Saturday, January 11, 2014

Leapfrogging NASA?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space travel, space policy

Here is an idea for you. The US government has no stomach any more for crewed space travel beyond "low earth orbit", meaning inside the inner Van Allen Belt, at altitudes well below 1,000 km. Imagine persuading twenty or so of the top billionaires to contribute a total of $100 billion to fund a private program to go to Mars. That is the premise behind Ben Bova's latest book Mars, Inc.: The Billionaire's Club. It is no spoiler to tell that the book ends with the ship's launch. The interesting ideas come throughout, as the protagonist, one Art Thrasher, herds together the billionaires, NASA, and a national government or two while fending off hostile takeovers of the company, sabotage and other assorted obstacles, and chases every skirt that crosses his path in the meantime.

Let's consider the finances. Thrasher gets each of twenty billionaires to contribute $1 billion yearly for five years, for a total of $100 billion. It seems he is counting on much greater efficiencies than past programs. The Apollo program cost $20 billion in the 1970s, and if you inflate by 6 (check the CPI calculator for the factor from 1970 to today), it would cost $120 billion. That was to go to the Moon six times. Government estimates for a Mars program range from $1 trillion and up. Of course, the cost to get there and back the first time may be less than that, but $100 billion is wildly optimistic.

Bova imagines using nuclear propulsion (and has a lot of fun with Thrasher getting permission to launch one!), using standard figures that it is more than twice as efficient as chemical propulsion. It is, but if the shielding needed to protect the crew doubles the weight of your craft, it is a wash. This isn't mentioned.

An element I found fascinating is a logical extension of Virtual Reality as we presently know it. Currently affordable equipment can handle vision and hearing quite well. Getting tactile feedback is still in the research stage, and a few primitive versions of the Haptic Glove can be had at steep prices.

Side note: a haptic glove uses tiny vibrators and other wiggly items distributed over its inside surface, wired to a controller that connects it to the computer. It simulates the feel of virtual objects. Simulating heft, body, and mass resistance are separate problems entirely: The glove might let you feel the texture a barbell's handle, but it can't exercise your arm while you "lift" it. Nor can it keep you from closing your hand beyond the surface of that virtual steel handle. There are no prospects for a haptic "Y at home".

Now imagine a haptic body glove. In the novel, Art Thrasher complains that putting one on is like climbing into a stiff Brillo pad. That's probably apt. But Bova's notion is, we may have watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon on our TV sets (a facet of the story no science fiction writer had predicted), but for Mars exploration, how about sending Virtual Reality signals back so that people can experience what the explorers experience? Selling the VR equipment is posited as a funding source for ongoing Mars exploration.

Hmm. Millions and millions of people watched the Apollo 11 landing. Hardly anyone watched A17. I wonder who'd have watched if they'd known it would be the last in their lifetimes? It has been just over 41 years…

It is in the nature of such a book that it becomes a political thriller. Most such turn me off, big time. But Bova keeps the overt politics to a minimum and lavishes the technical, as much as he can. Now, if somebody can just come up with a propulsion system that is double again as efficient as thermal-nuclear, to get people to and fro in a month instead of half a year. We can only dream.

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