Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Space, our destination, to boldly go...

Freeman Dyson reviews three books about space travel: The Green Universe: A Vision (NY Rev of books). He opens with a story about what he'll come to call Little Space and Big Space:
Robert Dicke was an experimental physicist at Princeton University. He liked to build things with his own hands. When NASA began making plans for landing astronauts on the moon, he thought of a scheme that would allow the astronauts to make a serious contribution to science. This would be good for science and also good for the astronauts. The scheme was to measure accurately the distance between two objects, one fixed on Earth and the other fixed on the moon. The measurements would give us improved understanding of the dynamics of the Earth-moon system.

The object on Earth would be a laser emitting very short pulses of light. The object on the moon would be a tray holding a hundred corner-cube glass reflectors. A corner cube is a piece of solid glass cut so as to reflect light efficiently. The corner cubes would reflect the laser pulses back to the laser. The timing of the reflected pulses would measure the distance between the laser and the tray. The astronauts would plant the tray on a firm piece of ground on the moon facing Earth. Because the corner cubes reflect light straight back to its source, the small variations in the orientation of the moon as it moves in its orbit do not disturb the measurement.

Dicke was a practical person. He went to the Edmonds Scientific Company toy store down the road from Princeton and bought a hundred high-quality glass corner-cube reflectors for $25 each. He asked the machine shop at the Princeton University physics department to attach the cubes to a metal tray with a stand to support it. The complete package, including materials and labor, cost a total of $5,000. Then he got in touch with NASA officials and told them he would be happy to supply the package at this cost for a moon mission. The NASA officials accepted his proposal enthusiastically, but they said, “You do not get to build it. We get to build it.” The proposal to build the package was put through the normal bureaucratic NASA acquisition process. According to Dicke, NASA paid $3 million to an industrial contractor for it. The reflectors were duly installed on the moon and are still reflecting laser pulses as Dicke intended. Doing things the NASA way increased the cost by a factor of six hundred.
NASA's way is Big Space while Dicke's way is Little Space.

Big Space still dominates,  but Little Space in the ascendant, and between the two we have companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX:
His company builds big spacecraft paid for by big NASA contracts in the Big Space style, but he tries to keep the design and manufacture cheap and simple in the Little Space style. In ten years he has built a launcher, Falcon, and a transfer vehicle, Dragon, which ferry unmanned payloads from the ground to the International Space Station. He intends soon to include astronauts in his payloads. The SpaceX culture is a compromise, using commercial competition to cut costs while relying on the government for steady funding. The twenty-first century is likely to see manned missions exploring planets and moons and asteroids, and possibly making spectacular discoveries. But this century is unlikely to see costs of such missions low enough to open space to migration and settlement by ordinary citizens.

The three books under review describe space activities belonging to the Big Space and Little Space cultures that are now competing for money and public attention. Each book gives a partial view of a small piece of history. Each tells a story within the narrow setting of present-day economics and politics. None of them looks at space as a transforming force in the destiny of our species.
He then proceeds to review the books. I won't bother to summarize that; I'll just present a snippet or so. One of the books rejects the possibility of farming in space because Biosphere Two failed (over two decades ago, in Arizona):
The experiment failed because of a number of mistakes in the design. The purpose of such an experiment should be to learn from the failure how to avoid such mistakes in the future. The notion that the failure of a single experiment should cause the abandonment of a whole way of life is an extreme example of the risk-averseness that has come to permeate the Big Space culture.

Farming is an art that achieved success after innumerable failures. So it was in the past and so it will be in the future. Any successful human settlement in space will begin as the Polynesian settlements in the Pacific islands began, with people bringing pigs and chickens and edible plants on their canoes, along with the skills to breed them. The authors of Beyond Earth imagine various possible futures for human settlement in various places, but none of their settlers resemble the Polynesians.
the books have a vision problem:
All three books look at the future of space as a problem of engineering. That is why their vision of the future is unexciting. They see the future as a continuation of the present-day space cultures. In their view, unmanned missions will continue to explore the universe with orbiters and landers, and manned missions will continue to be sporting events with transient public support. Neither the unmanned nor the manned missions are seen as changing the course of history in any fundamental way.
Following Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Dyson envisions high-tech Noah's Arks:
Sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth. I give the name Noah’s Ark culture to this style of space operation. A Noah’s Ark spacecraft is an object about the size and weight of an ostrich egg, containing living seeds with the genetic instructions for growing millions of species of microbes and plants and animals, including males and females of sexual species, adapted to live together and support one another in an alien environment.

After the inevitable mistakes and failures, we will have acquired the knowledge and skill to build such Noah’s Arks and put them gently into suitable places in the sky. Suitable places where life could take root are planets and moons, and also the more numerous cold dark objects far from the sun, where air is absent, water is frozen into ice, and gravity is weak. The purpose is no longer to explore space with unmanned or manned missions, but to expand the domain of life from one small planet to the universe. Each Noah’s Ark will grow into a living world of creatures, as diverse as the creatures of Earth but different. For each world it may be possible to develop genetic and other instructions for growing a protected habitat where humans can live in an Earth-like environment. The expansion of human societies into the universe will be a small part of the expansion of life.
Would you believe warm-blooded plants? New life forms hopping about among comets and asteroids?
When life has reached the small objects, it will have achieved mobility. It is easy then for life to hop from one small world to another and spread all over the universe. Life can survive anywhere in the universe where there is starlight as a source of energy and a solid surface with ice and minerals as a source of food. Planets and moons are the worst places for life from the point of view of mobility. Because Earth’s gravity is strong, it is almost impossible for life to escape from Earth without our help. Life has been stuck here, waiting for our arrival, for three billion years, immobile in its planetary cage.

When humans begin populating the universe with Noah’s Ark seeds, our destiny changes. We are no longer an ordinary group of short-lived individuals struggling to preserve life on a single planet. We are then the midwives who bring life to birth on millions of worlds.
He concludes with praise of Olaf Stapledon, "a professional philosopher who dabbled in science fiction. His books Last and First Men and Star Maker, written in the 1930s, remain as enduring monuments to his insight." I took a crack at one of those books years ago and thought it dull. But I wasn't reading it for a vision; I was looking for a story. Should I reconsider?

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