Friday, June 29, 2007

Lunar Adventures

Space Adventures, the company that sells tourist trips to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, is now putting together a plan for private lunar flights.

The flights would not go into orbit around the Moon. Rather, the flights will follow a trajectory that will swing the ship around the Moon and bring it back to Earth. Going into lunar orbit would no doubt be a more attractive offering, but it would also be much riskier. A rocket engine would be required to put the ship into and get it out of lunar orbit. If that engine failed either time, the flight would end in disaster,

The Soyuz would be used in the flights. As Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson points out, the Soyuz was designed to be a lunar craft, even though it has yet to carry anyone beyond low Earth orbit. A lunar flight from SA would have one pilot and two tourists, with each tourist seat costing $100 million. No date for the first lunar flight has been announced, but Anderson (no relation to me) said interest is strong. He also said he is confident the Soyuz would be up to the the flight even without planned upgrades.

Space Adventures is also planning to offer tourists the possibility of a spacewalk, possibly beginning in 2009.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Another Bigelow Launch Success

Bigelow Aerospace has gone two for two in its Russian launches. Earlier today, Bigelow's second experimental spacecraft, Genesis II, was launched into orbit from a Russian base atop a Russian rocket. Last July, Genesis I was launched from Russia, as well, and is still sending back data from orbit.

Genesis I has been a huge success for the company. The key concept Bigelow is trying to introduce into manned spaceflight is the inflatable module. A module that can expand in space will allow the construction of large structures in space-- and eventually on the Moon, on asteroids, and possibly on Mars-- while using the same types of rocket launchers that have always been used. Studies suggest we might be using those same launchers for the next fifty years, so Bigelow's inflatable module approach could be a fundamental, even historic, breakthrough.

Genesis I expanded and deployed its power-producing solar arrays perfectly; it has performed exceedingly well, especially for a first attempt by a new company. Genesis II is closely modeled on its predecessor, but is packed with more sensors and more technology. If all goes well with Genesis II, Bigelow Aerospace will be on course to launch a man-rated inflatable module in 2010. Add that achievement to the private launch companies that intend to be flying tourists on suborbital thrill rides before 2010, and NASA's plan to open the U. S. side of the ISS to some private researchers as it heads back to the Moon to establish a permanent base, and you can argue the next decade has the potential to finally launch phase two of The Space Age.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Martian Dust Storm

According to NASA probes orbiting Mars and amateur astronomers who are not, a large dust storm is developing on the Red Planet. Dust storms are regular features of the Martian climate, and sometimes they reach incredible size. Sometimes, in fact, they envelope the entire planet. The current storm is not presently threatening either NASA rover now operating, but if it envelopes the areas the rovers are exploring, it could hinder rover activity. Because the rovers get their power by collecting sunlight through solar panels significant amounts of dust in the air would cut the power available.

Such huge storms would obviously have an effect on human exploration and settlement of the planet. All equipment would need to be constantly monitored and regularly cleaned. The ideal solution would probably be to completely seal all equipment from the outside environment, but that might not be practical.

Of course, if the terraforming of Mars is successful, soil should some day hold dust to the ground. Huge dust storms would become only an occasional reminder of the planet's wild past.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Humans have always recognized they lived in a dangerous, unpredictable world and sought ways to influence and understand events occurring around them. In today's Western world, most people try to do that by paying attention to work done by experts in various fields, largely through the mass media, and increasingly through the Internet. Religion, cultural values, and political judgments shape personal decisions. Before there were staff meetings, space satellites, and scientific inquiry, however, there was astrology.

Astrology is based on the curious notion that the positions of planets and stars in Earth's sky influence the lives of individuals and the course of human events. Exactly how this influence is manife4sted is unclear. What is clear is that when the principles of astrolgy were laid down, there were seven planets, including the Sun and the Moon, but excluding Uranus and Neptune, and the entire universe consisted of stars that can be seen with the naked eye from Earth-- about six thousand. Now we know the universe is a vastly larger, vastly more complex place. That new and deeper understanding should have buried astrology long ago, but it didn't.

You may notice that Blogger profiles carry the person's astrological sign. I have no idea why. Nor do I understand why people read astrology columns in newspapers, or hire astrologers to do specific charts. The explanation that seems to make the most sense is that people are still desperate to understand a dangerous, unpredictable world.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Interstellar Travel on the Cheap

When we think of interstellar travel, we think of powerful starships whizzing through space. Or, perhaps, we think of huge ships-- space arks-- that take centuries to travel between stars. In that case, the people who arrive in the new solar system are the descendants of those who left the old one. Either case presents interstellar travel as dauntingly difficult.

Which, of course, it is. All space travel is difficult and dangerous. That should become less so in the centuries to come, just as sailing the oceans and flying through the air have largely been mastered. If the human economy expands beyond Earth, extraterrestrial resources will be used. That will mean mining asteroids and comets. Such mining could lead to hundreds or thousands of small communities, scattered throughout the Solar System, living on small bodies and constantly on the lookout for new sources of water ice and other volatiles, and metals. The leading edge of that settlement will tend to move farther and farther away from the Sun, deeper into space.

A spherical collection of such bodies that astronomers call the Oort Cloud surrounds the Sun, Some astronomers say the Oort Cloud may extend halfway to the nearest star, which is the Alpha Centauri multiple star system. If Alpha Centauri has its own Oort Cloud-- and some comets almost certainly come in from outside our system-- small bodies orbiting on the edges of the two realms likely intermingle.

Small human communities drifting farther and farther out, in search of economic gain, or new knowledge, or more freedom, or adventure, or simple isolation may eventually ease into the gravitational influence of Alpha Centauri. One of the signal events of human history may occur unnoticed by anyone.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Terraforming Mars

Scientists are often science fiction fans and sometimes their work brings science fiction themes and ideas into reality. In fact, the science fiction community has long argued their literature did not simply predict the future, but helped shape it by stirring the imaginations of young people who grew up to become scientists and engineers. There certainly seems to be something to that position.

Terraforming, at the moment, is still science fiction, but maybe not for much longer. Terraforming is a process by which we would make another planet more Earthlike, and therefore suited to support human life with a minimum of technology being necessary. Mars is the facored first target.

Dr. Chris McKay of NASA Ames is a leading voice within the agency for the manned exploration of Mars sooner rather than later-- and a leading proponent of using terraforming to turn the Red Planet green. Under McKay's plan, the whole process would take centuries. Lowell Wood, a physicist retired from the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, recently argued for a more optimistic date. Under his plan, Mars would be virtually completely transformed by the end of this century. Humanity would have a second home in the Solar System.

Of course, if we discover extant life on Mars, changing the climate to suit ourselves might be deemed unacceptable. There is also a strong possibility that such a massive project will turn out to be more complex than some scientists currently believe. If Professor Wood is correct, however, this century could see the beginning of a multi-world civilization with access to immense resources and the possibility of the creation of incredible wealth and opportunity.

Friday, June 22, 2007

STS 117 Home

After a mission of accomplishments and jitters, Atlantis landed safely in California this afternoon, successfully ending the STS 117 flight. The shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base because of iffy weather at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The mission dealt with a possibly dangerous torn heat tile on Atlantis that astronauts repaired in a spacewalk. It also dealt with a shutdown of the Russian-built computers on ISS that keep the station properly oriented in space. The Russians were able to get the computers back online, but the software glitch could potentially have rendered the station useless, With that uncertainty surrounding them, however, the astronauts were still able to complete all the major tasks of the mission.

The biggest of those tasks was the installation and activation of another set of solar arrays. That will give ISS more power, and brings the completion of the station-- and the end of the shuttle era-- one step closer.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


For the past few decades, the Solar System, according to every astronomer you could find, had nine planets. Last summer, however, the convention of the International Astronomical Union decided there were only eight planets, demoting Pluto to dwarf planet status. Recently, the Hubble Space Telescope imaged Ceres, heretofore the largest asteroid, and found it to be spherical, like an honest-to-gosh world. Ceres, about half the diameter of Pluto, is also now a dwarf planet, according to the new IAY definition.

The demotion of Pluto seemed to hit a nerve in the interested public, but another part of the new regime is more curious. The IAU limited its definition of "planet" to this solar system. IAY members have currently found over 200 such bodies orbiting other stars, and the pace of discovery will almost certainly quicken over the next few decades. Astronomers were the first scientists to show that the same physical laws that operate on Earth also operate throughout the universe, but they have decided bodies in our Solar System are to be defined one way, while bodies in some other system might be defined some other way.

Maybe this bunch wanted to give those who come after them something to do.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Extraordinary Stuff

Carl Sagan was a noted astronomer, popularizer of science, and UFO skeptic. Though fascinated by the possibility of extraterrestrial life, Sagan was not impressed with the evidence, or lack of same, behind UFO stories. His favorite response was: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."

That sounds good, and may even be correct, but it does seem Dr. Sagan left an element out of his statement. Woodward and Bernstein, after all, did not have Watergate fall into their laps. Piecing his theory of evolution together took Charles Darwin twenty years and more. Surely the second part of Dr. Sagan's statement must be: "Acquiring extraordinary proof requires extraordinary effort."

So, the question would seem to be: Has establishment science or the mainstream media made an extraordinary effort to get to whatever lies at the heart of those few UFO cases that resisit explanation?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Defeating the Radiation Danger?

There are many problems to be overcome if humans are to spread throughout the Solar System beginning yet this century. Likely, some problems we will encounter we don't even know about today. That is the way of frontiers. One problem we do know about is posed by radiation-- mostly coming from the Sun, but also cosmic radiation.

Radiation is not a showstopper on Earth or in low Earth orbut courtesy of Earth's powerful magnetic field, which forms a sort of coccoon around our planet that deflects harmful radiation. Once we fly out of that coccoon, however, we must find other ways to deal with radiation. The Moon is beyond that coccoon.

The Apollo kunar flights were short enough that the dangers of radiation exposure to the crews were deemed acceptable, and indeed, most of those men have gone on to lead long, seemingly healthy lives. Longer stays on the Moon, however, will demand some protection against radiation. Lunar lava tubes could be a big part of the answer.

Lava tubes are what the words suggest-- tubes of rock hollowed out by flowing lava long ago. The early Hawaiians sometimes used lava tubes for shelter. In the Moon's low gravity, lava tubes can be huge-- perhaps thousands of feet across and miles long. Such a tube could easily host a lunar base constructed of inflatable modules hauled from their landing site into the tube, for example. Power lines running from the base inside to a solar array outside could supply the base with energy.

The rock roof and sides of the tube would provide the base with good protection from radiation. Excursions by astronauts outside the tube would still need to be monitored with radiation exposure in mind, but spending much of their time in a protected haven should greatly lessen the danger.

Lava tubes no doubt exist on Mars as well. The Martian magnetic field is too weak to protect the suface from radiation, so using Martian lava tubes may work, too. Because the gravity on Mars is more than twice Lunar gravity, any tubes there may be smaller, but possibly big enough to protect a small base.

Building the future by essentially going back to living in caves may seem counterintuitive, but it also might be the safest, most efficient way to establish ourselves on other worlds.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Remarkable Safety Record

As of this writing, it seems the Russians have overcome the computer problems on ISS. That's good news, but, as we begin to plan manned flights beyond low Earth orbit again, the incident should remind us that spaceflight is an inherently risky enterprise, and we need to think very clearly and work very hard if we intend to do it.

Which is not to say that humans shouldn't fly in space. One of the more remarkable facts of the first 46 years of human spaceflight is that not one human has yet died in space. Some have died in training, and others during the launch or reentry phases of missions, but no one has died in space. (It's possible, I suppose, that the Soviets could have lost someone in space and kept it secret, but that's extremely unlikely.) That safety record is remarkable. It shows what educated, dedicated humans can accomplish with the right leadership and adequate resources-- even, in the Soviet/Russian case, with barely adequate resources.

Of course, if we continue flying into space, that record will eventually end. Six month stays at a lunar base and possible missions to Mars lasting three years will see fatalities at some point. There is no way around it. Hopefully, we can delay that awful day for decades, but it could happen tomorrow. We need to accept that possibility, just as the people who fly do, and continue on our way out.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Energy Transition Ahead

The Age of Petroleum, which began in the nineteenth century and fueled the world economy through the twentieth, will almost certainly end in the twenty-first. Oil and oil products will likely be used after that, but petroleum as the dominant power source of humanity wil give way. The current high price of oil may not hold, but sometime fairly soon, it will. The twin billions of China and India, not to mention the rest of the developing world, will steadily increase demand for oil even as a major new field hasn't been discovered in decades. Add the environmental cost of burning fossil fuels, and the question becomes simply how to transition away from oil.

Of course, the inevitable could be delayed. Exploring ever more difficult regions of the world-- Siberia, the Alaskan Arctic, deep sea floors-- will probably discover more reserves, but that exploration will be expensive, and actually getting the crude out of such virtually inaccessible areas will kick the price even higher as the chain of companies involved try to make a profit on their expenditure. At some point, other energy sources will become competitive, and even preferable.

The ultimate source of power for a planetary civilization would be a fully mature solar power system based upon truly gargantuan orbiting satellites. The satellites, perhaps miles across, would collect energy streaming away from The Sun and convert that into safe beams at wavelengths that would do no harm as they sliced through Earth's atmosphere. The beams would land on rectenna farms on the surface, where the energy would be converted to electrical power and fed into the power grid. Such a system could deliver all the power needed, and it would be safe and clean. Such a system would also be almost impossible to cripple because of its decentralized architecture and the fact that the working part, the satellite, would be beyond any Earthly natural disaster and, hopefully, beyond the reach of any terrorist groups and most national military forces.

A fully mature SPS system, however, could take decades to complete even after everyone agreed it should be built. The near term problem is finding a way to get from an oil based energy regime to that SPS approach without suffering a collapse of the global economy. Nursing oil along might be necessary. More reliance on alternative sources of energy, such as wind, water, and geothermal, will help. Conservation will help. More nuclear fission plants, even with all their problems, may become necessary. Using solar energy on a large scale before moving to SPS may also be viable.

Solar power, of course, is already being used in many small projects. The problem at present is that solar cannot handle power intensive tasks, like powering a city. Even with better technology that can convert a high percentage of the energy it captures into electricity, huge areas will have to be covered in passive solar receptors to gather significant amounts of power. Luckily, there seems to be some areas that are suited for such use. The deserts of the American Southwest and northern Mexico, for example, have plenty of open land, and they annually receive over 300 days of sunshine. They are possible candidates. Depending on the local weather and the durability of the receptors, deserts in Africa and South America could also fit the bill. Floating skirts of receptors along continental coasts would offer an interesting engineering challenge.

The case can be made that the first major Western nation able to get a large percentage of its electricity from ground-based solar will be Australia. There, a relatively small population lives mostly along the coasts while the interior is dominated by an immense desert where, in some places, rain may not fall for years at a time. The Outback would seem to be ideal solar receptor territory.

Perhaps the most intriguing possible site for a receptor farm, however, is Saudi Arabia. Saudi wealth is based totally on the kingdom's oil industry. When the oil economy collapses, therefore, Saudi Arabia will be in a difficult spot even if it still has plenty of oil underground. The government that rules the Arabian Peninsula in the next few decades, assuming it's interested in the modern world, will pursue policies to maintain the wealth of the people in a post-petroleum world. Besides oil and its people, the greatest natural resource of the area is its vast desert. Saudi oil wealth can fund the transition to a Sun-centered power industry that could export vast amounts of power to Europe and Asia. Other nations in that dry, sunny region could similarly become energy exporters. That same Saudi wealth makes them potentially major backers, in decades to come, of SPS.

Ground-based solar systems clearly have many limitations. To produce significant amounts of electrical power, they need to be spread over huge tracts of land. To get the most direct sunlight, they are best suited to the equatorial belts, loosely defined. Bad weather could also be a problem. Of course, the biggest limitation is the day/night cycle of Earth. Any given installation will be down roughly half the time. One advantage of starting with a ground-based system, though, lies in the infrastructure that will need to be built to carry the electricity from the receptor farm to customers. Receptor farms could be converted to rectenna farms fairly simply, and could continue producing power through the buildup of a satellite system.

That brings us back to a space-based SPS. The U. S. Department of Energy has done one study of SPS. In 1979, the study concluded, SPS was technically feasible given the advance of technology then forecast, and the first satellite could be operational thirty years after commencement of the program. That study is almost certainly dated, but transitioning from oil to solar power will still be a central challenge of this century. It's a challenge, however, that can be met.

Friday, June 15, 2007

ISS Computer Problems

After a beautiful, seemingly perfect launch, the mission of STS 117 has experienced a couple disturbing problems. NASA still seems confident that the torn thermal tile isn't a critical issue. That said, however, NASA has added an extra spacewalk to the mission, partly to repair the tile. NASA says repairing it in space before reentry would be potentially loss costly than waiting until the shuttle returned and possibly having a bigger repair job.

The second problem involves the Russian-built computer that keeps ISS properly oriented in space. That is a critical issue. Currently, Atlantis is maintaining ISS's proper orientaation. Without orientation control, the station would tumble through space, making resupply impossible and rendering ISS useless. Indeed, in the worst case-- if the computer problems cannot be fixed before the shuttle has to come home-- the station might have to be abandoned.

NASA says the problem can be fixed, however. We should also remember that the Russians have decades of experience in operating space stations, from Salyut to Mir to ISS. The assumption must be that they know how to do this; the computer program that seems to be balking may have its roots in a program thirty years old.

This computer problem points out the complexity of spaceflight. If it is successfully ironed out, though, this effort will also show how robust the systems and machines that have been developed to explore space actually are.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Oceans, Oceans, Everywhere

Mars has held a place in the human imagination as a possible home of alien life for more than a century. The presence of water, scientists assure us, is essential for any life that we understand. We've known for some time that the polar caps of Mars contain water ice as well as dry ice. Recently, by establishing ancient shorelines using photographs taken by probes in Martian orbit, planetologists have shown that Mars once had two oceans, one in the northern hemsphere and one in the southern.

Evidence suggests the oceans once covered roughly a third of the planet's surface. That's less than half the extent of Earth's iceans, but still substantial bodies of water. Some of that water probably escaped into space because of Mars' relatively low gravity, but scientists speculate most of that water may still exust on Mars in underground reservoirs.

So, in one solar system, we have evidence of oceans existing, at one time or another, on Earth, Mars, under the ice of Jupiter's moon Europa, and possibly also under the ice of Jupiter's other huge moons, Ganymede and Callisto. Even with all that water, most of the water in the Solar System is likely in the atmospheres of the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and probably Uranus.

We know water is abundant in the universe. We have an idea of how water might be distributed in a solar system by studying our own neighborhood. If life is in some sense a product of water, could life be abundant in the universe? By exploring Mars and Europa in upcoming decades, we may be able to answer that question.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Possible Homes

In little more than a decade, over 200 planets have been found orbiting other stars. So far, no worlds similar to Earth have been found, but that's possibly due to our limitations. As our technology and techniques improve, we'll begin to find smaller and smaller planets, and be able to examine them in more detail. If a sibling Earth exists in our general neighborhood, we could well find it by 2020. Dr. Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute has said he wouldn't be surprised if they find alien signals by 2025. There's an interesting convergence of different, though related, fields of study.

Even without alien signals or new Earths, however, the discoveries of so many extrasolar planets orbiting so many different types of stars already make it clear that if humans ever undertake interstellar travel, there will be destinations waiting. Planets, among other things, mean there will be natural resources to build habitats in free space, if not on a planetary surface. Civilizations can rise in star systems that have no natural life forms-- and those civilizations might be human, or something else.

The key is mastering interstellar travel. If things go well for humanity, we might have a good idea of how to settle among the stars in a few hundred years.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Start of Competition?

According to a report given by NASA to Congress in late May, NASA is prepared to allow other government agencies, and even private corporations, use of the U. S. lab section of the ISS once the station is completed, which is scheduled for 2010. That has always been the plan, so it's good NASA is thinking about how it will proceed.

Experimenting on ISS may be frustrating for corporate users, however. Let's suppose a major pharmaceutical firm does research on ISS and finds a compound that works against all cancers, to pick a disease. If that compound can only be produced in microgravity, we will all be in a kind of limbo. ISS has no production capability. We would be in the position of knowing what would save Aunt Jane's life, and unable to give it to her. Building an orbiting pharma factory to produce the stuff, and developing infrastructure to get the product from space to Earth would take years. In the case of cancer, governments around the world would presumably cooperate to try to speed the process, but for less infamous diseases, or nonmedical products, the translation from lab to store shelf might be painfully slow.

That is, unless the plans of a few entrepreneurs work out. There is a handful of small companies working on developing ships that will reach Earth orbit regularly, safely, and comparatively cheaply. Many of them are headed by people who have already proven they know how to make money-- Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos. Another small company, Bigelow Aerospace, is working to perfect inflatable structures to be used in space. The first test structure is in orbit now; a second is scheduled to be launched shortly. Bigelow plans to have a man-rated habitat ready to fly before 2015. Such a huge structure could have many uses-- including, no doubt, housing a microgravity drug production facility that could be serviced by ships flown by another private company. By the time NASA is ready to open the American lab on ISS to others, it might have competitors with even bigger ideas.

Monday, June 11, 2007


As I write, astronauts Jim Reilly and Danny Olivas are in the early stages of a spacewalk to activate the new solar power array on the International Space Station.

"Soacewalk." of course, is a popular term. Historically, NASA has called such an excursion an "extravehicular activity," or EVA. Spacewalk may suggest something easy. It's not. The spacesuit worn by an astronaut has to provide the person inside with all the protection against the hazards of space the ship does-- and the suit has to be flexible. Even though spacesuits only need do that a few hours at a time, that's quite a trick. And, of course, there is no real walking involved. The astronaut's boots, save when pushing off the ship or the station, are only in contact with the odd passing atom.

Still, "spacewalk" has caught on. As we move beyond NASA, into an era of private spaceflight, when companies will bring tourists to orbiting hotels and let those tourists maneuver through space, much as tourists deep sea dive today, we can be pretty sure advertisers and public alike will call being out there, alone in the universe, spacewalking. We may begin down that road as early as next year. With luck, the first orbiting hotels will be welcoming guests sometime in the first half of this century.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Newt Gingrich Interview

Space policy has never been a big issue in presidential elections, and it won't be in 2008, barring some world changing event in the meantime. We could easily elect the next president, therefore, with no real feel for how he or she sees the future of human activities in space. Some would say that's no big loss. Fine, but critics point to the billions of dollars in the NASA budget (which is less than 1% of the total Federal annual budget) and insist that money could be better spent elsewhere. If NASA's budget is fair game in the budgeting process, maybe it should get more attention in the political election process.

Newt Gingrish, former Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives and possible candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, has some interesting things to say about future space policy. I conducted an e-mail interview with Speaker Gingrich in late 2005; my questions and his answers are below. Depending on how the campaign plays out, this may be the only interview with any presidential candidate that focuses exclusively on our future in space.

*I recall you were connected to the L-5 Society years ago. How did that come about? What sparked your interest in space exploration?

I first became interested in space during the Sputnik era and began reading Missiles and Rockets Magazine when I was in the eighth grade.

*In January, 2004, President Bush delivered a speech arguing the U. S. should establish a base on the Moon and go on with manned flights to Mars. He also established what seemed to many to be a reasonable timetable, complete with benchmarks along the way. What is your position on the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE)?

I am for a dramatic increase in our efforts to reach out into space, but I am for doing virtually all of it outside of NASA through prizes and tax incentives

NASA is an aging, unimaginative, bureaucracy committed to over-engineering and risk-avoidance which is actually diverting resources from the achievements we need and stifling the entrepreneurial and risk taking spirit necessary lead in space exploration.

*In that same speech, Mr. Bush held out the possibility of pursuing VSE with international partners. Given the history and cost overruns of the International Space Station project, what do you think of internationalizing VSE? On the other hand, ISS is flying, with a crew, and holding Antarctica as a sort of international trust seems to have worked well. Could that Antarctic model be applied to at least the early days of permanent habitation of Luna, and the initial period of manned Martian exploration?

I believe that incentives work as a means to inspire Americans to meet great challenges. If these pioneers want to achieve their goals with multi-national companies, that is fine. I am, however, against government to government committee led long-term bureaucratic models of non-achievement which waste resources and even more importantly waste time.

*Some argue that in order for VSE to succeed over several years, and at least two presidencies, the private sector must be brought into the very heart of the effort. What do you think? If you support that, how could that be done? Should private, for profit corporations be given a voice in the decision-making process of the program? What kinds of legal rights should corporations that participate in the program be granted as incentives to encourage their participation? Should they, for example, be given tracts of land on the Moon, upon which they could establish mining operations, or hotels to attract tourists, or pharmaceutical research facilities and factories—much as railroad companies in the nineteenth century were given huge tracts of land in exchange for building railroads and helping to open the American West to settlement and commerce?

We should have very large prizes for achievement. If you had priced the space station as a purely private achievement and paid for it only upon completion you could probably have had three or four companies building systems in one third to one fifth of the time for the same total amount of money or less. There ought to be tax credits for manufacturing in space and tax credits for developing commercial flights into near space for space tourism so we build a very robust launch program in the private sector. We need a lot of competitive players not simply one or two cumbersome large bureaucratic government contractors.

*Would such an expansion of VSE to include the establishment of a capitalist economic system in the Earth-Moon system, for starters, require the negotiation of a new treaty to replace the 1967 Outer Space Treaty?

We should simply interpret the Treaty very broadly and state that in the absence of an international regime, people can pursue legitimate investment and development within national law.

*Editorial writers around the country have already balked at the $104 billion price tag NASA recently put on the VSE, even though that’s spread over several years, especially given current budget deficits, the cost of the Iraq War, the cost of rebuilding after the Gulf hurricanes, the imminent retirement of baby boomers, etc. Do you think the politics generated by those factors will either kill VSE or drive it towards the model that embraces international partners, and, perhaps, brings private corporations into the project as junior partners?

We should get private entrepreneurs to cost out a non-government, non-committee planning competitive model. Look at what the X Prize has generated in private investment for a very modest but very honorable award.

*Beyond participating in the VSE, what do you think of the current attempts to establish private space ventures? Do you worry that if the first suborbital flight carrying paying passengers ends tragically, the private push into space could be stopped dead in its tracks, even if the technology is in fact ready for such commercial use? Would you take such a flight?

I would gladly take a suborbital flight.

We should seek to establish standards comparable to hang gliding or mountain climbing and allow adults to take recognized risks.

*Space tourism has gotten most of the publicity in the area of private space ventures so far. Do you think space tourism will in fact be the driver that puts private companies into space in a major, visible way, or do you see some other industry leading the way out?

Space tourism will likely be a significant factor. With the right tax credits and prizes, manufacturing in space could play an even bigger role.

*Many argue that the space program, and especially manned flight, has no real purpose. Many of those who make that argument see putting people on other worlds as something akin to a wildly expensive stunt. How do you see a vigorous space effort fitting into overall U. S. economic strategy? By 2040, will humans be living and working on three worlds, plus platforms orbiting in free space? If so, how important will those far-flung activities be to the U. S. economy, and to the general human economy?

For those who see manned space as having no role they would have thought the Wright Brothers were irrelevant in 1903. The human race has a destiny to spread across the solar system and then across the stars. I prefer that destiny be led by free people.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

STS 117

Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on STS 117 last evening. The main objective of this mission will be to install and activate another set of solar panels on the International Space Station. The panels will increase the station's power production in time for the laboratory modules to be attached later this year and sometime before the end of 2010. The lab modules will support research into the life sciences, strengthening ISS's claim as a place to conduct experiments that will help shape the 21st century.

The launch seemed perfect, but upon examining Atlantis after it had reached orbit NASA found a torn piece of the tiles that protect the ship from the blowtorch heat of reentry. Because the problem is in an area not exposed to the greatest heat, NASA is currently saying the tear shouldn't pose a danger in bringing Atlantis home.

We all hope that analysis holds and proves accurate, but it's also fair to note the shuttle fleet is aging. Completing the construction of ISS is the only reason we still fly shuttles regularly. The United States made the commitment to its partners in the ISS program that it would finish construction of the station before retiring the shuttles. Nations should cstand by such promises, but if another orbiter is lost, that would almost certainly end the shuttle era, whether ISS is finished or not.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Welcome to The Way Out

Welcome. This blog's focus will be on defining how humanity can expand into the Solar System, and, as importantly, how that move out can strengthen human society generally.

We will, of course, look at the new disciveries in astronomy-- perhaps especially at the progress being made in finding planets that orbit other suns-- and we will keep track of the various robotic missions to other planets in our own neighborhood. Scientific and technological progress will be the necessary foundation of any move into The Great Black. The real driving force propelling us out, however, is likely to be economic. Scientific breakthroughs are exciting, but finding ways to use the space environment to make a buck will be what sustains a push out. Sending humans to explore other worlds may simply be part of our nature, but bringing those worlds into the human economy will be what allows us to send later missions even deeper into the unknown.

Expanding the economy, unfortunately, takes time. Those who have different priorities and different futures in their heads argue that space operations cost too much for too little return in any rational time period. We can debate that here. Bring your best. A new industry centered on making real money by flying into space is trying to emerge. We will watch as those efforts either succeed or fail. In space, there would seem to be no middle ground.

Mainstream views, while welcome and encouraged, will not rule this blog. Discussions of so-called fringe subjects will be perfectly acceptable. SETI. the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, which operates by scanning the skies for signals from other technological civilizations, has been accepted by mainstream science as a legitimate pursuit, but such wasn't always the case. UFO research, on the other hand, has never been embraced by Establishment types, and likely never will be-- unless something terribly dramatic occurs that finally proves the crackpots were right all along. We needn't wait for such heart-thumping, though. Discussions of UFOs and other theories in the shadows will be conducted courteously but in the bright light of day in this blog.

As you may have gathered, I don't intend to write this blog by myself. I encourage participation by its readers. Let us all know what you think. Argue your case strongly and aggressively, as you choose. I only ask that you remember that none of us has a corner on The Truth. Therefore, everyone should be treated with respect. After all, if The Truth is elusive, the rational person can't be absolutely sure who might have a piece of it.

Welcome to The Way Out.