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Tuesday
Jan072014

WILL PRIVATE MARS MISSIONS HURT SPACE EXPLORATION?

This week we learned that from more than 200,000 original applicants 1058 people have moved on to the second phase of the selection process for Mars One, a plan to send a team of four volunteers on a one-way trip to Mars in 2024 to found the first colony there. The number will be whittled down to about 40 within the next four years, and those finalists will train for seven years. A reality TV show audience will pick the final four. The ongoing reality show element is one of the core means by which the whole project is supposed to be funded. After all, the estimated cost is about $6 billion.

A somewhat similar undertaking called Inspiration Mars involves a plan to send one man and one woman to within 100 miles of Mars’ surface and back to Earth again in 2018.

I think projects like these constitute a threat to the long-term exploration of space.

I hate to knock anything to do with space, and I’m all in favour of private enterprise getting involved. I’ve applauded the successes of companies like SpaceX, sending supplies to the International Space Station and launching a Thai telecommunications satellite this week. And several new companies intending to get into the business of space mining are backed by some very big names with great track records. But these ventures are based on businesslike profit models—they’ll be done carefully and conservatively because investors will demand it, and failure is too costly.

I would argue that failure is too costly for the Mars projects, too. We love success and adore heroes, but martyrs cause a different reaction. The two space shuttle disasters and the Apollo 1 fire in January of 1967 rocked people’s confidence in the space program. The loss of human life makes the average person question whether the exploration of space is worth it. And I think the Mars missions are setting themselves up for failure.

It’s appropriate that the largest number of the Mars One candidates are Americans and Canadians because this week our continent is suffering the effects of a much-talked-about “polar vortex” that’s wandered too far south and brought killing cold with it. I hope our would-be Mars-dwellers are taking the opportunity to spend a lot of time outdoors to enjoy the kind of brisk temperatures they can look forward to on Mars on the nicest of days. And, oh yeah, there’s no breathable air. I keep picturing four people living in something like those “bouncing inflatables” carnival kiddie rides unable to go outside without a space suit, unable to get emergency support if needed, and unable to ever return to Earth. To me, that doesn’t have the makings of a colony, it has the makings of a disaster. All played out on reality TV for an audience that will probably be drawn to the prospect of death in the same way as people who watch car racing. Good for TV ratings maybe, but if the Mars One crew dies, how many people back here will still have the stomach to see their tax dollars or financial investments going into projects that have that kind of risk? Similarly, even if Inspiration Mars does get two people to the vicinity of Mars and back, will that really be inspiring? How many people remember the names of Apollo astronauts on the missions that orbited the Moon but didn’t land?

We need to get to Mars, but we need to do it right, with a colony mission that has a good chance of long-term success, and the infrastructure for two-way travel. Let’s pool resources and all that enthusiasm and construct a staircase to the stars, instead of some makeshift rope ladders.

That’s what will enable us to take the next step outward, and the next after that.

Tuesday
Dec312013

LOSS OF INFORMATION HURTS US ALL

We call this the “Information Age”, don’t we? Yet several news items I’ve come across this week show that a huge amount of important information is in real danger of vanishing forever, some by neglect and accident, much by willful disregard.

First there came the revelation this month that as much as eighty percent of the data from research studies conducted over the past couple of decades has been unintentionally lost by being sent to no-longer-active email accounts and trusted to electronic storage devices that became outdated and inaccessible, or were replaced but not fully copied. It’s not hard to see how this could happen. How many times have you upgraded a hard drive but accidentally or deliberately left some files behind? In fact, how many files have you saved to CD or even floppy disks, confident that you could always retrieve them later? University of British Columbia researchers tried to access original data from more than five hundred randomly-chosen ecology studies conducted between 1991 and 2011, and found that data usually remained fully accessible for the first two years after publication, but the chances of finding it thereafter declined by 17% with each year that passed. The researchers blame the fact that such data remains in the hands of the original conductors of the research, and so they’re calling for centralized data archives to which all published research data would by transferred and kept. Great idea, but there’s a problem with it, which brings us to the next story.

We have archives of research data already—they’re called libraries. Unfortunately, since many of them are publicly funded, their continued existence remains at the whim of the serving government. In Canada we have a long-reigning conservative government that is a proven enemy of science. Don’t take my word for it—look it up, but keep a box of Kleenex handy. One of their most recent efforts is to close a half-dozen world-renowned research libraries. The government claims that the data in the libraries is being digitized and preserved. Scientists and library staff are saying this is not true: the information is simply being culled and what isn’t deemed worth transporting to the few libraries remaining open is scrapped. Scientists have been scrambling to save irreplaceable volumes destined for the dumpster.

None of us has a crystal ball. We can’t know what old information we will one day need as a baseline for comparison to a new set of circumstances. Many important natural and social trends only become evident after the analysis of data from very long periods of time. The unintentional loss of data is regrettable and can be stopped. The willful destruction of data is unconscionable and must be stopped. Canadians have protested such government cutbacks without success. The rest of the world needs to take notice and shame the Canadian government into stopping this practice, and send a message to any other governments who might consider such a policy. Before the information age is returned to a much darker time in our history.

Wednesday
Dec182013

THE MOON IS COOL AGAIN

If you’re a space geek you’re aware that China has a lunar probe and rover active on the Moon right now. If you haven’t watched the video of the landing you can find it here. A pretty fast drop to the surface but, what the heck, everything seems to be working—the Jade Rabbit rover deployed and is busy checking out the Sea of Rains. The Chang'e-3 spacecraft follows a couple of preparatory fly-by missions by China, and lots of fly-bys by other countries over the past decades, but it’s the first landing since the Russian Luna 24 in 1976. That’s quite a long time between actual visits. Yet it’s just the beginning of a resurgence: missions over the coming decade include a joint Russia/Sweden/Switzerland lander set for 2016, a lander and rover from India in 2017, a lander and rover from Japan in 2018, and a U.S. venture also in 2018 with help from Canada and Japan. Those are just the government projects. We shouldn’t discount the Google Lunar X-Prize competition which will give $20 million to the first private team that successfully lands a spacecraft on the Moon’s surface and sends back some meaningful data. So far, one of the leading contenders is a company called Astrobotic, which plans to deliver a lander there in 2015.

Why the renewed interest in that big ball of dust hanging in the sky? (Now that we know it’s not made of cheese, it can’t be because of a shortage of fancy salad dressing). One possible answer lies in the reasons behind yet another lunar rover project tentatively scheduled for 2018. That one’s from the Shackleton Energy Company, expressly formed in 2007 to get into the business of mining the Moon. Their plan appears to be to harvest significant deposits of ice and/or extract oxygen from lunar rocks to free up gases that can be used as fuel. After all, any further development of the Moon and certainly any exploitation of the rest of the solar system will require a lot of fuel, and the stuff is very expensive to haul up all the way from the Earth’s surface.

Ultimately, the other missions are likely about mining the Moon’s resources, too. China has indicated that they’re especially interested in so called rare earths—minerals that are essential to a whole list of technologies from lasers to X-ray machines to PET scanners and more. They’re not easy to come by in commercial quantities. China is already the largest supplier and has been cutting back on exports, causing worldwide concern.

So it’s not some romantic notion of making inroads into the final frontier, or even the hunt for a big black buried monolith from an alien race that is drawing human interest back to the Moon. It’s money—plain and simple. But then, the end of the Apollo missions should have taught us that national vanity and ideological competition aren’t enough over the long haul.

Wednesday
Dec112013

WE ARE FAMILY

I read this week about a website called modamily.com (as in modern family) that promotes what’s called “non-romantic co-parenting”. The idea is that the website will match you up with someone who has similar goals and principles regarding parenting so the two of you can co-parent a child without any romantic relationship whatsoever. All important details of the arrangement (including the method of conception) would be worked out ahead of time, of course. I guess it’s kind of like a divorce settlement without the animosity.

Our concept of the family has been changed by the high divorce rate, adoption, surrogate parenting, gay marriage and who knows what else? If people are willing to have non-romantic parenting arrangements, why stop at a couple? In this world of the internet, why not half-a-dozen or more parents from various parts of the globe united in raising one child? (Though imagine the grief of having six parents tell you to clean up your room!) Sooner or later someone will try this. Whether or not they should is another question.

SF writers have been trying to imagine future approaches to parenting for decades. Many stories and novels have offered parental arrangements that don’t include co-habiting with each other or the children. Brave New World and numerous others have featured laboratory fertilization and gestation, with the child-rearing handled by entities like daycare centers and sometimes even by robot caregivers. I noticed that the newest Superman movie Man Of Steel showed that type of system in use on Krypton. The question of parenting in space colonies or colony ships has always been an issue because children would be few, the group very close, and there may be compelling reasons for parenting duties to be shared among more than just the two genetic parents. There’s even some precedent for this in small tribal cultures where paternity can often be in doubt. What’s next? Once gestation is taken out of the womb, will it really matter who our “natural” parents are? Perhaps parents will be chosen by the state.

One of the great joys of parenting is watching that little being, from your own flesh and blood, grow and develop and achieve. It works the other way around, too, with children being proud of their parents, wanting to be like them. There’s no question that role-modeling is important to child development. Sons often want to grow up to be “just like Dad”. But say a child on a spaceship crew doesn’t know who his father is. I suspect he’ll choose the man who best represents the qualities he wants in a dad, and emulate him. What if all of the children chose the same guy (the manly and brave captain, no doubt)? Then, with both genetics and behavior, we’d be messing with the mostly random variety that evolution has directed up to this point.

In many cultures family is everything. We use phrases like “blood is thicker than water” to say that blood ties demand the ultimate loyalty. Evolution is behind this, too. But can bonds like that survive forms of family structure that have no basis in genetics or even living under the same roof? And won’t society suffer without them?

The old/new-again expression claims “it takes a village to raise a child”. In these days of the “global village”, it’s pretty hard to predict how all of this will turn out.

Monday
Dec092013

BOOKS BY CANADIAN SF AUTHORS

I'm happy to be a member of SFCanada because its ranks include many of the best SF writers the country has to offer, which means some of the best in the world. You have to have some decent publishing credits to be able to join. Although my novel Dead Air is a mystery thriller, not SF, it is included in the SFCanada Bookstore at Amazon. Here's the link to the store so you can pick up some terrific science fiction and fantasy for yourself or people on your gift list. Enjoy!