Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Academy in Space Initiative (Part III)

For too long, the space exploration enterprise has been cordoned off and seen as the province of "space advocates." This grouping includes those of us who believe that human migration into the solar system and beyond is both inevitable and desirable.

We need to spread the idea of the Overview Effect and the importance of space exploration to a much wider audience, and not as an advocacy effort. The goal is to have a conversation with academics from every subject, and not only those who are working in science and technology. Human migration into the solar system raises questions that touch on economics, ethics, ecology, government, sociology, philosophy, and many other realms of thought.

The underlying premise is that space exploration and development is a large-scale human enterprise, not a narrow scientific and technological endeavor. As such, every academic field can offer something of value to the effort. Economists can ponder the business opportunities presented by an essentially infinite frontier, while medical researchers can think about how human beings are going to survive in an environment totally unsuited to them biologically. Political scientists can speculate on when the first Mars settlement will declare independence, and environmentalists can debate whether to use nuclear power there.

It is time for a vigorous discussion about the many issues surrounding space exploration and development. I hope it will begin at Framingham State University on April 6, 2016.

(To be continued)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Academy in Space Initiative (Part II)

In my view, the Academy in Space Initiative (AISI) should look at all the pertinent questions about space exploration and development that are not be asked---or answered---right now.

Let me provide an example: the Curiosity rover that is now exploring the surface of Mars is an amazing machine. It is allowing us to learn an enormous amount about the red planet without incurring the costs and risks of sending humans there. When we do send humans to Mars, they will know a great deal about it, more than some of the early explorers knew when they began exploring the Earth in the 16th and 17th centuries.

With high-resolution video and, soon, virtual reality, all of us will be able to "explore Mars," mentally at least.

However, did you know that Curiosity is powered by nuclear fuel? Did you hear any debates about that when it was launched? Do you care that we are now placing nuclear waste on other planets in the solar system? Considering all the problems we have with spent nuclear fuel on Earth, does it bother you that we now have the same situation on Mars?

Along the same lines, do you think we should use nuclear-powered spacecraft to explore the solar system? The Russians do, and they are planning to cut travel time to Mars by using nuclear power:

My personal opinion on these issues is less important than the fact that they are not being discussed in an open way, in the pro-space community or the wider public arena.

That is the purpose of the Academy in Space Initiative, which will launch at Framingham State University (near Boston) on 4/6/16.

(To be continued)

Monday, March 14, 2016

Academy in Space Initiative

For the past 35-plus years, I have been working on an initiative that seems finally to be coming to fruition. It is now called the "Academy in Space Initiative," and it will be launched on April 6, 2016, at Framingham State University, just outside of Boston.

The basic idea is simple: humanity is about to embark on a great adventure---leaving our home planet and exploring the universe, starting with the solar system. So far, this effort has been the stuff of science fiction, and writers like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick have painted vivid pictures of a future in which we are a multi-planet species.

However, many of our best thinkers, located in universities and colleges around the world, have paid scant attention to this phenomenon. As a result, the population is divided into three groups regarding our foray onto the infinite frontier: Advocates, Opponents, and Neutrals.

We need to go beyond this simplistic division of the population, and begin to think ahead and shape our future with an open-ended dialogue about space exploration and development, and how we want to guide the enterprise so that we don't look back in the future and wish we had done it better.

Let me be clear: I am, and always have been, an advocate of space exploration, and I am not trying to erect barriers to a robust and continuing exploration of the solar system. However, we can do it in a positive way and we can do it poorly.

Surely, if Americans had a "do-over" of our last effort at settling a frontier, we would want to improve on the process. After all, the conflict over whether new Western states would be "slave or free" led to the Civil War, and for the indigenous peoples of the region, the coming of the pioneers was a disaster. Frontiers can play a highly positive role for societies, but they can also bring unintended consequences. Maximizing the former outcome, and minimizing the latter, is the purpose of this effort.

(To be continued)