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Notes & Queries 11/10/07

When we think interstellar, the possibility of a sudden breakthrough offering quick travel — Epsilon Eridani in an afternoon — often dominates the debate. But the second path to the stars is the more gradual migration approach that Gregory Matloff, Les Johnson and the artist C Bangs talk about in their Living Off the Land in Space (New York: Copernicus, 2007). As discussed in this article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the trio made their case at NYC College of Technology/CUNY on Thursday evening, leading off not with a starship but a prairie schooner. The point is trenchant: How can we leverage and extend existing technologies to get us into deep space without breakthroughs in physics?

“In going into space, we need to think differently. All of these technologies we describe in our book could be done today,” says Johnson (NASA MSFC), who manages the agency’s Space Science Programs and Projects Office. Technologies such as solar sails, their great historical precedent being the clipper ships that once plied our seas. Solar sails are entirely plausible within today’s physics and offer an evolutionary engineering pathway to bigger and faster missions and, who knows, perhaps beamed-power versions that might ultimately take us to the stars. The point being that some of us see interstellar emigration as inevitable with or without the paraphernalia of Star Trek‘s Enterprise.
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Growing plants in space? It’s tricky business, says David Hemming in Gardening in Microgravity. For one thing, water doesn’t permeate the soil in these conditions the way it does on Earth, while pollination can also be affected. And watch out for plant debris, which could block critical ventilation systems. But as we commit ourselves to extended stays in space, we’ve got to learn about plants that can adapt to low light intensity and high carbon dioxide conditions. Hemming cites Mary Musgrave’s “Growing Plants in Space” on the subject, appearing in CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources 2007. 2, No. 065, 9 pp (available here).
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Lately, I’ve found myself in more and more conversations about SETI. Why, since we’re spending so much time looking and listening, haven’t we heard anything? The inevitable corollary is, why are my tax dollars going to fund something this unlikely to pay off? The answer usually comes as a surprise: In the United States, at least, SETI has been funded solely through private donations since 1993. It’s frustrating to have to keep pointing this out, and I gather Seth Shostak (SETI Institute) is feeling some of the same heat. Thus his recent essay attempting a justification for continuing the SETI search.

For those who will argue that those private funds should be re-directed, Shostak looks to past precedent:

Shouldn’t philanthropists opt for the most effective project, in terms of societal improvement? That may sound good, but even aside from issues of free will, that argument leads to a terminally murky battle on what’s important and what isn’t. And sometimes what’s unimportant today can become very important tomorrow.

Consider some examples. In Italy at the start of the 17th century, Medici family members Ferdinand and Cosimo proffered a regular allowance to an ambitious academic from Padua, Galileo Galilei. The guy found spots on the Sun and moons around Jupiter. You could have bought some meals with that money instead. But Galileo’s work turned our worldview upside down by showing that Copernicus was right. I’m glad he got the florins.

Two hundred years later, Emperor Joseph II of Austria ponied up some coins to fund Wolfgang Mozart. Was this a good idea? Mozart was just writing music, for goodness sake. You can’t eat music (unless you’re a goat). But I can feast on it, and I do.

It’s a strong case, but the fact that Shostak has to make it speaks to the dangers of public inattention. SETI sells itself through the sheer wonder of learning we are not alone. But the notion that the entire enterprise is some vast NASA project that is sucking the life out of budgets that would otherwise feed the poor persists among many of those who have only a casual interest in the subject. That’s not good for SETI, whose advocates need to get across not just its reliance on private philanthropy but the energizing possibility that individuals — not just their governments — can make a real difference in determining humanity’s place in the cosmos.
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The conference Humans in Outer Space – Interdisciplinary Odysseys, held in Vienna on October 11-12, created a trans-disciplinary dialogue of the sort we could use in the SETI/METI debate. The latter, which concerns the question of listening or, alternatively, actually broadcasting messages to nearby stellar systems, would benefit from the Vienna model, bringing in not just space scientists but anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, political scientists and writers to attempt a broad human perspective on big issues. Nicolas Peter (European Space Policy Institute) spoke of a ‘third age’ of exploration:

“It will involve industry, universities and other non-governmental organisations. This adventure will be driven primarily by a quest for knowledge, involving not only the hard sciences but arts and humanities as well. We’re evolving towards an open market situation where a lot of new actors will be able to join the new space race.”

Can a global exploration policy one day emerge to help us coordinate our growth into the Solar System? In today’s fractious world, the idea seems the unlikeliest of dreams, but it’s the kind of dream worth striving for as long as a healthy commercial space sector continues to push the envelope of the possible. What we don’t need are monolithic governmental space strategies that proceed at the expense of private initiatives. What we can hope for are multidisciplinary approaches that draw on international cooperation while allowing sound ideas to flourish. Here’s to Nicolas’ open markets, new actors and their dreams.

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  • roid November 13, 2007, 5:13

    the growing plants in space eh. the answer is probably algae.

    A guy has recently (7 months ago) lived in a small airtight room underwater for a week with all of his oxygen provided (ie: his CO2 recycled) by a very simple algae photobioreactor. website is http://www.biosub.com.au

    i’m not sure if you’ve mentioned it before, but it certainly spiked my interest as space applications were my first thought. And so simple! It grows in water, you feed it Pee, CO2, and Light. Fastest growing & photosynthesising plant in existance, and you can eat it.
    I assume the photosynthesising is scalable with the amount of light (and stirring). So i envision astronauts with small algae photobioreactor backpacks, internally lit & stirred, powered by batterys. So as long as you have power in your batterys, you can breathe.

  • Lubo November 13, 2007, 14:39

    Could we do nothing to restore the Orion Project :?