Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Space

Less is More

NASA officials petition Congress, 2009

NASA officials petition Congress, 2009

No one can predict what next year’s federal budget will hold in store for NASA. A medium-term recession will put pressure on Congress and the next president to make cuts in the space program. Neither John McCain nor Barak Obama have spent any political capital embracing President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, though McCain’s on the record as supporting it. Obama has made sounds about delaying it, diverting funds into science and engineering education. Whether there is any money left to divert, cuts at NASA are now a likely scenario. After all, it’s hard to imagine a trillion-dollar program for space exploration holding up during a prolonged economic downturn. Meanwhile, reports from the Ares rocket research and development program have not been promising. The shuttle fleet is scheduled to go into retirement by 2010 and American astronauts will become dependent upon third parties to get them into space.

But perhaps there is something positive to be gleaned in all of this bad news. As the Mars rovers and Phoenix lander have proven, unmanned exploration is comparatively cheap. Moreover it has been productive to space science. Relying upon the Russians Soyuz to shuttle Americans to the International Space Station may not be in the best interests of the United States long-term, but it has paid off in other ways already. As John Schwartz wrote in the New York Times last week:

Those who work side by side with their Russian counterparts say that strong relationships and mutual respect have resulted from the many years of collaboration. And they say that whatever the broader geopolitical concerns about relying on Russia for space transportation during the five years when the United States cannot get to the space station on its own rockets, they believe that the multinational partnership that built the station will hold.

A Russian Soyuz transport in low earth orbit

A Russian Soyuz transport in low earth orbit

Among many free-market thinkers, economic downturns are useful insofar as they eliminate, albeit painfully, failing or inefficient businesses and modes of production. If this is a viable model for business, might not it also hold true for the U.S. space program? Forced to downsize and become more efficient, NASA would turn its attention to those lower cost projects that had been secondary priorities during the boom years. Perhaps with all of this talk of international space collaboration, depleted budgets will finally provide the incentive for long-term collaboration. I do not know enough about economics or NASA politics to know if this will happen, but it’s good to have sunny moments when the forecast is calling for so much rain.


Mission to Mercury

Regard fleet-footed Mercury, Roman god of travel and trade, the one-man postal service of Mt Olympus. It’s ironic that he has come to represent the solar system’s densest planet, an object consisting of 70% nickel and iron. Still Mercury is quick, speeding around the sun at a rate of 47 km/second, faster than any other planet.

This week Mercury Messenger will pay a visit to this world of metal. Messenger lifted off on 3 August 2004 in hopes of, among other things, figuring out why Mercury is as dense as it is. It will also measure the planet’s geology, magnetic field, atmosphere, and core composition. After a brief fly-by this week, Messenger will prepare for its final insertion into Mercury’s orbit in 2011.

Messenger’s price tag comes in at $446 million, a steep price when compared to other terrestrial transport vehicles of the same name. One Mercury Messenger would buy 15,379 Mercury Sables, fully loaded with satellite radio and heated front seats. But Messenger is actually rather cheap when placed up against the leviathan craft of the Constellation Program developed for travel to the Moon and Mars. At slightly under half a billion dollars, Messenger works out to $1.50 for each U.S. resident, about the same cost per person (accounting for inflation) as Mariner 10 in the 1974. Indeed, this seems a reasonable price for a planet that has only received one visit in 35 years.

2008 Mercury Sable

2008 Mercury Sable

Happy travels Messenger.

See more here at the NASA Messenger Website

The Last Flight of the Jules Verne

Jules Gabriel Verne

Jules Gabriel Verne

All hail Jules Verne, French author and fin-de-siecle politician, the father of science fiction, the creator of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. And, as of yesterday, the inspiration for the first in a new class of space garbage transports developed by the European Space Agency, the Jules Verne ATV.

Jules Verne ATV. Courtesy of the European Space Agency (ESA)

Jules Verne ATV. Courtesy of the European Space Agency (ESA)

The ATV stands for “Automated Transfer Vehicle,” not All-Terrain Vehicle which I think Verne would have preferred. For months, the Jules Verne has dutifully supplied the International Space Station (ISS) with water, oxygen, and cargo, and propellant. It has gently nuzzled the ISS into higher orbit. Then, last week, astronauts loaded it with 2.5 tons of trash and human waste and instructed the craft to immolate itself in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Jules Verne "deorbits" its load of trash brilliantly into the Earth's atmosphere

The Jules Verne, disgorging trash into the Earth's atmosphere

This part, at least, was as spectacular and luminous as a Vernian novel. As for choosing Verne’s name for the newest craft in expensive waste management, I don’t get it. Why not the Tony Soprano ATV ?

Saturday’s Big Stories

In the news for Friday and Saturday:

Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang opened the hatch of his Shenzhou 7 and took a brief stroll in orbit Saturday. This makes China only the third country in the world, after the United States and Russia, to have completed a space walk. More to the point, it demonstrates that China is ramping up for some of the heavy lifting required of long-term space projects (e.g. space stations and moon missions) which would require people moving outside of spacecraft for construction and repair projects.

Why are such journeys outside of spacecraft called “space walks”? It’s an interesting choice of words since there is no real walking as far as I can see. “Space crawl,” “space climb” and “space float” would all be more accurate if less pithy.  We must scout out the etymology of the term. It strikes me that NASA and cold-war space enthusiasts would like “walking” because it is far more active, self-directed and dignified verb than floating and crawling. Another question, what are the Russian and Chinese terms for these ex-craft jaunts?

The New York Times Book Review features Bruce Barcott’s write up of Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver’s new book Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes. I’m only a couple chapters in, but Fallen Giants promises a comprehensive, socio-cultural look at high-altitude mountaineering in the last 150 years. Despite the vast heap of books written on the history of mountaineering, this type of project is sorely needed.

Deep Sea News has now made the move to Discovery Blogs.

In other news:

There was a presidential debate.

The world economy is in free-fall.

Blue Moon

To see how often speakers at the Democratic National Convention brought up the idea of reaching the Moon, you would have thought they were talking about Florida. Who can forget Ted Kennedy, grand old man of the Democratic Party, telling adoring delegates:

We are Americans. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And we can do it again.

Later, most of these delegates were napping, chatting, and or freshening up their martinis when Brian Schweitzer told the floor:

President Kennedy’s idealism and spirit of possibility inspired [my parents]  to send all six of us children to college. And when he said, “we’re going to the moon,” he showed us that no challenge was insurmountable.

No problem taking a martini break at the DNC or RNC, however, because one can always hear the same speech again. So it was with Ted Sorensen’s speech a few hours later:

Confronting a Soviet military advantage in space, [Kennedy] made all Americans proud by literally reaching for the moon.

Or if they stayed in the bar all afternoon, they could still reemerge on the DNC floor to hear Frederico Pena say:

John Kennedy, a Democratic president, committed us to putting a man on the moon. American energy, American technology, American jobs, ready to be created, right now. That’s the change we need.

Even if they passed out in their hotel rooms, they could still pick up a copy of the DNC’s Platform Report “Renewing America’s Promise” which would have told them:

We know that at every turning point in our nation’s history, we have demonstrated our love of country by uniting to overcome our challenges-whether ending slavery, fighting two world wars for the cause of freedom or sending a man to the moon.

In all of this, the moon has no value in and of itself. It does not represents an economic or scientific imperative. Rather, it functions solely as a benchmark of American accomplishment, a symbol of technological progress, and a reminder that young, good-looking Democratic presidents have the chutzpah to do cool things in office.

No surprise then that Barack Obama’s statement on Science Policy also mentions the moon, albeit with a slightly different spin:

In the past, government funding for scientific research has yielded innovations that have improved the landscape of American life-technologies like the Internet, digital photography, bar codes, Global Positioning System technology, laser surgery, and chemotherapy. At one time, educational competition with the Soviets fostered the creativity that put a man on the moon. Today, we face a new set of challenges, including energy security, HIV/AIDS, and climate change.

In this incarnation, reaching the moon represents a benchmark of American educational accomplishment, a golden age that Obama implies is beyond us now. Indeed, Obama’s Space Policy in late 2007 seemed to pit money for space exploration up against federal money for education. Said Obama:

We’re not going to have the engineers and the scientists to continue space exploration if we don’t have kids who are able to read, write and compute.

As for Republicans, the moon received nary a mention at their national convention. Testament to the fact, I imagine that they see it primarily as free advertising for Kennedy and therefore Obama by proxy.

On the surface John McCain’s policy on space exploration seems much more vigorous than Obama’s. He is committed to continuing President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) which anticipates a return to the moon in the coming decade as a prelude to the eventual manned mission to Mars in 2020. Yet what is the ultimate objective of human space flight? McCain begins by discussing (much as Kennedy did) the accomplishments of international rivals:

China, Russia, India, Japan and Europe are all active players in space exploration. Both Japan and China launched robotic lunar orbiters in 2007. India is planning to launch a lunar orbiter later this year. The European Space Agency (ESA) is looking into a moon-lander, but is more focused on Mars. China also is actively pursuing a manned space program and, in 2003, became only the third country after the USSR and the US to demonstrate the capability to send man to space. China is developing plans for a manned lunar mission in the next decade and the establishment of a lunar base after 2020.

Ultimately, McCain concedes that the principle objective of human space flight is not science or commerce but national prestige. Boldly going where no one has gone before is, in effect, a matter of keeping up with the Jones:

Although the general view in the research community is that human exploration is not an efficient way to increase scientific discoveries given the expense and logistical limitations, the role of manned space flight goes well beyond the issue of scientific discovery and is reflection of national power and pride.

This is a very expensive way to show “prestige.” So despite the Democrats paper-thin, hokey moon-talk at the DNC, and the lack of Obama’s specifics about alternatives to human space exploration as proposed by the VSE, I tilt towards Obama on space policy if only because McCain seems to be willing to maintain the rather shallow vision of exploration put forth by Bush.

Web Review: ExplorersWeb

Theodore Roosevelt on Safari

Theodore Roosevelt on Safari

There is a freedom that comes with studying dead people. We, the historians of the not-so-recent, learn about our subjects in archives and newspaper columns, from photos, maps, and bank statements. We reveal what we’ve learned, personal and perhaps unflattering, knowing that the people we’ve researched cannot talk back to us, sue us, or toss rocks through our windows. (This is work best left to other historians). Still there are times when I meet my subjects sort of. I often talk shop with modern-day explorers at meeting and lectures, some of whom share the goals and sensibilities of the people I study. This is always a welcome experience for me, but one that often feels a bit strange, since I look at the work of past explorers with such a critical eye. What has been refreshing to find, however, is how self-aware and historically-minded many modern day travelers and explorers are.

Tom and Tina Sjogren, founders of Explorersweb.com

Tom and Tina Sjogren, founders of Explorersweb.com

For example, take the site ExplorersWeb.com, a clearinghouse of information about extreme travel in the polar regions, the oceans, mountains, and space. It is the brainchild of Tom and Tina Sjogren, two Swedish uber-travelers, who provide daily updates about expeditions in the field as well as their own exposes of expeditionary bad-behavior, from selfish guides, and faulty equipment manufacturers, to climbers who fib about their summit climbs. The reports of Explorersweb have not been without controversy, particularly from veteran mountaineers who’ve been the object of scrutiny. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a look at.


A Place to Plant the Flag

Thanksgiving, that magical day, a time of gathering, fellowship, and unrestrained serial eating. Like all holidays, Thanksgiving unfolds in the present, tethered in complicated ways to the past. “Tradition” probably best describes these personal, historical, links. Consider turkey. We eat turkey in our house because we like it, it keeps well, and can be transmuted into any number of post-Thanksgiving dishes: turkey soup, turkey sandwiches, turkey fricasse. But turkey remains on the menu every year not only because of its tastiness and longevity, but because it’s always been on the menu, seared as it is into the mystic chords of turkey memory. I cannot think of a time when we considered having something else for Thanksgiving. Such is the power of tradition.

Exploration has its own traditions, ways that link current endeavors to historical precedents. Some of these traditions are obvious enough, such as the naming of vessels, probes, etc. in honor of previous people or ventures: Galileo, Cassini, Enterprise, and Challenger. But others are more difficult to detect without hindsight. Many explorers prided themselves on being careful empiricists, objective observers of the regions they described. Reading these works now, however, its hard to miss the imprint of culture on their narratives, the martial descriptions of exploration as a “war on nature” and the kindly, patronizing descriptions of native peoples as “children of nature.” These tropes were also traditions of a sort.

Yet some things are still hard to see with the benefit of hindsight, even when they are staring at you in the face. Consider Dan Lester and Giulio Varsi’s article at the Space Review on the current Vision of Space Exploration. Lester and Varsi observe that NASA’s tradition, implicit (perhaps unconscious?) has been to associate exploration with solid places, rocky grounds suitable for “footprints and flags.” There are good reasons for going to the Moon and Mars, particularly for astrogeologists who want to know more about, well, the Moon and Mars.

But what about those scientists who seek to uncover more about the broader galaxy? This is a form of exploration best conducted remotely, with telescopes, rather than suited-up astronauts. For these purposes, the Moon and Mars are not ideal locations. To get the most bang for the buck, telescopically speaking, NASA would send its space telescopes to one of a number of “Lagrange points,” regions of space where telescopes could remain stationary relative to larger objects such as the Earth and Moon. Freed from planetary surfaces, these telescopes could observe broad reaches of the sky, unencumbered by planetary atmosphere or blind spots.

Five Lagrange points relative to the Earth, Moon, and Sun (L1-L5)

Five Lagrange points relative to the Earth, Moon, and Sun (L1-L5)

Costs and operational simplicity seem to favor by a large margin locations in free space such as the Earth-Sun Lagrange points over the lunar surface. While lunar soil may offer a record of solar activity that is valuable to heliophysicists, realtime monitoring of the Sun and the solar wind does not need to be anchored on regolith. Overall, the lunar surface presents a challenging environment, with dust and power generation problems as well as the difficulty of precision soft landing.

Relative to the push for human exploration of the Moon and Mars, “Lagrangian exploration” is a low priority for NASA. Why? Perhaps, as Lester and Varsi observe, it’s because of the historical importance of discovering land, of sinking one’s feet into the soil and then planting a flag in it.

As I read this article, it suddenly made other pieces of historical data fall into place. When Robert Peary and Frederick Cook brought back their photographs of the North Pole, why did both men choose to plant their flags in the highest hummock of pack-ice they could find? No such location would have been identifiable so precisely from astronomical calculations (if indeed either of them reached the North Pole, which I doubt). Clearly then these men had other reasons to plant the Stars and Stripes on a high hummock, rather than, say on a flat stretch of pack ice or floating on the water of a “lead.”

Peary Team Claims Attainment of the (very solid looking) North Pole
Clearly “earthiness” remains a tradition in exploration, an element that remains in the western imagination of discovery. When the nuclear ice-breaker Yamal steamed north in 2000 with its burden of high-paying tourists bound for the North Pole, it found open water there. What to do? The party could have celebrated the watery top of the world from the deck. Paddled around it in inflatable boats! Instead the Yamal steamed south far enough to reach solid pack ice. There the crew planted the “North Pole” flag around which the passengers danced, celebrating their attainment (kind of) of the top of the world.

Maybe its time to break tradition.