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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Challenge of the Final Frontier

NASA, Apollo 8

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

Curiosity.  Wonder.  That persistent desire to know the unknown, to answer the unanswerable.  It is a fundamental part of our human makeup, whether a scientist or explorer, or any of the rest of us taking a stroll around a new neighborhood, visiting a new store, or shopping center;  perhaps vacationing to somewhere we've never been. However the desire manifests itself, it is a link, perhaps even a bond that connects people across culture, nation, and ideology.

From the first stirrings of conscience, humans have ever looked to the skies in wonder.  At first, the sky and its myriad points of light was populated with figures risen from imagination; omnipotent, angry creatures with unimaginable power who required unquestioned fealty and sacrifice in hopes of staving off their destructive revenge. Eventually, science replaced gods with objects, stars, galaxies, clouds of gas and dust, and now we know with certainty, other planets.

We don't yet know if there is life out there, although some of the exoplanets offer tantalizing possibilities.  Our current limitations of physics and the human lifespan keep them at a frustrating arm's length.

A host of galaxies from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, Hubble Space Telescope

But perhaps that is not such a bad thing.  As a species, we insist on being at war with each other, whether the weapons are words or bullets.  Until we learn how to get along with each other, we have no business bothering anybody else. The stark reality is our refusal to let go of these conflicts means there is no common voice for the people of planet Earth.  Who among the contentious nations, cultures, or religions truly speaks for humanity?

So while the distant stars remain out of reach, we still live in a solar system full of unanswered questions.  What drives the 11-year cycle of our star?  Is Mercury worth the investment of time and resources to explore, or is it, as Spock would judge, "essentially,a great rock in space"?  What caused the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, and could it be reversed?

Mars, ever the hopeful mystery.  Did it once harbor life?  Could it ever host life again, albeit transplanted life?  Could the failed planets of the asteroid belt hold resources that  could make life better here on Earth?  Are Jupiter and Saturn truly failed stars?  What are the dynamics fueling the massive weather systems in those atmospheres?  And what lies beneath all that gas?  And what about the dozens of moons orbiting those gas giants?  What surprises await us there?

Why does the ice giant, Uranus, alone of all the planets, roll around the sun on its side? What lies beneath those clouds, and those of its fellow ice giant, Neptune?

And what of poor, demoted Pluto?  Why is its orbit tilted compared to the rest of the sun's family?  With the recent visit of the New Horizons probe, Pluto has been transformed from a mysterious telescopic blob to an actual place, and an entirely new list of questions.

Beyond lies the Kuiper Belt, thought to be home to tens of thousands of other dwarf worlds, comets and asteroids.  Beyond even that is the hypothetical mass of billions of icy objects called the Oort Cloud that lies between one and two light years from the sun.  Is it there that the answers to questions about the formation of the solar system can finally be found?

Space Facts/Laurine Moreau

Clearly, there are enough mysteries in this local neighborhood to keep us occupied for at least a thousand years.  That is where we should focus our efforts.

The ever-growing clamor to visit the newly-discovered exoplanets is something that will have to wait, and not for the required global unity.  The fastest spacecraft yet built by humans would still take some 17,000 years to travel just one light year.  Since the closest planets with the highest possibility of life are around 20 light years distant, a manned journey of 340,000 years is simply out of the question.

Supposing for a moment that humanity decided to explore our solar system.  What kind of explorer would be required?

Such a person would have to be someone who would cheerfully forfeit a normal lifetime on Earth.  Such missions would require an absence of 10 to 20 years.  Their focus, energies, and enthusiasm would always be directed outwards, without the emotional baggage of homesickness.

They would have to be willing to divorce themselves from Earthbound concerns, to include politics, culture, and even religion.  The study of Earth sciences has become hopelessly infused with politics, either through association or funding.  There are no answers, or finding that can't be traced back to somebody's political agenda.  Since there are no Earth-like planets or objects in this star system, those studies are largely irrelevant, so those eternally conflicting arguments would have to be left behind.  Answers would thus be based on fact and evidence, not on ideology.

But it goes beyond politics.  These explorers would have to be of the mindset that they don't represent separate nations or cultures, but all humanity.  By the same token, the scientists back on Earth receiving that data and discoveries would need to be possessed of complete objectivity and devoid of political influence and ambition.  That, in itself, may be the most difficult barrier between the truth of what is, and the political fantasy of what is supposed to be.

Earth and the moon from Saturn. 

The technical challenges are daunting enough.  A spacecraft with a propulsion system which would either not require refueling, or would have a fueling resource to be visited from time to time.  Once outside Earth's protective magnetic field, the craft would have to be able to protect its fragile human cargo from deadly radiation and be able to absorb or deflect impacts of dust and rocks, that could hole the ship and cause the loss of its atmosphere.

Kerbal Space Program on Twitter

The ship would have to be large, not only to hold everything, but be able to provide at least a modicum of privacy and solitude for individual crew members.  To look at the Orion craft, essentially an upsized Apollo spacecraft, which is supposed to take astronauts on a several month long journey to Mars, one realizes that it had to be designed by someone with absolutely no grounding in the dynamics of human interaction.  In short, an engineer.


The equipment would require double or even triple redundancy, along with the facilities and materials to carry out complex repairs.

Of course, there are the obvious logistical needs of food, water, clean clothes, and a fully-equipped surgical sick bay, along with the physicians and nurses to run it.

The habitat portion of the ship would need to rotate, generating gravity that would prevent the loss of bone and muscle we already know occurs on long-duration missions.  In that space, would have to be ways for the crew to entertain themselves during their off duty hours.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of other requirements which I have neither education nor skills to anticipate.  But what I do possess is hope; hope that such hurdles can be overcome, that the right kind of ship could be built, manned by the right kind of people.  The we could truly "boldly go" into the deep waters of space, seeking and finding the answers to those as-yet unanswered questions.

It is the only way the human species can grow.  And survive.

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