Log in

No account? Create an account
Sauntering Vaguely Downward [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat

Serious Business | Flickr
Bounty Information | Wanted Dead or Alive: Mad Scientess Nanila
Deeds of Derring-Do | Full of Wild Inaccuracies and Exaggerations

NASA celebrates 50th! Sorta. [20080805|09:49]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
[Tags|, ]

NASA reaches 50 with pioneer spirit lost

So instead of jumping up and down about all the marvelous things achieved by the unmanned space programmes in the past 50 years, what does this article do? It picks on the manned space programme.

...Mars may be an impractical target, even with political commitment and the deployment of immense financial and technical resources, according to some experts – because of a problem usually overlooked by manned space enthusiasts.

“I do not see any way for a human being to make even a one-way trip to Mars, let alone come back again, because radiation levels on the flight would be too high,” said Steven Schwartz, professor of space physics at Imperial College London. “It is hard to see how you could protect against it.”

Nice one, Steve. Way to rain on everyone's parade. Okay, okay, so he's right, but still. And he's one of those traitorous Americans who chooses to work for a foreign institution. Er, sort of like someone else I know. *shifty eyes*

[User Picture]From: thalassius
2008-08-05 13:34 (UTC)
So? It's hard now, but I'm reminded of the Astronomer Royal's proclamation in 1957: 'Space travel is utter bilge'.

Whenever someone says an idea is "bilge" (which, I suppose, is British for "baloney"), you must first ask whether it violates any well-tested laws of physics. If so, the idea is likely to be bilge. If not, the only challenge is to find a clever engineer — and, of course, a committed source of funding. - Neil deGrasse Tyson

I assume you know him, and I don't, so please correct me if I'm reading too much into this, but I've observed that the people involved who don't see the point of manned exploration, and don't want to make the effort to solve the problems, have physics or astronomy backgrounds. No-one who'd studied geology seriously would think they could understand an area - or a planet - without fieldwork, an area in which human field geologists beat rovers hands-down. And anyone who doesn't get the value of fieldwork naturally isn't going to see the point of spending a lot of effort and money solving the problems which currently make it impractical. We could have decided not to bother with developing probes able to deal with the distance and radiation environments of the outer Solar System, because it was quite difficult. Would that have been the right decision?

It was Voyager, not Apollo, which got me into planetary science, so I know the inestimable value of the unmanned program. I don't deny that there's a challenge facing the manned program, but I take issue with his implication that it's not worth tackling.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-08-05 15:31 (UTC)
Your observation about physicists/astronomers vs. geologists intrigues me. As a chemist, I have the perspective that rover exploration is vital for the study of any planet's surface in terms of composition, but it wouldn't occur to me necessarily to take the next step and insist on field work. However, considering how primitive robotics development still is, I can see why humans trump rovers for surface exploration - and humans operating rovers trump both.

I'd say Prof. Schwartz isn't against manned exploration. I understand that the technology to cope with radiation protection at Mars is probably a good decade away from being operational, but as you say, I don't believe that means it's not worth attempting, so I'm a bit sad to see what strikes me as a dismissive and facile comment from him.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: thalassius
2008-08-07 08:53 (UTC)
We might be a decade from viable radiation protection, but at a guess we're at least a century from having something better than field geologists with rovers. Particularly since, with the time lag, a remote-controlled robot isn't going to need just the mobility and decision-making speed of a field geologist, it'll need AI equivalent to the field geologist as well. In which case we're in a whole different ballgame.

I can't think of any area of physics where sending a person is better than sending an instrument, so it's not surprising physicists and astronomers would be sceptical; on the other hand, I don't think it's too much to expect those involved in planetary exploration to appreciate that a closely allied branch of science has its own, very different methodology.

I wonder whether the fact that geology is a small (in terms of number of practitioners) and not particularly high-profile branch of science, while physics is perhaps the most high-profile, leads to a situation where most geologists have a vague idea what physics is and what physicists do, while most physicists are more likely to have problems remembering that geology exists. Hell, four years ago I knew essentially nothing about it, and I'm studying it. I've had quite a few questions from undergrads in physics lectures along the lines of 'so what do you actually do?'. Even if academics are better informed (and those working in planetary exploration ought to be), it might be that the gap in basic understanding is much larger than, say, between physics and chemistry or biochemistry.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: scanner_darkly
2008-08-05 15:38 (UTC)
Nooo! But, but...all that science fiction I read as a kid made me think it was possible!
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-08-05 15:49 (UTC)
I'm sure it will be, just not any time soon. I still think low-earth-orbit tourism will probably become affordable during our lifetimes. Assuming we don't blow ourselves up first, of course.

I think there are still lot of pretty big and unsolved problems with manned space travel. First, there's the radiation issue. Generally we built spacecraft knowing that they're going to suffer heavy bombardment, but don't worry too much about permanent damage as they'll eventually be allowed to die out there. Second, for unmanned missions, we worry about keeping our instruments warm, but they're still well below temperatures that would keep a human, er, alive. The power consumption required to keep a human alive, even if asleep, is going to be astronomical in comparison to the instruments, which we can keep in "sleep" mode (e.g. extremely cold) while the spacecraft cruises out to the planet. And finally, when we build spacecraft for unmanned extraplanetary missions, we don't have to worry about getting them back. That's a lot of extra power, both for the return journey and again, to keep the human alive during cruise.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: enterlinemedia
2008-08-05 16:55 (UTC)
would there be a way for science to deal with the radiation problem by creating energy fields to protect a ship from radiation like the ozone layer protects us from it or a way for radiation to be chemically treated by pills? Those are the questions that should be explored by scientists.

I think those are the two most interesting ways to tackle the raiation problem. Also scientists could find a way to line the inside of the spaceship hull against radiation (another solution to work on).

I rather see people heading to Mars instead of another trip to the moon.
(Reply) (Thread)