May 262011

201 - Man on the Moon + City Scape 168x100Will mankind colonize the galaxy and tame that final frontier?

Prior to space flight we, in our ignorance, had created myths regarding our moon and nearest planets and today we are creating myths and fantasies about deep space.  We envisage other races, mostly human in form and oddly enough most speaking English.  We fantasize about traveling to other star systems as easily as one might travel across town to visit a friend.

Yet, just as our myths of Amazon women on the moon were dispelled when we first landed there our myths about other species among the stars and traveling about the galaxy in the blink of an eye will be dispelled.  In fact, with remarkable advances in astronomy and our ever increasing knowledge of the laws of physics and the limitations of nature we can dispel many of these fantasies now.

By our most conservative estimates to date we can surmise that there are millions of planets circling the stars of our galaxy.  The Kepler mission to detect planets surrounding about 100,000 stars in the constellation Cygnus has, in only few months of operation provided us with 1,235 possible planet candidates to add to the 552 extra-solar planets we have already confirmed exist.  Given that Kepler is only looking at .25% of the sky we can extrapolate that number to 494,000 planets.  And Kepler can only detect planets that cross in front of their parent star so that small number swells to millions if we consider planets orbiting at a different plane than edge on to us.

Even with these discoveries of extra-solar planets the nearest earth-like, that is rocky, planet we can find in a Goldilocks zone (not too hot and not too cold) is 20.3 light years away.  Gliese 581 g may theoretically be suitable for life although the planet is over 3 times the mass of Earth.

A few years ago a message was sent to that star system by radio astronomers.  Let’s speculate that we get an answer back from an intelligent civilization.  We would receive a response 40 years later.  It would be a little difficult to carry on a conversation, even at the speed of light.  So could we possibly travel to Gliese 581 g?

The British Interplanetary Society speculated on sending a 450 tonne unmanned payload to Barnard’s star which lays only 6 Lys away.  They calculated that a vast spacecraft 190 meters in length weighing about 50,000 tonnes and powered by internal confinement fusion could reach a velocity of about 12% c and reach Barnard’s star in about 46 years.  It wasn’t designed to decelerate and be put into orbit so double that time if you want your payload to stay there.  So an unmanned scientific mission to Barnards’ star would take about 92 years.  The same vessel traveling to Gliese 581 g would take 307 years.

If we were to send a manned vessel it would have to have to be a generational ship where people would be born, live, and die for many generations before it reached its destination so it would have to be orders of magnitude larger and therefore requiring much more fuel and would take instead of 307 years perhaps tens of thousands of years to reach only the nearest earth like planet.

The cold hard reality is that one cannot propel any appreciable quantity of matter anywhere near the speed of light so a visit to any nearby star is absolutely out of the question not only with the crude technologies we have now but with near-future technologies like internal confinement fusion.

But what about such exotic notions like warping space, anti-matter engines, worm holes etc.?  These are pure fantasy, just like Vulcan mind melds.  The only thing we know of that can warp space is matter, and gravity is so weak just consider this:  Every time you lift your arm you are defeating the gravitational pull of the entire planet.  That’s how week our own massive planet warps the space around it.

Worm holes exist only as speculative mind games of cosmologists and even if they did exist to “enter” one would crush you and your ship to an infinitesimal size.

No, traveling to the stars will have to be left to our far distant offspring who would be living in vast vessels probably not too dissimilar to science fiction’s Babylon 5 space station.  It would roam interstellar space taking tens of thousands of years to visit even the closest of stars.  Once there they might colonize any habitable planets or even terraform what uninhabitable planets that may be there.  More likely still is that they would not see the necessity of leaving their space station home.I do not envisage humanity leaving our solar system for countless thousands of generations to come.

I don’t consider this a pessimistic view.  I consider it a practical view given what we know of the laws of physics.  If our knowledge of these laws change it will have to be an entire paradigm shift in thinking which is not out of the realm of our imagination but to speculate that our current knowledge of physics is far off the reality mark and that the true nature of the universe has yet to be discovered and such a discovery would allow us to travel to other planets as easy as thinking about it is without merit.  There is nothing to suggest that we can warp space or exceed the speed of light.  There is nothing to suggest that what we know about the laws of physics is so incorrect that the fantasies of a show like Star Trek can be realized.

What we can do however is something that may give us a vicarious trip to other worlds and possible extra-terrestrial civilizations.  Given the current rate of astronomical invention and discovery even using known laws of physics we should soon be able to image the thousands of planets that exist near us in space and although it may be tediously slow to communicate with any intelligent life we may find out there, an exchange of information with extra-terrestrials may be possible, if and when we find them and if they consider it in their best interest to tell us about themselves.

A more reasonable approach to off-earth colonization won’t involve travelling by the fictional “soliton waves” of  Star Trek: The Next Generation or by focusing thought though some kind of lens, it will involve propellants that don’t defy reason and logic.

Chemical rockets can get us to the moon and I have no doubt that within a reasonable amount of time, say 200 hundred years or, so we may have a sizeable permanent habitat there.  But I don’t think that what is going to drive colonizing the moon will be government or resource mining, it will be tourism.

To date there have already been 7 space tourists including one Canadian, Guy Laliberte, the CEO of Cirque du Soleil.  Each has paid as much as $35 million to ride about the International Space Station as a guest of Russia.

It will be people like these who will bankroll a space tourism industry which will see routine sub-orbital flights for people wishing to experience free-fall, space station hotels for extended stays and a chance to get into the 100 mile high club and eventually hotels on the moon.  The money these tourists pay for such adventures will allow offshoot industries to help build and maintain the space stations and the moon habitats and these off shoot industries will have to house the workers and support staff.  The moon’s first permanent settlements may start out resembling any small adventure tourist destination here on Earth.

Following such small steps we may find the mega rich willing to fund tourism to Mars although such a technical undertaking may take several hundreds of years  to get to the level where it can be done routinely.

Aside from the moon and Mars I believe that there are no other destinations in our solar system which merit any form of permanent habitat primarily due to the extremely hostile nature of every other planet and moon.

This being said I do think that the majority of off-world colonization will be in space stations which may be set up in orbit around the other planets and their moons.

Practically speaking I see the colonization of our own solar system happening, yes, but happening very slowly, perhaps taking several thousands of years.

In the far distant future we may one day terraform Mars, making an atmosphere thick enough to live in without a space suit and perhaps even breathe without an oxygen mask.  This process will, from my understanding. take tens of thousands of years but I believe it most likely will be done.

Any such grand adventures will only occur with private industry running the show and government protecting their right to do so.  But eventually we will have two planets to call home and several, perhaps hundreds or thousands of enormous self-sustaining space stations orbiting every celestial body in the solar system and some even venturing out into deep space to slowly and gradually add to an ever expanding sphere of humanity.

(Originally broadcast on Just Right #201, May 26, 2011)

Oct 072010
Canada on the Moon

Canada on the MoonWhen I was but a lad of 8 I watched the Americans land men on the moon and I became hooked on NASA’s space program.  I remember the Skylab mission and I remember recording the Apollo/Soyuz docking on my tape recorder while sitting in front of the television.  When the shuttle was announced I sent away to NASA for an astronaut application kit.  I still have it.  Unfortunately my dreams of becoming an astronaut where dashed when I read the visual acuity requirements.

My love of space flight has continued with me all these years and I still, daily, follow the progress of the various space missions and programs around the world.  Unfortunately there is very little to follow in my own country as Canada’s space program is only a fraction of the size it could or should be.

Since I have developed a political philosophy of capitalism I have had to come to terms with a proper government’s role in space research.  I have come to the conclusion that a free nation should have the capacity to launch, from its own territory, satellites and payloads which advance the defense of the nation and its citizens and which can augment the proper functions of a proper government.  For example the Landsat and Radarsat satellites survey and record changes in Canada’s land and ocean territory and can be properly thought of as a legitimate way to carry out the task of protecting the property of the government and of individuals.  Communications satellites are legitimate in-so-far that it is an essential part of government to be able not only to communicate with its citizens but also for its military to communicate with each other.  Research into the upper atmosphere enhances our ability to communicate and so again is proper.  Spy satellites would be a necessary role for a space program as would the ability to launch missiles against our future enemies.

Ayn Rand, herself praised NASA and the American space program when she wrote about her experience watching in-person the launch of Apollo 11.

if we do continue down the road of a mixed economy, then let them pour all the millions and billions they can into the space program.  …  Let it not be (the United States) only epitaph that it died paying its enemies for its own destruction.  Let some of its life-blood go to the support of achievement and the progress of science.  The American flag on the moon – or on Mars, or on Jupiter – will, at least, be a worthy monument to what had once been a great country.

Canada got off to a good start in September of 1962 when it launched (on a US rocket from Vandenberg AFB in California) Alouette 1.  Since the satellite was built in Canada we became the third country to have a satellite in space after the Soviet Union and the United States.  Since then we have let countries like India, Japan and Communist China surpass us.

Canada’s space budget is not insignificant, $370 million, but it is paltry to what it should be in order to carry out the tasks that it should be able to do.  By comparison, NASA’s budget is $17.6 billion; the European Space Agency’s budget is $5.3 billion, France’s $2.6 billion, Japan’s $2.1 billion, Germany’s 1.8 billion, Italy’s $1.5 billion and India’s $1.2 billion.

Given our GDP of $1.2 Trillion, the vast size of this country, its skilled technical labour force, its skilled scientists and its way of life to protect, Canada should expand its space budget to be at least that of its comparable G7 counterparts like Germany, France or Italy.  With 1/10th the population of the United States our space budget could easily be 1/10th theirs or $1.8 billion or almost 5 times what it is at present.  Consider that the Harper government wants to spend $2 billion over the next five years expanding the prison system to put teenage pot-smokers behind bars.

I understand that the Canadian Space Agency is currently considering a launch site somewhere on Cape Breton Island (probably chosen for its eastern and northern coasts which would allow for both polar and equatorial launches.  Typically launch sites have uninhabited down-range areas in case anything goes wrong.)  The government should pump as much money as it can into furthering this idea.

We need our own launch facilities for the same reason I argued we should have our own nuclear weapon capability a few weeks ago.  We can no longer rely on the United States, Russia or the ESA to do our heavy lifting for us.  Launches of a military nature must be done on our soil with our technology on our terms.  To go cap-in-hand and ask that the US, France or Russia launch our satellites for us is an abrogation of our sovereignty if we could do it ourselves.

A truly Canadian space program would capture the minds of young aspiring scientists and students who would hopefully have that same awe that I had when I saw Americans walk on the moon.  Again, Rand said it best when she said that

The most inspiring aspect of Apollo 11’s flight was that it made such abstractions as rationality, knowledge, science perceivable in direct, immediate experience.  That it involved a landing on another celestial body was like a dramatist’s emphasis on the dimensions of reason’s power:  it is not of enormous importance to most people that man lands on the moon; but that man CAN do it, is.

While I’m not suggesting that Canada has a moon-landing program I am suggesting we have a space program that will inspire Canadians to admire the possibilities of science and rationality as opposed to the current trend to admire mysticism and ignorance.

(Originally aired on Just Right show #172 October 7, 2010. To download the show visit //