Pete Etchells is a lecturer in biological psychology based in Bristol, UK. He writes about science in the news at Counterbalanced, but secretly wishes he were an astronaut. You can find him on Twitter at @drpeteetchells.
I’m never taking a photo of myself and sticking it up on Facebook ever again. How could anyone possibly contemplate it, when they’ve got to compete with self-portraits like this one? Thanks NASA.
Really, there’s so much awesomeness in this photo. It’s a picture of a robot, taken on another planet. A freaking robot! On another world! Evidently though, not everyone shares this sense of wonder. At around the same time that Curiosity was taking pictures of itself, Felix Baumgartner was being interviewed by the UK’s Telegraph, and had this to say:
“I think we should perhaps spend all the money going to Mars to learn about Earth. I mean, you cannot send people there because it is just too far away. That little knowledge we get from Mars I don’t think it does make sense.”
Disheartening words from someone who you would think would share so much in common with the Mars exploration mission, given his recent space jump. Baumgartner’s words completely miss the point, because Curiosity’s story isn’t just about what happens on Mars. It’s also about what happened on Earth before it left, and what is still happening now. It’s the story of extraordinary life-saving technologies, like heart pumps and advances in drug treatments, but it’s also the story of ordinary, everyday things like mattresses, hockey sticks and baseball bats. These are technologies that NASA and its offshoot companies never originally set out to develop; instead, they were born out of ingenious solutions to practical problems faced in the space program.
Amy Shira Teitel is a freelance space writer whose work appears regularly on Discovery News Space and Motherboard among many others. She blogs, mainly about the history of spaceflight, at Vintage Space, and tweets at @astVintageSpace.
Last week, NASA announced its next planetary mission. In 2016 the agency is going back to the surface of Mars with a spacecraft called InSight. The mission’s selection irked some who were hoping to see approval for one of the other, more ambitious missions up for funding: either a hopping probe sent to a comet or a sailing probe sent to the methane seas of Saturn’s moon Titan. Others were irked by NASA’s ambiguity over the mission’s cost during the press announcement.
An artist’s rendition of InSight deploying its seismometer and heat-flow experiments on Mars.
InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery program, a series of low-cost missions each designed to answer one specific question. For InSight, that question is why Mars evolved into such a different terrestrial planet than the Earth, a mystery it will investigate by probing a few meters into the Martian surface. The agency says InSight’s selection was based on its low cost—currently capped at $425 million excluding launch costs—and relatively low risk. It has, in short, fewer known unknowns than the other proposals.
But while InSight costs less than half a billion itself, the total value of the mission by the time it launches will be closer to $2 billion. How can NASA get that much zoom for so few bucks? By harnessing technologies developed for and proven on previous missions. The research, development, and testing that has gone into every previous lander take a lot of guesswork out of this mission, helping it fly for (relatively) cheap.
Aside from the Moon, Mars is the only body in the solar system that NASA has landed on more than once. With every mission, the agency learns a little more, and by recycling the technology and methods that work, it’s able to limit expensive test programs. This has played no small part in NASA’s success on the Red Planet thus far. When it comes to the vital task of getting landers safely to the surface, NASA has been reusing the same method for decades. It has its roots way back in the Apollo days.
Phil Plait, the creator of the Discover blog Bad Astronomy, is an astronomer, lecturer, and author. He’s written two books, dozens of magazine articles, and 12 bazillion blog articles.
On Wednesday, January 25th, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich spoke to a crowd of supporters in Florida. In a short speech guaranteed to create a buzz—online, as well as among space enthusiasts—he declared that if elected president, “… by the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American.”
That’s a pretty bold statement. Unfortunately, it’s also impossible.
I’ll note he followed that up with something that is far more likely:
We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism, and manufacturing, and are designed to create a robust industry precisely on the model of the development of the airlines in the 1930s, because it is in our interest to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching.
That’s a lovely thought, but while that’s a more realistic goal, it’s likely to happen whether or not Gingrich makes it to the White House.
His second statement is the easiest to discuss, and to dismiss. I agree with the sentiment, but what he’s saying is already well on its way to being reality. We have several private companies vying to create commercial activities in orbit, including tourism and science. SpaceX has successfully launched rockets to orbit several times, and they are planning to do a rendezvous with the space station in the coming months as a demonstration that they can take supplies there. Virgin Galactic has shown it can do sub-orbital flights, and several other companies are on their way to space. Manufacturing is a far more difficult goal, but once a more reliable and cheaper method of getting to orbit is established, it’s an inevitable outcome.
With or without any possible future President Gingrich, private companies in space is already happening.
In the late 1500s, merchants in England sought to ply the waters around Africa in an attempt to set up trade relation s with India. In a few years several trips were made, and, on literally the last day of the 16th century, they were granted a charter by the Queen to incorporate, given free rein to trade with the East.
This was not done in a vacuum, however. For well over a century European explorers had been laying the groundwork (OK, seawork) for this effort. Sponsored by their various governments, they explored the oceans and improved the technology and techniques needed for this to get done. At the time, this would’ve been impossible for private companies—too risky, and too expensive—so governments did the job. National pride was at stake, as well as military and trade advantages.
Like sea travel, space travel is not done in a vacuum—except in the literal sense. Like terrestrial exploration centuries ago, it’s expensive, difficult, technologically cutting-edge, and dangerous. For a young company, or even an established one, a single mistake could cost them a vast portion of their revenue, bankrupting them. In the video below [starting at 14:50], astronomer and space advocate Neil deGrasse Tyson makes this case. It’s something I’ve argued many times as well.