Friday, December 5, 2014

Orion Launch

NASA successfully launched its new Orion space capsule this morning, part of the long-range plan that, they say, will put people on Mars after another $200 billion or so.

I continue to think that trying to reach Mars with current technology is a dubious enterprise, and I very much doubt the US will ever put up the money. Maybe there will be a new space race with the Chinese and it will seem desperately urgent again, or maybe progress in something like plasma drives or solar sails will dramatically change the cost equation. But I am coming to think that this will not happen in my lifetime.


G. Verloren said...

I'm not sure why we'd want to put people on Mars, much less how feasible it is.

It's something like a four month trip, so that takes us back to the scope of the Age of Sail - meaning it's not entirely unprecedented, and is perfectly possible. But even ships on the opposite side of the world could still draw upon local resources, trading with natives or harvesting their own food, timber, and other supplies - we'd be limited to only what we bring with us.

But more pressing is the question of what possible value or benefit would come of such an undertaking. So far as we can tell, there's not much of value on Mars. It's a big worthless rock with a bit of ice here and there - meaning maybe with enough digging through it we might find some sort of primitive organic life, but I doubt it. Valuable mineral deposits are entirely possible, but harvesting them would be economically unsound - we'd have to not only establish a permanent base camp and mines to extract the ores, we'd also need to device a way of shipping vast amounts of equipment to Mars and even vaster amounts of ore back home, or potentially build a refinery on Mars to process the ore and then ship it back.

The costs would be astronomical, far and away exceeding any possible value to be gained from the harvested minerals themselves. And this even assumes everything goes off without a hitch - all it would take is one major accident at any point in the chain to doom the enterprise completely.

People want to keep studying Mars? Fine - keep sending probes. Maybe we'll get lucky and find some fascinating ancient life frozen in the poles or something. But I can't think of any reason to place actual people on the planet's surface in anything resembling the forseeable future.

pootrsox said...

Practical responses, gentlemen-- but where's your adventuring spirit??

I grew up on "Golden Age" SF-- Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Astounding, etc.

I want to see human footprints on Mars!

G. Verloren said...

"Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Astounding, etc."

So white middle class men born and raised in the first half of the 20th century, a number of whom fought in WWII and were heavily influenced by the Cold War and the Space Race?

Don't get me wrong, I'm personally a huge fan of Asimov myself, but more for his essays and his Humanist bent than for his science fiction stories. And even then, I recognize the contributions such authors had on modern literature and popular culture.

But at the same time, I can't help but recognize that almost all science fiction about the future is really disguised social commentary about the present. The works of these men tell us next to nothing about today and tomorrow - instead, they inform us about our past.

And if we're talking about space travel, and our plans for the future, the last thing I want informing our decisions are the notions of a bunch of old white men speaking from the vantage point of the Cold War.

Shadow said...

Exploring space and the stars is about the wonder of it all. We have wondered about what is out there ever since we have had a brain large enough to grasp that wonder. Sure we're rational beings, but we're also beings who are awed and inspired by that wonder. We want to know. We have always been explorers, and I don't think we will ever stop wanting to explore that one thing we have wondered about since the dawning of our age.

Social commentary is certainly one form of science fiction. Asking the question "what might be?" and answering it with your imagination is another. But I don't think science fiction social commentary "informs" us of anything. Like much fiction it explores something, and if it is good it makes you think about it.

If a bunch of old white men is a problem, try Octavia Butler. I would recommend her short story Bloodchild," quite powerful. How about Mary Shelly and Frankenstein? Samuel R. Delany, the african-American author of Dahlgren, Babel-17, and many more? Then there is Ursula K. Le Guin, who won the National Book Award's lifetime achievement award this year, and is as fine a literary writer as there is. You can read her acceptance speech at the Guardian -- short, simple, and direct.

Or you can listen to it at NPR

John said...

Yes, going to Mars is the only possible space mission that could make the business exciting again. I hope somebody eventually goes. But the cost of doing this as a NASA venture, through its safety-conscious bureaucratic culture, is simply enormous, and the time line runs out to decades because they (sensibly) want to test everything first. That's why they wanted to go back to the moon, the plan Obama nixed. Skeptical engineers who have looked at NASA's plans think they would end up costing a trillion dollars. That is why we have all these independent visionaries like Mars First looking for a different way. But I find their proposals ludicrous and have zero confidence that any of them could pull off such a mission.

To go so far with contemporary technology is simply a gargantuan endeavor. We need radically new technology -- something like fusion-powered ion drives.

Or, a different approach, we could equip a future generation of robots with complete sensory immersion technology that would allow anybody on earth to put on a visor and experience Mars virtually -- everything but the gravity, I guess. That would be less exciting in some ways but a lot more democratic.

leif said...

At its core, this endeavor is a political move. Yes, of course it is keeping with our human inclination to go exploring. I get that, given that I explore a lot. But I don't undertake even proportionally high-risk activities like a mars visit is, and I never take myself on one-way adventures. The lunar trips were all about national pride. They accomplished fairly little scicene, compared to terrestrial scientific pursuits that cost small fractions of the money. The vast expense of sending a human to mars simply cannot be understood as anything but a statement of our self-perceived hegemony. We are powerful, globally speaking, and we feel that our inferiors need to be reminded of this.