Sunday, December 6, 2015

Wanna Be a Space Cadet?

Elon Musk (Tesla) is mounting a privatized space program, Jeff Bezos (Amazon) is testing recoverable rockets and NASA is a very big participant in staffing and maintaining year-long missions to that International Space Station hovering above. We are fascinated with space travel, the potential of building new colonies on other planets for every reason from resource exploitation to housing an exploding population that is running out of room here on earth.
We love space-directed entertainment, like productions such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Armageddon, The Right Stuff, Gravity, The Martian (pictured above), Battlestar Gallatica, etc., etc.  We gaze up at stars, study astrophysics and astronomy, cherish astronauts as celebrities, and even as Congress continues to slash and burn our research and NASA budgets, space (“the final frontier”) is the center of so much of American technology, such a big part of the American vision, a sign of what we can and will do.
As Russian, Chinese, Japanese, European, Indian scientists join with American explorers, space intrigues us all. As the opening remarks above note there is a growing segment of private industry reaching to make up for governmental pull-backs in budgets for such exploration. One such effort, a six billion (enough?) effort emanating from Holland, is targeting a long-term mission to Mars, but whether or not this happens has yet to be seen.
“Mars One is a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands that has proposed to land the first humans on Mars and establish a permanent human colony there by 2027. The private spaceflight project is led by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, who announced the Mars One project in May 2012. The project's schedule, technical and financial feasibility, as well as ethics have been criticized by scientists, engineers and those in the aerospace industry.
“Mars One's original concept included launching a robotic lander and orbiter as early as 2016 to be followed by a human crew of four in 2022. Organizers plan for the crew to be selected from applicants who paid an administrative fee, to become the first permanent residents of Mars with no plan of returning to Earth. Partial funding options include a proposed reality television program documenting the journey. In February 2015, the primary contractors stopped the initial studies.” Wikipedia.
Whether this dream becomes a reality, sooner or later, human beings will lift themselves to other planets with Mars being at the top of the list. “NASA is aiming to send a crew to the Martian surface by the 2030s, the latest iteration of a plan proposed by President George H. W. Bush in 1989. But despite the publicity generated by the recent box-office success of ‘The Martian,’ experts say serious technical challenges remain, and NASA’s flat budget won’t pay for a Mars mission.” The Washington Post, November 23rd. Perhaps… or not quite yet?
Our budget cuts have also pulled back on one additional, very critical aspect of space exploration, one we are just beginning to appreciate as astronauts spend a year or so in space: medical risk. “[The] reality [of manned space exploration] is less glamorous, with journeys into deep space posing serious dangers to astronauts that include inadequate food, radiation exposure and heightened risks of developing cancer and other maladies. And NASA is not yet ready to handle those dangers as it moves ahead with plans to send the first human mission to Mars by the 2030s, according to a recent audit.
“NASA inspector general Paul K. Martin found that the legendary space agency ‘faces significant challenges’ ensuring the safety of any Mars-bound astronauts,  and that its schedule to limit the risks is overly ‘optimistic.’ As a result, he said, Mars crews likely will have to accept more risks to their health and safety than their predecessors who went to the moon and work in the International Space Station.
“‘NASA has taken positive steps to address the human health and performance risks inherent in space travel,’ Martin wrote in the 48-page report. He added: ‘Long duration missions will likely expose crews to health and human performance risks for which NASA has limited effective countermeasures. … Accordingly, the astronauts chosen to make at least the initial forays into deep space may have to accept a higher level of risk than those who fly International Space Station missions.’
“A spokeswoman for NASA referred questions to the agency’s response contained in the report, which said it concurred with Martin’s recommendations for improvement, such as ensuring that cost estimates for steps to better protect astronauts are accurate. ‘NASA has been working in all of these areas for some time,’ the agency wrote. ‘Thus, the report represents a validation of, rather than a correction to, NASA’s … plans and the challenges ahead.” The Post.
The research from our past NASA efforts have generated vast new technologies, incredible knowledge about who and what we are and the spin-off economic opportunities once pushed the United States to the forefront of modern scientific achievement, creating millions of new jobs along the way. We shall and must solve the above challenges and continue to fund one of the greatest sources of pride and opportunity in American history.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the move to understand worlds beyond is not a frivolous and wasteful expenditure of taxpayer money but a very solid investment in our future for oh-so-many rewards and reasons.

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