Human access to space
We live on a tiny island of knowledge in a sea of ignorance. Beyond the horizon, the unknowns of space beckon because we know discoveries make life worth living and unknowns promise new possibilities. For centuries people have dreamed of going into space, and centuries more may pass before all the benefits are revealed. But space travel will undoubtedly be regarded as the most important human achievement of all time and an enduring presence in space will be the next step in human evolution.
I remember when NASA put our first man in space. I followed the missions to the moon and imagined our future as a spacefaring nation with a fleet of Space Shuttles. Fascinated, I also followed the unmanned missions to the planets, asteroids and comets. On clear nights I delight in pointing out visible ISS passes to neighbors and total strangers.
I’m also delighted by the surge in commercial space operations and the visionary efforts to reduce the cost of access to space. No longer an annual event, rocket launches are almost an everyday affair. No longer science fiction, millions of people living and working in space is emerging as a feasible reality.
ALL OUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET?
Gerry O’Neill put numbers to the idea of people living and working in space in 1974 with a paper titled “The Colonization of Space.” In 1975 I followed his efforts to organize the first space manufacturing conference and thought there was something poetic about Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog supporting a conference about space. When O’Neill’s book The High Frontier came out in 1976 I was titillated by the ideas and thrilled when they became an inspiration for visionaries determined to make them come true. It’s crucial that we take the steps today that will eventually allow the transfer of heavy industry into space and will help humanity avoid betting everything on one planet. Nothing less than the survival of human civilization is at stake.
In 1977 two Voyager probes were launched carrying a golden disc with sounds and images from Earth. Now in interstellar space, they could last for millions of years. I’ve worried they may become the only artifact of an extinct lifeform and hope, instead, they will be recovered someday as primitive relics of a civilization that blossomed into the cosmos.
Climate change, nuclear war, pandemics, solar storms, asteroid collisions, or even a nearby nova are existential threats to humanity. Some can be avoided, some can be solved here on Earth, some will require work in space, and some are unlikely. But as Stephen Hawking pointed out, if you wait long enough the improbable is inevitable.
Becoming spacefarers could change everything. The distance light has traveled since the big bang defines the limit to space colonization; but an unexplored frontier, 80 billion light years in diameter, offers a lot of opportunity for discovery and new possibilities. Colonizing space would mean we no longer run the risk on a cosmic scale, of being a civilization that flickers to life and then blinks out.
Someday we will make interstellar journeys. Perhaps by then we’ll have evolved or modified our genome so we have four arms with hands and no legs or feet, the better to work in weightlessness. Perhaps we’ll even have developed beyond purely organic beings.
Such possibilities may seem bizarre, but my grandfather once told me how strange it was that, logging with oxen in Nova Scotia, he read about the first flight of the Wright brothers in the newspaper; and then, working as a truck mechanic in Boston, he also watched the first moon landing on TV. Humans had gone from flying a few feet in a canvas covered plane to flying through space in a titanium rocket in sixty-six years. And now the pace of advance is increasing exponentially.
A RISING TIDE FLOATS ALL BOATS
Surveys show that most Americans support space exploration—both for its contributions to science and national pride—but I lament the fact very few think we should spend more on space. The popularity of Star Trek and Star Wars notwithstanding, our push to make space exploration safe and reliable may have had the unfortunate side effect of making it routine and even boring for many people.
But that’s changing. Television coverage of a recent unmanned launch was cut short by regulators, and social media went nuts. When NASA announced a job opening last year for a Planetary Protection Officer—a position the agency had since the ‘60s—I was tickled that a fourth-grader applied saying she “…would be a fit…” because she was young and could learn to think like an alien.
Despite slow progress, I’m encouraged that in her lifetime she will have the opportunity to live and work in space, something a lot of kids (including myself) dreamed of but couldn’t realistically expect to happen.
When I was seven, my folks bought a copy of a little book that tells the story of a youngster watching a ‘shooting star’ descend over a nearby ridge. When young Eddie goes to investigate he finds a curious figure hanging from the bottom of an apple tree branch with the help of anti- gravity boots, surveying the area through a telescope. Spaceships, telescopes, innovative
technology, creative ideas, science fiction—The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree is where it started for me.
As I grew up, I devoured Robert Heinlein’s books (and many others) and was entranced by all NASA was accomplishing. That passion led me to define my own college curriculum at the University of New Mexico that I called Aerospace Psychology. I found part-time work while still in college at Albuquerque’s Lovelace Clinic—the site of the Mercury 7 astronauts’ physical examinations—investigating the effects of high-energy pulsed electromagnetic radiation. I was close to space. I could feel it.
Astronauts were military pilots, I knew, so I paid to learn to fly, joined the Navy after college, applied for the aviation program, and was accepted. My folks provided me with many gifts, but 20/20 vision wasn’t one of them. So, I trained as a Naval Flight Officer, not as a pilot, although I already had a pilot’s certificate. Nevertheless, after NFO flight training and deployment to Vietnam aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CVA-64) flying in EA-6B ‘Prowlers’ as an electronic warfare officer, I applied for the astronaut program, hoping for a vision waiver.
TAKING IT TO THE STREETS
The waiver was denied, but my enthusiasm never wavered. Space still beckoned. I built telescopes and figured out how to take deep-space images using stripped down webcams and breadboard CCD cameras. Along the way, I became a NASA Solar System Ambassador (a misnomer, if there ever was one—Space Evangelist would have been better). My name went into space attached to unmanned missions. And I built and flew model rockets and experimented with simulated ones using the Kerbal Space Program where I learned a lot about orbital dynamics.
Eager to share my enthusiasm for all things space-related, I created a Solar System Space Walk Simulator. Using a yellow bowling ball as the Sun, a cinder as Mercury, and of course a blue marble as Earth (other planets were represented to scale with other household objects) all I needed was a playground, football field, or airport ramp to take kids and adults on a journey into the solar system. Pacing off the distance to each planet on that scale helped make the vastness of space visible and tangible. A three-fold rack card for tourist locations made the fun self- explanatory and accessible to a broad audience.
The vintage airplane business my wife and I founded and operated for 16 years had a space component, too. At hangar parties we offered guests the opportunity to fly approaches in a PC- based Shuttle simulator with an unusual six-foot dome display. And we even registered ‘Biplane, Air Combat, Warbird and Space Adventures’ as a dba, hoping that someday we could add flights into space for the growing list of repeat guests clamoring for new adventures.
I remember trying not to embarrass myself while flying an approach in the Shuttle simulator with Mike Smith watching over my shoulder. I remember, too, watching his fateful launch when he was pilot of the Challenger. And I remember feeling the rumble in my chest, five years later, when the Shuttle carried the Hubble telescope into orbit. Indelible memories and powerful reminders of how exceptional people and extraordinary technology continually fight entropy to achieve the remarkable rewards that can come from working and living in space.
STEP BY STEP
The technology changes will have to be step-by-step at first. Pioneers on suborbital voyages into space will be like those who made their way west in prairie schooners. Repetition will pave the way, and orbital flights will carry increasing loads of cargo and passengers. Burial in space, with re-entry targeted where family and friends can watch could become a popular alternative to cremation. I can’t think of a better way to go.
S-curves building on S-curves of advancement will solve seemingly impossible technical problems of space travel. Terra-forming technologies will be developed, and the Moon, Europa, and Mars will be colonized. O’Neill’s Island colonies will become a reality, and millions of people will work, live and vacation in space. Designs for ships that can reach a significant percentage of the speed of light will emerge perhaps using fusion power or the energy of empty space itself.
Isolated colonies, with Earth occupations and professions, adventures, games, and sports, will be formed to simulate inter-stellar trips. Then thousands of colony ships will set out for apparently habitable planets. Not all ships will make it, and some space sailors will be disappointed when they arrive. But new discoveries will be made and new possibilities for work and play will emerge.
Fiction, fantasy? No, the colonization of our galaxy has already begun. Over the last half century we slowly created a beachhead and, like the ancient mariners, our first few space sailors have embarked on voyages that will ultimately discover humanity’s future.
The moon is our closest celestial body, of course. Nevertheless, when I captured this image a few nights ago, it still took the moonlight 1.3 seconds to get here even traveling at 186,000 miles/second (300,000 km/sec).
If you think about it another way, light travels a bit less than a foot (11.3 inches) in a nanosecond. Measure the distance from switch to light and you know how long it takes the lamp to come on after you hit the button.
A little farther away, out past Mars, is Jupiter. It’s big ball of gas, much bigger than Earth and our Moon—in fact, it’s more massive than all the other planets combined (Saturn is almost as big but it’s not very dense). That big red spot on Jupiter is a storm that’s been there for years and it’s about the size of Earth.
This image was built by taking a movie, extracting over 1000 frames, selecting the best 5% using special software, and then stacking the best of the best to remove noise.
It takes light (and spacecraft radio signals) three-quarters of an hour to travel the 342,000,000 miles from Jupiter. No one will phone home if they take a vacation on a space station orbiting Jupiter when the answer to “can you hear me now” takes an hour and half!
Here’s a picture I took of our closest star, the Sun, as it looked a couple of days ago. Those blotches are sunspots, and the big ones are bigger than Earth!
It takes sunlight 8 minutes to get here. The next closest star is so far away it takes light four years to get here. Space isn’t exactly crowded.
Someone created the illustration below that provides a good size comparison, but it doesn’t accurately represent how far apart the planets are. On this scale, blue Neptune out there on the right, would be three blocks away! It takes signals four and half hours to travel the distance from Neptune.
Once in a while, an old star blows up causing what is called a nova or5, if it’s a big star, a supernova. This is an image of the Rosetta Nebula that is about 5,200 light years away. The light I captured left there about the time the Stone Age ended here and early humans started making metal tools. Those tiny bright blue stars in the center are young stars that were made from the surrounding nebula.
Other supernova create clouds of gas that aren’t quite as tidy as Rosetta, but this Tarantula Nebula is beautiful because of its mess of gas and dust . It’s 160,000 light years away, and required six hours of total exposure, two minutes at a time, to pull out the details.
Some nebula remnants are very unusual. The nebula below is predominantly ionize oxygen (blue) and hydrogen (orange) gas, and is only visible with a sensitive camera and a special filter I have that isolates emissions that radiate from the gases like a florescent tube. The part at the bottom is called the Witch’s Broom. The handle of the broom, in the middle by the bright star, is about as thick as our whole solar system is wide, from Sun to former-planet Pluto.
The strange color is produced by a dual-band filter that only lets that OIII and Ha light through.
Everything I’ve shown you so far is right here in our Milky Way galaxy. When Edwin Hubble was working as a graduate student at Mt Wilson Observatory near L.A. in the 1920s he determined that the spiral cloud below wasn’t just a nebula, but a galaxy “far, far away,” as the Star Wars movie introduction put it. Those colors are what you eye would see.
The spiral above is named the Andromeda Galaxy and looks cloudy, but that haze is a trillion stars that are too small to see because this island in the sky is so far away. The light I captured took two and half million years to get here! That’s when early humans started to migrate out of Africa and began to populate the rest of the Earth.
Recently astronomers discovered there’s an unknown kind of dark matter and energy that make Andromeda and other galaxies rotate in an unexpected way. As a result, it appears as if everything we can see in the universe—you, me, moon, sun, stars, nebula—is only about 5% of what is; 95% of the Universe is invisible to us! Let that sink in!
If you were on a planet orbiting around a star over there in that galaxy and pointed your telescope back this way, our Milky Way galaxy would look similar to Andromeda—actually, a bit more like this spiral galaxy with a bright bar across the middle where stars are forming.
Galaxies come in many shapes and sizes as you can see. That little blob off to the top right in my image above, and the two blobs in the Andromeda Galaxy (second image above) are so-called dwarf galaxies made up of “just” a few million stars.
The gorgeous galaxy below, seen edge on, is a favorite. This Sombrero Galaxy, like the others, has a haze above and below the dark brim that are billions of stars that are too small to see. The dark rim is a cloud of dust and gas slowly clumping into stars and planets. I captured this image using a rented telescope, controlled over the Internet, in Chile.
Surprisingly, in our own huge Milky Way galaxy, only about seven new stars are born each year. But there are about 50 billion galaxies in the observable universe and together they create something like 400 million new stars every day. Fortunately, (unless you live near one), about the same number of stars die every day plus the universe is expanding, so we don’t have to worry about overcrowding anytime soon.
Nevertheless, those galaxies floating around out there in the great emptiness of space still manage to run into each other. It takes millions of years for the collision to occur in ultra-slow-motion because the distances are so huge, but thaty means i could capture it while it’s happening, as in this image below. It would take 30,000 years, traveling at the speed of light, to travel from the left edge to the right edge of the two galaxies.
Our Milky Way and Andromeda will collide one day. But don’t worry, it won’t happen for about 5 billion years. In any case, the Universe is very young at a mere 14.7 billion-years-old and it will be around for several trillion years. Humans, I’m not so sure what we’ll be like in a 1000 years, or even a hundred.
I don’t have any telescopes or cameras that peer into the future (yet), so this is as far as I can take you on this voyage into outer space.