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Christmas eve, 1968

December 5, 2014
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Nothing was more amazing to me than when we actually launched a rocket that made it all the way to the moon with a human payload.  It was even more thrilling than when we landed on the moon because it was the first time humans had really ventured away from their earthly cocoon.

Sound on – watch on full screen

 

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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.


Concentrate Funds on Deep Space

November 21, 2013
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It’s time for NASA to quit funding its series of small robot missions which are obviously being put together based on what’s affordable in the near-term.  The latest Mars atmosphere explorer is an example.  How much more do we need to know about the Martian atmosphere that we haven’t found out already from previous missions?

NASA should be concentrating all its funding on big missions–manned space travel.  That’s where the future is, and doing an unending series of robot explorations is just spinning the wheels of the program.  Put more money into developing heavy lift capabilities, advanced propulsion,  crew protection, fuel stations in space, long term survival in hostile environments etc.  Its overarching goal should be to establish a permanent human presence on other solar system bodies.  From there we can do all the science we need to–and develop new resources for Earth.


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.


The Search for Life in the Universe

April 8, 2013
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In order to find life on other worlds, we first must be sure of what it is–that is, what constitutes life as separate from non-life?  To do this, according to scientists, we must go back to life’s possible origins. 

Astronomers, who first thought that only separate atoms could exist in space,  discovered some time ago  that the universe is teeming with organic molecules.  By organic they mean that these molecules are present in large quantity in living organisms.  But these same molecules are present in other materials too that we wouldn’t identify as living. There is a bridge that must be crossed between living and non-living, and so far scientists admit, they don’t have evidence of how that bridge is crossed. But  life on Earth is carbon-based, meaning its essential molecules depend on carbon for their structure.  In the movie Alien an extraterrestrial creature is encountered whose molecular make-up is silicon-based, producing an especially hard outer shell.  The make-up of the universe seems to aruge against this possibility, however.

If you boil off the hydrogen and helium in a typical star, (not an easy task in reality), you’ll see that life has almost the same amounts of carbon, oxygen, and calcium as the star possesses.  Since other bodies in and around solar systems are made up of the remnants of dead stars and since the same rough proportions of parts of those  remnants appear in us, we can posit that life everywhere has certain “common cosmic traits” as Jacob Berkowitz puts it in his recent book The Stardust Revolution.   So other life is likely to be carbon-based just like us.  If we are star stuff, then so must they be.

To separate rocks from tadpoles, metallic ore from trees, Mexican evolutionary biologist Antonio Lazcano defines life as “self-sustaining, replicative chemical systems capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.”  Presumably, since the same chemicals are involved, roughly the same kind of evolutionary processes would exist on any planet other than Earth on which organic chemicals somehow managed to arrange themselves in self-replicating ways.  These processes would involve the production of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane.  Scientists know of no other way that oxygen could be produced in the quantities present in Earth’s atmosphere other than through biological processes.

This is not to say that alien life would look pretty much like us.  Look at the diversity of structures present in the biosphere of our native planet.  But, for intelligent life,  there are obvious evolutionary advantages to standing upright, having our brains encased in a hard shell on top, possessing long fingers with opposable thumbs, and having complex voice boxes.  Had dinosaurs not been wiped out by a chance comet or asteroid, however, they might have been the ones to have evolved intelligence instead of mammals.  They might have done it sooner too, since they already had a head start.

Based on this knowledge and these fair assumptions, the search for other life in the universe will become a search for planets with easily detectable oxygen in their atmospheres.  However, Dr, Berkowitz points out that we shouldn’t be too in love with oxygen.  For most of Earth’s history, millions of species of bacteria were and are anaerobic–they breathe gases other than oxygen.  One possibility would be dimethyl sulfide, which smells sort of like cooked cabbage, or dead fish.  So the abundance of certain other gases in atmospheres might hint at the presence of some form of  life too.

Getting spectroscopic signatures of gases in exoplanet atmospheres will take a whole new generation of space-based telescopes, according to most scientists.  The Spitzer telescope or Hubble just aren’t designed for that.  Europe’s Darwin and Gaia telescope missions have been cancelled along with NASA’s terrestrial planet finder. The culture wars over evolution still go on stifling progress in these areas.   “The stardust revolution has changed our view of the cosmos, but perhaps we stand unwilling to change, and to embrace, a new view of ourselves,” says Berkowitz.

 

 


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.


Student Fights for Real Science

January 18, 2013
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An innocent-sounding piece of 2008 Louisana state science legislation has been allowing so-called science teachers to introduce their own brand of religion into their science classes in the form of supplemental texts purporting to show that Creationism is actually a science.

Enter 19-year-old Zack Kopplin, a Rice University student, concerned about the confusion these actions will create in young minds and about allowing fundamentalist religious superstitions to creep into general science and biology classes.

According to io9 internet postings, Zack has become one of the “fiercest–and most feared–advocates for education reform in Louisiana.”  It seems that some Louisiana teachers, as soon as the legislation was passed, began using their own supplementary, religiously biased materials in their classrooms, ignoring the standard textbook altogether.  When creationists started complaining about the new life sciences textbook up for adoption in 2010, it looked like the state committee was going to throw  it out, but Zack spoke in favor of it, and the result was that it was adopted.  That was his first venture into education politics.

He had studied the issues prior to writing an English paper about it, and decided as a senior to take on the problem as a senior project.  His work in this area has brought him plenty of criticism.  He was  accused of being the anti-Christ, of being a stooge of godless liberal college professors, and other standard trash-talks always trotted out when someone disagrees with fundamentalist dogma.

The problem here is that Creationism and its other forms, are just not science because none of its tenants are testable or falsifiable, whereas evolution is.  Teaching ideas that confuse students about what can be considered scientific can lead to any current half-baked idea being adopted as “scientific.”  The United states, with all its sophistication in other areas is sort of a laughing stock of nations because fundamentalists have so much influence in our national dialogue.

“I’m from Italy and my country’s got a sh**load of problems, but when I read that in the USA, the great land where lots of my people migrated to in search of some fortune, some dumb f**ks are discussing creationism, I feel a lot lighter….I mean even we know creationism is bullcrap.  And we have the pope!” says frankie89 in a post on the i09 website.

No reason exists why science and religion can’t exist together, but we taxpayers have a right to expect some separation.  We send our kids to public schools to learn about the real world–not some stylized version of it bereft of real facts or evidence.  Even where taxpayers’ money is spent on private schools, only science should be taught in science classrooms.  Many religious people see no reason why science and religious beliefs can’t coexist as long as there is separation.

Kopplin worries that denying evolution and climate change, and vaccines, and other mainstream science leads to bad decisions made by business and industry which ultimately affects our economic standing in the world.  “An official from LSU testified that he had lost researchers and scientists to other states because of the education act that Kopplin is fighting to have repealed.”

Sad that a 19-year-0ld to fight this battle.  Adults ought to know better.


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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Sar5WT76kE


Survival May Depend on Exploration

December 9, 2012
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As I’ve stated before on this blog, our purpose here is to communicate to the world the importance of exploring more than just our tiny planet–large as it seems to some.  The universe is a big place–too big to ignore forever.  Ignoring what surrounds our world may ultimately be fatal to the human race.  Many members of our species have been imbued with a curiosity that drives them to find out as much as they can about the nature of reality, as the Star Trek series suggests: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  That applies not only in terms of exploration, but in terms of seeking all they can find about how natural processes work on this planet.

Others are happy to live their lives in a tiny shell, not caring about anything that doesn’t directly and immediately affect them.  The former are responsible for the majority of scientific and technological progress that has produced such comfortable lives for us all and that the latter enjoy, often not caring or even thinking about the source.

So we urge our readers to reject all forms of thinking or believing that don’t yield productive results, that is, results that don’t further the knowledge and/or well-being of humankind. We urge them to support research and education in the hard and soft sciences.  And, most of all, we try to point out the good that will come from humans moving out into what we loosely refer to as “space.”

In this endeavor, our governments, private industry, and ourselves all have important roles.  National governments (not just the U.S.) can pay for cutting edge research, the kind that doesn’t lead directly to profit that would sustain a private enterprise.  Business entrepreneurs can follow with investments in transportation and mining, tourism, or colonization when the possibility of sustainable profit becomes real.  And the rest of us can support such efforts by demanding that a reasonable part of our taxes be invested in government research as well as by supporting science education and companies that invest in space.

Right now, the primary goal should be research stations on and eventual colonization of Mars.  In 1492, it took Columbus 3 months to sail from Europe to the new world.  A journey to Mars today will take about 6 months.  That’s not so much extra time, especially when you consider how much improvement there has been in crew  survivability since then.  Both public and private funds should be being devoted to engines that can cut that 6 month time to 3 months and less, just as clipper ships and then steam power shortened the time to cross the ocean.

We can’t know today all the benefits in terms of new jobs and heightened spirits that will come from exploring Mars, the asteroids, the moons of Jupiter, any more than Columbus could have predicted all the benefits that accrued from exploring North and South America.

Currently, NASA’s funding is being cut.  It is floundering without any purpose that will fire people’s imaginations.   NASA spends about one half of one cent of every tax dollar Americans pay in.  As Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson has pointed out over and over, increasing that amount to just one penny per dollar would give this organization enough money to revitalize it and set goals it might actually be able to reach in less than half a lifetime. So write your congressman and senator and demand that space research be taken off the back burner and used to revitalize America.  The eventual fate of the human race may depend on it.


Elon Musk Clears up Misunderstanding about Mars Proposal

November 28, 2012
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Founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, recently proposed a Martian colony which eventually would contain 80,000 people brought there from Earth on the reusable rockets he intends to develop.  Musk cleared up misunderstandings about his proposal by stating on Twitter that he meant to send 80,000 people a year to the red planet once colonization begins.  His goal is for a total of millions of settlers to make permanent residence on our second nearest neighbor.

Reusable rockets would create “massive reductions in cost”, he says, using his Falcon 9 as an example.  If it could be reused 1000 times then the cost of sending a human to Mars would plummet from $60 million a flight to just $60,000.  He envisions spacecraft much bigger than the Falcon 9 for the job and it would need to be even bigger than his Falcon Heavy (two Falcon 9’s combined) now being developed.  With bigger rockets, the cost would approach $500.000 per person.

Massive amounts of cargo, along with the people, would be needed to establish permanent colonies.  For anybody interested in a realistic view of what living on Mars might be like, I recommend reading any or all of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series novels:  Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars.


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