Sunday, July 20, 2008

T Plus 39 and Counting ...

As of today, 39 years have passed since the first human set foot on the Moon - and more than 35 years since the last human set foot there. This last fact is more than slightly dismaying, with its lurking hint that the appropriate analogy may be not Columbus but Leif Erickson. According to a surely apocryphal story, some Norwegian-Americans once raised a ruckus at a Columbus Day celebration in New York City, leading a local Italian-American pol to observe that 'when Columbus discovered America, it stayed discovered.' So far, the Moon has not stayed explored.

We are scheduled to go back by 2020 or so - I'm not sure of the exact timetable, and both the proposed technology and the level of commitment are more than a bit doubtful. Is anyone really backing it apart from the human-spaceflight shop at NASA, and the contractors who hope to build the hardware? And, to step toward the heretical, should we go back?

There is a non-trivial argument to be made that human spaceflight - as opposed to robotic exploration - is an idea whose time came and went. In the rocketpunk era no one dreamed of anything else; by oddest of irony the technology of robotic space exploration is itself a product of the space age. In Heinlein's Space Patrol, published in 1948, the first human mission to Venus crash-lands there in 1971 - and it is indirectly but pretty clearly implied that no robotic probe preceded it. In the real space age, Mariner 2 made its flyby of Venus in 1962, revealing Venus for the Dantesque hell it is, with no swamps and certainly no Venusians. Even in the space community, no one now imagines us ever exploring Venus other than robotically; it just isn't worth going there in person.

On the other hand, for really serious research work nearby human supervision is more convenient than managing everything from a distance. I put it in that rather weaselly way for a reason. Robots, at least in any form we can readily foresee, are tools - not substitutes for human intelligence, but extensions of it. Carrying out complex operations on or near Mars, when Mission Control is between six and thirty minutes away due to round trip light lag, sooner or later becomes wretchedly awkward. Put another way, even from a pure green eyeshades perspective a point will be reached where it is cheaper to send some humans who can work in real time, instead of planning every move minutes ahead or programming in advance against every contingency.

Stepping back, our progress in space seems disappointing largely because the rocketpunk era and the opening years of the space age set us up to expect too much too quickly. Rocketpunk writers - especially Heinlein - greatly underestimated the complexity of spaceflight, and therefore its cost. Their mistake was concealed for a decade by the giga budgets of the Space Race. Contrary to what Heinlein, especially, might have imagined, government can do astonishing things if it throws enough money at a problem, and we threw enough at the Moon to get there in less than a decade.

Clarke made more conservative assumptions than Heinlein did. In his novel Prelude to Space (1951) he pegs the first human suborbital flight to about 1960, close to the mark, but the first orbital mission is a decade later, and I seem to recall that in one of his short stories the first lunar expedition - admittedly a big one, departing from a space station - is in 1990. The Space Race compressed the early rounds. Absent the big political push to be first on the moon, we might well be just about where we are now, but with a sense of steady progress rather than triumph followed by anticlimax.

Thanks to the robotic program we have made a more thorough preliminary reconnaissance of the Solar System than even Heinlein might have imagined by this early date. The Shuttle has been a genuine disappointment, though for reasons ultimately more political than technical - the designers did their best, but could not overcome the excessive requirements forced on them in the early 1970s. Yet we have a space station, with a crew continually on board since 2000. It is not the classic bike wheel design (absence of artificial gravity, alas, making for some very unhappy toilet conditions), and it has a much smaller crew than rocketpunk space stations did. This is the real face of automation - 'manning ratios' are much lower than imagined in the rocketpunk era, largely because no one is replacing burned-out vacuum tubes, let alone peeling potatoes in the galley.

As for the future, the rocketpunk Solar System is gone forever, a victim of space exploration. In the next few posts, I'll speculate a bit on what the human presence in the real Solar System might look like in the course of this century and the next.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Fires This Time

California is burning, or a respectable fraction of it is. This is not terribly unusual, nor any immediate cause for alarm - unless, of course, you live in the path of a fire, which we happily do not. (The nearest fires are some 100 km away.) As in much of western North America, wildfire is a necessary part of the California brushland ecosystem; some seeds will not germinate until burst by the heat of a fire. Indeed, our worst fires are often due to having put out too many fires in decades past. Nothing makes for a really impressive wildfire like a canyon full of chaparral that has gone unburned for a hundred years, when left to itself the brush would have been been thinned out by half a dozen fires over the decades.

California's worst fires usually come later in the season - sometimes, with nature's cruelty, just a week or two before the first fall storms, which then bring only mudslides and flash flooding. Such is life in earthly paradise. This fire season is notable, so far, only for coming early, in June and July, thanks to little spring rain and a spell of unseasonably hot weather. Fluky weather happens, and it used to be merely fluky - a rare but ultimately 'normal' variation in the usual weather patterns. Now, however, every hot spell or strong hurricane raises a lurking question in our collective mind: Is this a harbinger of global warming?

Strictly speaking no such correlation is possible. Global warming (or, to be more precise, 'global climate change') did not cause Katrina, or the latest California heat wave. The most we can say is that if you heat up the planet, tropical oceans will spawn more storms, and California will get more heat waves. Nevertheless it is impossible not to wonder if weather patterns that were unusual in the past will be the new usual. Or, indeed, if 'usual' is a meaningful term for a planet that may be shifting from one climatic regime to another.

This is not a screed about global warming. The evidence for anthropogenic climate change is fairly decisive, but I have only casual knowledge of the relevant disciplines, and life on the frontiers of science is far more complex than the media and political worlds care to admit. One thing the global warming issue should put to rest, however, is any doubt concerning the value of space exploration. Before global warming was a policy imperative, or even a political debate, it was a research problem in planetary science.

In the old rocketpunk days, there was a standard scene involving first-time space travellers. After main engines shutdown the passengers unstrap, flail their way through the cabin to the nearest viewport - and, invariable, look first not toward wherever they are going, but back at the Earth they have just left. We as a civilization have done exactly that, and have duly discovered that Earth really is a planet.

If you doubt this, just look at any portrayal of the Earth, as seen from space, before we actually went there and looked at it. In old movies and book illustrations the Earth resembles a globe - continents and oceans, with a few puffy decorative clouds as a nod to the atmosphere. Real Earth does not look like that. It is deep blue and white, in sworling patterns, with the land surface surprisingly inconspicuous - most often a stretch of tan desert. If you spend long enough in high orbit, from time to time you'll get a picture perfect view of the whole Indian subcontinent, or some other striking visual feature, but rarely if ever will it look like a globe.

In short, we did not even know what our homeworld looks like until we left it. (Imaginative views of other earthlike planets still follow the old convention, for a simple reason - if portrayed realistically, most would be more or less indistinguishable from Earth, spoiling the effect.)

It is a cliché - but a profoundly important one - that the most important astronomical body we have discovered by going into space is Earth. This is one of the many things Arthur C. Clarke got right, though perhaps not in a way even he would have imagined. On a scientific level we could not understand Earth's atmosphere till we compared it to other planetary atmospheres. On a human level the most significant image of the 20th century may be the iconic view of Earth above a moonscape. No graduate degree is needed to grasp the contrast between Earth and its orbital companion.

If you are reading this blog, probably none of this is news to you, and you probably don't need to be persuaded that space exploration is worthwhile. But in the geocentric world of politics and public policy, it is something that we need to keep beating over the heads of our decision makers. We may or may not find directly remunerative things to do in space in this century or the next, but space exploration has already paid for itself, many times over.

Housekeeping note: Following a jailhouse interview, Philonikos the Sophist was last seen going into a swanky Ares Hill dinner party. Since Socrates the son of Xanthippus did not show up, Philonikos will find himself the worst-dressed person present. Much more alarming, he is already 4000 words in, and the important murder hasn't even taken place yet. Which means that a short story is pretty well out of the question.

Novels happen. What can you do about it?