Thursday, January 05, 2012

Space Travel and Colonization of Planets: The Science of Over the Edge

Tim Cavanaugh's column in the Reason magazine's February 2012 issue discusses some of the problems facing serious space travel--that is leaving our cozy little neck of the solar system to venture to Mars or even set up more permanent camps on the Moon. He likes the idea of genetic engineering, that is, fixing humans to be more compatible with space or with life on Mars. He says, "...genetic engineering is the only way humanity can conquer Mars and the rest of the solar system..."

Well, given how poorly anybody has predicted what the future holds (Where's my flying car and my rocket back pack?), I don't think genetic engineering will end up being the wave space travel future.

However, he does point out the very real hurdles we squishy humans face. Anybody who leaves earth's protective magnetic field runs the risk of deadly solar flares and cosmic radiation. "Any crew dispatched on the 18-to-30-month mission to Mars will face highly elevated risks of cancer, tissue degradation, bone density loss, brain damage, pharmaceutical spoilage, and other health threats," Cavanaugh wrote. If a team made it to Mars without succumbing to some health threat or another, he's landing on a planet which has one-hundredth earth's atmosphere and no shielding from solar radiation whatsoever, which will now include reflected solar rays from this inhospitable planet's surface. And terraforming won't be easy, we have a hard time doing anything significant to our climate, despite what global warming believers say. Bulky spaceship shields are expensive. Mars doesn't look like a place that can pay for the trip: it seems to have no mineral value; no organic chemistry; no temperate regions; no energy sources and no real canals. The ice below the surface is about the only attractive feature Mars has going for it, in terms of a personal human visit.

Cavanaugh quotes Robert Zurbin, founder of Mars Society, "The real profit of the New World didn't come from a spice route to India, nor did it come from looting Aztec gold. It came from a new society and a new branch of humanity that built a democracy and invented the airplane. The value is going to come from people born on Mars. There is a reason that a frontier culture is connected to a culture of invention."

Spaceships in the Over the Edge series use gravitational and magnetic fields and huge interior plant gardens to help protect them from space hazards. Those who labor in the fledgling private space industry have the kind of frontier spirit needed to overcome obstacles. There was a time when longitude was the overwhelming puzzle that held seafarers back. Humans will advance into space through brain power--the ability to creatively invent new technology and create solutions. I'm voting for ordinary, unadulterated humans via private space industry to solve our space travel problems--provided government doesn't excessively intrude.

 Mars ridge; photo credit: National Geographic