Monday, December 5, 2011

The Long Morrow

In the original Twilight Zone episode titled “The Long Morrow” an astronaut played by Robert Lansing is sent on a long voyage to see if life exists on a planet far from our solar system. Just before he leaves he meets a woman (Mariette Hartley) and falls in love.  He goes on the journey, but along the way his ability to communicate with Earth is lost. Unable to send or receive information from his home planet he is left to make his own decisions and to wonder about what life is like is his absence. He makes the fateful choice to forgo using suspended animation so that he can age at the same rate as the woman he left behind. 
The long wandering astronaut eventually returns safely to the Earth and when we see him again he is an aged old man. He meets the woman he left behind and finds that she appears the same as she did the day he left. She had elected to put herself into suspended animation to prevent her own aging. If the story ended there you would think that it was a predictable “I saw that coming” plot line. The real twist comes when the aged astronaut is told that while he was gone technology had long ago proved that life did not exist on the planet he was sent to explore.  His journey was made all the more painful by knowing his sacrifice was for nothing.  It is an interesting irony that may indeed play out to some degree in our own exploration of the galaxy. Dr. Michio Kaku predicted that in 200 hundred years we as a civilization might possess the technology to “warp space” and travel faster to far off destinations that are only in our imaginations today. Maybe a future deep space probe will pass Voyager 2 as it streaks at the cosmically slow pace of 34,000 miles per hour on its way to explore the far reaches of our galaxy.
Let us suppose for a moment that Dr. Kaku’s vision of the future never comes to pass.  Perhaps the technology is too difficult to create, requires too much energy, too costly for humans to absorb or just is not possible. Maybe we make space travel faster, but it may still take years to explore our outer solar system instead of decades while interstellar travel may remain technologically elusive. Our interest has waned in exploring our own celestial backyard where it is comparatively easy, why would exploring the universe decades from now at a higher cost be any different?  We have long thought that dreams fueled our desire to explore space. It was the innate curiosity of the human race to understand what standing here on this rocky planet 93 million miles from our star and seemingly alone in the vast void of space is all about.  To a large degree our thinking was wrong.  Few things in our society are achievable without money and risk. That it turns out is the fuel for space exploration.  
There is another factor why exploring space now rather than waiting on a technology breakthrough is perhaps more urgent than we believe, necessity. In desperate situations, money seems to somehow become less of an issue.  It could be the Earth will not survive another 200 years.  A host of factors from wars, famines, disease, a rogue asteroid, scarce natural resources, energy, and climate change could conspire to curtail human domination of this planet and our very existence.  If that were the case, 100 or 200 hundred years from now what would be the human legacy of planet Earth? Today’s answer seems to be that we are content to rest on the laurels of our accomplishments in space and not think boldly about how space exploration might not just be a critical part of our history, but also our future.  We falsely believe that an overstressed planet will keep giving when in reality the planet resources are becoming exhausted to the point where 50 or 100 years from now they could be gone across vast critical commodities.  Yet, roaming our galaxy right now are the silent messengers of human existence, the Pioneer, Mariner and Voyager spacecraft.  They are too small to be detected and are no longer broadcasting or will soon cease broadcasting as they journey through space.  It is unlikely that any of them will ever be found by or stumble upon another civilization in the vast, far reaches of space.  Hurtling through space without communications, fuel, or a power they will likely roam until time ends without even passing a planet much less being discovered.  While primitive, they are the trace of human existence that could outlast the stars.  These nomadic works of human ingenuity are no substitute for human space exploration or even more advanced robotic exploration. 
So when is the right time to explore space in a different way? Do will roll the dice and in the hope that 200 years from now that we have a better capability for space travel or much like the astronaut in the Twilight Zone take a chance that doing something, rather than waiting for a technology breakthrough is the path to pursue.  Unlike like the idea floated about sending humans on a one way journey to the stars I am not proposing sending humans out to explore our galaxy. A part of me has a measure of skepticism that we will have the means or the will to commit human lives on a one-way “Space Family Robinson” approach.  So then what are our alternatives?  A few come to mind, but we have to consider that all of them will not provide the return on investment that we seek in space exploration.  The first is do nothing and continue to dream, but not explore. This is why science fiction resonates and stirs our imagination. It paints a picture of what is seemingly impossible today, but perhaps possible a million tomorrows from now.  Science fiction often breaks the laws of physics and time to make it more appealing to us. If humans could travel at the speed of light to our nearest neighboring star, the message of what they found would take four years to get back to us, but in our fictional eye the communication is instantaneous.  We are too impatient a civilization to sit on our hands and wait. The very mind that can paint an inspiring vision of the future is the same mind that lacks the attention or the patience to make it a reality. 
 It could be though that we are living in the “Bell Curve” of science and science fiction.  We are still somewhere in the meaty part of the curve with more breakthroughs and discoveries to be found and with that more science fiction becomes fact.  However, the Bell Curve, like so many other postulates and theories may indeed be an immutable law in its own right. Everything around us goes through birth, maturity, and decline.  The “Bell Curve” was not a startling revelation about how things tend to work in our world, but an observation of fact applied across many scenarios. The only difference between them is the amount of time it takes.  At some point our ability to “break the laws” of science may face the law of diminishing return. 
Perhaps we will collectively as a civilization decide to send our “astronaut” on journey now betting that technology will never catch up enough to make any time savings in the future outweigh the benefit of starting early, but what really is decades in the time of space travel?  Statistically insignificant, except to us who want to see and know that we using our technology to reach out to the stars even if we will never know what they may find. Now when I say “astronaut” it is not meant to mean one of us as depicted in “The Twilight Zone”, but a representation of us.  For example:  IBM announced that is had created a microchip that could mimic the human brain. It is no substitute yet for the computing power of our brain, but it is a start.  It could be we tap into another science fiction story and somehow port all of humanity into a machine that will carry our limited knowledge across the stars.  A machine that could roam the universe until it detected a signal from another civilization to use as beacon to reach out and share information. That almost sounds a little like “Battlestar Galactica” and how the Cylons came to migrate from machine to humanoid.  Our robot could search and search as occasionally the light from a passing star would hit it solar arrays and breathe life into the craft.  It could beam a message home that it is still working millions of years after it left Earth to whoever is listening with a message that is has found a distant cousin in space or that it is still wandering alone.  It might come to pass on such a mission that the message of the discovery of intelligent life would make its way back to an Earth that was long ago vacated by the human race or that long ago forgot about its robotic explorer.
Another way would be to fill a probe with a variety of single cell organisms and send if off to one of the rocky exoplanets we detected in the habitable zone of a distant star. There are a number of ethical issues associated with a project like that such as what if the planet already harbors life?  However, for the preservation of Earth-based life we could hope that it would crash on a water rich world and through the process of evolution intelligent creatures might develop millions of years from now. Those creatures would look up at the night sky and dream of reaching the stars never knowing that it was their ancestors in a far of part of the galaxy that started life on their planet.  It could very well be a story that has already played out in the history of the universe.  
Lastly, it could be that we pack the instruction kit for building a human being into a capsule and send it searching endlessly through the universe looking for a home where a civilization could follow the instructions to build Adam and Eve to keep the human race going.  All of these seem like the far-fetched dreams of sci-fi movies and books.  As each day passes it seems more likely that some form of microbial life might already exist in our solar system and if it does exist, the odds increase dramatically that we are not the only species in the universe capable of intelligence and space travel.  Yet, budget, financial turmoil and politics have us moving at a crawl to explore a solar system potentially teeming with some form of minute life, but life nonetheless.   The Mars Rovers, Mars Curiosity, Dawn, New Horizons, and Cassini are all “flagship” type missions that have enhanced and will enhance our understanding of how we came to be and what else might exist in our solar system.  After these missions, the science will continue to be analyzed for decades, but what lies next for our exploration of Enceladus and Europa, of humans on Mars, or harnessing resources from the Moon or nearby asteroids.  It seems we have a long ways to go and not much Presidential and Congressional vision to get us there.  It may be that visionaries like Rod Serling and other science fiction writers may offer us the best and perhaps our only view of our future in space.  Like the astronaut in "The Long Morrow", I would rather take our chances and explore space now. If technology improves that would be a bonus, but let's not wait until it's too late to reach for the stars. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

NASA Tweetup: Force Multiplier

NASA Juno Tweetup

They came from 28 states and five countries and they all shared common bonds – an interest in space exploration and a commitment to use social media tools like twitter to spread their experience with friends and followers as it happened.  One hundred and fifty were selected to participate out of thousands that submitted their name for the NASA Juno Tweetup. Everyone came excited to witness the American Space Program continue its unmatched excellence in robotic exploration of the solar system. Many were veterans to the space center having attended previous launches; some were first time witnesses to the allure of rockets and space. Whether a launch veteran or a space novice, no one would leave disappointed. Even the lingering threat of a Tropical Storm churning nearby and the uncertainty of its direction would not rain on this event. Sunshine prevailed and it would turn out to be two very memorable and picture perfect days at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 
If we had gathered to just witness the launch of the Juno probe to Jupiter it would have made for a great event, but the mission did not begin or end there.  By the end of day one we had a full understanding of the mission and had toured the Juno launch pad, the Atlas V Spaceflight Operations Center, and the Delta II rocket that will carry the GRAIL probes around the moon.  As if that was not enough to make anyone go back to their hotel and dream of space, we also toured the cathedral of human spaceflight, the Vehicle Assembly Building with the Space Shuttle Discovery parked inside. Some may think that referring to the VAB as a “cathedral” is over exaggerating and taking it too far, but not for someone who dreamed of being an astronaut and was inspired by humans reaching deep into their imagination to journey to the moon.  Those that were standing in the sands at Kitty Hawk to watch the Wright Brother's first flight must have thought that one day they would touch the clouds and see our planet from high above the treetops. Now, I stood in the shadows of where rockets and humans left Earth to visit other worlds and still with my insatiable curiosity and a thirst to explore the universe. It was a place where rockets rolled in and dreams rolled out. Space is where we must look to answer the questions of why are we here, how did we get here, and are we alone.  I have come to learn that curiosity is one of the most important drivers in life.  To be always chasing questions and looking for answers to our universe’s greatest mysteries is not a futile effort, but a lifelong learning experience. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Watching the End of the Space Shuttle Era

The Final Flight of the Space Shuttle Program
It was estimated that between 750,000 and 1,000,000 people were at the Space Coast to catch a fading glimpse of American history.  They crowded parks and straddled roadsides jamming into any available space that offered a line of sight to the last launch of the Space Shuttle Program. Several thousand of those onlookers were lucky enough to win the Kennedy Space Center Ticket lottery, others purchased VIP packages from tour vendors, a very lucky few were selected by NASA to attend as guest tweeters and report live via Twitter from the launch. I purchased my ticket on the open market having failed to secure one by another means. The final launch of the Shuttle as it turns out was a hot commodity and that was not unexpected.  

Many Shuttle ticket lottery winners saw this as an opportunity to make a fast buck. Simply buy a ticket (up to six) for $75 each and sell for $1500 each to those that wanted to be there to experience the last launch. As soon as email notices went out tickets appeared for sale online through ticket brokers.  It was too fast for this to be anything other than an orchestrated way that the system had been beat. Those that wanted to go had been outdone by professionals who leveraged technology to gain an advantage, but such is the American way. The lure of making money often drives creativity and innovation. 
I was watching as ticket prices of early online auctions soared into the thousands.  Caught in the frenzy, I bid, only to be outbid. I bid more than I planned and thought reasonable and still was outbid.  The last flight of the Shuttle would not escape  enterprising individuals who could make a profit and those loyal space followers who would pay any price to be there.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Endeavour: One Last Time

Endeavour Touches Down at KSC for the Final Time

At 2:15am Wednesday June 1st, the alarm clock sounded on schedule and I awoke to catch the culmination of the final flight of Endeavour as it was about to touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center.  The loud warning sound coming from the alarm also served as a reminder that the Space Shuttle era was nearing its end.  
Endeavour would touchdown at 2:35am Eastern Time and complete its service to the space program.  The mission was a success marred only by damaged tiles and the persistent worry that the vehicle’s Thermal Protection System might have been compromised by foam that struck the underside of the spacecraft during ascent.  After rolling to a stop, Endeavour was now safe and destined to remain forever earthbound. 
Endeavour would be an early retiree. Though Endeavour was employed full-time at NASA for the past 19 years, it would only work about a quarter of its time in space.  It would fly 22 times out of a life expectancy of 100 flights and cover 122 million miles circling the Earth.  Flying its maiden voyage in 1992, it would serve nine years beyond the expected ten years a Shuttle was supposed to be on the job. Endeavour was the youngest of the Shuttle fleet and the second to retire, but it would become the fourth of five Shuttles to be written into the history books.  Over its life it would average just a little more than one flight a year. Now, just one Shuttle remained to write the last chapter, Atlantis. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May 25, 1961 - Kennedy's Reach for the Moon

President Kennedy Speaks to Congress on May 25, 1961

Before there was Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” there was John F. Kennedy’s “We have a dream” address to the nation that set us on our way to reaching the moon. On May 25, 1961 before a Joint Session of Congress and just weeks after Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight, President John F. Kennedy set a course for the moon.  Kennedy’s speech was more direct than passionate. There was no “we should” or “we will try”, but a commitment from the President on behalf of the nation to send humans to the moon and return them safely back to the Earth.  His words challenged all of us to think and dream bigger. As Kennedy made his pitch to Congress, he wasn’t speaking for some of us or to some of us, but on behalf of all of us. While his words spoke of sending “men” to the moon, they would be carried there by a country united in purpose. His challenge was not open-ended, it did not allow for compromise, obstacles, delays, or shifting political winds.  It was firm and set a target date to complete the goal by the end of the decade. There was no ambiguity in the message. We would do what had not been done and reach for the stars. It sounded much like the first steps of turning science fiction into fact and the beginning of humankind’s journey other worlds.  It would be the journey that would test us technically and financially, but an endeavor that generations from now would look back on much like the primitive voyage of Columbus and say that this is where the discovery of new worlds started.   

Monday, April 11, 2011

April 12th, Past and Present

The fiftieth anniversary of humankind’s first venture into space is now upon us.  April 12, 2011 marked five decades of human space exploration.  Significant progress has been made and perhaps more could have been accomplished on our watch in this small window of human history. Persistent political and economic headwinds have slowed our once starry eyed dreams of moon bases and footprints on Mars.  Recently, as the anniversary of Yuri Gargarin’s first flight approached, Russia announced new plans for human exploration of the moon and eventually Mars.  China had previously announced ambitious plans for manned orbiting space stations and eventually their own exploration of the moon. Neither announcement spurred the same passion or national competitiveness in the United States that fueled the first space race.  It’s a story that has played out over and over in the brief history of manned space. Leaders of nations make bold proclamations of venturing beyond Earth orbit to once again touch the surface of other worlds.  What each nation inevitably finds is that during the time it takes to prepare for such a journey, the winds of change shift priorities and make those dreams smaller.  New leaders with new visions, unforeseen economic storms, wars, natural disasters, and other diversions tend to lure a restless public and its government away from dreaming big to the reality of Earth-based problems. 
Once, such claims and challenges motivated our nation to dream big, take risks and push the technical edge to its very limit to reach what was thought an unattainable goal. We accomplished the goal of landing on the moon at a startling pace, just eight years after a fallen President’s challenge. However,in the ensuing decades, complacency led to loss, and poorly defined strategies led to delays and waste; all the while managing expenses became the supreme architect of the American Space Program.  A brief eight year period in the early sixties of crystal clear focus and virtually unlimited resources gave way to decades of unfocused misdirection and underfunding.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Perspectives on Challenger

       January 28, 2011 marked the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Accident.  For those who were of age to remember that fateful day, it is forever etched as one of those unforgettable moments of our lives. In an instant, the shock and surprise, the tragedy and loss became an event where you never forget where you were when you heard the news. For me, it was no different. Our daughter had been born the day before the accident and having been exhausted from a long two days of events, the morning of the launch I had slept in a little late before heading back to the hospital. I knew that liftoff was scheduled later that morning around 11:30am and I had hoped to make over the hospital on time to catch it live.  If not, I would see it later on the news that evening. As timing would work out, when I got off the elevator on the maternity floor there were several people huddled very close to a television in a corner of the waiting area. So close that it obscured any line of sight I had to what was of such interest. As I walked by I heard the announcer say "it appeared to be a problem with", that was it. It did remotely cross my mind that they were talking about the Shuttle, but I had assumed it was a scrub due to a last minute technical glitch. This particular flight had been repeatedly postponed and that it might have been again was of no surprise to me. I brushed it off and kept walking. An accident of this magnitude was the furthest thing from my mind. We all knew the hazards and risks of spaceflight, but like many others I did not think it was possible for America to lose a Space Shuttle and its crew.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Saga of the X-38

It was a chance trip to the Midwest on a cold winter day in December that took me within striking distance of the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska. The museum had been on my list to visit if the opportunity ever afforded itself for me to be in the area. The reason for my interest was NASA’s X-38, also known as the CRV (Crew Return/Rescue Vehicle). The X-38 was first proposed in the 1990’s and was to be NASA's first new manned spacecraft since the Shuttle. The craft was given to the museum on permanent loan to display alongside its primarily military aircraft. I had inquired over the years as to the whereabouts of the vehicles. Three had been built for testing within Earth’s atmosphere; a fourth test vehicle would have been rated for testing in space, but it was never completed.