Sunday, February 12, 2017
Hoping for Something Better
Very rarely do I ever sing the praises of any soulless multinational corporation. Truthfully, I can't remember the last time I said anything positive about such entities, but right now that's beside the point. Given the total crapfest of an era we find ourselves living, the current situation requires that everyone not caught up in the rabid and inbred delusion of “Making America Great Again” should do whatever it takes to preserve some sort of personal hope for the future. For me personally the hope that I am carefully nursing comes in the form of moving beyond our society's self imposed limits on imagination. Americans once dreamed of tomorrow, that something new and better might lift us all up, not just a narrow self righteous segment so fearful of the world and even fellow citizens that they would willingly sacrifice the principles that made the United States special in the first place.
Call me foolish, trust me I'm all to use to that accusation and much worse, but the soulless Boeing Company recent unveiled its new and greatly improved spacesuit, which will be used with its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft that should, hopefully, begin manned service in late 2018. No, I'm not talking anything as grandiose as some sort of sudden Golden Age of scientific adventure going back to the moon and beyond, more like a small step towards building an infrastructure that our kids and grandkids can expand. My chief hope is that returning Americans to space might just jolt a few people to consider the future again and not be satisfied with our stagnate reality.
Ever since the space shuttle was retired, right after the completion of the International Space Station, Americans have been forced to buy rides up into orbit from the goddamn Russians. Making matters worse, Putin has made sure we've paid through the ass for the privilege of going into space on a system that hasn't had an upgrade since the 1970's. Don't get me wrong, that last sentence isn't meant as an insult towards the Soyuz spacecraft for two reasons. The first being that the damn thing works and does its job by sending humans up into orbit and bringing them down again safely. The second being that while I do not like Russians, at least they didn't mothball their one access into low Earth orbit before having a working replacement. While I would welcome George W. Bush back in a New York minute, given the insane narcissist now living in the White House, he and his administration are the ones to blame for the fact we're shelling out fifty to seventy million an astronaut for rides to the ISS.
Digressing even further, retiring America's only manned spaceflight system was the right decision. Despite the Buck Rogers glamour of the space shuttle, it was a cumbersome system that never lived up to the promise of those who envisioned a relatively cheap and reusable spacecraft that would ultimately allow humans a way to expand civilization to Earth orbit and beyond. If my memory serves me correctly, the space shuttle cost about a billion dollars to launch on each mission and was so technically complicated it's a wonder it ever go off the launchpad. The fact that out of just one-hundred thirty-five missions two of them ended disastrously resulting in the death of both crews is a statement on the inherent danger of that system. I not going soft on George W. but you can't really blame him for bungling the development of its replacement. A shortsighted and incompetent congress and the general sense of apathy from a banal American public carry the majority of the blame for the inability to look beyond the static here and now. George W's biggest fault was that the replacement system his administration purposed looked simple on paper but was criminally underfunded and in truth, was more a haphazard afterthought.
While Boeing's Starliner looks more or less like the old Apollo missions capsule it will be able to take seven people consisting of five passengers and two crew up to low Earth orbit. While the Starliner principle destination will be the ISS, Boeing is working with Bigelow Aerospace to develop its B330 expandable space habitat. A single habitat will have three hundred thirty cubic meters of pressurized volume and be able to support six human occupants. Start linking these habitats together and you are soon looking at some serious living space up in Earth orbit that can be used for microgravity research, space tourism. Add some form of engine and the B330 becomes a spacecraft that can be sent on missions back to the moon and Mars. Needless to say, the really neat thing about the B330 is that it is sent up into orbit in one piece then essentially inflated to its full volume greatly reducing the time for construction and the inherent dangers involved with such endeavors. As far as the space tourism things goes, yes at first it will be restricted to the super rich, all I can say is that you've got to start somewhere and I'm not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Boeing is not alone in the buildup to returning Americans to space. The SpaceX Corporation, lead by Elon Musk, has its own manned spacecraft, Dragon 2, which will sending astronauts to the ISS about the same time as Boeing. Musk's Falcon 9 rocket does have one huge advantage over the models Boeing and its partners launch, namely that they can fly back and softly land back on Earth allowing them to be refurbished and reused, thus greatly reducing the cost of putting people and material into space. That amazing procedure goes a long way to making Musk's ultimate dream of establishing a permanent human colony on the planet Mars possible.
For me establishing a branch of human civilization on another planet or moon is the ultimate reason for pursuing a safe, cheap, and reliable means to get to low Earth orbit. I could name off several reasons why I want this to happen but it all boils down to the idea that I believe our current global civilization is totally unsubstantial. The rampant environmental destruction and resource depletion that is endemic in this era, along with over seven billion humans all wanting, justifiably, a better life for themselves and their children will eventually push the planet beyond its means of supporting our civilization. Whether this means a collapse along the lines of what happened at the end of the Mediterranean Bronze Age or the end of the western Roman Empire or even the extinction of human life I have no idea.
I don't necessarily view any off-planet human society as just an insurance policy for our species continued existence. What I would like to see is something along the lines of what happened with the European colonization of North America. Yes, what was done to the Native American societies that had existed on this continent for thousands of years by European colonizers is a crime that can never be rectified or excused. What the colonization of North America did for civilization was to give the ideas formed during the European Renaissance and Enlightenment a chance to flourish away from the entrenched powers of intrusive religion and hereditary aristocracy. Yes, the development of North America was an ugly affair that chewed up the innocent and powerless but while the ends can never justify the means I do believe the liberal democracies of the world are the offspring of that process.
I believe the establishment of human civilizations on other bodies in the solar system like the moon, Mars, and asteroids could do the same. The sheer fact that survival on incredibly harsh environments would force a level of cooperation and rational thought that can't happen on a planet dominated by ancient hates, powerful wealthy men intent on protecting their positions, and ingrained, willful ignorance by those without any vision. Do I view Boeing as some sort of savior of humanity, of course not, it is a multinational corporation out to protect its shareholders, often at the expense of it workers and society in general. But it does have the scientific know-how and resources to develop the means for something incredible to be born in the coming decades. For that reason I am forced to give them a limited pass on being complete A-holes. Yes, this does open the door to the ends justifying the means but I have never belonged to the group of self-righteous progressives who would rather commit suicide than work within a system that can be reformed and give birth to something far better.