Saturday, February 7, 2015

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

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 part II of his essay on manned space exploration.

In PART I of this article, I was pontificating about how we, as a species, are wont to let a great many of our most fabulous and wonderful achievements rot and decay, instead of trying to preserve them for posterity.

In PART II, I would like to look at some historical documents, and also to the ways in which science fiction both predicts and extrapolates science fact.

But first, a word about record keeping.

We all know that human beings love to keep records of their achievements. We can see the monuments to great men and adventures. The invention of writing has allowed a vast transfer of knowledge across centuries. Science, mathematics, history, and cultural data are being saved and passed on to following generations, with a hope that lessons be learned and mistakes avoided.
We point to museums and libraries as repositories of knowledge, and the resting place of many of the great intellects of history. But even these vaunted and revered places can suffer from the vagaries of the human condition as we swarm over the planet, seeking to master the ‘Others’ whom we encounter.

From Alexander the Great, to Genghis Khan, to Napoleon, to Hitler, from Stalin to Pol Pot, to Mao, and even including recent leaders such as the Prime Ministers of England and the Presidents of the United States, men have unleashed the dogs of war.

The devastation wrought on the temples of science and engineering, to the coliseums of rational thought and reason has retarded our progress as a species far too often. [1]

We can mourn the loss of many of the best and most thorough works of mankind as we uncover evidence of purges throughout recorded time.

The Great Library at Alexandria, the Dead Sea Scrolls, lost books of the Bible, the oral traditions that never made it into a printed form, and other magnificent and intricate bits of arcane knowledge are lost forever. [2] I would not want to be perceived as being Eurocentric in compiling these examples, for there is also ample evidence that many scrolls and books from the Oriental, Persian, and Ottoman (along with many other cultures) have been lost to time.

When wars, natural disasters or pogroms decimate our pooled intelligence, it takes us a long time to recapture these experiences, and then even more time to assure that they can be passed on to our heirs and descendants.

The written word, and the invention of the printing press, the greatest advancements of their time, are inadequate to the task of easily conferring the wisdom of experience, rigorous methodology, and the testing results that can only be found by hard work and years of analytical thinking about the complex processes we need to raise ourselves into the light of rational thought.

Library science and systems management give us the tools to begin to index and develop massive taxonomies, whereby we can categorize, sort, store and retrieve this important data.
But, the march of progress brings with it the loss of compatible media formats. Who among you remembers the illustrious 1.44MB floppy disk as anything other than a relic? Yet, entire businesses were founded and fun on this technology. More recently, think of how the CD-ROM has been antiquated by the advent of cloud storage. Soon, physical media, of the kind that an individual would own, will be a thing of the past. All the data will reside in the massive storage systems of the Cloud, or whatever its future incarnations will become.
The creation of the Internet has come as close as anything so far invented at reaching the redundancy necessary for humanity to actually push forward our combined knowledge.
The computational algorithms, coupled with the advances in search and analytics technologies, will give future generations the ability to decode much of our present world, through cross-correctional techniques that go much further in reducing bias and prejudicial influences.

We are still in the infancy of this process, but I foresee a time in the very near future where certain standards will be adopted, and agreed upon as being sufficient to provide repeatable proofs of claims. When that occurs, our race will hopefully have achieved the maturity to rationally deal with the responsibility that will entail. [3]

Let’s take a closer look at how the contest between the two super powers of the 1960’s shaped this process, and led to the development of a superior technology and science. In order to easily explain this situation, I have found it of value to review some of the films that were made concurrent to the Space Race.[4]

The 1967 spy film “You Only Live Twice” is a perfect example of a Cold War adventure movie at its finest, and the lengths to which Hollywood believed governments would go in order to capture important technical information about enemy space projects.

In that movie, the evil organization Spectre, (which is standing in for the USSR, the Evil Empire of that time), is led by Ernst Stavros Blofeld, (who is standing in for Nikita Kruschev, the world’s Premier shoe-banger of the time).

Blofeld has ordered a special rocket be launched from a secret base located in the interior of an extinct volcano in Japan.

In the beginning montage, Spectre’s spacecraft opens its mechanical maw and captures an orbiting Gemini space capsule. It then fired its retro rockets, and returned the unfortunate (American) space explorers back to the secret evil layer. [5]

My point here is that the technology that was depicted in the film was not too far removed from the reality of the times. The physics was sound…if not the plot.

The Cast, Noting How Closely the Spectre Rocket in “You Only Live Twice”[6] Resembles the V-2
The film showed the dreams of Von Braun writ large – a single-stage-to-orbit craft, with the ability to take off vertically and return for a vertical landing at the initial launch site.

The recent launches of the Falcon X and Falcon 9 rockets from SpaceX demonstrate that SSTO craft are almost a reality.

These current technology rockets take off and land, ostensibly in the same location with the use of landing legs. Note that this was successfully predicted by a James Bond film, over 40 years ago!

These film makers took pains to extrapolate a plausible scenario, to a logical conclusion. It is science fiction of the hard variety, at its heart, but the technical difficulties regarding materials science and the actual physics of space travel have postponed the realization of this imaginary craft until today.

There are very good reasons for this. The rockets built by Von Braun and his team at Peenemünde were designed for a one-way trip. The fictitious rocket in the Bond film was designed not only to return to its launch base, but also to make repetitive flights with very short intervals between them, in order to replenish fuel and oxygen.

The real-world analog to this, the STS Space Shuttles, took months of careful assembly, testing and retesting to assure the astronauts and technical personnel are safe during the mission. It does not always go well, and in 1986 and 2003 we learned again the high cost of mistakes.

Space travel is an unforgiving mistress. The reuse of ships is hampered because of the caustic and dangerous nature of the propellants, their corrosive abilities on the materials used for containing them during conflagration, and the enormous stresses built up during the flight phase. All of these factors provide the inevitable degradation of equipment and the breaking down of key components.

An example I can supply surrounds the turbo pumps for the SSME. When initially designed, they were to have lasted without retrofit for 4 or 5 flights. That is, the six turbo pumps (two for each of three main engines) would only need overhaul after four flights.
This was the design specification.
In reality, they needed to be removed and repaired after almost every flight. [7]

If we contrast this kind of real-world performance vs fictional performance, we become aware of the myriad factual difficulties with which science fiction authors must contend.
Now, let’s use the example of a science-fiction television series, such as “Star Trek”, which was made at the same approximate time. We notice that the USS Enterprise is a space-warp driven craft that has a complement and crew of trained scientists, and is roughly the size of a battleship. It travels faster than light with no problems whatsoever.

When the crew of the USS Enterprise wants to perform a translation of men or materials from ship to planet, they use the transporter. This has been shown, via some interested physicists performing calculations, to be a device requiring a substantial amount of energy to operate.

Their other alternative was space flight using a shuttlecraft.

The United States Space Shuttle Atlantis would never be as efficient in using energy to get up and back from space as the entirely fictional shuttlecraft Galileo 7.

The reason behind this is the hard wall of physics.

To review my points, in one instance Hollywood was abiding by the laws of physics and extrapolating a plausible and likely outcome of the near-future space technology. A single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicle was an achievement many of the scientists and engineers of that era felt was well within the scientific abilities of the day.

As of this writing, we have yet to become adept at manipulating whatever forces of nature would allow the use of space-warp technology, transportation that is instantaneous between two points such as is depicted by the transporter, or even the regeneration machines that they use on board the Enterprise to make coffee.[8]
The “USS Enterprise” from “Star Trek” – Science or Fantasy?[9]

The divide between science fiction and reality is nowhere more evident than in the pristine nature of the future as depicted in the Federation and other films of that type versus the reality of our own space program. The general cleanliness of the ships and cities, the way everyone has their own place and function and the way that there is unquestioned obedience to society is a bit scary.

And, let’s also not forget how the technology has altered the world. People can choose to pursue old-fashioned activities such as growing grapes, or painting, or acting.

But these are at most an avocation, or hobby. The promise of the Federation is that everything is there for a citizen of Star Fleet. All they need do is comply.

Every time data is needed for retrieval on the show, one of the characters goes “Computer” and is almost instantly given the answer to any query, no matter how mundane or complex. [10]

If only such tremendous ability to store and retrieve vital information were true![11]

Some time ago, famed science-fiction author Larry Niven had pointed out that the original blueprints for the Saturn – V rockets (our only true spaceships of any note to date that qualify as interplanetary) were basically molding and decaying at the bottom of a filing cabinet in some office in an obscure building in central Florida.[12]

A brief perusal of even the last 40 years’ worth of technology that is being stored at Cape Canaveral in Florida shows the decrepitude and general state of disrepair of what was once the highest of all of our technologies.

Can we actually stomach the idea that this, an accomplishment that is probably the single greatest achievement of the human species, the literal zenith of human technology and achievement, is being left to rot and turn to dust?

And further, that with only a modicum of effort we could have been prevented this obscene outcome?

So, here we are facing a conundrum.

We are attempting to move into the future but the past is rapidly removing our successes. The victories that we had are now hollow in the sense that we have nothing to which we can point that qualifies as a suitable replacement.
The Saturn-V – Our Only Real Spaceship?[13]

One would like to imagine that something such as the privatization of space travel, coupled with the commercialization of and / or the inculcation of tourism-related space travel as being put forth by Messieurs Branson and Musk, among others, would lead to an appreciation of the value of such endeavors.

At what point will it become necessary to jettison this outdated information?

The question is important, in that, should mankind succeed in colonizing other worlds, it may be that the answer as to how best exploit these new resources is in our history.

The lost past may have provided the keys to our new future, and we just did not deem it important enough to preserve.

A final thought – what legacy are we leaving the future generations regarding all of this historical information? At what point should we begin to instruct our children as to the necessary skills for survival of our species? Do we even know what languages to use?

Mathematics, the sciences, and engineering benefit from centuries of repeatable testing and observation of our universe, and the ways in which interactions among the elements contained within happen. Yet, as the information expands to capacity, where do we draw the lines?

Are only the smartest of us to reap the benefits of these technologies? Do we need to know certain phrases or rituals to be allowed access to the bounties of the secret sanctums of routine knowledge?

As we mature, and reach out into space, I would expect many of these questions will be resolved.

But, we may not like the answers.


March - How Spaceflight and The Challenges Therein Have Been Addressed in Science Fiction.
April - 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.
June - The Physics of Science Fiction Weapons.
July - The Reality of Living in an Undersea City.

A.E. Williams  January 31, 2015

[1] Ironically, it is in seeking to improve ways in which we kill each other that much of the truly useful advances have been made.
[2] Not to mention the loss of artistic masterpieces and other artifacts succumbing to the senseless brutality of unfettered warfare.
[3] Wikipedia is a start, but there are many problems to still be surmounted with providing canonical, properly cited, and fully peer-reviewed information.
[4] I personally find it humorous to watch movies from the 60’s that depict what Hollywood thought was accurate with regards to space travel. Many of the films show some creditable effort at maintaining realism, but others border well over into the realm of sheer fantasy.

[5] The science behind this bit is remarkably accurate, aside from the fact that one ship eats the other. (Parenthetically, this particular James Bond film is the source for the plot behind the enormously hilarious “Austin Powers – International Man of Mystery” movie).
[6] Promotional image of the cast during the filming of ‘You Only Live Twice’, 1967.
[7] The team on which I participated managed to produce an improved LOX turbo pump, which flew on every mission after 1996 or so, until the fleet was retired. My understanding is that these particular pumps were able to weather 12 missions without need of repairs.

[8] 3-D printing promises to bring some of that old science fiction magic closer to us all the time, though!
[9] Fair Use Image from Wikipedia Commons

[10] The hubris of the writers to simply assume such an advanced artificial intelligence would be at the beck and call of mere humans on a star ship is pretty amazing! IMHO, the more recent film “Interstellar” has a very balanced examination of using A.I.s as our ‘slaves’.
[11] You must understand the difference between a SEARCH engine, such as Google, and an AI. The AI is a virtual genius, with the ability to parse, understand, and correctly interpret a query regardless of from whom it is being made. There is an innate assumption that the people who ask these questions are ALLOWED to ask them. Imagine, if you will, a child asking about how to make a nuclear missile, or how to procure a phaser. The implicit understanding is that there are safeguards, right? Well, WHO makes the rules  as to whom these rules apply, hmmm? Star Trek is pretty neat, but there are definitely some big questions that are glossed over routinely. At least you know who the bad guys are in Star Wars.

[12] There may have been copies of these blueprints in Houston or California.
[13] NASA Image 

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