Home > Newsletter Archive > Newsletter #31
2. Shuttle Diplomacy
3. The Mystery of Iapetus
4. In the News
Summer greetings or winter ones, if you're in the southern hemisphere to you all. I hope this newsletter finds you and yours in fine fettle. Jill and I are enjoying our new life here in Dundee, on the east coast of Scotland, not least because of the nearness of our family, including our daughter and her husband, granddaughter, and our son, who's presently staying with us, in between his travels.
Regular visitors to my website will have noticed a lot of changes taking place over the past few weeks. With my latest manuscript, all about Gravity, having been given the nod of approval by my editor at Wiley I've been freed up to spend more time on other things. The entire site has undergone a facelift, including a new, (hopefully) user-friendlier page format and color scheme. Also, I've been busily adding new pages and updating old ones. A number of people have written in with various suggestions as to how I could improve and extend the site further RSS feeds (which are becoming very popular on news sites), a forum, e-mail news, and so on. All these are on my "to do" list and will be put in place as time allows. If you haven't explored "The Worlds of David Darling" recently, let me invite you to check out:
the front page, with all the latest news,
the Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy and Spaceflight
and the Encyclopedia of Alternative and Sustainable Living
Drop me a line if you have any suggestions for new topics. Send in a contribution and, if it makes it onto the site, it'll be fully credited and a link provided to any appropriate website.
On the book front, as I mentioned, the Gravity manuscript was given the thumbs up by my publisher, John Wiley & Sons, and so will now go into the production process (starting with copy editing). And more good news: Teleportation: the Impossible Leap, already available around the world in English, is to be translated into Japanese and Korean following the sale of foreign rights to publishers in those countries. Foreign translations always intrigue me. They make me wonder how close the translations are to the original, especially when metaphors and English colloquialisms are involved. And I wonder, too, what would happen if, say, the Japanese edition were translated back into English (by a different translator). Would it still resemble the original? (I bet not!) How many times would you have to translate back and forth in this way before the original was changed beyond recognition? Probably in all kinds of hilarious ways it's like the old game of Chinese (or, in this case, Japanese) whispers.
2. Shuttle Diplomacy
As I write this, the Space Shuttle Discovery is still in orbit, docked to the International Space Station the first flight of the Shuttle following the terrible loss of Columbia a couple of years ago. Yesterday (Aug. 4), astronaut Stephen Robinson made an unprecedented, out-of-sight spacewalk to the belly of Discovery, with the help of the space station's 58-foot robotic arm, to extricate a couple of bits of filler material that had been sticking out between some of the thermal tiles. It's a measure of how concerned and cautious Shuttle management is these days, in the wake of Columbia's loss when a suitcase-sized chunk of insulation from the External Tank punched a hole in the wing, which led to the Orbiter's destruction on reentry. One more disaster like that and the Shuttle program is finished.
Actually, it may be finished anyway. With a hundred or so camera's trained on this launch, every bit of flotsam and jetsam that came loose during takeoff was spotted and recorded and there was an alarming amount of it about, despite many months of trying to rectify the problems that doomed Columbia. A piece of flying debris from the External Tank, not much smaller than that which hit Columbia, smashed into Discovery's underside close to the front landing gear doors. It could have gone anywhere. Other chunks of insulating foam narrowly missed the Orbiter. Even before Discovery had dropped anchor at the ISS, NASA had grounded the Shuttle fleet again on the basis of a continuing unacceptable risk.
So, what next? NASA has put a huge amount of effort since 2003 into making the Shuttle as safe as it can be. It's hard to see what else it can do in a period of months that will make much difference; otherwise, it would presumably already have done it. There are no quick fixes and no ways to make the Shuttle system much more reliable than it is now. What's becoming clear is that both the Shuttle and the ISS are reaching the end of their lives staggeringly brilliant pieces of engineering, awesome testimonies to human courage and endeavor, but ultimately flawed, massively (inexusably so) expensive and somewhat purposeless monuments of lingering Cold War aspirations.
Some of you are big supporters of manned space exploration, I'm sure. I am myself when the time's right. I think it will come through commercial investment, such as an expansion of SpaceShipOne-like projects to fare-paying passengers, orbiting hotels/conference centers, and so forth (whether that's the best way or not). It will be market-driven from now on. But the hundreds of billions that have already been poured into the Shuttle/ISS programs could have been so much more usefully spent on robotic space exploration and, far more importantly, tackling problems here on Earth. It's mind-bogglingly difficult and expensive to get people into orbit for a few days or weeks at a time we're fragile beings with lavish life-support needs mostly to do stuff that can now be done automatically by machines. What useful new science has come from the ISS? Compared with the discoveries of Hubble (which could have been launched by an unmanned rocket), Voyager, and the Mars Exploration Rovers, for example, almost none. Nor is the ISS a stepping stone for manned exploration of the Solar System. In fact, beyond the usual presidential bluster about a human mission to Mars and a permanent lunar base, there are serious concerns at the moment about the practicality of long-haul crewed spaceflight. A new study by the US Federal Aviation Administration estimates that the crew of a 2.7-year roundtrip to Mars (allowing a stay of one year on the planet) would be exposed to such a high dose of cosmic radiation that there'd be a 1-in-10 chance for a man and a 1-in-6 chance for a woman of subsequently developing a lethal cancer directly because of it. Read this New Scientist article for a sobering assessment. I'm sure we'll eventually find a way around this problem (clever shielding, medical/genetic approaches, etc) and learn to live in space and colonize other planets. But I'd really like to see us look after our own world a bit more responsibly first.