Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Rational, Science Based Space Program - Part 1

This blog entry was originally to be titled "An Open Letter to the President Elect" but, for two reasons, I retitled it. First off, the multi-part thing just didn't fit the open letter format. I mean, did I really think Obama would read my blog? And more than one entry, particularly at the current pace of production? No way.

Secondly, I wanted to make it clear from the outset that this wasn't a political entry. Not really, at least. It wasn't going to have anything to do with cabinet posts, inauguration day speakers, or any of the other stuff about which people seem inclined to express their opinions at the president elect.

Oh, and I find the phrase "president elect" horribly ungainly. Which, given my sentence structures, is probably saying something.

What this blog is about is space science. And, therefore, at least a little bit about politics. Because, while I will generally steer clear of the whole Griffin-at-NASA thing, a certain degree of politicality is inevitable. But more on that later.

This blog is a suggestion, a plea even, for a well thought out, science based space program. I have some very specific thoughts on what this means -- right down to what missions should get funded. And, frankly, I'd like to be put in charge of this project. Just give me $24 billion. I'll lay the plan out.

As I worked on this entry, I realized that if I wanted it to avoid turning in to a space geek's fantasy laundry list of rocket launches and space missions, I'd need to make the underlying rational clear. And that forced me into a length that well exceeded the patience of even my most devoted readers (who are family members, so you should get the idea I could go on about this for a very, very long time, particularly if whiskey is involved). So today we begin with Part One: what exactly do I mean when I talk about a science based space program.

Well, and I say this partially because I love building suspense, it'll take some time to get there.

I posit that there are five reasons for space exploration. These reasons could apply globally, to an entire national space program or effort, or to a single launch or mission. They can mix and combine and share the drive behind a particular project. An given project can see its genesis in one reason but bear fruit along another axes. Things are complicated. But five reasons is a nice place to start with.

images.jpgNumber One: Achievement
John Kennedy invoked the sense of challenge when he commissioned the high point of American space flight, the Apollo moon landings. The reason was simple: the moon was there, landing a man there was (barely) achievable, and it was a great way to try and compete with the then surging Soviet space effort. The result was a galvanizing technical (and emotional) effort, a great deal of national pride, and a moderate amount of science. Apollo was great. But it was done (to paraphrase Sir Edmond Hillary) "because it was there."

Number Two: Function
Spy satellites, communications satellites, weather satellites all do useful things. They may not be glamorous, and they rarely break tremendous new ground, but they get the job done. Workmanlike, they bring home the results, civilian, military, public sector or private sector.

Number Three: Enabling
Sometimes you do something so that you can actually do something else. Sometimes you spend a great deal of effort building a jig. The jig itself is uninteresting, but the chair that it yields is beautiful. The American Gemini program did this in space -- it taught us how to fly, spacewalk, maneuver, and troubleshoot in the vacuum of space. The Space Shuttle was marketed as a utility truck much along these lines once, and the current International Space Station is often sold as a tool to help us learn how to survive and construct in space.

Number Four: Exploration
Gene Roddenberry, this is your moment. The bold going. Or going boldly. The Pioneers and Voyagers, heading off into regions unknown, to see what has never been seen before. Details are not important -- for every byte of returned information contains precious sights of the here to fore unknown.

Number Five: Science
The explorers set forth with no questions, only open eyes. The scientists set forth with questions, ideas, and theories. They seek explanation and understanding, they want verification or refutation, they require detail and precision. They may find the unknown or unexpected, but they set off not with an empty mind, but a mind full of questions.

Alright, so those are my five. It once started as three, but Enabling and Function appeared as late additions. None of these descriptions are intended to be praising or critical, merely descriptive. For all things can be good in the right time and place. And what, then, is good at this time and place?

Well, let's take a look at Achievement. That one, basically, is politics. It is about doing something (or doing something before someone else does it) for reasons related to motivation, goal setting, national pride, international relations. I am not a politician and do not pretend to a degree of competence or awareness of the full complexities of the international arena beyond that of the average moderately well read adult. And so I check out of this one. Politicians, make your choices. But this is not an area where I will make the call.

And with that goes manned space flight. Sorry, everybody. People aren't part of my program. They are too expensive for what you get back. Great thrills, beautiful video, and a truly motivating and empowering feeling when done right. But the price and the risks are too great to justify human space flight for any reason other than that of Achievement (or politics).

Function is pretty good -- but not with people. I'm tired of the circular logic of a manned space program that justifies its own existence with the endless loop of providing more understanding of how to allow humans to fly in space. Why? What is the point? What is the point of learning how to get people to survive in space for two or five years unless you are really going to Mars. And let's get real. Not happening, that one.

But functional unmanned space flight is doing great. It is very well established by government, military, and commercial agencies.

Exploration is another noble reason that struggles in today's reality. Exploration is about the low hanging fruit in some senses -- you have so little information about something that you are excited to get even a basic glimpse. The implication is that the technological act of getting there is where the challenge lies. Problem is, we've got all the good getting in this regard. Except Pluto and, thank you Allan Stern, New Horizons is on the way and doing great.

Which leaves us science. The serious quest to understand our universe (and a few other things). Not helter-skelter pursuit of goals that look or sound good. But the systematic quest for the deep, subtle, and profound knowledge of how things work. The universe, life, and our planet.

And so from that final remaining reason, we must move on. But first, to review:

Achievement: too political, too expensive (if manned)
Function: already well handled by others
Enabling: only worthwhile if stepping stone to legitimate goals
Exploration: most reachable stuff has been done
Science: bingo!

images-1.jpgSo what is this science based program supposed to be about, then? How do we make sure we stay on that particular target and don't go wandering into another one. Well, for starters, some wandering is going to happen. Apollo, while a clearly achievement based project proved to be very enabling and did a great deal of exploring. So we accept that.

Secondly, devise a clear definition of what sort of goals we want to achieve. Write these goals down in large letters. And make sure that anything you pick fits within this charter.

Now, for my sake, I admit that this was a case of backing into a definition. Because honestly, I found this was one of those things that, like the old joke about pornography, I may not be able to define, but I know it when I see it. But I wrangled and experimented and finally defined myself a set of three goals that express the ideals of the rational, science based space program. In forming this definition I wanted to avoid the trap of forming a laundry list, a long rambling list of commas and (God forbid) semicolons. I wanted a single, elegant, coherent statement. If you can't break it down (whatever it happens to be) into a single sentence, then you have a problem.

To understand our universe, our planet, and the place of life in the cosmos.

And there you have it. One sentence and with fairly few commas. It works better with three, though:

Understand our universe, its origin, evolution, and nature.
Understand our planet, the forces acting on it, and the changes it is undergoing.
Understand the origins of life, life-bearing systems, and the potential for life to exist elsewhere in the cosmos.

I also gave myself a tidy (if arbitrary) limit of ten missions that I could fly. They should all be achievable by the end of the next decade (2020). And they should fit within a budget of $20 billion ($2 billion each, on average) including launch, support services, margins, and a well crafted outreach and education program.

The resulting ten missions span a range of deep space explorers and earth orbiting environmental probes. They include telescopes, radars, balloons, and sample return capsules. They are based on missions that NASA or ESA has studied or is studying for implementation within my timeframe. Later entries will go into further detail, but here is a preview.

A probe to retrieve and return a pound worth of cometary matter to Earth -- providing a potential insight into the building blocks from which our solar system (and life on Earth) arose.

A probe to explore the outer layers of the Sun, diving into the solar corona to better understand the mechanisms responsible for transporting the Sun's energy and triggering solar storms.

A probe to the complex Saturn system and its moons of Enceladus and Titan, both potential sources of rich and exotic prebiotic chemistry.

A satellite to study chemical processes in the Earth's atmosphere with unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution to better understand the mechanisms that generate, transport, and sink atmospheric constituents (including pollutants).

A satellite to measure the shape and texture of Earth's surface, providing increased awareness of geologic processes, moisture content and migration (including ice thicknesses), and biosphere composition.

A satellite to observe the Earth's land and seas as well as atmospheric images-2.jpgwater and aerosols to better understand weather cycles and the chemical and biological activity of the deep sea and coastal regions.

An observatory to monitor the faint temperature and polarization shifts in the faint cosmic microwave background, probing for traces of the first infinitesimal moments of the universe's history.

An observatory to search for rocky worlds in 300 nearby star systems and to characterize their masses, orbits, temperatures, and atmospheres - including potential markers of biological activity.

An observatory to map thousands of square degrees of the sky to a depth and detail only previously seen in pinpoint images less than 1/300th of a square degree, yielding insight into the evolution of the universe and the nature of dark energy.

An observatory to image the most dramatic and high energy sources and events in the universe in x-rays, probing the physics of these challenging points where quantum theory and relativity collide.

As for the rest of the details, I'll have more for you soon.

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