Tag Archives: nasa

Podcast Interview at Arjun’s Arrow

The podcast Arjun’s Arrow has set the following principles for itself:

  • provide a message through the grassroots
  • spread information through education
  • revive the human spirit through knowledge of self

I was honored to be the second-ever interview guest of Arjun Collins, host of Arjun’s Arrow, a good friend, and former colleague. Check out this audio interview of me about Red Soil Through Our Fingers.  We had a great conversation about economic exploitation, engineered environments, genetically engineered crops, the need for a strong public space policy, and how the exploration of space can help us develop technology for sustainable living here on Earth.

Post a comment and subscribe (either here or on Arjun’s Arrow) and I hope you enjoy the dialogue.

Haven’t yet picked up your copy of the novel? Learn more and order your copy now.

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Why Space?

A few weeks ago, Icame across an article in the Houston Press about Buzz Aldrin and Mars. Headline: “Buzz Aldrin Says NASA Should Ditch the ISS and Make the Mars Jump“. Aldrin’s statement is hardly anything he hasn’t said before,  but any debate about NASA’s next steps needs to start by discussing a more fundamental question: Why should we go into space at all?

Category 1: Human Spaceflight

Aldrin would probably say something along the lines of “because we as humans are born explorers, and it is the greatest challenge of all to venture out into the great vastness of space.” Human space exploration of the solar system and beyond as the goal of spaceflight has a sizeable contingent of supporters, and plenty of lofty rhetoric to match (think JFK’s famous Moon Speech). Inspirational appeals to our sense of adventure and wonder aside, it is practically true that doing the hardest things we can imagine results in incidental gains in scientific understanding, technological development, national morale/prestige, etc.

Distinct from human space exploration is human space settlement. For some human spaceflight advocates, the goal is not exploration for its own sake, but toward the goal of eventually spreading human settlement from our planet to orbit, the Moon, other planets, and maybe even someday to other star systems. If this is your truly  primary goal, your favored missions are likely to be different from those in the exploration camp. For example, building a permanent human city in Low-Earth Orbit is a far more practical and useful goal than a Mars colony in context, for a number of reasons. There’s the proximity to Earth, for starters, which would allow for far lower mission risk and cost for an equivalent-size settlement, and we’d be able to learn vast amounts of useful information about living well in space before venturing out further.

Category 2: Space Science

But detractors of the first philosophy tend to claim that the incidental advances we get out of human spaceflight are just that: incidental, and nowhere near worth the enormous expenditure required for human spaceflight. If we really want scientific understanding of space and our solar system, then robotic and uncrewed systems can get the job done for orders of magnitude less money. They don’t need oxygen, water, food, and pressure, for starters, and moreover they don’t need to come back.  Purists of this camp see multi-billion-dollar, rocket programs like the Space Launch System (SLS) as astronomical wastes of money, noting (correctly) that the bulk of the cost of such systems goes into making them human-rated. Instead, why not  take all that money and double or triple the number of robotic probes we send out to explore the universe on our behalf?

Category 3: Earth Science

The two camps described above tend to generate the most noise in space policy debates, and it’s tempting to think of them as ends of a linear continuum. However, a third major category of answers to the “Why Space?” question focuses closer to home. Space-based systems are essential to understanding, protecting, and improving life on Earth. Satellites help us understand a whole gamut of Earth-based knowledge, including climate change, weather and storm monitoring, atmospheric and ocean science, forestry land use, navigational and communication systems (such as GPS and the Internet), and even tools that enable sustainable and productive farming and fishing.

So which one should we choose?

As all three of these categories contain worthy pursuits in their own respects, it shouldn’t be surprising that NASA does all of them. (I should add that NASA also does significant and valuable aeronautical research that improves aviation and atmospheric flight around the world, but as this post is entitled “Why Space?”, I am setting this portion of NASA’s portfolio aside.)

It’s no secret that NASA is underfunded, given its wide mandate. NASA’s $19B budget is relatively small by federal standards, coming in at only around half of one percent of total federal spending. The perennial debates over where its missions should be going and what else it should be doing can devolve into fighting over scraps to preserve stability in legacy programs, and the tens of thousands of highly-educated jobs that these programs support.  These debates often miss the big picture.

While few people are arguing that NASA should pursue one of these aims to the exclusion of the others (Buzz Aldrin comes pretty close), the divides in the space community reveal a fundamental disconnect about what people find valuable, if anything, about going into space at all. This mismatch of values means we’ll continuously be talking past each other when it comes to deciding the “best” allocation of NASA’s portfolio. I think a good, public, and reasoned debate over the value proposition of each path would be a healthy thing for the agency, the space community, and the nation.

 

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Why Public Engagement With Space Policy Matters

Dr. Linda Billings has published an article entitled “The Inexcusable Jingoism of American Spaceflight Rhetoric” in Scientific American’s Forum. I read the article with great interest, because  I find myself on both sides of her argument.  On the one hand, human expansion into space is happening, whether we like it or not, and regardless of any government program’s mission statement. Where previous generations perhaps imagined the push into space driven by big national programs, we are seeing now that it is likely to be corporations or private interests staking claims out there at least as much as governments. In fact, multiple companies have already declared near-term space intentions such as orbital tourism, mining lucrative asteroids, extracting fresh water and hydrocarbons, and settling on the Moon and Mars.

But here is where Dr. Billings is absolutely correct: We need to make sure our expansion into space results in an equitable, sustainable, and responsible distribution of the truly staggering amount of resources right here in our own solar system. And that will definitely require a cultural shift in how we talk about spaceflight.

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Our Pale Blue Dot

In this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn’s rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame.

This gorgeous photograph of our planet Earth, was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is orbiting the planet Saturn almost 900 million miles away. Puts everything in perspective right?

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
—Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi

If I’m ever hard up for writing ideas, for thinking about the stories that need to be written, I think I will stare at this photograph for awhile.

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