Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Why Friedman Is Wrong

Louis D. Friedman recently wrote a blog entry for the Planetary Society.
"I don't blog," I asserted about six months ago. But then again, I also recall saying (sometime in the last century) "I don't do Windows -- DOS is good enough for me." Well, times change; and here I am. This is an experiment. We'll have to see what the reaction (mine and yours) is.
Perhaps, this is the problem right here. There seems to be an unwillingness to change and to progress. Judging from this blog entry, Friedman strikes me as a person who likes things to remain constant, to remain the same until something forces him to advance. At what point did he decide to start "doing Windows"? When Microsoft stopped supporting DOS? And the threat of cutting his "science and exploration" caused him to make another major leap into the future, which is the start of using blogs. For being in a field that is supposed to look towards our future, he seems way too antagonistic to change and to progress. In his blog entry, he adds:
First the U.S. Administration presented a budget to Congress severely cutting back space science research and missions, including great exploration missions to Mars, Europa, and searching for terrestrial planets around other stars. Then...they announce that understanding the Earth is not a goal of NASA's anymore -- despite the fact that understanding the Earth has been one of the principal products of space exploration.
I remember reading somewhere that we should turn the understanding of the Earth to NOAA. Perhaps, the NOAA can do the space missions for the scientific study of our planet, while we free NASA to explore deeper into space. He continues:
The problem is not simply about budget priorities...It is much deeper; it is about the heart and soul of exploration, which is the fundamental goal of NASA. NASA has separated science from exploration, bureaucratically and in their development of missions. They dismiss the great robotic missions: Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, Mars Exploration Rover, New Horizons (past) and Europa Orbiter, Mars Sample Return, Dawn, Terrestrial Planet Finder (future) as only science. Whereas the Vision for Space Exploration strongly supported these robotic missions and the search for extraterrestrial life, the new NASA exploration program cut out half the research connected with the latter subject and all those future missions I just mentioned.

Why would they do this? If the Administration can't supply the funds for the Vision for Space Exploration goals, wouldn't just delaying them make more sense than cannibalizing the part of NASA that is working and has provided such valuable and exciting results to the world, and which was supposed to guide humans into the solar system?

I think I am beginning to understand why. [The] President's science advisor, Dr. John Marburger, declared, "…we want to incorporate the Solar System in our [the U.S.] economic sphere…" and then went on say "The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.…It subordinates space exploration to the primary goals of scientific, security and economic interests." Whoa -- what happened to exploration? What are the American economic and security interests in human exploration of the Moon and Mars? What happened to "we came in peace for all mankind?"

Marburger has gone further. In testimony to Congress he asserted, "The greatest value of the Moon lies neither in science nor in exploration, but in its material ... The production of oxygen in particular, the major component (by mass) of chemical rocket fuel, is potentially an important Lunar industry." This is ludicrous -- we could probably not devise a more expensive way to make rocket fuel than by producing it on the Moon -- especially with oxygen which we do not know how to extract, or at what cost.
This seems like a sound argument, but it is a dead end. I agree with Friedman on the importance and significance of the great exploratory mission of Galileo, Cassini, Voyager, Pathfinder, and other robot exploratory missions. But his argument is a total dead end. Where have we been in space since the Apollo Era? Since 1972, no human has left Low Earth Orbit. And again, we have had great robotic exploratory missions since Apollo, but if Friedman gets his way, that's all we will be doing for the next 30 or so years. Humans will fail to leave Low Earth Orbit for the next 30 years. The Space Shuttles will crumble while we use rockets based upon 20th century technology to launch our exploratory missions. Is this a future worth having? Not if it could be much better.

The importance of space industry and manufacturing for mandkind is beyond the scope of this blog entry. In fact, that will be the subject of other blog entries. This blog entry is focused on Friedman's goals of exploration and science. I believe that if Friedman is really concerned about science and exploration, then he should back Griffin's moves. Consider this: What has to come before industry and economic development? You guessed it: science and exploration. The economic development of colonial America could not have happen if the Americas was not explored first. The same is true for space.

When we go to the Moon to mine it for its oxygen, it will be based upon plenty of exploration and science. So let's go 20 years into the future, when there is a base on the Moon that is mining it for its oxygen, and for materials to build solar power to export to Earth. It will then be orders of magnitude easier to build a base for science and further exploration of the Moon than otherwise. The Lunar factories could build the tools for Lunar science and exploration much more cheaply than it would cost to launch it from Earth. The Lunar factories could fabricate the Lunar rovers. Controlling Lunar rovers using telepresence would be much better on the Moon than from Earth because there would be no delay in transmission.

And you want to search for new bodies in the Solar System, around other stars, and for extraterrestrial life? Why not build a giant telescope on the dark side of the Moon, which has been a dream for space enthusiasts? Without the development of space, such a project would be next to impossible. But with space development, the Lunar factories could build the parts to it, and then our robots or humans could build it. This telescope will make mincemeat out of Hubble! And finding a way to extract oxygen from Lunar rocks is a very worthy scientific goal.

And what of Mars and the Asteroids? If we have the sufficient infrastructure then we could do this MUCH more cheaply than otherwise. We could build spacecraft to these bodies without having to launch them out of Earth's massive gravity well. This means that we can have far better missions to these bodies than would be possible otherwise. And we would be in a much better position to send humans to these bodies, and to even build bases there, which would further not only the economic development of these bodies. They would further the exploration and the scientific study of these bodies.

As for cutting many scientific missions, by the time we build our space economic infrastructure, these missions will be hopelessly obsolete. The space infrastructure we build will promote the development of exploratory missions that are MUCH better than would be possible without that economic development. The craft we send can be much bigger. We won't have to worry about Earth's gravity well. Just build the craft in orbit using mined Lunar material. Even launching from the Moon would be much cheaper, and allow for much larger missions.

I applaud Griffin for what he is doing. Friedman is hopelessly near-sighted. And by doing so, he is ultimately causing much harm to his own dreams and goals of more exploration and science. It is time that we think in the far term. We can have space development AND we can have science and exploration that is far beyond what Friedman seems to be able to imagine.

And another thing. Science and exporation is good. But what about building space industries that can heal the Earth? What about building Solar Power Satellites that can liberate us from fossil fuels? What about the settlement of space? What about people living in orbit, on the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and other Solar System bodies? Are these not worthy goals for NASA?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Funny UserFriendly Comic

If you guys have not heard of this comic strip, you need to check it out. This is a very funny comic. Here is the Sunday one:

Inspiring Decade for Space

Although there have been many downers this decade, including the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew in 2003, this decade has had many bright spots. The idea for this blog entry came from TDR's Tales of the Heliosphere blog. This decade started with the tourist flights of Dennis Tito and a few other tourists to the ISS. Then Burt Rutan has won the X-Prize in 2004. Bigelow also launched a one-third model inflatable space station into orbit, being the first non-governmental entity to do so. And just recently, NASA signed two private companies to develop orbital spacecraft to help supply ISS. So things are really looking up.

Just one more thought: Any ship that can supply the ISS should be able to supply Bigelow's space station. But of course, they wouldn't win Bigelow's prize.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Lunar Apollo Museum Proposal

I was born about 10 years after the final manned Lunar landing. Hell, I am too young to even remember the Challenger disaster. Considering that humans have not left LEO since the Apollo era, this seems like an amazing accomplishment. For people who remember it, the event still stands out as one of the greatest events in the history of humanity. However, there are many who do not believe that humans have actually been there. This Apollo hoax conspiracy theory even warranted its own Wikipedia entry. With the loss of Apollo tapes, allegations have recently resurfaced. I think that we need to settle this debate once and for all.

So here is my proposal: We send more men to the moon to confirm whether or not this happened. There have been many artifacts left on the moon, including this plaque.

If man really did land on the moon, the the artifacts, including vehicles, footprints, the flag, and plaques should be there. In this case, we build a museum where the plaque and the first footsteps are. If not, then whoever is there to investigate will go down in history as being the first to walk on the moon.

The museum could become one of the first major tourist destinations on the moon.

Genetically Altering Food Flavors

Most parents have to force their children to eat vegetables. But what if you could make those brussel sprouts taste like ice cream? Then kids (and adults too) would not be able to eat enough of those. From Seed Magazine:
Scientists at HortResearch, a biotechnology company in New Zealand, are isolating the genes that produce flavor in fruit. Their ultimate goal is the development of a technique that will allow large-scale production of compounds identical to the fruit's natural enzymes. "The idea is that the flavor will be more realistic," said Richard Newcomb, a scientist at HortResearch.
That is very good news for wannabe space settlers. In the early years of space settlement, the settlers will not be able to grow the variety of food that they wish. They might have to be forced to eat some nasty veggies because they grow the best in a small closed biosphere. And keep in mind that they won't have seasonings with them to help flavor their food. Perhaps, after the settlement grows to a sufficient size, they will be able to grow anything they want. But in the meantime, it is lettuce, soybeans, and wheat. But genetically altering their flavors can make eating a much more enjoyable experience than otherwise. Besides, after a day (however long the day is wherever you are at) of hard work, wouldn't you want to retire the day to a tasty meal?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Digital-Material Convergence #3

In parts 1 and 2, I have talked mainly about using fab labs to create relatively small devices, such as beams, pipes, small solar panels, space ship parts, etc. But how about gigantic structures, such as Space/Lunar Solar Power srrays, or O'Neill settlements? Our fabber seems several orders of magnitude too small for such tasks. This problem is being tackled at this moment.

As it turns out, we can use fab labs to create a manufacturing base that is far beyond anything that exists on Earth today. Enter The RepRap Project. The aim of the project is to create a fab lab that can self-replicate. The simple act of self-replication can make one simple fab lab the size of the family television into the most powerful manufacturing device ever conceived.

How powerful? Let's suppose that the immediately available materials for fabbing are infinite. Let's make another assumption that it takes a week for a fab lab the size of the family television to replicate itself. The week it takes to fabricate the object is a very, very conservative estimate by the way. After 1 week, there would be 2 fab labs. After 2 weeks, there will be a total of 4, and after 3 weeks, a total of 8. Anyone who is familiar with exponential growth knows where this is headed. What about after 2 months (8 weeks)? After 2 months, 256 machines will exist. After 24 weeks, there would be a total of 224, or 16,777,216 machines!! Did this convince to you the power of self-replicating fab labs? I don't think so. How about a year? After 52 weeks, we would have a total of 4,503,599,627,370,496 machines. Clearly, this presents the opportunity to have a manufacturing capacity far beyond what most people could dream.

Of course, the above is a very simplified way of explaining the power of self-replication. There needs to be the raw materials to make this available. The machines will need to be constructed somehow. Because of these constraints, the manufacturing power of these machines will not be subject to a strict square power law.

If you were to build a Lunar base, you might want to send a self-replicating fabber (referred to hereafter as simply "replicator"), a construction machine, a mining machine, a "matter separator", and perhaps a machine that does chemical reactions on the mined material. At first, the main task will be replication. The replicators will mostly replicate themselves, but will also create more construction, mining, and chemical machines. The constructors will put together the parts to build new machines. The mining machines will dig in the regolith and transfer to the chemical machines. The chemical machines will separate the materials in the regolith and will also use chemical reactions to produce new stock material for the replicator. After that, then you can build your base with these machines.

A great resource to check out is Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines. It is an online book, with many studies and papers of replicators. With this sort of technology, it may be possible that a replicator will become the most powerful tool for the settlement of the oceans and of space. With exponential fabbing and replication, the tools of production will become mere appendages of information production. With this, information age fabbing will be much more powerful than industrial age manufacturing. We will be able to embark on construction projects far vaster than anything accomplished or attempted in history to this point. Want to build a shield to block sunlight from reaching Venus in an attempt to terraform it? Replicators will make this possible, and perhaps even rather easy.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Digital-Material Convergence #2

It's not hard to imagine why fab labs will become critical space infrastructure. Ennex writes about using fab labs in space.
When the European settlers came to America, they brought their hammers, axes, saws, and barrels of nails. With these tools and materials they built cabins, barns, and forts. They did not, however, bring wood, the most important construction material they would need, because they knew they would find plenty of timber at their new home site. In fact, in many cases they had to get to work cutting down trees not only to provide lumber for construction but also to provide clear land to plant crops.

When we go to the Moon, Mars, and the Asteroids, we know we will not find any trees or wood. But we will find plenty of other construction and industrial materials, such as iron, aluminum, and magnesium, from which we can build shelters, factories, and machinery. The presence of these materials could save us the expense of launching steel beams and aluminum habitat shells, except for one major problem. What will stand as the modern analog of the settlers’ hammers, axes, and saws? What tools can we take with us to turn celestial rocks and dust into walls and girders?

If you are a space enthusiast, then you have probably heard of In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), in which we build our space infrastructure using the materials in space. For instance, the Lunar base/settlement should be built using Lunar, rather than Earth-based materials to drastically cut costs and the amount of energy to accomplish the task. Using fabbers will make this easier still. Using ready made fabber designs, Lunar regolith can be turned into beams, bricks, walls, wrenches, construction machines, etc. The fabbers will also be useful for repairs. Let's assume that a micrometeroid strikes a solar panel while transiting in interplanetary space. Provided you have raw materials on board, you could build another solar panel. Or, if a pipe has a major design flaw while in transit, you, and perhaps the community of engineers on Earth could analyze the design and fix the flaw. The new pipe design is then uploaded onto the server, where it can be printed on the ship. For it to function properly, then the space ship and the lunar base (and pretty much everything else) must be constructed like a LEGO model. This modularity is very important in a information economy. So if one part malfunctions, it will be easy to replace that one part.

But how would such an economy become started in the first place? Terry Hancock of Anansi Spaceworks has written a 7 part series in the Free Software Magazine on the Free Matter Economy. As a bonus, the series deals with issues centered on space development and settlement.

Digital-Material Convergence #1

The books The Long Tail and The Wealth of Networks have recently been released. Both books are about production in the Information Age. Both books focus mainly on information content such as text, audio, video, and games. Yet, these books are incomplete IMO. The reason is that they do not talk much (if at all) about how this will effect material production. The usage of the new information economy to produce physical objects is not something that is far into the future (although it seems so), but something that is happening today with fab labs, and for more than 15 years with rapid-prototyping. In fact, personal fabrication is where the personal computer revolution was in 1975. If Moore's Law applies to fab labs, then nanotech fabbers will become widespread home appliances by the 2030s, and able to manufacture pretty much anything. There are a few articles and blog entries about these machines.
If you had the necessary raw materials, then you could construct anything that you wanted. With this kind of technology, there can be widespread material abundance among humans. And with extraterrestrial mining and recycling, the amount of raw materials is practically infinite.

Today, we can begin living the fab future. Even though it is not yet available in our homes, we can still use the technology. eMachineshop is a new company that makes this technology available to anyone who has a computer. You download the CAD software, design your product using it, send in the design file, and in about a couple of weeks, the product will be shipped to you. It's sister company Rapid PCB can be used to product circuit boards. This is an engineer's paradise. I'm currently in college to be an engineer, and I cannot wait to produce my first product using fabrication technology. Kevin Carson of the Mutualist Blog has two entries on this.
You could use the fabbing ability of eMachineshop to build you own store with self-designed products. Or, you could use a Freshmeat or Sourceforge for fab designs. Using it, you could design your own product, use someone else's design, or improve upon the design of someone else, just like when developing and using open source software.