Thoughts of astronomy and space… and a trip report

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David Brin's picture

One outgrowth of DARPA's 100 year Starship project has been serious attention to certain potential FTL (faster than light) drives that might open access to the galaxy. One that gained a sudden burst of attention (and some slim support from NASA) is described at io9 by George Dvorsky, though it's appeared in SF tales (including my own) for decades. Fascinating, indeed... and also worrisome, in that it would leave only three possible answers to the Fermi Paradox. (1) We're the first. (2) It becomes a terrible weapon that destroys species who use it. (3) it is the means by which fierce, galaxy-wide law is enforced.  Including whatever law now keeps us isolated in silence. Once you get a cheap and easy warp drive, those are just about the only three possibilities that are left.

-ceed9e2a709faf7eNASA is apparently thinking seriously about launching astronauts to Earth-moon L2, a spot in space beyond the moon's far side. EML-2 is a so-called libration point where the gravitational pulls of the moon and Earth roughly balance out, allowing spacecraft to essentially park there. Astronauts would ride to EML-2 aboard NASA's Orion capsule, which is being built by Lockheed Martin. Orion would get off the ground atop the Space Launch System (SLS), the agency's huge new deep-space rocket. The launcher's first unmanned test flight is slated for 2017, and NASA hopes the SLS-Orion combo will begin carrying crews by 2021.

Why (Earth-moon) L2? From there, astronauts could teleoperate rovers on the far side with relative ease, helping explore a part of the moon that remains little-studied to date.  But ther's another reason. Though it has many ambitious aspects, setting the stage for Asteroidal and even Mars missions, it will be perched at a point from which it is very easy to get home, should something go wrong.  In fact, it is the farthest you can get from home, and still have an almost-free return ride.

Now the dissenting view:  Is there really any need for this, right now? The Orion and SLS are starting to look like dinosaurs, in an era when Elon Musk's Falcon and Dragon may lead to similar capabilities at far lower cost and several other private space ventures appear on the verge of bearing fruit, as well. When you get right down to it, almost anything humans can do at L2 can be done by robots and the biggest reason to go with humans is to justify the existence of Orion and SLS. Far mor interesting might be to actually start doing something interesting with the International Space Station!  Oh, but that's another story.

Spelunking Rover for the moon? I've met Willaim "Red" Whittaker, who wants to send robots probing lava tubes that we have reason to think may be up there, and that might be potentially great resources to serve as habitats for lunar stations. Serving on NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts advisory board, I helped appraise this cool concept.  The Moon isn't the only astronomical body that is pocked with holes. Pits on Mars, lined up like strung beads above what seem to be lava tubes, promise to reveal details about the planet's inner layers without the need for drilling holes. And underground caves on Mars could shelter ice deposits, or even remnants of life.

== While here on Earth... ==

Out of 13,950 peer-reviewed climate articles over 11 years, 24 rejected global warming. Most of the "papers" claiming to refute human generated climate change are issued by think tanks and not published in the competitive peer-reviewed  journals. Moreover, those think tanks are often politically affiliated and - in many cases - were formerly associated with similar obstruction-denial campaigns that delayed consensus about the disease causing effects of tobacco... or earlier, the smog causing effects of auto pollution.  The chief excuse offered by such folks, when shown the near universal scientific consensus?  That scientists are herd-creatures, timidly following each other and grubbing climate grants. Such apologists have never met scientists, who are the most competitive humans, ever. So what's the next excuse for inaction?

Do you think we in the USA live in times of exceptional danger and division and paranoia?  It ebbs and flows. Periods of reason seem to alternate with wild-eyed plotting and attempted putsches.  Watch this history video about the purported plot on 1934 to persuade Gen. Smedley Butler to lead an effective coup, modeled on Mussilini's black shirts, against the elected government of the U.S.

All political wings have raving lunatics like this.  And yes, they exist on the left, too! But there's a difference.  These guys are inside the Georgia State Legislature.  They are among its leaders. And their kind now chairs the House Science Committee.  The Science Committee.  Of the House of Representatives.  Of the United States of America.

Ah but let's move back from the ridiculous to the sublime.  Inspiring!  Poor kids playing instruments (mostly) made from recycled bits!

== Caribbean sojourn details ==

Though I have posted summaries over the last few weeks, here are some details from our trip. First we flew to Miami to board the Norwegian Cruise Line's flagship, The Pearl, for a 7-day "Not the End of the World" Caribbean cruise (our first cruise ever) featuring speeches and seminars by astronaut Steve Hawley, Mayan expert Inga Calvin, several astronomers including Erica Ellingson and Nick Schneider, Hollywood science-advisor/producers Kevin Grazier and Andre Bormanis, plus a pair of sci fi authors (Rob Sawyer & David) for onboard seminars and great astronomical fun. We marked this event deep within the Yucatan jungle, at Coba, climaxing with 200 skeptics climbing the second-highest Mayan Temple, defying the much ballyhooed completion of the Mayan calendrical b'ak'tun, greeting the winter solstice with the skeptics' incantation -- a headshake and a jocular "naaaaah!"

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd thus we appear to have succeeded at staving off the end of the world. And as Fox tells us, appearances are the same as absolute proof!  So you're welcome.

Oh but the trip wasn't all hard, planet-saving work. Cheryl and I also managed to appreciate the  Pearl, whose gracious chief engineer gave eight of us an exclusive tour of engines, purifiers and other systems. (Cruise ships are marvels: truly test beds for starships, as I depict in one novel.)

We also danced, tried parasailing and jet-skiing at a tiny Bahamas islet, and then, in Jamaica hiked up the mile-long Dunn's River cascade of waterfalls, went zip-lining and tube river-running. This was followed by more dancing, some eating, met a dolphin or two and then went wreck-snorkeling. Oh and some more eating and using the onboard gym and some more dancing. And eating.  They say you gain a pound a day on a cruise, but Cheryl and I just about broke even. Credit our busy schedule, I guess. Iron tourists!

Rob Sawyer and Carolyn Clink frequently joined us with Andre and Mishe and Kevin and Carrie, at meals featuring talk of ways to get mass media (mostly television and Internet, as film-Hollywood is moribund) back to focusing on cool new ideas and dramas that have content and punch.  Bormanis told us of his work - with Neil deGrasse Tyson -- on the new remake of Carl Sagan's brilliant old show COSMOS.  Sawyer described the rise and fall of Flashback, and Grazier had stories about Battlestar, Eureka, Falling Skies and several new projects in the works.

DSC_0100About a third of the participants were members of the popular online-podcast community Astronomy Cast, a lively bunch who gathered on the fantail many evenings to observe and discuss whatever was up in the sky.  Their hosts, Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay, added zest to daytime astronomical talks.

All told, it was a lovely gathering of science-fans, skeptics, individual thinkers and explorers, seeing things and doing thing they had never done before, expressing faith that the world will go on.

And now let me wish you all a terrific 2013.  And let's hope when the REAL 21st Century begins (centuries really start on their 14th year) it will be in great and positive directions.

About the author

David Brin’s novels have been translated into more than twenty languages, including New York Times Best-sellers that have won Hugo and Nebula awards. His latest, Existence, looks at the threats facing us forty years in the future. His 1989 thriller, Earth, foreshadowed cyber-warfare, the Web, and global warming. A 1998 Kevin Costner film was loosely adapted from the post-apocalyptic novel, The Postman. His book The Transparent Society (nonfiction) won the ALA Freedom of Speech Award.

This essay was reposted with permission from his Web site: Contrary Brin

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