Sunday, July 20, 2014

Happy Apollo Anniversary

It's amazing that forty five years after the Apollo Moon missions began, the only humans that are in space are orbiting the Earth. We haven’t broken out beyond the Earth's gravitational well since the end of the Apollo era, decades ago! How can that be? It seems so outrageous that it has spawned a whole culture of nonbelievers – people who think we never actually went to the Moon to begin with. That would be a blog in itself. There are all kinds of political reasons and organizational missteps to explain why we haven't gone back to the Moon through our government program. That would also deserve a separate blog. 

Another big reason, which most people probably don't realize, is that we're not even technically ready to go back – that is, if we plan on staying a while. For instance, the Apollo spacesuits could only last for a number of hours before the super-fine, sharp-edged lunar dust would adhere to the space suits. The longest period of time any Apollo astronaut spent on the Moon was three days, so it wasn't an insurmountable issue. But if we want to stay indefinitely, or even for more than a week it is one of many technical issues that still need to be worked out. 

Technology-wise, interplanetary rockets and vehicles may turn out to be the "easy" part. The harder part in our quest to get humans into space permanently will be preparing for planetary surface operations. There are many areas in need of more research and development including long range traverse planning, surface EVA's, robotics, drilling techniques, communications, fuel and oxygen generation, harvesting water, telemedicine, habitats, and human stress factors, to name just a few. Future planetary astronauts will be doing geology and other physical activities and will need suits that are flexible enough to easily bend over and pick up rocks. Suits will need to be more in tune with the environment so that they can withstand the harsh and clingy dust for vastly longer periods of time. 

I've been involved with the Mars Institute and their Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) since 2003. The program has its high point each Summer on an uninhabited cold desert island called Devon Island in the Canadian High Arctic, where they work on all of these technical challenges and more. Most Summers I have the fun job of following the scientists and engineers around, documenting and interviewing them (but not this Summer since I have a one year old). It amazes me to see the vast amount of details that the HMP is working on each year. After having this inside view of the long list of technical challenges at hand, I can't imagine how we can ever go to any other planet without knowing a whole lot more than we do now.

But Apollo was not meant to grow or develop into anything longer term, necessarily. It had very clear goals: to set the proper intimidating tone in the world climate that existed then, and to inspire individuals to get into math and engineering and space activism. It worked! And in a sense, a lot grew out of it, but it was more like one giant puff of wonderful fruit that spun off, as opposed to a steady and continuing growth. 

The Apollo program is one of the most extreme examples of the two sided coin of our human abstract thinking. On the one side, Apollo was the epitome of the creative human endeavor. Creativity is human abstract thinking at its finest! On the other, it was the epitome of our flat, Euclidean thinking; the aspect of abstract thought that is usually where we go wrong with so many areas in life. We planted rectangular flags on cylindrical sticks on flat parts of the Moon as a powerful psychological symbol, but we didn’t build any foundation for growth. No infrastructure was laid for future missions.  

“Foundation for growth” may sound cliche, but with no foundation there is no growth. No one thinks they have started a business just because they have procured transportation and hung some banners.

Only recently has it become a viable conquest to get into space through the private sector. I personally know hundreds of space nuts who literally lost sleep over laws and regulations that hindered the private space industry for so long. Several years ago the government finally lifted regulations on launching and landing just enough for some things to squeeze through and happen. In the last several years we have seen huge milestones in getting humans to space privately. At last there is a new industry and spaceflight is no longer exclusively in the realm of government. Now there are numerous companies with serious plans in the works to orbit the Earth and even go beyond; maybe even all the way to Mars. It's only a matter of time. 

So I don’t lose as much sleep over whether humanity will eventually become spacefaring beyond the Earth, like I did in the 1990s and early 2000‘s. I have confidence in the Elon Musks of the world, and even the much smaller yet potent ventures in the works. But I still worry, since, like I said, we are nowhere near ready to send humans back to the Moon for long periods of time, much less to any other planetary surface any day soon. 

Even our struggling economy, in general, matters for our future in space. It is just hard to imagine a spacefaring civilization springing forth out of a dismal, stifled economy. And the politics of government space is frustrating to follow since it is filled with irony and illogic (as much as any other field). An ongoing joke is that Democrats only seem to want a free market above the Earth's atmosphere and Republicans only seem to want it below. Yet another reason to lean Libertarian.

Politics and worry aside, it is still so hard to grasp that we did this over four decades ago...





… And how long will it be until we get cool high definition footage of humans on rovers bouncing around and kicking up Martian dust? That's what little boys and girls, and even grown ups, want to see!