Monday, October 01, 2007

The Orbiting Turkey

The International Space Station is an orbital turkey. ~ Steven Weinberg

Last night, I was watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was on Turner Classic Movies. Now, I've watched the Odyssey movies and have read all the novels right through 3001. I have enjoyed the books and the movies and have the greatest respect for Arthur Clarke, their creator. However, something has always bugged me about the first movie
. The best way to explain what it is that bothers me is to give specifics.
  • The moon base is the size of Detroit. Okay, maybe not, but it is huge. Even in 1968, it was hard to imagine, when we hadn't even landed on the moon yet, that we would be able to launch massive amounts of people and materials to build such a huge structure.

  • The landing pad on the moon is totally impractical. It's bad enough that you have this immense dome that opens by splitting into wedges which go down into the ground. Once the ship lands, it's lowered down a multi-story elevator into some area which, presumably is flooded with air. How they deal with the amounts of air they would lose every time they did this is beyond me. In fact, why do you need a dome and an elevator? How about we land, extend a flexible airlock (or send a vehicle to the ship that has its own airlock system), and let everyone come in?

  • The space station is monumental in size, although it fits the design most people thought would be used: a circular station that would rotate to provide an illusion of gravity. The method of landing the ship on the station, spinning the space ship at the same rate as the station rotates is just silly.

  • The titanic space ship Discovery I is nearly at Jupiter 18 months from a standing start, which includes planning the mission, building the ship, and training a crew.
So there was some silly technology on display, but the main thing is that the level of progress in space technology Clarke envisioned occurring in 33 years was beyond belief.

Now, I'm sure Clarke did not imagine that, once we had landed on the moon, the U.S. and the Soviet Union would promptly decide that we didn't need to be doing that anymore. In fact, Clarke hints in 2001 and outright says in 2010 that the U.S. and Soviets are partners in space. Of course, by 2010 they're at each other's throats politically (even though they can get together to send another mission to Jupiter), but all that gets fixed when Jupiter becomes a star.

At the rate things are going in Russia these days, we may be needing that alien assistance by 2010.

However, this discussion isn't about failed foreign policies, it's about space. More particularly, it's about Clarke's vision versus the fact of the monstrosity that is the International Space Station. What really got me thinking about this was Dr. Steven Weinberg's withering attack on the ISS. Steven Weinberg is nobody's dummy. He is a Nobel Prize winner, who deals in cosmology, particle physics, and astrophysics, among other things.

It so happens I agree with his criticisms, but coming from me, such sentiments don't carry much weight. That's why it's nice to see a Nobel Laureate speaking out. One can take exception to his statement that "Human beings don't serve any useful function in space", but the way we approach space exploration it's hard to find fault with that. People in space should mean colonization, moving outward from planet Earth, not babysitting some hunk of machinery that doesn't really seem to have much of a purpose.

In the fifties and the sixties, futurists were imagining the building a significant structures in space as platforms to launch colonization efforts and as science platforms. Now, in the 21st century, we still can't do real construction in space. Every module has to be sent up as a finished product and Tinker-Toy(R) attached to the mess that's already there.

So we've got a cobbled-together collection of modules that hold three people whose main job seems to be to just keep the thing working.

That's the crux of Dr. Weinberg's tirade. Science is being sacrificed for an ISS that hasn't generated anything of use. Even the late, lamented SkyLab returned a ton of information on the behavior of the Sun. ISS hasn't generated a single significant piece of science during its entire tenure.

What's worse, funds for science that could lead to finding us a new place to live someday is being sacrificed to spend gobs of money planning missions to the Moon and Mars that will, in all likelihood, never happen. Given the current state of affairs in the U.S. and Russian space programs, it's probable that China will be on the Moon long before anyone else. Worse, they will have wasted huge amounts of money re-inventing technology that NASA had in the 1960's.

Of course, NASA is doing the same thing now, with COTS and Orion.

The problem is that no one has a vision of what space is about. Precious resources are being wasted on building tourist rides or to have private companies suck up federal funds to build space ships comparable to those built 30 to 40 years ago. Well, some companies are sucking up funds; at least one is getting kicked out of the trough. Hopefully, some others will follow, given some of the definitions of "success" we've heard bandied about.

What we desperately need is a plan that involves all the potential space-faring nations, and that plan needs to put science first. If some yahoo wants to spend his own billions to sell roller coaster rides to the lower edge of space to rich folks with a few hundred thousand dollars to spend to throw up, that's fine. But get out of the way of real progress. And leave my tax dollars alone.

The real question is what to do with the white elephant of near space, the ISS. It seems like a prodigious waste to bring it down (which would be no easy or cheap task). The trouble is that, as it is progressing, there seems to be little it will ever do but require a crew to keep it afloat. Perhaps the solution is to attach a booster to it and send it into the Sun. I don't know.

I do know this, though. Until we have an idea of what we are doing in space, we need to spend our time on science missions learning as much as we can. That science just might help guide us to make smarter decisions about what role human beings really have out there.

Of course, we'll need some smarter human beings making the decisions first.

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