Space…the final frontier

Most of the people I’ve spoken with about my mid-life decision to go back to school have sort of had an odd look on their face when I told them what I’d be getting a degree in. Once your over 30, the only thing you go to school for is an MBA or maybe a law degree…..maybe finish your PhD. Getting a degree in Astrophysics of all things really seems out from left field…..and it is.

I’ve been fascinated with space since I was little. I can remember television images of Skylab astronauts and I remember watching morning television of the first images to come back from the Viking I. I absorbed everything about astronauts and space that I could. When in high school, I tried to get an experiment on the space shuttle, but my teacher wasn’t very supportive of it, so it never happened. (My project by the way, was to test methane production from microbes. No clue if it has ever been done.)

After that, I got hooked on debate and followed a path that took me down the road of economics (which I still enjoy). Something always nagged at me for not taking physics classes in college. After college, I said if I had to do it all over I’d either a) debate hard core and screw my classes, or b) not debate at all and major in physics.

Now, sitting at the age of 34 I’m going to do what I have wanted to do since I was 7. Everyone regrets what they never did later in life. I figure this way I can remove one regret off the list.

On a related note, President Bush announced a new space program this week. I watched the speech live on NASA TV at Apple Valley. I don’t go into politics too much on this website, but I think I’ll touch on it some here.

I like the plan in spirit, but if I was in congress I wouldn’t vote for it.

This program is just going to be a longer, more expensive version of Apollo. We’ll go, land, say something profound, and come back. Whoever’s foot touches the Martian soil first will go in the history books. Whoever touches second will go in the footnotes.

Money for space should go where it will get the biggest bang for the buck. If we have grand visions of colonization and terraforming, the first step is going to be to find a cheap and efficient way to get into orbit. Until we do that, nothing else matters and anything else will be too expensive to do on a regular basis. One positive result of this might be getting momentum to finally scrap the shuttle. Its 30 year old technology. Its expensive to fly and hasn’t come close to meeting its goal of regular flights.

The most profitable thing in space right now are satellites. Anything that can make that cheaper and easier can be a business. Anything that can do that, is also the first step towards long term colonization of space. We’ve taken the metaphor of Columbus and other explorers way to literally. Space is not the Americas. For starters, the new world had an atmosphere and people already living there. It required no more energy to sail the Atlantic than it did to reach the far points of the known world. Getting out of orbit needs more than tall masts and sails.

Communication satellites, GPS, and remote sensing have more than proven the value of putting stuff in space. The priority now should be on being able to do that cheaply and easily. The space shuttle isn’t it. The path to Mars isn’t a base on the moon, its developing craft to shuttle between stations at various orbits. Its developing techniques for conducting large scale engineering in space. Its getting down pat all the stuff we need to do close to home.

In the mean time, there is plenty that can be done in the name of science without sending people to mars. As the technology improves, the cost of sending probes and landers all over the solar system should get cheaper. We’ve learned a great deal from Hubble, and more telescopes at Lagrangian points would be even better. This approach would result in significantly more science, at a substantially lower cost.

This program will not result in a permanent moon base. I say the odds are good we will never make it to mars in 20 years. We are going to be facing a big demographic crunch in the next 20 years, and we have no way to pay for it.

By Gary

3 dimples. 7 continents. 130 countries.