Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Only the Elite Go to Space

Currently there are over a hundred-thousand applicants vying for four one-way tickets to Mars.  The vetting process for getting to this point will be arduous, and only a select few will seriously be considered.  This is for a privately funded, and possible (but far from certain) mission to Mars.  NASA is hoping to go there, but won’t be opening the mission to just anyone.  There are very good reasons for this.
Space travel is extremely hazardous, and not for the faint of heart.  It is extraordinarily difficult to launch a rocket into orbit, let alone send it to another planet.  Certainly the fundamentals are rudimentary (which is why they are called fundamentals), but the devil is in the details.  Successfully sending a manned spacecraft into orbit, and returning it safely is extremely difficult.  NASA makes it look easy, and almost routine, but I can assure you that is an illusion.
You only have to look at NASA’s failures to see how difficult it is to succeed, and NASA’s history is littered with failure.  There have been three catastrophic events that cost lives.
Apollo 1(AS-204)

SS Challenger (STS-51)

SS Columbia (STS-107)

That’s just NASA.  Every other nation that has put astronauts and spacecraft orbit has suffered training accidents and loss of men and equipment.  There is a reason why “Rocket Scientist” is a synonym for an extremely intelligent person.  It takes a lot of math, science, and engineering to perfect a vehicle for launch, and even then, failure is possible.  Even the slightest defect can have serious repercussions.
There is a very good reason why NASA takes only the best, brightest, and healthiest people into space.  I know there are some exceptions to that statement (John Glen flew on STS-95 when he was 77), but there are always exceptions.  However, for a deep space mission there can be no exceptions.
When an explosion crippled the Apollo 13 mission, the three men onboard were NOT ordinary men.  Lovell, Haise, and Swigert were ALL test pilots.  Fred Haise graduated with honors in Aerospace Engineering. John Swigert had a BS in Mechanical Engineering, an MS in Aerospace Engineering, and an MBA.  James Lovell had graduated from the Naval Academy.  These men were intelligent, resourceful, and highly trained.  They were supported by the smartest and most talented ground crew that the United States could muster.  None of the people involved accepted failure as an option (probably a reason why it’s a brilliantly delivered line in the movie).

Serious space exploration is not for people who dream of being Captain Kirk.  It’s for people who ARE Lovell, Haise, Swigert, Armstrong, Glenn, Aldrin, and the others that have come and gone since.  You don’t need someone who is simply better than average, you require someone exceptional.  A successful pioneering astronaut requires ingenuity, perseverance, intelligence, competence, and an overwhelming desire to survive against all odds.  These qualities are NOT possessed by ordinary.  The average person is satisfied with mediocrity, predictability, freezes when critical situations arise, and fail to act.  This type of person is unacceptable in deep space.
As I’ve pointed out, it is extremely expensive to send people to space.  People are worth more than their weight in gold when in space.  You can only afford to send the most experienced, the most dedicated, the most committed, the most stable, the most resourceful, the best trained, and the most intelligent on missions to other planets.  Anything less is a waste of money.
A successful astronaut is the kind of person that has a family, a job they are dedicated to, a yearning to learn, and a desire to return home.  The kind of person attracted to a one-way trip does not have the desire to return to a family, doesn’t have the skills or knowledge needed, and doesn’t have the drive to survive at all costs.  That person has already given up on the earth, and everything associated with it.  They have a desire to leave everything behind in the hopes of adventure.  It is shortsighted, vain, and ultimately doomed to failure. 
I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t believe I am.  The past is the best predictor of the future.  If we have learned anything from our past successes and failures is that eventually something will go wrong, and when things go wrong you need the best people working on a solution.  It isn’t a matter of if, but when something will go wrong.  If a mission is to have any chance of success, it must have the best tools available.  The best tool on a manned mission is the crew.  That is why only the elite are eligible, and the rest of us must live vicariously through them.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Beating a Martian Horse Dead

Courtesy NASA

I’ve touched on this subject before, but since this article came out yesterday, I felt I needed to vent a little more.  It flabbergasts me that people really don’t consider the consequences before they commit to the dangers of space travel.  It is understood that I’m not thrilled with the Mars-One experiment.  The more I learn, the less there is to like.
I have mentioned that there are significant barriers to living on Mars.  The greatest danger is the radiation.  The Curiosity Rover has given us data that shows that the trip to Mars ALONE will expose astronauts to 100 times the exposure on Earth.  Without significant shielding, the exposure could exceed the lifetime limit allowed by space agencies worldwide.  This wouldn’t even take into account the exposure experienced on the surface.
What is the upshot of all this exposure?  There is significant cancer risk and possible severe central nervous system damage.  I cannot think of a more horrible way to die, than radiation poisoning in a hostile environment.
More shielding is, of course, mandatory, but that would significantly increase the cost, and limit the storage available.  Water and fuel would provide some shielding, but any consumable wouldn’t be ideal shielding for long-term travel.
The real problem happens when you arrive on the planet.  The kind of person this project seems to have attracted is not the kind of person I would send on this type of mission.  The novelty would quickly wear off, and constant survival would kick in.  Even under the best of circumstances, people exposed to prolonged survival situations suffer severe emotional distress.  This mission would degenerate into a nightmare scenario that, until now, has fed hypothetical horror tales like “Event Horizon”, “Sunshine”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and the upcoming “Europa Report” (even “The Colony” looks like it has the elements I’m discussing).
It would only take one individual, suffering a psychotic break, to wipe out the entire settlement.  I’m certain that the people in charge of Mars-One will do their level best to screen out the people most likely to suffer mental illness under these conditions, but even the most careful screening can’t determine what will happen with absolute certainty.  We simply don’t fully understand all the variables of deep-space mental health.  There is a very good reason why NASA takes only the best, and even then, sometimes mental illness goes undiagnosed until something terrible happens.
Everything we have learned up to now, points to a serious issue that we won’t be able to adequately study within the Mars-One timeline.  I know I sound like a naysayer, but I’m not convinced that leaping into this venture without considerable study (at least an orbital flyby) would doom the explorers to a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone.  A catastrophe of this magnitude could doom future missions, and potentially setback deep-space exploration for decades.
Sure, the idea of planetary exploration is exciting, but we can’t let that cloud our judgment.  We have to look at things carefully, and not rush in because it sounds exciting.  This is human exploration, and contrary to popular belief, a life isn’t something that can’t be replaced by simply throwing money or platitudes at them.