Saturday, April 23, 2016

On Partnership

It is a sunny morning in April. The former Patricia McCann and I survey the Rillito River Walk together, reflecting on 45 years of marriage. We visit the farmer’s markets at Rillito Downs and St. Philip’s Plaza. Pat limps a little, always has. She’s a childhood polio survivor. Some people would call us old. Not Pat. The sun still plays in her bright blue eyes the way it did when she was twenty, though now her hair is silver, not red.

Life together has given us many gifts besides each other. Everything we can do together is a gift. For example, we have produced two brilliantly creative and intellectually daring daughters, both largely home-educated. Their accomplishments include specialized education and training in comparative religion in one case and law enforcement in the other. Both run small businesses. And they have given us grandchildren.

They inherit Pat’s powers of observation, patience, and intuition, heroic qualities that go nicely with their capacity for speedy but incisive judgment. Those talents are tempered, perhaps too much, by an inclination to trust. That last they may get from me.

Pat has supported me and steadied me in every important endeavor. She saved me from my foolish appetite for risk-taking in pursuit of trivial knowledge, like the intimate operational details of the Navy’s F-8 Crusaders. After the military, she got me through college, sometimes literally supporting both of us and our first-born. Later, she refused to let me quit graduate school. While our kids were still elementary students (before experience handed us evidence that public schools are to education as public bathrooms are to sanitation), she took over the Parent Teacher Association at our school, found ways to get computers into every classroom, and taught the teachers how to program them.

She organized Space Week in an otherwise sleepy town of rocket scientists and engineers by using kid power, with enthusiastic help that she generated from the local chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). The kid power was a gang we called Camp Fire Astronautics (a merger of Camp Fire Boys and Girls and Young Astronauts), and they were powerful. If they had to be somewhere to run a movie theater showing Star Trek reruns or the film Silent Running, they would shove planets out of the way to get there. If they had to get good at math to make change in the ticket booth, they did that. Pat became so much a part of the AIAA (although she’s a microbiologist, not an engineer) people started calling me Pat (I’m the engineer).

As president of the East Texas Writers Association (we were both members), Pat published that group’s first official anthology, Voices from the Pines (ISBN 0965796906). I contributed, as did many others, but Pat executed.

We started SpaceFarers Corporation together. She’s CEO/CFO. I work an engineering day job. I also organize events, although not as well as she did. We’re editing a book together, and rescuing our first-born from a really bad marriage (it’s the trust thing - she shouldn’t have).

We work with an outfit called Valley of the Moon in Tucson, Arizona. It’s an all-volunteer fun-and-imagination factory on the banks of the Rillito. It teaches kids (and adults) kindness and cultivates imagination. The ‘Moon’s walking tour  theatrical productions, including Halloween’s “Haunted Ruins,” are a local sensation.

In general, we have fun. I have fun. If Pat doesn’t, benign deception is another of her powers.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Point Loma Legacy

In the Spring of 1974, I sat talking with Dr. Brian Dunne about the past and future, if any, of nuclear pulse propulsion. Dr. Dunne's front porch on Mt. Helix overlooked La Jolla, California, where all of the early work was done. He recalled the October day in 1957 when the first artificial earth satellite, launched by the Soviet Union and not the United States, rocketed into the American consciousness, launching the space race that would eventually take men to the moon and back. He said it had been his privilege to work with the likes of Theodore Taylor, who had helped make the first nuclear weapons possible, and Freeman Dyson, famed physicist and scientific visionary, who came to join the project from Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, where Albert Einstein spent his last years.

Taylor, Dyson, Dunne, and others imagined huge rockets in the 10,000-ton class, flying cities that could rise straight up from the earth and travel the solar system at will. They said Mars by 1965, the outer planets by 1970. Some estimates put the cost of flights to the moon using this technology as low as $10 per pound, about the same as getting yourself from New York to Sydney, Australia by air.

From its start in 1958 to its termination in 1963, in what Dyson called "the first time in modern history that a major expansion of human technology has been suppressed for political reasons", the classified Project Orion was like no other space propulsion system imagined before or since. In some ways, its principles were counter-intuitive, because it relied on the thrust provided by detonating nuclear bombs in its own wake. As a nuclear system, Orion never got a test, but Dunne recalled flying a small "meter model" from Point Loma, San Diego using chemical explosives, and the model worked. It worked well enough to cause Werner Von Braun, the archetypal rocket scientist, to come right out of his chair, Dunne said, when he saw the film.

For all their size and grandeur, the Saturn vehicles that actually carried American astronauts into space in the 1970s were desperately under-powered. Only the cleverness of a descent from lunar orbit with a light-weight vehicle made the success of Project Apollo possible. It amounted to piling fuel on fuel to get a pea into orbit. It worked, but barely, and it produced nothing to carry space exploration into the future.

Crossing the Atlantic in the 15th century, and repeating the performance time after time, required what was then advanced technology, a special class of vessel that possessed excellent maneuverability and a shallow draft. Modern frontier-building requires a reusable launch vehicle to deliver what one organization, The Space Frontier Foundation, calls "Cheap Access to Space" (CATS).

NASA’s answer to the problem is to rely on the private sector for short-term needs and to develop technology, albeit without any particular vision. We are to hope that market forces advance the technology of true space flight in due course.

It is not just a matter of cost and waiting for capitalism to work, however. Without a frontier, it is a distinct possibility that the human race doesn't have that much time left, at least, not as an advanced technological species, and maybe not at all. From earth-orbit-crossing asteroids to deadly pandemics, from sociological decay to ecological disaster, the unpleasant possibilities seem real and immediate. Frontier theory teaches that they are real and immediate. Some risk-taking makes sense.

So I give you Orion, and I propose it as a means of bootstrapping ourselves into space. But I cannot make this proposal without pointing out that it does entail risks (as did steam-driven riverboats and narrow-gage railroads). I refer you to the anti-nuke crowd, although they tend to be unreasonably shrill in their protests, because only they are talking about the risks of nuclear propulsion. They use it as a means of exaggerating the dangers of the technology NASA employs on some deep space probes.

While you are thinking about this, I would just ask you to keep in mind that life, and its preservation, are not about eliminating risks, but balancing them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Economics of Discovery

Frontiers have to be discovered, and the process of discovery is vastly aided by an appeal to the profit motive. The incentive for the Portuguese was spice. For the Spanish, it was treasure. These may be petty objectives, though merchants made fortunes and kings built armies on them. If you're motivating territorial expansion, it seems, greed is good.

The currency of the twenty-first century is energy. Costs are governed by its price. It takes energy to produce goods, and energy to transport them to market. It takes energy to stay cool, energy to stay warm, energy to prepare food, and energy to pump fresh water. Much of that energy comes in the form of electricity, which is pricey stuff. The bill will be higher shortly, because global warming forces us to recognize the cost of altering the balance of atmospheric gases. You may believe that the greenhouse effect is so much trashy pulp fiction. In that case, I refer you to the evidence and move on.

At one kilowatt per citizen, the United States leads the world in the production and consumption of energy. Hence it has the living standard the world wants. It will come as no surprise to most Americans that the U.S. standard of living trends downward with time. The political world will be satisfied when Calcutta looks like LA. So here's the choice: We share, reducing our expectations accordingly, or we make cheap energy and sell it to the world. The world gets food, shelter, clothing and, most importantly, MTV. The U.S. gets what it used to love: Glory and wealth. There are just a few barriers to success:

    * We have a power generation mix that may kill us in the end, if we continue to rely on combustion. Fission is a waste-handling nightmare. Fusion has been imminent for so long it's due for syndication with the older versions of Star Trek. Pulling energy out of the atmosphere or the ocean is looking for trouble - suppose the Atlantic Conveyor current that warms Europe just stopped. Suppose rain quit falling in the American Midwest.

    * The developing world does not have, and cannot afford, transmission infrastructure to distribute the energy we would propose to send them.

    * There is so much pessimistic talk about limits to growth in the U.S., and so much self-abasement about past glories, that the American eagle may not have the will to do anything but croak quietly.

Now suppose someone could tap a non-polluting, practically inexhaustible power source with dirt as a raw material. Imagine that someone could transmit electricity over vast distances, without wires, "beaming" it from the source to the point of consumption via microwaves.

Then we would be talking about a Solar Power Satellite (SPS) system, space-borne arrays of silicon (dirt) solar cells, riding a stationary orbit 23,000 miles above the equator, built and serviced by residents of the high frontier using lunar materials. Perhaps some folks out there will suggest we could do it all with robots, but that would be missing the point.

The essence of economics is not profit. It is choice, the freedom to leave. That is what competition does in the business world. It keeps prices low for buyers and gives the small seller a real shot at the market. Business competition is about the freedom to leave. Discovery nourishes that freedom by providing alternatives. Frontiers are the surface of an expanding known world in three dimensions now, instead of two. That’s why we can say that space is the future of business. That’s why we say that to be on the cutting edge of business, you need to understand the economics of discovery.