August 13, 2012

Profits and payloads

The International Space Station is finally being put to practical use. NASA's Commercial Crew Program has awarded contracts to Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, and Boeing to develop commercial systems to ferry astronauts to low Earth orbit.

The only thing to go to in low Earth orbit is the ISS (other than the Hubble servicing missions, which actually did have great scientific value).

NASA should have headed in this direction a decade ago. But as Jim Muncy quips, "Democrats don't think that capitalism works within the atmosphere, and Republicans apparently don't think it works above it." Well, better late than never.

Because the commercial route is the only sensible way to go for manned spaceflight.

If you tune into NASA TV before and during an unmanned space mission, you'll see scientists and engineers talking about what the program is supposed to accomplish, how it will get done, and how success will be measured in clear, empirical terms.

I've never seen anything like that with the ISS, other than billion-dollar Show & Tell sessions with elementary school classes. Forget science. The State Department should take over the ISS, as it seems a decent way to foster international relations.

Though the very healthy vig Russia now takes for doing the "fostering" was a big motivation in getting the private sector back into the game. And who knows what the Russians will do once those millions stop flowing? I recommend inviting the Chinese.

So we return to my original point.

Newt Gingrich was the most cogent of the goofball Republican candidates, but his "Man on the Moon" flights of fancy were just plain nuts. He couldn't even come up with a lame scientific reason for going there, like building a big radio telescope.

The same goes for Mars.

To people who rhapsodize about "colonizing Mars," I recommend they colonize Antarctica first, as it's a billion times more friendly to human habitation. Or to get the full experience, camp out near one of the old uranium mines around Moab, Utah.

Minus the vegetation, Moab does kind of look like Mars.

Mars doesn't have a molten core and no magnetic field. The solar wind strips away the atmosphere and cosmic rays bombard the surface. You'd have to live underground to shield yourself from the radiation. How is that better than looking at an HD screen?

The worst place on Earth beats anywhere else in the solar system by light years.

If "discovering life" is the goal, Robert Park is exactly correct. You can't put human beings into any environment where you hope to find life without irrevocably contaminating it. Land a man on Mars and we will indeed colonize it--with E. coli.

About 100 trillion bacteria live in and on every healthy human being.

Unlike the science done by robots like Curiosity, NASA's role in human space exploration has come and gone. The same way trappers and traders "opened" the American West after Lewis & Clark, it's time for capitalism to again go where no man has gone before.

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