Friday, July 8, 2011

Atlantis Lifts Off - Last Shuttle and End of an Era

Atlantis - 2011 NASA photo
When the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off safely into space July 8, 2011, it was an historical event - the final launch of the space shuttle program. The first launch happened on April 12, 1981. I remember watching it live on TV. Exciting stuff. The program then built five shuttle vehicles and there were 133 more launches during the next 30 years. And gradually the entertainment factor scaled down to something close to ho-hum.

I'd like to see something in the media about what the Space Station program has cost the planet so far, along with a summary of exactly what we got for all that money. Besides videos of weightless astronauts on the NASA channel, of course.

A launch may be pretty expensive entertainment, but I have to admit it's a fascinating thing to watch. When I lived in Vero Beach, Florida, which is located only 50 miles south of the Kennedy Space Center, we used to walk a few steps to the end of our street, which gave us an unobstructed view looking north. Even at that distance the visual experience was exciting. The lift-off was visible to the naked eye, and with binoculars we could even see the separation of the two booster rockets. Once we watched a night launch, and the take-off brilliantly illuminated the sky northward.

Once we even went to Titusville to watch a launch from across the Intra-coastal Waterway. Did you know that among the spectators are shuttle groupies who have never missed a launch? They sat outdoors in lounge chairs with headphones, trinket-covered jackets and an entourage of lesser groupies surrounding them like royalty. What a country!

Here's an amazing video of a previous Atlantis launch, recorded from the perspective of one of the booster rockets:

And more shuttles. So what's next for NASA?

Here's what the talking heads say: It's humankind's destiny to travel to the stars. We're a species of explorers. It's in our DNA. It's what we do.

Of course, this is romantic NASA crap. It's not our destiny to travel to the stars. Earth is 4,500,000,000 years old, and humans have been walking around on the surface for only 1/100th of 1% of that history. We've had modern science for only 500 years. Considering the way we foul our air, water and land, we can't even claim that it's our destiny to survive as a species.

But NASA is talking about going back to the moon. The purpose? To refine space survival methods in advance of sending humans to Mars.

Why Mars? Two reasons. One, it's the only planet we can walk around on. The conditions on all the other seven planets are so unbelievably hostile that humans couldn't survive for even a few seconds on the surface. For example, the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus is over 90 times that of Earth's and it's mostly sulphuric acid blowing at 200 miles per hour at 800 degrees F. Nasty.

The other reason is to prove once and for all whether some form of life exists on Mars. Why that proof is so important is beyond me. They say it's important, but they never say why - why we should spend over $100 billion to get that proof. I keep thinking that it's a pretty hefty price to be entertained, have heroes and to know for sure there's some kind of life there. For zero dollars we could say, "There is probably some form of single-cell life somewhere on Mars, even if it's below the surface." What benefit do we get for proof?

Of course a manned mission to Mars is a far cry from traveling to the stars. But they're already gearing up for missions to the stars! DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced that they have joined with NASA to offer $1 million to anyone who comes up with the best solutions for star travel: "A Pentagon effort to enable a human journey to the stars within 100 years aims to enlist the brainpower of science fiction writers, ethicists and researchers. This new call for ideas covers innovations such as faster than light travel and life-sustaining technologies as well as questions about who gets chosen for the starship crew and what happens if alien life turns up at the end of the journey."

The fastest space vehicle ever made travels 50,000 miles per hour. The speed of light is more than 13,000 times that fast. Scientists say that travel at light speed is impossible because matter (including the crew) stops being matter and becomes energy at that speed.

The reason our defense leaders talk about "faster-than-light" space travel is because a round trip to the nearest star would take 10 years at the speed of light. And for sure, that's not the star we'd want to go to. If we had a solid reason to travel to any star (and we don't) it would likely take 1,000 years or even 10,000 years round trip. But faster-than-light travel is beyond theoretical. NASA talks glibly about "warp" travel because they know we've been watching Star Trek. Scientists say that IF warpable space-time actually existed, it would take the net worth of the planet to warp space-time only a little bit. The bottom line - faster-than-light travel is the craziest kind of nonsense, which means that interstellar travel is, too.

I know that the government considers $1 million pocket change and that amount of money doesn't even appear as a line-item in their budget documents. But I sincerely wish they would halt that project. Please save the money for something that really matters.

Even crawling through space at a mere 50,000 mph, a micro-meteorite the size of a grain of sand would have enough energy to blow a huge hole in a space ship. Space isn't a void. It isn't empty at all. It's full of gas and dust and larger particles. Even Earth satellites and space craft in stationary orbit have been damaged by this kind of debris. And engineers have no answer for it. Of course, if you travel faster than 50,000 mph, the problem becomes many times more dire. The futurists never talk about this when they theorize about building sexy super-fast propulsion systems.

And we don't have an answer for the degradation of bone mass in zero-gravity and low-gravity environments. The bone loss is dramatic and can never be fully restored. This is a huge problem for a so-called "colony" on Mars, and the space program has produced no answer for it. The futurists always leave this issue out when they talk about a colony on Mars.

I could go on. Deadly solar radiation and cosmic rays in space and on the surface of Mars. The problems of taking your food, air, and water with you. Not to mention fuel. The psychological problems of being in deep space far from Earth for long periods - totally unexplored psychological territory. And oh yeah, the cost.

Basically it's way more dangerous out there than the dreamers like to talk about. You get a serious problem with the spacecraft and there's no service station. No one comes to rescue you. You die. End of expensive mission.

Personally, now that the shuttle program is over, I'd like NASA to refocus on priorities that are killing us here on Earth right now, not this crazy romantic garbage about travel to the stars, funded by - YOU GUESSED IT - you and me.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .


Sean said...

While space travel doesn't have an obvious ROI, I still think it's a damn shame that our country, which put men on the moon and had an operational space shuttle for decades, can no longer send a man into space.

I can only hope that private industry steps up and takes over the space business entirely.

As for the waste of spending money on space travel, all I can say it has to be more worthwhile than the nation-building misadventures we're currently failing at with three simultaneous wars.

Patrick Durham said...

I can understand the dream of space travel. Men have been awed by the stars forever and will never be satisfied to merely admire them. Like mountains the stars are there and we must climb to them