Arizona State Space Exploration Symposium – A Review

Michael Mackowski, a member of the Phoenix chapter of the National Space Society, attended the one day symposium titled “The Future of Humans in Space” on 26 October 2012. He sent us these observations:

Notes from ASU Space Exploration Symposium, 10/26/12

I attended a symposium at ASU on Friday, Oct. 26, 2012. The name of the event was “Future of Humans in Space: Re-Kindling the Dream. The day-long symposium was sponsored by ASU’s Beyond Center, the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and the Center for Science and the Imagination. Here are my random notes on each speaker.

Hugh Downs (former television news personality and current chairman of the board of governors of the NSS)
He reminisced about NASA’s “glory days” when a leader like von Braun could make design decisions on the spot. Downs claimed that Werner saw the original Saturn V design with four engines, and suggested they add a fifth. There were no trade studies, no review committees, no cost-benefits trades, just a brilliant engineer with the freedom to get things done. Downs also talked about the early days of the National Space Society including how George Whitesides helped get it going.

George Whitesides (CEO and president of Virgin Galactic)
He talked about how Virgin wants to put more people into space. While he acknowledged these are suborbital flights, he avoided noting (until asked) that it is only for two minutes. He tried to make a case that these are exciting times for space development right now, with SpaceX proving their new capabilities and Virgin close to proving out the market for tourist flights into space. Just how this fits in with the theme of the symposium (“Why are we stuck in low Earth orbit?”), when Virgin doesn’t even GET to orbit was a bit puzzling to me. I’m all for rich people wanting to take their joy rides, and maybe this advances cheaper access to space, but I don’t see how suborbital tourist rides gets us closer to settlements off the Earth. Perhaps it can establish a space tourist market that can evolve into a LEO business, thus driving down launch costs. Whitesides did mention that Virgin Galactic has plans for orbital vehicles but that is a long way off.

Ed Finn (Director, Center for Science and the Imagination)
This center (http://csi.asu.edu) was one of the co-sponsors of this event and they had a few minutes to introduce themselves. A simple statement of their charter is to connect science and the arts. One of their efforts is to bring together scientists and engineers with science fiction writers. It’s another example of ASU president Michael Crow’s adventures in collaborations across disciplines.

Kip Hodges (Director, ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration)
He talked about collaboration between humans and robots in future space exploration from the perspective of a field geologist. His main point was that robots are unlikely to ever be as good as humans for exploration. Human cognition will always be superior to autonomous machines, but there is plenty of room for working together. The problem is latency, or the time it takes to communicate with a teleprescence on another world. Until we figure that out, robotic exploration will be slow and inefficient.

Panel Discussion: How to Leverage Our Investment in Space
This panel included Kip Hodges, Lawrence Krauss (physics professor), astronaut Andrew Thomas, and Paul Davies. I don’t think the discussion ever talked about leveraging our past investments, but the topic veered into how will we ever manage to get a manned Mars mission. All of the classic debate topics came up:
- Destinations versus Capabilities
- Moon versus Mars
- Robots versus People
- Science versus Adventure
- Settlement versus Political Prestige
- Government versus Entrepreneur
There was a consensus that the ultimate goal is human settlement on other worlds. But the path to get there is not at all clear. Astronaut Andy Thomas had a lucid view of the situation, in that space exploration is not a national imperative. Our indecisiveness is a social issue, not technical, not even political. It is still too expensive for private entities to bankroll, and the American taxpayer is in no mood to pay for more than we are doing now. Public interest is just too shallow. It won’t be performed by “commercial” firms because there is no business case for going to the Moon or Mars. The problem of radiation exposure was debated, and clearly more research is required here. Some of the panelists supported the concept of a one-way mission to Mars. These would not be suicide missions but the beginnings of permanent settlements. Others, however, said that eliminating the problems of a return to Earth stage is replaced with other, equally challenging problems of long duration survival.

Robert Zubrin (author of The Case for Mars)
Zubrin kicked off his presentation with the audacious claim that the most important issue is the world today is going to Mars. In 500 years, the first mission to Mars will be remembered more than who wins the election or how we manage our health care system. There’s some truth to that, but most people have to pay their bills first. He gave his classic talk on how to get to Mars in ten years. It is a very well thought out mission plan, and a lot of it makes sense. On the down side, Robert seems to be using the same charts and graphics from when he first came up with this concept twenty years ago. (He had grainy images from Viking to make a point about landing sites. How hard would it be to use some images from, say, the 1990s?) When it comes to destination-vs-capabilities, Zubrin is of the mind that missions drive the technology, so he wants to see a challenging mission declared. Unfortunately, this runs in the face of Andy Thomas’s observation that today’s American public is in no mood for expensive space spectaculars.

Kim Stanley Robinson (science fiction author)
Robinson’s take on space exploration was a bit more philosophical than the other speakers, as he is a writer and not a technologist. He claims that “the space project” will naturally occur as the outcome of a healthy planet and a healthy human civilization. Looking around the world right now, we’re not there. Thinking of space as a planet will help us deal with climate change. He’s not enamored with so-called “commercial” space. Space is a commons, not a playground for the rich. We need to take care of our own planet, as only Earth matters. We also have to acknowledge that we, as a species, are not “destined” for space. We are products of the Earth’s biosphere. We can attempt to take it with us, but the inter-relationships among human beings and microbiotic life (for example) is not fully understood. If we take a sterile environment with us on deep space missions, what crucial microbes will we forget?

Panel Discussion: Wilder ideas, one-way missions, warp drives, starships, etc.
This panel consisted of Sarah Walker (an astrobiologist), Ed Finn (from the Center for Science and the Imagination), Paul Davies, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Robert Zubrin. It was an entertaining discussion on such speculative topics as nuclear propulsion, space elevators, controlled fusion, magnetic monopoles, generation ships, modified human biology, etc.

Summary
There was no real conclusion or summary statement planned, but I thoroughly enjoyed the day. I spoke with Prof. Paul Davies prior to the meeting and he kindly gave me a few minutes on stage to promote local chapters of the National Space Society and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Some good contacts were made and I think there will be opportunities for collaboration between ASU and groups like NSS, the Moon Society, and AIAA.

As for the prospects for invigorating the space program, I believe the key word is patience. Government-run space exploration will only accomplish what citizens are demanding, and right now, not enough citizens are demanding a base on the moon or Mars. Privately sponsored space exploration might happen eventually, but it would have to be from a purely altruistic motivation, as there is no business case for exploration any time soon. We will need to wait for the technology to allow either of these paths to become affordable before we will make much progress towards establishing a true space faring civilization. That is the sad reality.

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