Thursday, October 7, 2010

To the Stars, Through Simplicity

When I was young and unfamiliar with the ways the world worked but had stars in my eyes for science fiction anyway, I came up with a concept called the "impeller drive." This was meant to be a sublight drive for starships that worked through the amazing, incredible means of glowing. You know, just like the impulse engines on the Enterprise-D - they glow red and it goes forward, presumably because the red ones go faster. Though I wasn't aware of the name at the time - moreover, I wasn't aware of its violation of many of the laws of physics - I was pinning my hopes on a reactionless drive. It wasn't until fairly recently that I expunged the last bits of it from my brain, because really - not only is the reactionless drive such a compelling concept, it seems to dovetail with what we experience in our daily lives.

Fact is, the closest a lot of us will get to the vacuum of space in our daily lives is a Roomba. It requires knowledge, familiarity, and a curiosity-driven thirst to understand in order to really get a grip on how things work beyond the atmosphere. It's unfortunate that most of what passes for experience - popular entertainment in the mold of Star Trek, Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica - perpetuates the idea of stardrive prostitution; drives with no visible means of thrust.

Nevertheless, it's understandable for the average person to hold these ideas, because really, the average person probably won't be presented with a situation where they become relevant. It's different for creators. When I had the notion of writing space-based stories, I started digging into research and came across wonderful things like brachistochrone equations. Understanding is, in all things, key. I'd expect to find it guiding the people who help to shape culture - people like Canada's queen of science fiction (although she vehemently denies being such), Margaret Atwood.

What sparks this? The other day I came across an article in the Technology section of The Province, another dip into the murky swamp of the "lunar hoax" - I don't think I'll ever comprehend why so many people are so willing to believe that one of humanity's greatest achievements was instead the work of a bunch of guys in a soundstage in Nevada. It makes reference to a 2009 interview wherein Atwood discussed questions about the moon "hoax," focusing around why "they haven't done it again if it was so easy."

All right, first off, if I could use any word to describe the Apollo program, "easy" would be in the same rough neighborhood as "putrescent." With a final cost of $25.4-billion as figured in 1973 - according to the Inflation Calculator, this works out to $121-billion in 2009 US dollars - reaching the moon was not easy, particularly when you consider that it involved the design and development of entirely new technologies, the construction of some of the most sophisticated machines ever assembled by human hands, and an environment vastly more dangerous than anything under the sky.

But why does Atwood suggest suspicion? Because of computers. Yes, the big question as per this interview is why no one has walked on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, when computers back then were massive and now they're not. Musings about dangers from the Van Allen Belt or "those strange shadows and why the flag rippled" are, in my mind, sideshows. The idea that lunar missions should be easy because we have microchips now is just staggering.

A key to Luna? I don't think so, me.

The biggest cost of spaceflight is climbing out of the deep, dark well we call Earth. More efficient computing hardware is chump change in the rocket equation - it doesn't change the fundamentals of how chemical rockets work. If you don't know how chemical rockets work, I urge you to research the matter in the way you feel best; but to summarize, they work because they throw stuff out the back, and the act of throwing pushes them in the opposite direction in accordance with the Newtonian principle of action and reaction.

What really worries me, though, is the cultural impact of casual ignorance like this. Studies have made clear that the public conception of spaceflight, NASA in particular, is far out of kilter with reality - a 1997 poll found that, on average, people believed that NASA took 20% of the federal budget, twenty or forty times greater than what it actually gets. How much of the opposition to space comes from this mistaken belief that space is easy to get to, and that NASA is just wasting taxpayers' money shooting robot rovers to Mars?

Misinformation is poison. It's our responsibility to correct it and struggle against it wherever we can. The challenges we face today are manifold and manifest, and without a clear view of our options and the possibilities ahead we may as well be fighting Lavos with a Wood Sword and Hide Tunic. The future would not be thankful, and it would refuse to change.


  1. I hadn't realized that Atwood was anywhere close to being on board with the lunar hoax crowd. That's rather appalling.

  2. Ignorance is going to wreck everything.


    (Also, I liked the interview with Lord Ravil Engen; I got sidetracked before commenting because I'm terrible.)

  3. Ignorance is still sacred to too many.

    Vigilance will still be key.