Building the Enterprise? Seriously? Why not?

I ignored this the first time I saw it and then I was going to make  snarky comment that we should just send a bunch of ships to mars instead of building the Enterprise if we’re going to spend $1 trillion. But then I thought, at least look before you ridicule.

I was wrong. I’ve read bit of his idea so far, but he’s not some crackpot trekkie. Instead, this is a thoroughly thought out argument for building a single large ship that will sit in orbit and be reused just like in Star Trek. Whether or not you think it should look like the Enterprise he has a good point about the use of a single large ship. (I know, why not build Serenity…oh, come on, some of you are thinking it. What? Millenium Falcon? Be serious people.)

Engineers are given a goal to get people to Mars on a give cost budget with a given risk level and they  work out ways to do it as cheaply and safely as possible. This site argues that maybe we’re thinking about it all wrong. Maybe the right idea is to build a huge space taxi, that has launchable landing shuttles and artificial gravity and doesn’t ever get thrown away. We really do have the technology for a large ship with cosmic ray shielding and ion pulse drives powered by an onboard nuclear reactor to travel around the solar system. Oh, and high powered lasers even.

What is the argument against this? Surely it can’t be that small, short missions are more efficient since they are more likely to get cancelled and delayed as we’ve seen. In a way this solution combines the best of robotic exploration and human exploration. Some probes can be designed ahead of time and brought in the hold of the ship. Having hundres of people on board allows the engineers to fix or even design new robots as needed. When problems arise humans can fix them on the spot. When something interesting is found they can change focus and go take a look. Sending a once-off ship with 6 people on it means everything has to be designed and optimized ahead of time. When you’ve got 100 engineers in orbit around Mars you don’t need to build so many failsafes into every probe in the same way. Give me a 100 engineers and a huge nuclear powered space ship with lasers and a store room full of spare parts and I can do anything.

Last night I watched the historic launch of the first private corporation sending a vessel up into space to bring equipement and experiments to the International Space Station. The Dragon Capsule rose into the sky atop the Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX Incorporated. It was inspiring. Soon, they’ll be bringing up astronauts and maybe even tourists to visit the ISS on those modules. This would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago. Things can change. As more companies get into space lots of things are going to change. So why can’t we think big?

The only problem is money and vision. But any politician who could pull this off cheap would go for it because it makes them look like they have vision even if they don’t. As for cost, it is very possible that a single all purpose, crewed vehicle like this would be cheaper in the long run and allow an order of magnitude more complex missions than a series of individual, custom designed probes.  Currently we conduct a small number of experiences for each generation of scientists each costing billions and some failing. This proposal is to build a platform, not a single probe. One that has people on it who can fix it and improve as needed. It’s not like sending a scout or  a reconnoissance plane, it’s like sending the whole aircraft carrier. Which would be better investment for improving the lot of humanity: building the Enterprise or a building 5 more aircraft carriers?

About the money, I’ll just say this. If money ever stops humanity from expanding its knowledge of the universe then we might as well just give up now. We already know a lot, why are we building these particle colliders, bigger telescopes, gene mapping projects, supercomputers for weather simulations, global climate models, nano materials or exploring the depths of the ocean? Why? We do it because there is always more to know and what we don’t know can kill us. We need to boldly go where no one has gone before. That’s how humanity got this far and we can’t stop now.

I don’t know if Building the Enterprise is the right solution, but it’s worth talking about. So let’s talk about it.

Volunteering for an Exploration into Mediocrity

The title of this article in the Guardian looked great “Space Exploration Volunteers Wanted (The catch? It’s a one way ticket)” but the authors must have had a deadline to meet for today’s Apollo 11 anniversary or else not be too interested in the subject, because they jump all over the place. The interesting part of the discussion was with John Olson, Nasa’s director of exploration systems integration :

A senior Nasa official has told the Guardian that the world’s space agencies, or the commercial firms that may eventually succeed them, could issue one-way tickets to space, with the travellers accepting that they would not come back.

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