Friday, June 25, 2004

Mars Essay

For some reason, the blog is the only web site I can see at the moment. I promised you my Honorable Mention essay, so here it is, slightly revised.

I’ve just sat down at a computer, removed my electronic key badge and my cell phone, taken a call from my wife a thousand miles away whom I dropped off at O’Hare airport this morning, and settled into this essay.

Had I went to the observation deck of the airport, I would have seen an airplane leaving every few minutes, each plane with between two and four jet engines, each engine with twenty-five thousand parts. If I sit long enough to drink a cup of coffee, I will have witnessed an ongoing spectacle as complex and expensive as the moon landings.

And this is nothing special.

My father was a production test pilot during the 1950’s. Of the roughly 1800 B-47 bombers assembled, he flew in 800 of them over four years. This six-engine stratojet was the prototype of all commercial jet airliners today. At the time, they also blew up for no reason, landed with entire wings on fire, pulled outside loops because of crossed control lines, and required their crews to withstand pressure blowout training each year. This training involved reducing pressure to that of the sky at thirty thousand feet, and then removing one’s oxygen mask until nearly unconscious. Still in his mid-twenties, my father left his job after four years because most of his friends were dead.

The concept of the commercial airliner we take for granted today was pure science fiction then, not because of technology, but because of reliability. My father thought the jet airliner to be absolutely impossible given the risks at the time. Flying like this demanded steel nerves.

Now it simply demands a photo ID and a major credit card.

Much is made of the idea that the shuttle is unsafe, experimental, and requires a lifelong career goal, perfect vision, and a Mensa card to even consider riding into space. The situation was not that different in 1950 with the multi-engine swept wing jet. Today I can’t look out a window at my house without seeing six contrails at any given time, day or night, rounding the VOR navigation beacon a mile south of my window. Even now, over one hundred people have flown in space on the shuttle.

But even NASA seems timid about the next flight level. They wish to build a station at low earth orbit, and another close to the moon, before touching the surface again. While the International Space Station is a valid world-class research laboratory in its early construction, other such bases would require structures and supply chains to sustain them that dramatically outweigh their advantages.

NASA needs to get over it.

If you want to go to the moon, you do so. You do not pass go, collect two hundred dollars, or otherwise waste effort at the pit stop.

If you want to build a 500-ton space station, you do not launch a 100-ton shuttle, with a 20-ton cargo capacity, forty-one times. You launch 100 tons on the shuttle launch platform five times and leave the space plane home. Similarly, if you want to go to the moon, you don’t first build a space station near the moon to switch crews. You either switch crews in orbit as we did in the Apollo era, or you land the whole thing on the moon. You do not waste effort on way stations. But NASA can’t break its orbital funk.

To go to Mars, you invest the same money and energy in going beyond earth orbit as you currently do to visit the space station. I’ve visited the space station, or at least parts of it, at Huntsville, Alabama where it was checked out. I took pictures through the observation deck glass of the Destiny module. It was very impressive, but it wasn’t Mars.

You need to give yourself, thirty or forty years from now, a routine that today seems like pure breathless science fiction. The first paragraph of this essay would have been perfectly at home in a Ray Bradbury story from the 1960’s had it been better written. Yet you found it boring and routine because in 2003 IT IS EXACTLY SO.

Much is made of risk and cost, but look at any major hub airport and count the cost and complexities of the aircraft alone. Describe a major airport to a risk management statistician and they will think you insane. Yet there they are running like watches. You see it constantly in every contrail that crosses the blue.

We are not to be kept in a holding pattern. Humans are designed to grow and explore. We must find new places as our ancestors have done. Most of our ancestors, either via a ship, a plane, or the Bering land bridge, crossed a vast distance for a better life away from the familiar. Many crossed because it was the only way to continue living.

Look at what my father’s era took for granted that astonished the mind of his father plowing with horses. Look at us with the electronics hanging from our belts and in our pockets, while we read files sent by chips that read magnetic signals from the hard drives using methods originally designed to pick up the radio signals from the Viking mars probes.

What do you want your children to do to astonish you in your old age? Will we give them more of the same, or will we let them grow? Will they have a chance to touch new worlds as we have touched the skies?

Do children still climb trees like in any bygone day? Do we with our fears and safety seats turned backwards still let our wee ones reach out among branches? I know it costs so to raise a child, in love and time and blood. But will children who never know the grass of their own backyards ever live on the moon or mars? Is a world where we only reach for the familiar flesh of others really safer than one where we use our hands to check for nicks in propellers?

At age 45, NASA needs to climb out the child safety seat and take the wheel. We need to put away childish things and strive again, and let someone else be childlike with wonder. Like children, for example. They need to dream, we need to do. If children do not see us model the human desire of exploration, why should they explore books or visions of distance beyond the crib? Will children who do not see challenges overcome really solve the problems that their generations will need to solve? Will they not want their children to take for granted two moons in a red sky and canyons the length of the United States? Will they not want their relatives back on earth to take for granted technologies invented for Mars yet incredibly practical in day-to-day living?

If we remain in a holding pattern for another ten years, someone my age could sit with his grandchildren watching the very same shuttles launch as he had seen at age eleven. They could grow up in a world where no one who had walked on the moon had not since died of old age.

Who could they ask what it was like to touch the moon above them? No one would know anymore. How could they hope to know if we before them have forgotten? Would could they touch that we had not? In short, what is there to live for that hasn’t been done? Stagnation is the enemy of the future.

Nations die this way. Many already have. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why.
- - - - -

As for the last paragraph, I believe the Bible says "without vision, the people parish.". Something drilled into our heads in public school civics class was the three phases of national distruction: Apathy, Atrophy, Anarchy. I meant to get the book "How Nations Die" about a decade ago, so I'm not sure if it's still in print. That was the inspiration for the actual line.

The poetic bit in the middle about children was actually written on my palm pilot about six months before, and seemed to fit here. It's nearly in verse. By modern standards, it IS in verse. It deals with the frustration I felt when in high school and I was flying aircraft, yet the druggies and those obsessed with sex thought I was missing out. While having some pothead crabbing at you for being a pilot is in it's own way self-validating, what exactly WOULD you say to someone who would listen? It came to me hard on a train ride home from a job interview two years ago, and those were the words I wrote.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Something Martian This Way Comes

My wife and I have been listening to an unabridged version of the first Harry Potter book on tape on our commute that she borrowed from a friend. About a day after the whole scene with owls delivering Harry’s invitation to Hogwarts, I got word from The Mars Society that both my papers – Project Daedalia and Saturn Direct, had been accepted, and asked me what I needed for presenting them. They also pushed off the deadline for submitting papers for print until the conference itself. This was a great relief, as the second paper was in no way ready.

All the same, the e-mail arrived in my PC as if delivered by an owl. I would spend four days this August speaking and learning amongst my own space-enthusiast brethren. Almost everyone there will have paid between $150 and $550 to attend, plus airfare, so one assumes that these six hundred people or so are, well, serious about it.

It’s held at a posh hotel downtown, and James Cameron (yes, the director of Titanic, Aliens, and Terminator 2) will be there. Fredrick Pohl, the famous golden era science fiction writer, Eric Anderson (president of Space Adventures, who arrange tourist flights to the space station for Russia), and several other famous people should be there as well. I’m on the committee for the Chicago side of things, and am helping round up vendors and volunteers. I’m supposed to speak three times. I keep having recurring fantasies of Ray Bradbury being in the audience, though I’d settle for any supportive audience that outnumbered me.

Speaking of Bradbury, I found an old poetry book from him from the mid-Seventies at the Duckon sci fi convention. In two poems, he addresses “Why Mars?” in exactly those words. His reasons start beautifully but end up in Timothy Leary-Land. It’s a nice trip for most of the journey, though.

A co-worker named Annette, who is typically my lunch buddy, is also into this stuff, and is also attending. She regards me as a mentor when discussing space technology. She also got me into Toastmasters at work – I’m hoping that I can improve my speaking ability before the conference.

I’m not sure my wife will attend, or if she does, it will only be on the weekend. I’m thinking of organizing a Mensa field trip there on that Saturday to boost attendance and to help promote both organizations to each other.

My father was in the hospital twice in two weeks with a leg infection. After having been told he had six months to live five years ago, he is slowly loosing his mental faculties. I suspect the slow oxygen starvation over such a long time has a similar effect to acute oxygen starvation over five minutes – brain damage. He loves his family, but he’s loosing his memory. I’m going down to visit this weekend, and again part of next weekend around Cornerstone music festival.

I’ve been getting depressed lately at his condition. I tend to cocoon when that happens. Sorry for the lack of posts lately.

This Saturday night is fireworks at the farm, and a bonfire with hot dogs and so on. Dad is out of the hospital, so while he probably won't be doing anything much outside, he'll at least be home. Saying goodbye to your father is like taking off a comforting winter coat on an icy Fall afternoon in the deep woods, when you know you can't put it back on at night when the temperature will chill you to the bone. If he doesn't live through this convention I'll just snap - I want to tell him what I've done in person, not in prayer. I'm finally closing the loop of passions I had when I was twelve and designing spaceships on a drafting table in the exact spot in the parental living room where his lift chair contains him 23 hours a day. These passions faded and were replaced with growing up and college and career and marriage and homeownership and downsizing and all that mess. Now I'm twelve again, and I want my Daddy.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

The ERV is finally submitted.

Yes, the Earth Return Vehicle design that lent its name to this blog has been sent in as a contest submission with The Mars Society. I spent my running on four hours sleep solving last minute math problems.
If you ever have seen The Chicken Lover episode of South Park, you may remember how Officer BarBrady had to overcome dyslexia to solve a crime, only to find out the crime was committed by someone trying to help him learn to read. The fundamentally clueless look BarBrady gave every time he had to view a book is much like me with the math spreadsheets, trying to overcome issues of chemistry, density, momentum, thrust, mass, geometry, burn rates, and volume. By the end I was able to fly across multiple pages cranking out revised numbers every five minutes. Impressive as that sounds, keep in mind these last minute recompilations were the result of missing things that I’ve known about for years, but somehow got lost or a placeholder number was never replaced. The result is basically summarized as follows: write, write, write, whaaaa? Crap!!! Rocket math, rocket math, rocket math, crap!, more rocket math, forty second depressed stare at monitor, math math math math pure fiction on what materials weigh, positive number!, recalculate, rewrite, update tables in essay, write write write repeat.

In short, it made it to the post office with fifteen minutes to spare today. I would feel like celebrating if I wasn’t feeling like the crew of Apollo 13.

By the way, I got honorable mention in a Mars Society essay contest last year, which means I get roughly $100 worth of stuff and an invitation to read it at the banquet in August. Knowing that got me through this weekend. I'll post the essay later.

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