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Sunday, February 26, 2017

SETI: Part 4 Outer Space Policies

Okay, let's take stock of where we are today.  Something happened from "nothing" 13.8 billion years ago, currently known as the Big Bang, a theory--meaning this is not a fact--leading to what we are today.  Religions of the world have reacted, with Pope Pius XII in 1951 pronouncing that that concept does not conflict with the Catholic view of the creation.  Even Muslims have indicated that this new cosmology was foretold in the Quran.  Americans?  The Big Bang Theory sits near the top of Nielsen ratings, but MORE THAN HALF questions the reality of the theory.  In comparison, there are 3143 counties in the USA, and 63% think that global warming is happening.

Thus, the matter of who we are, where we came from and what next are speculations with no consensus.  Two-thirds of Americans have a sense that some form of alien life exists somewhere in the Universe.  So, while we can't quite accept how this all happened, most do feel that extraterrestrials exist.  However, they might be microscopic and not necessarily intelligent.  So many uncertainties, and I haven't even brought up the matter of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

Full of these uncertainties, then, what should Humanity do about the space around us?  Anything done in this near vacuum will be expensive, requiring an enormous energy expenditure and a treacherous return.  Satellites have proved to be profitable and convenient, but for good reason, the International Space Station is not manufacturing anything for earthly consumption.

However, 14 nations have worked well together on this $150 billion pink elephant.  Clearly, then, the highest priority for space is for all nations to work in partnership for the common good.  But we need to be a lot smarter on what we do together.  The United Nations?  Hope not.  Maybe something can be derived from the International Space Development Conference, which has been gathering now for more than a third of a century.  Next?  St. Louis.

A little more than a third of a century ago when I was working for U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga he (actually, written by a colleague, Harvey Meyerson--we and others shared the same room on a floor in a house across the street from the Hart Office Building) published The Mars Project:  Journeys Beyond the Cold War.  The book became available in 1986, providing time for the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to agree to a joint American-Russian manned mission to Mars by the Year 2000.  Matsunaga proposed 1992 as the International Space Year in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering America and the 75th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.  Well, the end of the Cold War ended those good intentions.

Today, the USA, European Union, China, India, Japan and Russia are in various stages of trying to one-up each other to take the lead in the quest towards outer space.  There is a lot of duplication and no direction.  There seems to be some higher interest in Mars now, as Man (only Americans) has already landed on the Moon.  But, as indicated yesterday, the motivation then had everything to do with winning the Cold War.  There is now no real reason for spending hundreds of billions for any space project.

Incidentally, here are the current top four space efforts:
  • #1  NASA Space Shuttle Program - $196 billion (135 missions from 1981 to 2011)
  • #2  International Space Station - $150 billion (the USA of course paid for most of this)
  • #3  Apollo Project - $25 billion (initially estimated to cost $7 million, reaching the moon in 1969, today worth between $150 billion and $600 billion, depending on your parameter of comparison)
  • #4  James Webb Space Telescope (right, above) - $8.7 billion (except the project started at $1 billion and should extend past $10 billion in its lifetime, with lift-off hoped for in 2018).
Wernher von Braun in 1962 published his version of The Mars Project.  President George Bush the Younger in 1989 reported it might cost from $400 billion to $500 billion for sending humans to Mars.  More recently,  multi-millionaire Dennis Tito founded the Inspiration Mars Foundation to launch a manned mission to Mars in January of next year, or 2021 if the deadline is missed.  Cost of mission?  $1 billion to $2 billion.  

Billionaire Elon Musk has been particularly active, and a few months ago announced that it will take $10 billion to develop the rocket, which could take 100 passengers to Mars every 26 months (when our two planets are closest) from 2024, at a cost between $100,000 and $200,000 for each passenger...and no doubt you will need to sign a waiver that you might not return, alive.  NASA works with Musk on various projects, but there doesn't seem to be much in common, for NASA has suggested that this will cost around $400 billion, and won't be attainable until 2060.

According to Business Insider, here are five undeniable reasons why we need to colonize Mars:
  • Ensure the survival of our species.  Yes, asteroids, but models are being perfected to catch potential life-changers several cycles before they get close to us.  An Andromeda strain?  Possible, but unlikely.  The best way to long-term peace is for countries to work together.
  • Discovering life on Mars.  Nothing close to life has thus far been found.  Say you go there and find microscopic life.  Great.   Maybe even monumental. Nice to know.  Now what?
  • Improve the quality of life on Earth.  Sure there are spin-offs, but this is an inefficient way to prioritize funds.
  • Growing as a species.  Makes sense to inspire the next generation, but not necessarily with $150 billion projects.  There are more cost-effective ways.
  • Demonstrating political and economic leadership.  Here is where current Mars initiatives are doomed:  there is no political imperative and, further, no possible profits to be gained.  A good example is the International Space Station, which has not produced even one commercial product.  Scan through this spinoffs report and see if you can find anything worthy of the $150 billion expense.
Thus, the simple solution for space is to form a truly international partnership, sharing expenses and benefits.  How much to budget?  Not much today, but a few billion dollars/year should be justifiable.  $1/person amounts to $7 billion/year.  Cost of F-35 fighter?  One trillion dollars, or $1000 billion.  Can common sense prevail this time?  Please.

What specific space projects should, then, be supported?  I provide several in Part 5.

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