Odds and Ends – 2/4/08 (NASA, the Space Program and the Space Elevator)

I’ve decided to intersperse my long posts on books, movies, SciFi, etc., with some “shorter” or “odd” ones – a place to put my “junk” so to speak.  So here goes the first one:

On one of my book groups we’ve been discussing a post I found that showed the cost of building a space elevator vs. the Iraqi War.  The figure was 10% of the cost of the war.  What is a “space elevator you ask?  Here’s the basic concept:

“To build “an elevator to the stars,” you start building from a location on the Earth’s equator … rising vertically until you reach “geosynchronous orbit” — some 22,300 miles out.  Then, you send payloads up and down this structure via “climber cars” — which would be electrically powered and, on their ascent, being also accelerated by the increasing centrifugal forces of rotation of the planet with increasing height, would ultimately achieve tangential velocities above 22,300 miles capable of launching payloads directly into orbit (below) ….  

Or, as science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once remarked, “Once you’re in Earth orbit … you’re half way to anywhere!”


Compared to current, highly primitive methods of getting off this planet – expendable rockets, the Space Shuttle, etc., which can cost up to $10,000 per pound of payload launched! – Arthur Clarke once calculated that one could send a fully grown man to geosynchronous orbit (and his “22 pounds of carry-on luggage …”) via such an elevator, for about “a dollars’ worth of electricity …” — a saving of ten thousand fold over current rocket-based propulsion systems (not counting the ~ $10 billion-dollar development costs …)!”  http://www.enterprisemission.com/moon5.htm; see also: http://seattlewebcrafters.com/nsecc/?q=node/view/115. (National Space Society’s Space Elevator Special Interest Chapter) 

I thought it was a no-brainer, as some of the people on the group had expressed the idea that if we were ever going to make it into space, we needed to do it in “baby steps,”;  like in one of my favorite movies, “What about Bob?”  I use the term baby steps, as used in the movie, a lot – the character, Bill Murray, a patient of psychiatrist Richard Dreyfuss, was having some deep issues.  The movie focuses on what happened when the psychiatrist tries to go out of town on vacation, and Murray is left without his “crutch.”  But one of the tools the psych used was “baby steps.”  In order to overcome anything, you need to take small steps, not just leap over the hurdle.  It’s like “chunking,” as used in the reading process – taking words apart into “chunks” of sounds, and working on those, and then recombining them back into one word; or attacking what seems to be an insurmountable problem by breaking it down into manageable pieces.

So, back to my space elevator.  Some one had suggested taking small steps in the space race, like building a space elevator rather than working on FTL (faster than light – superluminal) travel (versus our current theoretical STL or subluminal methods of space travel).  Which would cost the least, have the fastest results, and show the most promise in terms of getting people excited about space again?

Many of us on the group think back to the early days of the space program – I was born the year Sputnik went up; a true child of the space age – and fondly recall the promise of those years and the enthusiasm of President Kennedy. 

In his historic speech to a joint session of congress on May 25, 1961, to lay out his proposal to “preserve freedom and protect the American way of life.”

“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.” http://www.space.com/news/jfk_speech_040114.html

Will the next president share that dream?  Or will it crumble under the weight of bureaucracy and lack of funding, and a cohesive, baby steps plan?  One look at NASA’s web site (http://www.nasa,gov) will disabuse you of that – they are working on small steps, not FTL.  Although they do have a few “public interest” projects, such as the latest one, beaming a Beatles’s song, “Across the Universe,” today, 2/4/08 at 7pm EST, to Polaris, reaching it in about 431 years.  Across the world, people are invited to play the song at the same time as NASA beams it out.  Response from the Beatles was enthusiastic: “Amazing!  Well done, NASA!  Send my love to the aliens. All the best.” said Sir Paul McCartney, and Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s widow (who was the principle writer of the song) said: “I see that this is the beginning of the new age in which we will communicate with billions of planets across the universe.”   The song was beamed out to commemorate a number of anniversaries, including the 40th of the song’s recording, and the 50th anniversaries of NASA’s founding and the launch of the first satellite, Explorer I.

And are we, as a people committed to what, as outlined below, is an important part of that vision for the future of America? 

But back to the space elevator yet again.  In responses to the space elevator post, and my comment that it was a no brainer, several people replied that the public wouldn’t see it that way, that they didn’t care about space, or science even – some went so far as to predict the death of pure mathematics and any pure scientific research.  Pessimistic responses to my comment, from very educated, science minded people.  Are we all that ready to dismiss science and junk it?  IS that our priority?  We all have a list in our heads of those things we set our priorities on when it comes to government spending – education, military, welfare, health-care reform, social security, the environment, global warming, new energy sources, and space.  But many of these priorities, such as the environment and new energy sources, depend on science, mathematics and research.  I believe that most people fundamentally understand that, and are not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak, even if they put space low on the list of priorities.

But think of it: would you rather spend $40-$50 billion dollars on something that could easily bring payloads to space without the cost of the space shuttles, and without presumably the danger, OR would you prefer to spend it on a futile war, another “Vietnam,” that would cost astronomical (pun intended) sums.  In a Washington Post article from 11/18/07: “A report released last week by the Democratic staff of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee put the war’s 2002-08 tab at $1.3 trillion.” The author also counts the “real” cost of the war: the dead (38,00 U.S. soldier), the number of bullets fired for every Iraqi insurgent killed (250,000 – a fairly poor accuracy rating – you’d never pass a law enforcement class with those numbers!), the fact that we still aren’t safe from terrorism and that “[t]he $1 trillion we’ve probably spent on the war could have funded the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security 28 times over” and that “governing Iraq has, so far, been a fruitless investment.According to 2006 figures, U.S. war spending came out to $3,749 per Iraqi — almost as much as the per capita income of Egypt. That staggering sum hasn’t bought a lot of leadership from Iraq, or much of a democratic model for its Arab neighbors.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/16/AR2007111600865.html

So, you can probably guess my stance on this issue – but when you break down, or “chunk” the war into baby steps or small figures that actually mean something to people, rather than a large amorphous sum of money – who really understands how much a trillion is worth?  In a New York Times Business article from 1/17/08,

“The way to come to grips with $1.2 trillion is to forget about the number itself and think instead about what you could buy with the money. When you do that, a trillion stops sounding anything like millions or billions.

The War has been estimated to cost around $1.2 trillion ($700 billion in direct military spending, the rest in related costs).  “In the days before the war almost five years ago, the Pentagon estimated that it would cost about $50 billion. Democratic staff members in Congress largely agreed. Lawrence Lindsey, a White House economic adviser, was a bit more realistic, predicting that the cost could go as high as $200 billion, but President Bush fired him in part for saying so.”

So, what can you do with $1.2 trillion dollars?

“For starters, $1.2 trillion would pay for an unprecedented public health campaign — a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every American whose diabetes or heart disease is now going unmanaged and a global immunization campaign to save millions of children’s lives.

Combined, the cost of running those programs for a decade wouldn’t use up even half our money pot. So we could then turn to poverty and education, starting with universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child across the country. The city of New Orleans could also receive a huge increase in reconstruction funds.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/17/business/17leonhardt.html


Putting the Annual Cost of War in Perspective

The above chart is the initial estimate of the cost of the war v. preschool costs.  But with the actual estimated figure so much higher, we could have done so much more.  So for all those nay-sayers who say that space is a waste of time, let me point out to you a page that shows what NASA and their space explorations have done to improve our daily lives: 

“Breast biopsies – Mammographies are essential for the detection and treatment of breast cancer. As a result of technology developed through the Hubble Space Telescope program, biopsies can be performed with a needle instead of a scalpel.”

“Lifeshears – This powerful hand-held rescue tool can quickly cut through cars or other enclosures to free persons involved in an accident or other dangerous situation. The tool, which was developed through the joint efforts of the Hi-Shear Technology Corporation, firefighters and NASA, uses the same power source used to separate solid rocket boosters from Space Shuttles.”

“Linking the World’s Telephones – When friends and family call from other parts of the country or overseas, they sound as if they are right around the corner. The scope, clarity, and reliability of our long-distance telephone system is the result of communications satellite technology developed by NASA.”

“Vital Signs for Critical Moments – The monitoring systems used in intensive care units and heart rehabilitation wards were developed from  the systems used to monitor astronauts during the first space missions in the early 1960s.”

“Food Safety for Astronauts Sets the Standard – The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture credit NASA with developing the comprehensive food safety system, referred to as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) that the nation uses today.”

“S.O.S. to Space Provides Global Rescue Capability – NASA’s research in developing and demonstrating pace-based beacon locators was used to create an international, satellite-based search and rescue system that has helped save almost 13,000 lives worldwide (as of January 2002).”

“New “Fields” and Better Yields for Agriculture – NASA-sponsored researchers working on methods to grow plants in space have produced world-record crops on Earth.”

“Big Functions in a Small Package – Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) are extremely small devices and sensors (comparable to the size of a human hair ) … [that] measure changes in speed of small objects or activity levels of people or animals. … MEMS technology is used now in consumer products to trigger automobile airbags, regulate pacemakers and even keep washers and dryers balanced.”

“Wildfire Management – Wildfires are a continual concern for communities in the western United States. NASA has worked with the U.S. Forest Service to develop a rapid-response capability for wildfires based on data broadcasts from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites.”

“NASA Develops Science Curricula with Educational Publisher – NASA and Pearson Education … develop new science curricula for 100 million elementary and middle school students. The new curricula will be designed to increase student interest in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and space exploration.”

“Cleaner Cars – Space flight research is changing our understanding of how and why things burn … A hydrogen experiment on board Columbia’s final mission produced the weakest flames ever created—100 times weaker than a birthday candle. This research could lead to cleaner-burning cars in the future by helping scientists improve the burning of hydrogen and other fuels in engines and furnaces.”

and perhaps, most valuable or all, as an inspiration:

“Inspiration and Innovation—A NASA Story – At NASA, extraordinary goals inspire exceptional minds. As a boy in Pakistan, Dr. Rafat Ansari was first inspired to pursue scientific research when he saw astronauts walk on the moon. This inspiration eventually led Dr. Ansari to become a researcher at NASA, where his work with fluid physics has produced an unexpected and valuable medical care innovation.”

http://www.nasa.gov/topics/nasalife/index.html; http://www.nasa.gov/externalflash/hits2_flash/index_noaccess.html (which can be also be accessed from the NASA Life link: go to the NASA Hits: Rewards from Space)

Judging from the large interest in my blogs that deal with SciFi books for adults and teens, and those on the Singularity, cyberpunk, etc., v. the lesser interest on those ones that deal with more mundane subjects, and even the political ones, I don’t think the public (perhaps this is more of a slice of the “educated” public?) is that ready to dismiss science, space and dreams.

Are you?


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