Friday, September 30, 2016

On Becoming A Multi-Planet Species

On Tuesday, September 27, 2016, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk delivered a presentation to the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico that could have a significant impact on the human future in space. Musk introduced a bold plan for an Interplanetary Transport System that could allow for human settlement of Mars to begin, possibly within a decade (though Musk cautioned that timelines are not firm).

This plan is more than a conceptual study, but is based on engineering development already carried out by SpaceX of a huge booster and spacecraft capable of carrying 100 passengers comfortably to Mars on a single trip.. The company has already begun hardware development of some components, revealing pictures of employees standing next to a giant liquid oxygen tank that would be part of the vehicle.

The presentation (PDF here) focused mostly on the means of transportation to get the settlers to the Red Planet. Musk said that while SpaceX will be making substantial investments in the project, he expects that it will take partnerships with other industrial partners and government agencies to accomplish this daring venture. Perhaps he is counting on partners to develop the infrastructure needed to sustain the settlers on their new planetary home.

SpaceX is already partnering with NASA on commercial cargo and crew to the International Space Station and on the planned unmanned Red Dragon mission to Mars. However, this project is so huge it dwarfs NASA'a own Journey to Mars program, providing unique challenges to a partnership.

This kind of undertaking is certainly high risk. There are a number of challenges, including technical, financial, and human factors to be addressed. There may be serious political challenges from those with vested interests and some with ideological motives.

One thing about Elon Musk is that when he sets his mind on an audacious goal, he has the drive to get it done (though maybe not on his originally announced timeline). Also, Musk is not alone with the vision for human expansion into space. Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin space company recently announced plans for a large new rocket (and a hint of a larger one to come) openly shares his vision "I want millions of people living and working in space. I want us to be a spacefaring civilization." And other visionary entrepreneurs are pursuing ventures in developing space habitats, mining the Moon and asteroids, space tourism, etc.

These developments are leading to the expansion of humanity beyond Earth with profound implications for economic growth, national and international security, and cultural development. We live at a time when our civilization is at great peril, and at the same time there is much promise for the future.

Video illustration of SpaceX's Interplanetary Transport System carrying people to Mars

Video of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk presenting the plan at IAC2016

Sunday, September 11, 2016

In Remembrance of September 11, 2001, Fifteen Years Later

U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael W. Pendergrass

Fifteen years ago today, I overheard a coworker down the hall from my office telling someone else about planes hitting the World Trade Center. I checked in on the Internet and on news radio for reports on what would develop into the the modern era's day of infamy. We know of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but there was also the attack that did not occur because of the heroic actions of the passengers on United Flight 93.

Fifteen years of daily living, along with increasing domestic rancor, may have dimmed the feelings of shock, horror, and outrage and the response of prayer, compassion, and resolve that united the people of America and most of the world. However, the current horrific events in the Middle East and the recent attacks around the world and here in America serve to remind us that the threat is still real. We must not allow complacency or political correctness to distract us from recognizing the reality of the current danger.

This anniversary stirs abundant remembrance and reflection and many stirring pictorial and video items have appeared on the web and on Facebook. I still find this audio/visual Internet presentation developed by a New Yorker shortly after the attacks as one of the most powerful portrayals of those times. The sequence is ~15 minutes long and some of the images and sounds are quite disturbing, others are inspirational. (Use the browser View/Zoom function and adjust the scroll bar to enlarge the slide show.)

It is important that we remember, not only to honor those who died and those who acted heroically that day, but to remain constantly aware of the ongoing and growing dangers, of the presence of real evil in the hearts of some people, and to maintain constant vigilance and a determination to defeat this evil. Finally, we must always remember to trust in God and his mercy during trying times. The story of the cross formed by two beams found among the ruins of the twin towers is recounted here.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

OSIRIS-REx Boldly Goes to asteroid Bennu

Photo credit: NASA/Sandy Joseph and Tim Terry

The NASA OSIRIS-REx  mission was successfully launched Thursday evening on its multi-year mission to scout the asteroid Bennu and retrieve a sample of that body that will be returned to Earth in 2023. The mission could reveal valuable information information about the development of the Solar System and will also provide technical and operational expertise beneficial to future scientific and commercial asteroid missions.

By a coincidence of celestial mechanics, the launch occurred on the 50th anniversary of the TV broadcast of the first episode of the original Star Trek series. So this mission began its journey to boldly go where no man-made robotic spacecraft has gone before!