kiranlightpaw: (engineers)
So with the landing of Atlantis, the end of the Space Shuttle program has finally come. And while it is bittersweet - I remember being able to watch the shuttle go up from my backyard (literally!) when we lived in Florida - you have to excuse me for slaughtering the sacred Huntsville cow.

The retirement of the Space Shuttle is long overdue.

As awesome as it is, it was designed in the 1960s and built using 1970s technology. It never fulfilled its design objectives. It was supposed to be able to launch payloads as cheaply as $118 per pound ($635/pound in 2011 dollars - as of 2011, the going rate is over $8000 per pound). The program was originally supposed to be able to launch an orbiter once a week, but by the end of the program, out of 135 missions that were launched during the 30 years after the first orbital flight of Columbia, it averaged approximately one every 3 months as the turnaround time ballooned. An orbiter had to be nearly disassembled after each flight. Design changes made it nearly useless to it's largest customer - the US Military - because they could not launch into polar orbits (where satellites could be used to spy on the Russians and later the Chinese).

By the end of the program, this once proud vehicle had been reduced to nothing more than a Congressional play toy. The program became a "make work" program for 100 Congressional districts, based solely on how much money was "donated" by contractors to a Senator or Representative's campaign. NASA was saddled with this program that kept going forward with no clear direction other than 1) build the space station, and 2) deliver crap to it.

In the meantime, we have a bunch of companies now - most notably SpaceX - standing around and looking for work. Elon Musk is over here waving his hand screaming: "we can do it for pennies on what NASA is spending" and is putting his money where his mouth is by building the biggest rocket since the Saturn V and a man-rated space capsule.

In an era of decreased Government spending - no matter what, even the most liberal among us must admit that we cannot continue to spend at the rate we have been spending - Government money must be spent in smart ways. It is most effectively used in areas where private industry is unable or unwilling to make the investment due to high barriers or high risk. As SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace and others are proving, flying into low Earth orbit is no longer risk averse or too expensive.

They are ready, willing and able - and should - take over the low orbit business from NASA, freeing the space agency to once again spend money where they can get the most bang for it - in areas where private industry can't capitalize yet, such as deep space exploration, research and development, and eventually, a public/private partnership for a Mars mission.

At this point, my biggest irritation is that my Congresscritters - most notably the King of Pork Himself Richard Shelby - are doing little to nothing to attract private spaceflight to Huntsville. All the things that made Huntsville great for NASA would make Huntsville great for private industry. There's a huge talent pool of engineers and scientists here with tons of experience. But he - and the rest of the Alabama delegation - continues to fight them at every turn rather than work with the private industry to bring them to Huntsville. Most of those guys have been in D.C. so long that they're functionally brain-dead; all they know how to do is spend taxpayer money - they have no clue how to start or attract business.

Putting an end to the Space Shuttle program is was one of the very few things that George W. Bush did correctly during his disastrous presidency, and I'm glad Obama has grown enough of a tiny, tiny little spine and stood his ground - despite attempts at continued Congressional meddling - in ending the program.

Ending it is good for NASA, good for taxpayers, good for private industry and good for the United States. It's up to my Congressmen and state government to decide if it's good for Alabama and Huntsville.
kiranlightpaw: (kosh)
So I came up with this really good idea for a novel at lunch time. Unfortunately, like most things, there's a 99.9% change I won't follow through with it. That's kind of the curse of having the attention span of a fruit fly.

But in the course of considering the plot of the book, I had an interesting thought. Our concept of time tends to be relative to that of our lifetime, or at the very least to that of a human lifetime. We date our periods, at least in recent history, to the dates of lifetimes and deaths of rulers. We refer to the Victorian Age (Queen Victoria's rule) or the Roman Empire (Julius Caesar's reign to Diocletian). Even in our own lives, time is relative to our birth and death. Everything we do is framed by those inescapable events.

But, let's pretend for a second, that either through medical or technological advances, you are immortal. What is time then? How do we measure time without an external frame of reference? What is the meaning of a day, or a second, to someone who is going to live forever?

Or, to put it another way, let's pretend that we've figured out a way to download consciousness out of our primitive shells and into a computer. Suppose we upload our intelligence into a space probe and shoot it off in the direction of Tau Ceti. If we assume a speed of 0.1c, it's a journey of roughly 120 years (it would actually be slightly more depending on your acceleration and deceleration rates). But you're immortal. What difference does 120 years make to you? Or what if you want to go to the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy? At the same 0.1c speed, you're looking at a journey of 250,000 years. But what does that time matter to an immortal? Theoretically, you could spend billions of years exploring all the wonders of the Universe.

But when you think about it, even the very definition if "immortal" is a construct based on a human timescale. Everything will die eventually - even if we live a really, really long time, eventually the Universe will collapse around us. At least one theory of the Universe's final fate where heat death and proton decay have left a universe devoid of matter as we currently understand it. So no matter what our technical evolution, our current understanding of physics suggests that there will always be an upper bound to a human "life."

But at a life that long, would be begin to use the big bang and the heat death as our frame of reference? What is a few billion years spent exploring the universe when a life is measured in trillions of years?
 
kiranlightpaw: kiran_likeshine (Default)
So I have this app on my iPad called Exoplanets. Keeping in mind what a geek I am when it comes to space and interstellar travel, I figured this would be a perfectly awesome app to have.

I didn't know at the time, but it sends messages as well. This morning, my iPad made a little message beep. I picked it up and looked at it, and it said:

"A new extrasolar planet has been discovered! HIP 57050 b"

Fucking Star Trek again. Set course, warp 5. ENGAGE!
kiranlightpaw: (avatar)
I told you I would be a lying sack of shit if I said I wasn't going to write about Avatar again. This entry, however, is only tangentially related.

Long before that movie, I was a big fan of the idea of interstellar travel - the idea of travel between the stars. Not so much in the Star Trek sense of warp speed leaps in hours between stars, but in a realistic, scientifically accurate understanding of what it would take to get to another star. It's something I've been following since about the age of ... probably thirteen or so, and has waxed and waned over the course of my life from and idle curiosity to a near obsession at some points.

Now, I'm not an expert by any means. I only consider myself to be a well-read amateur on the subject.

For those of you have reading for awhile, my first piece of published fiction (and, unfortunately, so far the only, but more on that at a later date) was a story called Beneath the Sea of Stars, that ran in the conbooks for Furry Weekend Atlanta 2004 and Rocket City Furmeet 2006. It was set aboard a sub-light starship. While mostly a little slice-of-life romantic story, I added in a few touches of reasonably accurate science (a sub-light starship featuring rotating compartments and a weightless center section, a reasonably close star system, gravity boosting, etc).

When the first trailer for Avatar came out about six months or so ago, the first thing I noticed that made me say "holy shitballs, I have to see this movie," was this shot of the spacecraft seen at the very beginning of the movie. My thought process at the time was: holy carp, a movie about space travel with a reasonably accurate picture of what an interstellar spacecraft would probably look like based on our current understanding. Umpossible! So I was reading a little bit about the ship today over at Pandorapedia. Once again, I was blown away by how much work Cameron and his team put into getting everything right in their universe, including the science on interstellar travel. Just read the article about a spacecraft that was featured on the screen for about 30 seconds.

Anyways. Enough fanboi. Back to interstellar travel.

In reading the article, a lot of the science and engineering work on it is pretty clearly visible. Acceleration, relativistic time dilation, methods of propulsion are accounted for in the article and all, really, are nothing that hasn't been talked about in most of the books and papers I've read on the subject. It keeps within the realm of current thought. So I kept reading.

Further down in the article where crew is discussed, I came across this:
Unfortunately, the cost of shipping back personnel precludes returning individuals still under contract who have medical problems that cannot be treated on Pandora, so they are euthanized there.
Ouch.

But then I paused. And at one moment, I realized that, in all my thinking about this subject from an engineering and scientific standpoint, I realized I had never considered the ethical, moral, and humanistic aspects of the subject. Even now, considering that this type of research is confined to the bleeding edge of space travel science (and these guys are thinking about it in their spare time), it wouldn't surprise me to know that, probably, not many ethicists, or psychologists, have been brought in to consult on the subject of interstellar travel.

In many ways, people on manned expeditions to another star would be more alone than any human in history. I mean, hell, even the journey of the Mayflower was about 10 weeks from England to the New World. Under the absolute best of conditions, we're talking years before a person on an interstellar expedition would see home again ... if ever.

So here you are, on a remote planet orbiting a star 11.9 light years from Earth. Even at .5c, it's about 22 years home. You are a pioneer, on the frontier just like the pioneers in wagons of old. There may be only a couple dozen people on the expedition. In a situation like that, if you are injured or become ill beyond whatever field medicine would be available, would euthanasia be acceptable?

It sure would make a fascinating paper.

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kiranlightpaw: kiran_likeshine (Default)
Kiran Lightpaw

December 2013

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