Sunday, January 25, 2015

Guest post - A.E. Williams - MANNED Space Exploration? It’s Getting Old – PART I

A. E. Williams has kindly agreed to write a regular column for the Speculative Fiction Showcase, based on his wealth of experience, and fascination with space travel both real and fictional.

This is the year 2015.

Based on the initial excitement to which I was exposed as a young lad during the Sixties, I was expecting to see flying cars, jet packs, robot maids and round trips to our space stations, Lunar bases or even Martian cities on a daily basis.

The ideas tossed about haphazardly by Hollywood and the fledgling television industry sought to assure all of us that Science was entering its Golden Age, and what were mere figments living in the imaginations of the much-vaunted science fiction writers of years past were coming to fruition. We had lasers, and satellites, and telescopes that were probing the Universe. We had the atomic bomb, and also the nuclear submarine. How long until the nuclear bomber or nuclear oil tanker?

Manned space exploration was the gatekeeper of these wonders. Research into keeping humans alive in space caused simultaneous expansion in the fields of engineering, medicine, communications and rocketry. Von Braun and the team gave us the engines of our Future, the means to conquer the Solar System and then the Galaxy.

It was Manifest Destiny writ large, with the entire Human Race the heirs to a great hegemony of…of…

Well, horse feathers.

We didn't manage to get even close to that dream, now did we?

I mean, we don’t have lunar bases, underwater cities, space travel to and from our space stations, or even a decent atomic rocket. There seems to be a dearth of jetpacks in my neighborhood. I do see the flying car has been making inroads in some countries, but the myriad problems of airborne traffic jams are still years away from being solved.

Google has been working on getting us to become passengers, rather than drivers of our land-based (and presumably sea-based) vehicles. One can imagine that there will be an extension of some manner to incorporate this into a personal aerial vehicle at some point.

In spite of the fact that we have not received all of these promised wonderful gifts as a result of technology and science, we at least now have the ability to talk to each other on a global basis through small devices that we hold in our hands or put in our pockets. Food production is an all-time high, and medicine has provided many breakthroughs that reduce the amount of potentially lethal viruses and infections.

As we grow older we notice the things fall apart and tend to decline. This is true regardless of whether it is a building such as the pyramids, us, our pets or our children.

As a science fiction writer, I tend to notice a lot of degradation in systems, or what Rudolf Clausius called entropy.

Entropy is the tendency for the universe to reach a steady-state, one where the energy of the universe is evenly distributed.

In physics, Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus - the mathematics needed to understand and analyze the mechanics of this situation. Newton proposed what is known as the Second Law Of Thermodynamics. When entropy reaches its maximum the system is in a steady-state and in maximum disorder.


This loss of energy in a system, and the increase of entropy, is the exact opposite of what everybody wishes were happening, which is increasing order and stability. In theoretical physics this tendency to stave off chaos is desired, and so energy is added to these systems to delay the inevitable.

Real world issues tend to illustrate that, despite our best efforts, Nature has a way of not complying with our wishes. From the social implications of terrorist attacks and government monitoring and surveillance of their populations, to the very real decay of our infrastructure, in many ways entropy is indeed increasing to the maximum.

Another contentious area is how our existence and the technologies we are developing are impacting the ecosystem of our planet. In spite of our best attempts to thwart it, entropy marches towards its ultimate conclusion – The Heat Death of the Universe.

Science fiction authors tend to project, exaggerate and lampoon these subjects for good purpose in their writing. There is some vicarious and arcane satisfaction and entertainment to be had dancing on the grave of the world. Whether that end is by asteroid, comet, volcanoes, or some other weird phenomena thrust upon us from Outer Space™, we all stare in rapt fascination, like a deer caught in the headlights of an approaching vehicle.

This decrepitude, this march toward Oblivion, is part of what drives us, the Human Race, as a species to propagate and reproduce.

Some philosophers have opined that this is the primal driving force for all of us, and that there is a symbolic penetration of the Void that we seek to experience with the most phallic of objects, the rocket ship.

But, as science-fiction authors observe the world around us, incorporating truth and myth into our stories, it seems we are only the Greek Chorus singing to the audience, as perceived by many people.

Thus, it is indeed unfortunate, but also inevitable, that these systems that are very complex are going to suffer from the passage of time.

Let’s look at an example, shall we?

After World War II, the German rocket scientist Werner von Braun was brought to the United States to spearhead the science projects that would take United States to the moon.

Figure 1: Von Braun’s Name Plaque at Peenemünde[2]
As head of what eventually became NASA, he took the knowledge that he had developed for the Nazis at Peenemünde and then modified it for peaceful purposes.

The same sword that was responsible for the deaths of thousands during the World War II V-2 bombing campaigns was beaten into the plowshare that became the foundation of the United States space program.

Figure 2: V-2 War Rocket at Peenemünde Museum[3]

During this post-war era, the Russians were also developing rocket technology, aided in turn by their captured Nazi scientists. This led to the notorious Space Race, whereby it was decided that whoever could militarily control space would control the strategic high ground.

“Sputnik”, launched in October of 1957, was the inaugural shot in that battle. It was the first time a satellite had been launched into orbit around the earth in such a manner that some use could be made of it. It so terrified the United States government that they accelerated the development of their own space projects.

As one obstacle after another was overcome, the Russians and the Americans were able to launch cosmonauts and astronauts - actual people - into space.

The game being played was the penultimate King of the Hill, with the Heavens as the prize.

But, what of those programs today?

What has happened to all the buildings, the plans, the blueprints and documents, the machine tools, the engines, the test equipment?

Where are the records?

If history is to be any indicator, we are sorely unappreciative of the Giants on whose shoulders we stand. The fact of the matter is that almost all of our space technology is obsoleted mere months after it's developed.

A case in point recently was illustrated by a “Physics Today” magazine article about the new engine test facility at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, (which is near Slidell, Louisiana).

I had the honor of attending some presentations and investigatory meetings regarding the STS space shuttle back in the late-1980s (and again in the early 1990s) at that facility.

At that time, Stennis and the nearby Michoud facility were engaged in the production of the STS SSME rocket engines and main fuel tank for the space shuttle. We were tasked with finding ways to improve the workflow processes for manufacturing these parts. The best library science and document management technology we had were based on software and computers that are dinosaurs today.

The serious nature of this business was focused on the safety concerns raised by a single unwarranted disaster – the complete destruction of STS-51-L.

The Challenger.

The ‘advanced’ methods used to manage the complicated processes behind the most complex vehicle ever built by man - the space shuttle - involved hundreds of people running back and forth to skim through ring-binders of printed manuals that were kept in buildings located far away from the operations center.

So, for instance, if a part was showing indication of a problem during the countdown, a phone call was made to this document storage warehouse. A research assistant or scientist would go scurrying off to sort through the myriad binders and find as much information as possible to convey to the engineering team, by making copies from the reams of technical papers.

If there were a problem detected, we took solace in knowing that the procedures were at least written down to address it.

But, the retrieval time for these documents and binders could take many hours (or days, in the worst case). We were exploring the use of computers to share electronic versions of the documents, stored as TIFF images on either CD-ROMs or magnetic optical drives.

The problems surrounding the definition of proper indexes, storage capacity and search algorithms, although seemingly trivial, were thorny issues back in the day.

These systems were to be networked with the main facility to assure that the engineers and launch crew would have access to these documents, without having to rely on someone at the other end of a phone line, or the need to have to walk back and forth between buildings, thus causing additional delays.

Remember this was when the Internet did not exist in its current incarnation, and the tremendous instantaneous retrieval capabilities of the ‘Net and advanced searches that we enjoy today did not exist.

We did not have a Google.

We did not have an ability to pull back data instantaneously, let alone analyze it as efficiently as we do today.

Yes, we had spreadsheets and calculators and slide rules, but all of these things had to be cross-checked and agreed upon before any action was taken.

Thus, the delay resulted in many millions of dollars being wasted. In addition, many man-years of time were lost because of insufficient processes to enable having our information literally at our fingertips. Copies would not always be of the latest revisions. Engineering data would cause alterations to procedures.

Documentation was always running behind the actual experiment or programs.

It is laughable, now, to think of tens or hundreds of trained scientists and engineers running around with carts full of paper binders, from office to office, to meeting rooms, all trying to co-ordinate their efforts.

We truly take for granted the ease with which we can now communicate.[4]

Today all of that information is gone.

A lot of it was buried in landfills, and much more of it was incinerated because of security concerns.

But, there are still some occasional trophies unearthed.

Figure 35: Von Braun’s Legacy – The Saturn V F-1 Engines[5]
One of the F-1 engines from a Saturn - V launch was recently retrieved from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida, and it is one of the few examples we have that work.

It is ironic indeed, that the best of our efforts lie at the bottom of the ocean where they were carelessly discarded almost 50 years ago.

The means to re-construct or even understand the science behind them is at risk of being lost to our inertia, and our inability to understand the minds of those pioneers, even with the miraculous machines we use mindlessly every day to preserve them.

Currently at the John C. Stennis Space Center facility in Mississippi, the problem is that the Constellation program has been canceled as a result of ongoing fiscal delays.

NASA, being a government entity, is fraught with the bureaucratic obstacles of any organization of that size. In February 2010, President Obama was able to get enough votes to gut the Constellation program and instead NASA has repurposed the effort.

During the heyday of the Constellation program, a facility to emulate the airless vacuum of space in which to test our latest rocket engine designs was constructed at huge cost at Stennis. The program being revised has now led to the decision to mothball that facility!

What does that mean?

This building and its support facilities are now a $349 million dollar boondoggle[6].

According to a recent report, it is costing in excess of $100,000 per year to just have it sit there, in storage, waiting for the next round of financial legerdemain to allow its use. If ever.

The hard facts are that obsolescence, decay and entropy are inevitable.

That facility, even now, is subject to the ravages of time.

Every day that it sits fallow, it is approaching a point where its functionality will have diminished to the degree that no amount of effort or money will suffice to bring it back to the necessary operational specifications.

The real tragedy is that this did not need to happen.

The outlay for the manned space program is a literal financial drop in the bucket of the United States budget, and one can only stare dumbstruck when contrasting the enormous expense associated with how many bombs and tons of military ordnance that have been expended during the recent overseas hostilities. (Not to mention the entire military infrastructure, and its associated costs.)

We, the human race, MUST develop more robust techniques and systems to manage these kinds of scientific triumphs, if we are going to succeed in making routine spaceflight a reality. [7]

The risks that our globalized world faces, such as the very statistically likely impacts with comets or asteroids that create extinction level events, or the reality we are now facing from the poisoning of our home world through neglect and rampant idiocy, only serve to underscore that we are currently stuck on a rock with no way to get off.

So, we must find ways to improve the systems.

Are we doomed, though, because our history is falling apart around us and turning into sand as we speak?

Perhaps there are other options that will guarantee our survival?

After all, science fiction is rife with the ideas that have led to actualities, as we have seen.

Interesting concepts that stem from the science fiction writer’s imagination include the possibility of harnessing artificial intelligence or transplanting our intellects in ways that would enhance humans.

Such methods could make long-term space flight feasible. Such methods could allow us to seed the stars, and enable a legacy for our species.

If we are able to put aside some of our major differences about our attitudes and focus on the real challenge facing us, interplanetary and intergalactic migration, then we may have a chance.

We will talk about some of those issues in PART II.


MANNED Space Exploration? It’s Getting Old – PART II

How Spaceflight and The Challenges Therein Have Been Addressed in Science Fiction.

An Exploration of the Physics Behind Faster Than Light Travel.

May - Cyborgs, Artificial Intelligences, Trans-Humans, the Singularity and the Merging of Humans and Machine.

The Physics of Science Fiction Weapons.

The Reality of Living in an Undersea City.

A.E. Williams, January 12, 2015

[1] Professors Stephen Hawking and Jacob Bekenstein have done work to show that black holes are the areas of maximum entropy in our universe. Currently, though, even Hawking is undergoing a rethinking regarding this, because of new discoveries in understanding quantum mechanics.

[2] Leon Petrosyan - Own work

[3] Leon Petrosyan - Own work

[4]Personally, I find it amazing that so much of these important communications today are about the antics of felines.

[5] NASA photo – It’s a long, long way from Peenemünde, isn't it?

[6] A ‘boondoggle’ is a science and engineering term for a colossal waste of taxpayer money, often for the purposes of entertaining congressional representatives at lavish soirees, and for no really good reason.

[7] See my previous article here for why the continuation of manned space flight is not a negotiable option for our species.

Copyright 2015, A.E. Williams, All Rights Reserved

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