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David Darling's Newsletter #25


September 30, 2004


1. Meanderings
2. The Future of Space Exploration
3. Bookends

1. Meanderings

I mentioned in the last newsletter that we (Jill and I) were scheduled to become grandparents in October. Well, the delivery came a month earlier than advertised! We're now the proud grandparents of little Emily Varie (all 4lb 10oz of her at birth) who was born to our daughter in Dundee, Scotland. On Oct. 5th we're flying out to see her and, indeed, to stay, since we're leaving our home here in Minnesota to take up residence once again in the UK. This will make no difference to my website, the e-mail address shown above, or anything else to do with my work. One of the beauties of the Internet is that we now do truly live in a Global Village where one's cyber presence can roam the planet independently of one's corporeal whereabouts! For me, as far as work goes, it'll just mean having a different view out of my window: substitute the Tay estuary for the Minnesotan woods.

In other news, I was once again on Coast-to-Coast AM with Art Bell on Sun-Mon night talking about everything from the possible presence of extraterrestrials or their handiwork in the solar system to near-death experiences. For those who've never heard of "Coast-to-Coast AM", it's a wildly popular overnight radio show (carried by 500 local radio stations and with an audience of around 10 million) that covers every topic imaginable. Great fun to be on — even at 1 to 4 a.m. in the morning! My thanks to the many people who e-mailed me after the show — apologies if I haven't yet replied — and to all the new folk who signed up for the newsletter.

The project I talked about last month, involving a Washington State U. researcher, one of his students, and myself, has kicked off. Our initial goal is to build a catalogue of potential "signatures" of extraterrestrial presence or involvement on Earth or elsewhere in the solar system. As far as academe goes, it's right on the margins. But, in part, we see it as an effort to build bridges between mainstream science and some of the more speculative ideas that people have had over the years about how alien visitation may have played a part in our past or be taking place at this very moment. Certainly, the notion that extraterrestrial probes or sentinel devices are stationed near at hand is starting to be taken more seriously in the broad SETI community. We're hoping to promote this more open-minded view and also extend it to possible exoarchaeology on Earth. Anyway, it'll be interesting to see where it leads.

I'm writing this just a day after SpaceShipOne touched down safely having completed the first half of its effort to win the $10 million X-Prize. If it again manages to reach an altitude of 100 kilometers or more at some point during the next two weeks it will take the prize and become officially recognized as the first privately built and launched manned spacecraft. It will be — and is already — a fabulous achievement. I'm not sure what I'm impressed by most: the technology, the indomitable, can-do spirit behind such an endeavor, or the courage of the pilot. Richard Branson, Britain's number 1 entrepreneur, has already announced plans for commercial spaceflights by 2007 at $100,000 a shot. By my reckoning that works out at $83 per second for the 20-minute flight!

2. The Future of Space Exploration

This is an opportune time then to think about what tomorrow may bring for the exploration of space. To me, it seems there's a complicated mixture of reasons to be both optimistic and cautious. On the upside our robotic explorers are making thrilling discoveries on and around nearby worlds, most notably, at the moment, in connection with Mars and the Saturn system. We may stand on the threshold of one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of all time — finding life on another planet — if the data on methane and other gases in the Martian atmosphere continue to point more and more compellingly toward a biological explanation. Around the end of this year, all being well, we'll catch our first clear glimpse of the surface of Titan, Saturn's giant moon, another place that promises to teach us much about life's origins. Probes are heading out, or soon will be, to Mercury, Venus, Pluto, and the Kuiper Belt. Advanced design studies of the nuclear-powered Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) are in train.

On the manned front, NASA has been charged with returning to the Moon and taking astronauts to Mars, perhaps by as early as 2025. A central plank of this new strategy is Project Prometheus, an effort to develop new nuclear technologies for spaceflight power and propulsion, of which JIMO is the first application. China is also now a player in manned spaceflight, having launched its first astronaut last October. A space station and a lunar base are among its long-term goals. On the debit side, the International Space Station is really struggling. Its two-man crew is barely managing to keep up with basic repairs and maintenance, leaving precious little time for research. The deteriorating oxygen-supply situation could force a complete temporary abandonment. And no firm date has been set for the Shuttle's return to flight. With two Shuttles already lost from a tiny fleet one can't help but viewing the future of the ISS and Shuttle with trepidation. One more accident and both programs will likely be terminated, to be followed by a long delay before a new manned launch vehicle is developed.

The prospects for commercial and privately-funded manned space travel, on the other hand, are starting to look rosier as the race for the X-Prize reaches its climax. I suppose a major question is how amenable these mini-space planes and one- or two-man rocketships are to being scaled up. Its one thing for an intrepid pilot and his or her solitary passenger to rise high enough to catch a glimpse of the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth, quite another to run regular trips to an orbiting space hotel in multi-seater spaceliners. How scalable is the technology being used by the X-Prize contendors? Comments anyone?

Of course, as a race, we're explorers by nature: it's in our blood, our genes. And yet, although I'm excited about the prospect of us venturing forth into the solar system and, eventually, on to the stars, I have some reservations. The biggest one is that I'm concerned about us rushing to colonize other worlds (typically, you might notice, on a timescale that would allow advocates to see the results during their lifetimes!) when we're continuing to make such a mess of the one we're already on. We talk about terraforming Mars, while we continue the rapid de-terraforming of Earth. A species that can't stop polluting its atmosphere, bring global warming under control, slow the mass extinction (including that of the great apes — it's nearest relatives) that it's triggered, live in harmony with nature instead of lay waste to it, doesn't, to my mind, have quite the right credentials for assuming custody of virgin worlds - or perhaps Virgin Worlds, if Branson is involved.

I don't want to be cynical about it. There's no reason why we can't explore space AND start to fix our problems back home: they aren't mutually exclusive endeavors. We could be doing both. The problem is, we're showing precious few signs of waking up to the disasters we're creating (although I note that the Russian parliament has just agreed to ratify the Kyoto Treaty). And if, collectively, we show so little regard for our own planetary life support system, what are the chances that we'll respect the environments of other planets and moons? Advanced extraterrestrials watching us contemplate our next moves in space might be excused for mistaking our efforts at colonization for a kind of infection and our species as some kind of interplanetary virus.

Let's suppose though, by some miracle, that we mend our ways over the next two or three decades - roughly the timescale that's been mooted for returning to the Moon and landing people on Mars. Suppose we go with the best intentions of preserving these new frontiers in more or less their pristine state. There's still a very serious problem in the case of Mars: it may already be inhabited. Can we guarantee that our arrival won't result in the destruction of what may be an already very fragile and fragmented ecosystem? I doubt it. It came as a huge surprise when terrestrial bacteria were found to have survived over a year and a half on the Moon when Surveyor 3's camera was recovered by the Apollo astronauts. All the spacecraft that have landed on Mars have delivered microbes from Earth, despite strict sterilization procedures, and we really don't know if those microbes have survived and multiplied or possibly even mutated. How much more contamination will we bring (and bring back) during a manned excursion? Do we know enough about the long-term consequences to put an entire planetary biosphere at risk?

Let's explore space, with our machines and ourselves. Absolutely. But, as the only known technological species in the Galaxy, let's also adopt that prime rule of the physician: "First do no harm."

3. Bookends

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Until next time,
All the best,
David Darling