quarta-feira, fevereiro 07, 2018

Don't Panic! Arthur Dent Will Travel: "Space Heavy" by SpaceX, Elon Musk

(snapshot from the Tesla Live Feed)

"For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do"

Space Oddity by David Bowie

The point of this launch was not to get a car into space, it was to flight-prove an interesting new rocket that should cut the cost of getting heavy cargo to LEO by 90%. That's why people are excited. What’s wrong with doing as much exploring, inventing and improving our lives while having a nerd’s heap of fun? It doesn’t get better than that. One day we all are going to die. Eventually, our species will become extinct, regardless of which planets we’re on. All species run out.

It's brilliant how a rich engineer with a vision can within 15 years create a Space company employing 6000 engineers, and create pioneering rockets that are reusable drastically cutting costs for governments & companies who want to put satellites into space (often ones you use every day). Then that same company has created a heavy lift vehicle that can one day return man to the moon and create enormous possibilities for scientific exploration of the solar system. The point of the roadster is actually pretty simple...it captures the imagination of a large number of people who love science but aren't scientists. For way too long, those engaged in scientific endeavors have focused on the nuts and bolts of exploration in medicine, engineering, physics, etc., and have ignored the art of all these activities. We graduate people who can do these wonderful activities but cannot talk about them. Hence, financial resources shrivel and disappear, and pure research is underfunded whereas applied research as it relates to corporate interest is the only game in town. If we want to go to Mars, we need to go together, and that will take funding, and that funding should come from the desire to do great things.

I expected the images to be good, but not this good. They are overwhelming, as stunning as they are spooky. But how long with the live feed last? Will we ever see images of Mars from the car as big as those of the earth that it is seeing now? The Hohmann transfer orbit should reach the Mars orbit distance in 6 months. The best time to watch the live feed is now (picture above), because the earth is getting so much smaller by the day - remember how Apollo astronauts only needed 3-4 days to cruise to the moon? But if getting to the moon is like walking across your living room, then getting to Mars is like walking a mile down the road to the pub in relative terms. It is so relaxing to watch the car serenely turning in barbecue mode, the shadows and the glints of sunlight are different with each spin, it's rather like watching goldfish in a bowl. But how long will the cameras endure? How long will it take before the aggressive direct sunlight starts to blister the paint work and bleach the interior of the car? The car must have some kind of stabilisation system, but when will it run out of propellant? Are there any other secrets lurking in the car?And is the driver really a crash dummy, and not some kind of robot that might start surprising us with a few gestures? It is remarkable to think that a space suited living person strapped into the driver's seat would actually have survived the experience of the flight, and maybe also have lived on for a few weeks at the wheel, given enough water and oxygen under the bonnet and in the boot...

Having watched NASA utterly flounder around for decades with a constant stream of failed "post shuttle" projects, it's something of a relief to see some vim and vigour injected into human space. The obsession with SSTO (single stage to orbit) just ground project after project into the dust. 
X33 which died in 2001
DC X which was not a million miles from Falcon 9 but lumbered with the nonsense SSTO configuration.
X38 with virtually no real mission and cancelled when ISS went way over budget
X30 another bloody minded SSTO killed in 92
Orbital Space Plane although may have found some life as the mysterious X37
Crew Exploration Vehicle 
Project Constellation who just seemed to think that money would never be an object or objection
Space Exploration Initiative, another meandering megabucks project that seemed to have little idea what it was and dubbed "Battlestar Galactica" by the press.

There are bound to be a few more I have forgotten, I am sure there was one CIA\ USAF SSTO space plane I have forgotten. To actually have something that thinks "cost" first, that looks like it will attract paying customers and has a near ready to fly human vehicle, the first new one from the US since the horribly failed STS that seemed to think returning 20 tonnes from space would be worth a fortune and that there was no real cost in ground crew for refurbs of the fleet.

Sending the Tesla into space is just brilliant. Science and technology is supposed to be fun. These are not the days of the white shirt pocket protector engineers of the moon landing. Choosing the Tesla over a block of concrete for a payload as is usually done in test flights of prototype rockets is just plain…fun. This however was not done without thought. Tesla was named after the Nikola Tesla. Tesla was never given the acclaim for all of the technology he has given us. Kudos to Elon for making the name of Tesla known to most people on the planet. Elon also has said that the "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" series of books made a deep impression on him. This series of books blends great British humor with science fiction and are great fun. They have meant a lot to me as well, I still laugh whenever I think of them. One of the many notable phrases in the book is “Don’t Panic!”, which is displayed on the dashboard of the orbiting Tesla. As far as this being a publicity stunt for Tesla sales, Elon’s problems are not sales but production. This would be more aptly put into the category of “Honor your father and mother….”

SpaceX and Tesla, at least where the design engineers sit are located, in buildings next to each other. The engineers from both companies speak to each other. Another brilliant move from Elon. Having more people able to think and share problems is what is needed to develop technology quickly. It also may have been instrumental in the decision to use the Tesla as a payload. I don’t know where the Boring company engineers are but I would imagine they are also in Hawthorne California with the SpaceX and Tesla guys. Who knows maybe when SpaceX launches their BFR (Big F..king Rocket) they will put a boring machine as its payload. Not quite as fun though.

After everything is said and done the launch of the Falcon Heavy was inspirational. It may not have been the moon landing but we are starved for the technological leaps we had been anticipating since then. Viewing the simultaneous landing of the boosters did give me those feelings I had with the moon landing. The marvels of what we can do but more of what we will do. Elon has brought this emotion back. A radio show I was listening to had a caller say the Falcon Heavy launch has just created 30 new future astronauts. Viewing the shuttle in a space museum is nice but sad for a dream mothballed.

The SpaceX guys are great. I think all of us, or at least, I am, just about envious of those who work for SpaceX. I live in Los Angeles and have seen the boys out on numerous occasions. I was at my favorite Pub at the beach in Venice when their crew rambled in one day in the late afternoon. They had been on a pub crawl since the wee hours after the first successful docking of the Dragon to the ISS. The enthusiasm and the dedication was just admirable. These guys ARE the new Skunk Works.

What about space littering? The car is a trivial object. It's just an art installation in space. It may not be art that conforms to our measure of ideological purity. Space Geeks knew that the chances of the Falcon Heavy making it into space was at best a 50-50 chance. Why risk any important payload of expensive equipment on those odds? Sure Musk turned the need for a dummy payload into a publicity stunt, but then what entrepreneur wouldn't? If nothing else it's got people chatting about space exploration again because thankfully not everyone is so fatalist about the future. As for the littering the galaxy, we shouldn't be preposterous. The entire mass of the Earth converted into pebbles wouldn't be enough to litter the solar system let alone the galaxy. There's trillions of tons of dangerous rocky flotsam out there in the solar neighbourhood as it is and unlike Musk's Tesla we've no idea where much of that is. Couldn't they have lured Trump into sitting in that car as the first man to ever drive a car in space and sent him on? What a missed opportunity! I am sure he would have loved the idea of going in the car thinking he'd return to the earth...

Getting a big load into space is the easy part of a Mars mission. Landing big loads on Mars is very difficult with a high failure rate. Once on Mars, humans have to be in a physical condition to do useful. long term International Space Station astronauts need weeks or months of intensive therapy to get back to fitness in Earth gravity. They would have to prevent themselves dying for long enough to do useful things. Exactly what kind of useful thing that is beyond the capability of robot explorers has yet to be explained. People can walk faster than a robot but need to breath, drink, eat, sleep, pee, poo. I wonder at the actual active Mars exploring time of an individual would be over three months. A team or swarm of robotic explorers could be self-rescuing and self-repairing and under the control of fat geologists safely on Earth, in no danger of running out of oxygen. A geologist might wander into a Martian valley, spot an unexpected, curious exposed rock strata in the corner of his eye, on his own initiative he can scramble up to the rock face, reach up with his hammer and hack out a small sample for return to the lab. That action is currently beyond all operational rovers. AI is still too primitive to be any use and remote controlling is still much too slow. Your robot swarm is pure science fiction. We're talking about what it's possible to do right now. I'm not convinced of the need for permanent residency on Mars, at least this early in our technological adolescence, but there would be genuine benefits to sending some researchers to visit. It is bloody expensive, but Musk might well be opening the pathway to doing it on a budget a fraction of the size the space agencies were anticipating. You can think of it as investing more money upfront for a quicker return payment in science. Of course it won't be Humans OR robots. It'll be both.

Cheers to Elon Musk, a man who really knows where his towel is (Read the "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy"). At first I thought it was a stupid thing to do, but I have grown to appreciate the absurdity of having a Tesla in Orbit. If nothing else, it makes a nice visual for all the "Flat Earth" morons, even though they probably are already claiming it's all CGI and "FAKE". Maybe we can convince Musk to use a few Flat Earthers as ballast for the next test. Give them some oxygen and a GoPro for their last post on YouTube. I thank Elon and SpaceX for the pride and inspiration they give all of us. I look forward to buying Elon and his crew a beer…on Mars.

Let’s leave as much of the other earthlings around as much as we can. Let’s go for our own outer limits, whatever that may be. When the sun blows, we’ll be the long gone crazies. What a trip!

NB: I really hoped to see Elon Musk running out onto the tarmac as the rocket took off, shouting "Stop. Stop. I left my fucking wallet in the car!".

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