Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: The Case for Mars

Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, popularized an exploration plan called Mars Direct in his 1996 book The Case for Mars. The book is organized coherently, with the earlier chapters focused on getting to Mars and the later ones discussing colonization and terraformation. It is largely a reaction against a 1989 NASA study, often called the "90-Day Study", which laid out a plan to get humans to the Red Planet. This plan involved sending a single, massive spaceship that would carry with it all necessary supplies, and would follow a trajectory through the highly irradiated neighborhood of Venus—all at a cost of around $450 billion.

The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin bookRead more reviews on AmazonIn The Case for Mars, Zubrin compares the spacecraft architecture of the 90-Day Study to the enormous ships, backed by the British Admiralty, of Sir John Franklin's failed attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage in 1845. The essence of Mars Direct, on the other hand, is to explore Mars like the more successful Europeans explored the Arctic. These expeditions embraced the resources and ways of the local environment, for instance by using dog sleds for travel. A central feature of Mars Direct is to use the indigenous Martian atmosphere to produce breathing oxygen and rocket fuel.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Mars Direct is that it is not a very robust mission architecture. It relies on the near-perfect execution of many successive steps, with a single failure bringing the whole thing down. It's never a good sign when a broad mission strategy specifies the exact dates at which events are to take place. By now we should know that technical, political, and economic failures will inevitably interrupt our spacefaring plans. Mars Direct does not leave much room for these failures.

Robert Zubrin is a man of bold ideas and he doesn't shrink away from challenges. Though his writing style reflects that of an engineer, the vocabulary and concepts he presents are generally accessible. Zubrin is prejudiced in thinking that Mars is the only important target of exploration, but The Case for Mars is nonetheless a valiant attempt to outline a minimalist strategy for exploring the Red Planet.

Friday, May 27, 2011

What Does the Pope Have to Do with Spaceflight?

Several days ago the crew of the second-to-last Space Shuttle mission, STS-134, spent 20 minutes of their time speaking with Pope Benedict XVI. Shuttle missions are always tightly packed with activities, so NASA must have considered this phone call a high priority. So what did they talk about?

One item of discussion was the recovery of mission commander Mark Kelly's wife, Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the head by a gunman in January. The Pope wished Giffords a speedy recovery from her injuries. The Pope's wish will do nothing to help Giffords recover, except possibly improve her mood if she hears and cares about the Pope's remarks. If Giffords recovers, it will be because of the emergency medical team that picked her up off the ground, the hospital staff that took her in, the scientists that toiled over the centuries, and the inventors and industrialists that made this society possible. Nowhere does the Pope come into play.

What is a young child going to think when NASA—which is thought to represent science and rational thinking—arranges for their astronauts to waste 20 minutes of their time talking to an old mystic in a robe? Why, the child might wonder, is this man so important as to hold up the mission? Speaking to the astronauts, Benedict said, "You are our representatives spearheading humanity's exploration of new spaces and possibilities for our future." If the astronauts are our representatives, then they ought to represent the best and brightest of us. They ought not pay homage to backwards, patriarchal organizations that have quite awkward relationships with science and exploration.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

France's Ban on Face Covering

On April 11th, 2011, it became illegal in France to wear face-covering garments, including veils worn by Muslim women. French president Nicholas Sarkozy stated that full veils are "not welcome" in France, and that the law banning them is to protect women from being forced to cover their faces and to uphold France's secular values. The ban is supported by 80% of French citizens. Less than 2,000 Muslim women were thought to wear the niqab, or face-covering veil.

Three women wearing the niqab
Women wearing the niqab
While I sympathize with France's desire to protect women and create a secular society, I cannot support this law. I suppose it boils down to whether you value genuine freedom or not. Genuine freedom would include the freedom for a person to make bad decisions, so long as there are no other victims. France's version of freedom seems to mean the freedom to choose between different paths in life that have already been stamped by society as "dignified". It seems to imply that dignity is something that can be defined by consensus, and whatever is undignified anyway can be made dignified through the judicial system.

I don't often find myself siding with Muslims, and I do see the Burka and niqab as symbols of oppression and backwardness. Yet France's attempts to guarantee dignity and to protect women from force have no legitimacy. How can dignity be something that is applied from the outside, rather than something coming from within? And how can France protect people from being forced to wear certain clothes by forcing them to wear certain clothes?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review: At the Mountains of Madness

At the Mountains of Madness tells of a geological expedition that discovers the ruins of a prehuman civilization in Antarctica. The author, H. P. Lovecraft, draws in the reader by suggesting scenes of unimaginable horror. His rich imagery in phrases like "morbid survival from nightmare antiquity" leaves the reader needing further explanation.

The Transition of H. P. Lovecraft: The Road to Madness bookRead more reviews on AmazonLovecraft is known to have said "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." But it's not so much fear of the unknown as fear of the unknowable that he fills his stories with. The protagonist uses words like incalculably and immeasurably to describe events in the story, thereby abandoning all hope of understanding and communicating his situation. We find that he "can never hope to depict" or "even suggest" the horrors encountered in the frigid Antarctic wasteland.

Some have interpreted Mountains as a fully scientific expression of Lovecraft's earlier supernatural stories. In my view, however, this story is still largely in the realm of fantasy. While the aliens in the story "filtered down from the stars", they apparently originated in "other universes". They posses "a difference in basic nature", are on "another order of being", and the Antarctic world they inhabit is described as having "alien natural law".

At the Mountains of Madness suffers from a periodic slow pace and an over-description of irrelevant detail, weaknesses that can be exacerbated by Lovecraft's somewhat Victorian writing style. The author's technique of luring the reader with hints of horror is perhaps better suited to the short story than the novel. At other times, though, his prose stands out as exceptional. When something happens "amidst the chaos of terrene convulsions long before any human race we know had shambled out of apedome"—or "in the unknown epochs since matter first writhed and swam on the planet's scarce-cooled crust"—we find ourselves sharing Lovecraft's utter fascination with the grand cosmos.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Unpressurized Mars Ascent

An unorthodox approach to lifting astronauts from the Martian surface is for them to ascend in an unpressurized spacecraft, an idea proposed by the aerospace engineer Frank Eichstadt. The astronauts would need to wear space suits to stay alive, but a significant mass savings could be achieved by using a small spacecraft lacking thick outer walls. The motivation for minimizing the mass of an ascent payload is that it could allow a much smaller and more manageable rocket to lift it into Mars orbit. This is important because the amount of fuel required to transport hardware to Mars tends to be some large multiple of the final mass delivered to the surface. A small reduction in ascent payload mass can have a huge effect on the total mass, and therefore cost, of the mission.

In an unpressurized configuration, crew members could ascend in groups—as is traditionally assumed—or they could ascend one by one. Launching astronauts one by one is another way to allow smaller ascent rockets to be used on Mars. Of course, this would require a separate rocket for each crew member, but the advantage may be simplicity of design.

I think it's safe to assume that before any humans depart for the Red Planet, there will be a successful Mars sample return mission. After that occurs, there will be a number of lessons learned regarding the challenge of Mars ascent. There will be a fully flight-proven design of an ascent spacecraft—a design whose strengths and weaknesses will be scrutinized by Earth's best engineers. If, during a human mission, a single crew member were to ascend in an unpressurized spacecraft, I think it's possible that the ascent vehicle used could have some design commonality with the unmanned ascent spacecraft of the sample return mission.

To provide the crew with breathing oxygen during ascent, they could wear the same portable life support system designed for use with their space suits on the surface. This would be possible if the full duration of ascent—from the time the astronauts don their suits to the moment they enter an orbiting ship's airlock—is less than a surface EVA, or extravehicular activity. Portable life support systems for space missions are typically designed to enable EVAs of at least several hours, which may be just long enough for a crew member to rendezvous with an orbiting spacecraft after an unpressurized ascent from the Red Planet.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Did Lenin Save Capitalism?

We may owe the current triumph of capitalism to an unlikely man: Vladimir Illych Lenin. Though Lenin was actually born a nobleman, he grew to hate the Russian aristocracy after his brother was executed for plotting against the Tsar in 1887. By 1917 he had spearheaded a communist revolution in Russia and founded the Soviet Union. The capital of Russia at this time was Petrograd, modern-day St. Petersburg. For fear of German invasion, Lenin in 1918 moved the capital of the Soviet Union from coastal Petrograd to inland Moscow.

Lenin was long dead by the time Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR, in 1941—but because of him the capital of the USSR was in Moscow. Just two months after the invasion began, German troops had arrived at Leningrad, the new name for the old capital, and they proceeded to encircle and siege the city. It was one of the longest sieges in human history, enduring uninterrupted for a full 872 days. The Germans also attacked Moscow, the actual capital, but were driven back after a few months. It seems clear that part of the reason the Germans failed to take Moscow was because it was farther away and centrally-located.

Had Lenin not moved the capital of the USSR to Moscow, the European theater of the Second World War could have run an entirely different course. The Germans may have been able to take Leningrad in a matter of months—denying the Soviets sufficient time to relocate factories east of the Urals and organize a counteroffensive. It's well-known that the drawn-out war on the Eastern Front—which lasted nearly four years—was the main reason for the demise of the Third Reich. A Nazi victory in Europe would have doubtless been followed by campaigns on other continents. Though Lenin's communist state ultimately crumbled, we can perhaps credit his strategic vision for the eventual triumph of capitalism.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: Oath of the Horatii

Oath of the Horatii is a canonical expression of Neoclassicism. Although it was painted as a royal commission in 1784, it became a defining image of the upcoming French Revolution. The painting depicts a scene from a Roman myth in which three brothers of Rome, the Horatii, are summoned by their father to fight three brothers from the rival city of Alba. The arrangement is further complicated by a marriage between a soldier in the painting and a sister of his enemies. Likewise, one of the soldiers of Alba is said to be engaged to a sister of the Horatii—the grieving woman in white on the right side of the painting. This message of duty to state over family was popular at the time of the Revolution.

Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David artThe artist, Jacques-Louis David, idealizes the Horatii brothers and their father. Their bodies are intensely muscular, free of blemishes, and energetically rigid. Nothing in this painting defies the laws of physics, but the soldiers are certainly shown at the upper limits of human fitness. Their geometric and austere posture is emphasized by the linear pattern on the floor and the classical columns of the background, a technique often used in Neoclassical works to evoke themes of rationality and virtue. In contrast, the women in the painting are shown curled up and left to a passive role.

Viewers of Oath of the Horatii often note the men in the painting show no emotion. This seems to me less because of the men's role in the scene—which is to be strictly disciplined—than because of David's own technique in rendering facial expressions. To be "locked on" to a military duty is an intensely emotional experience; it is not so much a lack of emotion as a suppression of emotional influence over behavior. If it were merely the soldiers' commitment to Rome that explained their lack of emotion, then the women in painting—who are given a different role—should express more emotion. But we find that their faces, too, lack significant expression. Nonetheless, David's Oath clearly played a powerful role in French history and art.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Spin-Offs Excuse

Since 1975 NASA has maintained an annual publication, called Spinoff, that catalogs new commercial technologies with their roots in the manned space program. It is commonly argued that these "spin-offs"—which range from medical devices to firefighting equipment—can justify government expenditures to send humans into space. Many so-called space advocates respond to critics of human spaceflight by pointing out the various gadgets in their home and society that actually can be traced back to NASA. They imply that their critics take advantage of spin-offs but aren't willing to pay the costs to develop them.

Though NASA programs do result in spin-offs, it is absurd to suggest this justifies human exploration of the cosmos. At most, spin-offs could offset a small portion of NASA's budget. If we want to be honest with ourselves, we must face the fact that the government could have directly invested funds to develop artificial limbs, improved car tires, and anti-icing systems for aircraft. It would have cost far less.

Steven Weinberg, an American physicist, has a point when he says "The only technology for which the manned space flight program is well suited is the technology of keeping people alive in space." But I disagree that human spaceflight is a waste of money. If Weinberg doesn't understand the value of it, he never will and there is nothing anyone can do to change that. In an ideal world, those who weren't interested in human exploration wouldn't have to burden the costs—but our society is very far from this ideal in other economic situations. In the mean time, the supporters of human spaceflight must seek rationales other than spin-offs if they want to be taken seriously.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A New Role for Libraries

The function of the library has been evolving ever since the advent of the internet. Libraries have long granted their patrons access to paper subscriptions, but they can now offer services that were not obtainable before computer networks were in wide use. One such service libraries can offer is access to digital databases for genealogical and family history research, a service that, I think, has a much broader appeal to the general public than do obscure academic journals and manuscripts.

In particular, Ancestry.com's Library Edition is being purchased by libraries across the globe. It seems to me that Ancestry Library Edition—which appears to cost about one or two thousands dollars per year—is a good value for a library seeking to offer a genealogy resource to their patrons. There do not appear to be any significant competitors to Ancestry.com, which claims to have over 6 billion family history records in their database at the time of writing. In my view, the trend of interest in genealogy and family history is here to stay; it is becoming economically feasible and technologically convenient for typical people to seriously investigate their own origins. After all, what is there for the average person to do in life after the standard rituals of celebrity gossip and drinking to excess? Even the most mindless people reach out for some shred of meaning in their lives, and will discovering the traces of their ancestors not become a seductive and irresistible pastime?

Of course, if it becomes standard practice for libraries to pick up Ancestry Library Edition, it will tremendously boost Ancestry.com's revenue and brand exposure. Patrons who begin their family trees at the library may well decide to purchase a home subscription to continue the endless quest. If the current trend continues, the shares of Ancestry.com stock should be worth much more a few years from now.

Disclosure: the author owns shares of Ancestry.com (ACOM)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Review: Broca's Brain

Broca's Brain is one of Carl Sagan's typically variegated works, its scope ranging from the dangers of pseudoscience, to the societal impact of technology and artificial intelligence, to the exploration of the Solar System and our celestial neighborhood. It tosses aside trivial matters and delves into deepest questions of life in the cosmos: the evolution of the human species, the existence of extraterrestrial life and intelligence, the origin and fate of the universe. Sagan's characteristic talent for writing is well-developed in Broca's Brain, a talent that leaves even the most complicated concepts accessible to the newcomer.

Broca's Brain by Carl Sagan bookRead more reviews on AmazonThere is a 55-page chapter in the book called "Venus and Dr. Velikovsky". Immanuel Velikovsky was an American who in the 1950s tried to argue that spectacular events in the Bible, such as the Crossing of the Red Sea, were caused by astronomical collisions and catastrophes. Velikovsky, understandably, stirred up a firestorm of criticism in his time, supposedly including calls by scientists for him to be silenced. What Sagan is doing in this chapter is demonstrating how the scientific process should work—i.e. through skepticism and critical analysis instead of personal attacks or censorship. As such the chapter is overkill, a 12-pointed critique, supported by technical appendices, of Velikovsky's ideas. Nonetheless, much about the workings of the Solar System can be extracted from this case study.

Perhaps the prevailing weakness of Broca's Brain is its disjointed nature. The chapters originate from lectures and essays published independently between 1974 and 1979. There is little that unifies the various chapters other than the author's wide-ranging interests, although Sagan does attempt to group the chapters into five categories. Having already been a successful author, it seems Sagan devised the book as a collection of his previous projects. He writes that debunking Velikovsky "took badly needed time" away from his own research. But this is his own research; this is what made Carl Sagan who he is. As such Broca's Brain is not one of his flagship works, but rather an essential addition for anyone who wants to absorb the full breadth of Sagan's knowledge.