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Communicating Visions

Status Report From: AIAA Houston Section
Posted: Monday, October 9, 2006

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Originally published in the July / August 2006 edition of the AIAA Houston Section's Horizons Newsletter. Reprinted with permission.

By Jon Berndt, Editor, Horizons

A column by Elaine Camhi in last month's issue of Aerospace America begged an answer:

Americans are willing to face great risks, if the cause is just or the dream is rich. But so far, we have failed to make that case. This is absolutely the time for soaring rhetoric, replete with a true articulation of what we hope to achieve, first by returning to the Moon, and then by taking that great leap into the unknown and venturing on to Mars. Make us believe that the vision is real, that it is worth the chances that will be taken, and the costs it will incur.

Tell us why.

It took Christopher Columbus several years to obtain backing for his Vision - his "Enterprise of the Indies" idea, which Columbus developed during the decade prior to his 1492 expedition. He was met with some skepticism, and sometimes other state matters distracted his audience. His final attempt to attain backing was eventually accepted through the influence of friends and others. What kind of reasoning did Columbus use to convince his backers to fund the Enterprise? There was at least the hope of a payoff. But nothing was known about what would be encountered by sailing directly west.

We have a much clearer picture of what is physically out "west", today, having been to the Moon already, and having studied several planets remotely. What is perhaps not so clear to some are the payoffs. In the current issue (October 2006) of Aerospace America there is an article by retired astronaut Tom Jones, "Space Exploration's Biggest Challenge: Explaining Why". His article presents some good reasons why we should explore space, and also exhorts NASA to present its mission to the public more effectively.

That got me thinking. How can NASA communicate with the public more effectively - not necessarily just regarding the Vision, but overall? There may be an as-yet untried way for NASA to help get the picture across. During the years from about 1930 to 1960, news items were spliced together into short "newsreels" and shown at the local theatre before a feature film. Imagine the ET-cam footage, or a selection of Saturn or Mars images presented on the big screen prior to a movie.

To be fair, the NASA Select television channel already broadcasts continuously. The news networks carry manned launches live. There are educational programs, outreaches, etc. that NASA is involved with in several ways. Frankly, NASA hosts perhaps the single largest, publicly accessible, repository of knowledge that I am aware of via their web presence. Having become very familiar with a wide range of NASA web features over the past few years, I have been consistently impressed. Many of the web sites featured in our "Staying Informed" column refer to NASA web sites where you certainly might learn something - contrary to what one popular space-related web site suggests.

In fact, the question of "Why" is explicitly addressed at the NASA history web site in a series of articles, "Why We Explore". A related topic is covered in an excellent publication, "Risk and Exploration: Earth, Sea, and the Stars". Neil Armstrong explains why we explore in a video introduction at the Vision for Space Exploration web site. NASA also uses other venues to interact with the public. The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) has a 72-foot tractor-trailer that houses a Vision for Space Exploration exhibit. The exhibit can be requested from organizations that submit a request. NASA ESMD has a calendar of events that show when and where they will have a presence. At the recent AIAA Space 2006 conference Ames Research Center director Pete Worden gave a captivating keynote speech, some of which was devoted to addressing the question of why we explore space. Later this month there is a Kid's Day at one of the local shopping malls, complete with NASA Exhibits and speaker.

The NASA message is out there - arguably far more visibly than for any other federal agency. The question of why we explore is so broad and multi-faceted that it would be difficult to answer it in just a few speeches and, even when NASA is communicating the message, who is really listening? Like Columbus' efforts, it's an ongoing process. Considering that the AIAA Mission statement includes the words, "Advance the arts, sciences, and technology of aerospace...", and "AIAA seeks to ... improve the public understanding of the profession and its contributions", I suggest that we (AIAA membership) accept some of the responsibility of conveying the "why."

One of the reasons often given for exploring beyond our planet (and conveyed in "soaring rhetoric") is that it is in our hearts that we always want to see what's over the next hill, and that our curiosity and thirst for knowledge will carry us naturally outward "to boldly go where no one has gone before". Some select few have now purchased the thrill of a lifetime and seen the Earth from 200 miles up. There are quite a number of people who have put down deposits to fly on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. Bigelow and Lockheed Martin are exploring an orbital partnership. Several other commercial enterprises are shooting for mach 25, as well. Is Earth orbit only the beginning? Where do people want to go today, and where will they want to go tomorrow?

Casting Off: Exploration? Colonization? Both?

A few weeks ago my Cub Scout son and I had the opportunity to stay overnight aboard the U.S.S. Lexington Museum on Corpus Christi Bay. It was a great experience for us, and particularly for me, because my father served aboard the Lexington 50 years ago (during the same time, I recently discovered, that a young aviator named Wally Schirra was also based on the ship). At 5:30 a.m. I awoke and climbed up to the hangar deck, stepped onto the port sponson, and watched the sun rise over the bay. With the Lexington resting in 16 feet of mud, I could only imagine what it must have been like to have lived aboard her during her operational years. In science fiction we often imagine the vessels of space exploration in terms analogous to a Navy ship. It would be a wonderful experience to be able to tour our solar system aboard a ship like NCC-1701, the fictional starship Enterprise. That would be the way to go, I think. But there are those pesky laws of physics that cannot be defied.

The soaring rhetoric directs us to the Moon, and Mars. Especially Mars. For the scientifically curious, Mars holds special allure. But, it is also squarely in the sights of other groups such as the Mars Society, who are not merely proponents of manned missions to the planet, but want to settle it, as well. They list some of the reasons for doing so:

  • We must go for the knowledge of Mars.
  • We must go for the knowledge of Earth.
  • We must go for the challenge.
  • We must go for the youth.
  • We must go for the opportunity.
  • We must go for our humanity.
  • We must go for the future.

The first two reasons support the exploration of Mars (either robotic or human) for the advancement of science, but these are not reasons for settlement. The other five reasons could also be used to justify the settlement of Antarctica. Antarctica is cold (like Mars), remote (but not too remote), has lots of open area, and it is a challenge to survive there. However, there is an abundant supply of water , the atmosphere is breathable and at a respectable pressure, and there is an established resupply infrastructure. Where would you rather go to endure hostile conditions, and stand where few or none have stood before?

I recently took an informal, unscientific, poll among the readers of nasaspaceflight.com. I asked which spaceflight experiences they would take if given the opportunity (listed in order from most to least desirable, 178 responses):

  • I would consider flying to the surface of the moon for a short stay (43.26%)
  • I would consider flying to orbit for a short stay at ISS or space hotel (41.57%)
  • I would consider taking a trip to the moon for an extended stay (38.76%)
  • I would consider taking a suborbital flight into space (35.96%)
  • I would consider flying on an excursion to the moon, but not landing (31.45%)
  • I would consider flying to Mars for a 6-12 month surface stay (25.38%)
  • I would consider relocating to Mars permanently (13.48%)
  • I don't like to fly at all (1.69%)

The votes tapered off with the Mars options, due to the longer travel time. Nevertheless, I was surprised at the number of people who said they would be willing to relocate to Mars permanently. I am skeptical.

Some respondents thought that it would be remarkable to stand on the surface of another planet. That would be true - for at least a few days or weeks. I'd love to see someone else do that, and I'd participate in the endeavor in whatever ground-based way I could. I think having a scientific outpost on Mars with rotating crew assignments would be captivating. But, I don't see Mars as a place to homestead. I've climbed on rocky hills near Twentynine Palms, California that look very much like the pictures coming back from the Mars Exploration Rover, Spirit. The things I remember most about that experience are the unique appearance of the Joshua trees, watching two coyotes at dusk passing by, and the sound of several of them calling off in the distance (and closer) late at night. I've canoed and backpacked in the north woods of Minnesota, seen a moose rise up out of the water directly in front of my canoe, discovered hidden waterfalls, and camped on an island with a black bear (a quiet, sneaky one). I can't imagine moving permanently to a place that is lifeless, cold, and dry - someplace where I cannot walk barefoot on a beach, see a sunset over an ocean, hear the call of a loon across a lake, grill some steaks over an open flame, sense the temperature change and smell of an approaching rainstorm in the spring - or, most important of all, to hear, see, and embrace my family members. And while we know a great deal about what is physically out there, what do we know about the psychological aspects of "extreme isolation?" I wonder how much the fantasy of fictional space exploits has obscured honest consideration of the realities by the supporters of space settlement?

Author and SETI Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak lectured at an AIAA dinner meeting here in Houston last year. During his talk he proposed that given the real limitations of our current technology, the rate of technological growth, and the vast distances involved, it's not likely that humans will ever venture to even the nearest star outside our own solar system - certainly not in our lifetime. Barring the emergence of a new propulsion technology that ushers in an age where Starship Enterprise-style ships are possible, we're probably stuck in this vicinity for a very, very long time.

It appears that there may be a growing number of ways for people to reach orbit in coming years. Who knows what opportunities will emerge when the cost of access to space is reduced significantly? Will it open the door for increased human and robotic scientific exploration of the Moon and Mars? That would be great, for the reasons that are consistently given. Will it open a door for colonization of yet-to-be-built locations in orbit, the Lagrange points, the Moon, or Mars? These might be interesting destinations to visit, but when I look around and see the varied, beautiful locations here on this planet, I wonder how one could leave this place permanently. Humans may well be technically able to emigrate from Earth, someday, but just because we could, does it follow that we should? That Vision has not been communicated well, at least in my eyes.

Notwithstanding my preference for living on this planet, there are undoubtedly others who will give a number of reasons why they would readily venture out like Columbus, who sailed west to reach the East, into the mostly unknown for reasons of fame, fortune, and even the divine. The ironic thing is that he never reached the place he originally set out for but what he discovered along the way changed the world.

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