind this projection.

Nearest Star System has Planet

October 20, 2012
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Astronomers have discovered a planet circling one of the stars in the triple star Alpha Centauri  system, a group that is practically right in our back yard.  Not only that, but the planet seems to be roughly earth-sized.  Unfortunately, it orbits much closer than the earth to its star making a year on the surface equal to only 3.2 days.  Scientists estimate the surface temperature might be as high as 2200 degrees Fahrenheit on this planet where the sun would fill about three-quarters of the sky.   Not a good place to sun bathe and any pools would have to be made out of molten lava.

The discovery of this one planet makes it likely that other planets, perhaps small ones like Earth, also inhabit the Centauri system, which is made up of Alpha Centauri A. Alpha Centauri B and Proxima Centauri.  While the general distance to this star system is considered to be about 4.3 light years, making it the closest star system to Earth, Proxima Centauri is slightly closer to us than its two companions.  Still, it would take over 40,000 years to get there using current rocket technology.

.It took astronomers 450 days of observation to pin down the location and existence of the new planet.  Alpha Centauri A and B are sunlike stars.  A is slightly larger and brighter than our sun, and B is just a little smaller and about half as bright.  The planet circles B. Alpha Centauri C is a red dwarf star.

The Alpha Centauri system is the home world for the blue-skinned Na’vi in the science fiction movie Avatar. Inhbitants of a planet in this system would see two suns in their skies, at least part of the time, just as Luke Skywalker did on Tatouine.

For many years astronomers thought that double or triple star systems couldn’t have planets because the gravitational perturbations wouldn’t allow it. They were wrong.  This new discovery should fire up people’s imaginations, and perhaps, their desire for interstellar travel.

Path to Space Diagrammed

September 25, 2012
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Make magazine has tracked down a flow chart created by Rockwell International in the 1980’s which details in highly specific form, how humans can establish a permanent and progressive presence in space.  The 1980’s was a time before the Soviet Union ceased to become a major player in space exploration so some of the chart has to be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s interesting nevertheless.  The address below takes you to a website sponsored by io9.

Heavy lift Rocket Passes Reviews

July 26, 2012
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NASA’s design for a heavy lift launch vehicle to replace the shuttle has passed a series of design and overall cost reviews paving the way for its first launch, scheduled for 2017.

The reviews occurred only 10 months after government okays for the project.  The rocket will be able to lift 130 metric tons into deep space, and will be used for future asteroid and possibly Mars missions.  The three stage rocket is bigger than the massive Saturn five which carried astronauts to the moon on six different occasions.

The lessurely pace at which this project is being carried out could be speeded up with additional government funding.  Increasing NASA’s funding from one-half cent of every tax dollar to one cent would be easily affordable. It is unfortunate that budget cutting has to extend to so important a program.

Baseball Needs Science

July 18, 2012
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Baseball statistics are as scientifically and mathematically precise as they can be given the inexact nature of the game.  But baseball may have become too tradition bound, and should change in some precise ways in order to assure its survival in an age of instant gratification.

It has already lost focus to football as our national pasttime and that’s because football is a semi-continuous, action-oriented sport.  Football is warlike.  It involves being rewarded for capturing enemy territory.  Humans have not evolved beyond their fascination with war yet, and baseball shouldn’t be content with its appeal only to statistics nerds, and tradition-bound adults.

In other words, the game needs to be speeded up with shorter intervals between actions.  But to make a real difference in this area, radical changes will have to be made.  First and foremost, the hitter needs to be limited to two strikes and three balls, and the third foul ball struck by the batter needs to be called an out.  I played on a softball team that followed these rules and the average seven inning game lasted about 65 minutes.

Since the average fan might feel cheated paying for an event that was this short, an official game could be lengthened to 11 innings.  Assuring each hitter 5 or 6 at-bats would somewhat make up for the shortened pitch counts as well as lengthening the game to something approaching two hours.  This might occasion the return of the double-header which would give players more days off, which might result in fewer injuries.  Further, batters would not be allowed to step more than a foot outside the batters’ box, and time between deliveries for pitchers would be limited to 12 seconds after receiving the ball back from the catcher.  The two ball, three strike count for batters would cause pitchers to change their strategies completely.  Fewer “waste” pitche would be thrown.  There would be more pressure to put each pitch over the plate, which would result in more contact with the ball.   Of course, batting averages would go down and pitchers’ walk statistics would go up somewhat, but adjustments could be made to the distance between pitching rubber and home plate to equalize whatever advantages became apparent to pitcher or batter.

The overall results, I think, would be more people on base, more swings of the bat, more contact with the ball, less time spent shuffling around to no effect–a faster paced game.

In true scientific fashion, baseball could start this experiment in the lower minor leagues, see how it plays out, what adjustments have to be made, and then bring it to the majors as players move up from the minors and get used to it.