Communion Of Dreams


Rocket to Venus.

This is a delightful article: Space Oddity

I knew that there were various ‘societies’ (basically, clubs) focused on rocketry early last century, but I hadn’t heard of Robert Condit, who in the 1920s gained national attention for his idea of rocketing into space.

Was he serious? A grifter? Someone who took a little popular science knowledge and had some fun with it? (Gee, I can’t imagine that someone might do something like that.)

Who knows? But Condit knew more about getting to space than you might think. Two excerpts from the article indicate he wasn’t just a dreamer or con artist. Here’s the first:

Condit dreamed the rocket, and the Uhler brothers helped build it. They used angle iron ribs, perhaps supplied by the same mill that contributed to the Capitol. They wrapped the rocket in sailcloth from another mill and shellacked it in varnish to create a hard shell. An air compressor was installed to spray liquid fuel into eight steel pipes that they had outfitted with a spark plug and a battery to ignite the gas. There was room inside for one man, with access through the removable nose of the rocket. They lined the interior with 1½-inch pipes meant to supply water for the journey and to help insulate Condit from the black chill of space. There were two glass portholes to see out. Condit had everything he believed he needed: flashlight, first aid kit, and a bow and arrows, which would come in handy for “procuring small game for food,” he wrote in notes uncovered by the filmmakers.

And:

Condit did get a few matters right, though. He understood the need for a liquid fuel. He understood the Coriolis effect — that launching from Miami Beach, closer to the equator than Baltimore, would take advantage of Earth’s spin to help get him into space. This was 35 years before NASA established its launch operations at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Something else about the era and Condit’s project resonates for us now: the desire to quit the current reality, even if only in our fantasies for a little while. Again, from the article:

They also found letters from scientists and space enthusiasts, from children and adults, men and women alike, and from as far away as Czechoslovakia, all wanting to know more about his pending trip. Some had experienced the horrors of the First World War, and the idea of escaping to Venus sounded pretty great.

“They had lost a leg or had been injured and they were like: I’m willing to donate my life to go along and accompany you on this mission because I’m no longer any good to society in this way, but I could serve the furtherment of humanity and science by doing this,” Carey told me. “There were a lot of those types of letters.” (Goddard got letters like this, too, after he wrote about a rocket to the moon.) The letters contained the same basic message: Please take me with you.

Yeah, I think just about now a lot of us can empathize.

Jim Downey

PS: Next Saturday, as on the first of every month, anyone can get free downloads of my books. If you’re read any of them — particularly St Cybi’s Well*please* do me a favor and go review/rate it. It really does help with the search algorithms and browser response. Thanks.



Here there be robots.

Oh, this is just delightful:

Here there be robots: A medieval map of Mars

Recently I’ve been really into old maps made by medieval explorers. I thought it would be fun to use their historical design style to illustrate our current adventures into unexplored territory. So here’s my hand-drawn topographic map of Mars, complete with official landmark names and rover landing sites.

Go check out the whole thing, but here’s a glimpse of the map itself (which is much larger on the original post):

 

You can even support the artist and buy a copy! Quick, before they’re all gone!

 

Jim Downey

HT to Margo Lynn.



Having artists and writers involved in space research and planning? What will they think of next?

A good friend (and fan of Communion of Dreams), passed along an article which made me chuckle. Here’s an excerpt:

Earlier this month, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology assembled a strange gathering: scientists, artists, engineers, and policy-makers, for a workshop designed to imagine how humanity could settle the solar system.

The workshop, held in early February, was titled Homesteading in Space – Inspiring the Nation through Science Fiction, with the express purpose of imagining how manned space efforts can take us to our neighboring planets, not just for a short visit, but for longer durations.

And she added this comment with the link: “The group gathered reminds me a lot of your group from COD.

Ayup. Here’s the relevant passage from Chapter 1:

“I’ve had my expert do a preliminary search through the old NASA archives. I recalled that they had protocols for dealing with such possible situations, and I doubt that anyone else has really thought much about it since the turn of the century.

“In addition to Don’s field team, the preliminary search suggests that another component should be theoretical, a mix of disciplines so that we can get as broad a spectrum of experience and mind-set as possible. Probably we should have an expert in computer technology. A cultural anthropologist. Someone with a background in game theory and communication strategy. An artist or two. We’ll see if a more thorough survey of the NASA material has any good suggestions beyond that. I’ll get to work identifying appropriate individuals.”

And here’s a discussion the chosen artist (Duc Ng) has with the team leader in Chapter 4 about why it’s a good idea to have such non-technical people included in any such group:

“Why do you have an artist on this team?” asked Ng.

“It was a recommended protocol in some of the old NASA guidelines. Artists have a broader perceptual framework, aren’t necessarily limited by ‘logical possibilities’.”

“And what does that mean to you?” Ng leaned across the table. “That I’m just another kind of sensor you can use? Think about it. Those folks at NASA may have had something else in mind.”

Jon paused with his breakfast. “Go on.”

“How about if intuition and creative insight are the guiding principles of the culture that created the artifact? Not just a technological culture with its unique aesthetic sense, but a culture of intuitives who eventually produced sufficient technology to create this thing. A culture just the obverse of our own: largely artistic, with a secondary interest in technology.”

“With only a secondary interest in technology, how could they ever become a space-faring race?”

Ng shrugged. “Who knows how long they had been at it? Their culture may be tens of thousands of years old. Even a very modest rate of technological development could have led them into space eventually.” He paused, sighed. “Look, my point is that we can’t get stuck just looking for a technological explanation. The very reason that artifact was created, sent here or left here, may have had nothing to do with anything scientific or what we would consider logical. It may have had as much as anything to do with the passions, the dreams of the creators.”

Dreams which may take us to the stars.

 

Jim Downey

With thanks to Jane for the link and observation!



All alone in the dark of night?

Perhaps:

Earth could be unique among 700 quintillion planets in the Universe, study finds

So much of humanity’s astronomical research is based around the notion of finding something like us out there – whether that’s looking for environments that could sustain life, ranking planets in terms of their potential habitability, or comparing distant worlds to our own.

But what if – statistically speaking – the odds are stacked against us finding another planet even remotely like Earth? That’s the thinking behind a new study by an international team of researchers, which has taken what we know about the exoplanets that lie outside our Solar System and fed the data into a computer model.

Their resulting calculations, designed to simulate how galaxies and planets have formed over some 13.8 billion years, produces a “cosmic inventory” of terrestrial planets – and one in which Earth very much looks to be unique.

 

Perhaps not:

Jon nodded. “Thanks. So what’s the meeting about? What happened?”

“Dr. Jakobs tried to contact you this morning. After hearing her message, I bounced it up to Director Magurshak. They found something on Titan. An artifact.” Seth paused, looked down at his hands, “a nonhuman artifact.”

Jon sat there for a moment, trying to digest what Seth said. According to what pretty much everyone thought, it wasn’t possible. SETI, OSETI, META and BETA had pretty much settled that question for most scientists decades ago, and twenty years of settlement efforts throughout the solar system hadn’t changed anyone’s mind. Even with the Advanced Survey Array out at Titan Prime searching nearby systems for good settlement prospects, there had never been an indication that there was an intelligent, technologically advanced race anywhere within earshot. Seth knew Jon well, didn’t let the silence wait. He looked back up, eyes level and unblinking, “It isn’t a hoax. The artifact is definitely nonhuman, or at least non-contemporary human. Mr. Sidwell found it out near his base. Dr. Bradsen will have as much a report on it as is available, which isn’t much.”

 

Jim Downey



“We are on a marble, floating in the middle of … nothing.”

Via BoingBoing, this completely delightful short video about the scale of our solar system:

That does a better job of getting the real sense of scale than just about anything else I’ve seen. Wonderful.

 

Jim Downey

 



You never know …

… how what you write, or say, or do, will inspire and encourage others:

 

Jim Downey



One fourth.

Tomorrow I turn 57. Yeah, on the Fourth of July.

That might seem a little weird to someone who doesn’t have a birthday on the Fourth. Not to me. I’ve grown up with it.

But you know what seems weird to me?

That I’ve been alive for almost one-fourth of the entire time that the United States has existed. Run the numbers, and you’ll see.

It’s very odd to realize just how young our country is in some ways. And how much things have changed just in my lifetime.

I remember the early days of the Space Race. I remember the night Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon.

And I remember growing up with casual racism of the worst sort. When homophobia was so deeply ingrained and widespread that the word itself didn’t even really exist. I remember using words like n***** and f***** without a trace of embarrassment, because they were so common.

Things have changed somewhat. Not enough. But still, too much for some people. Because change can be scary. Threatening.

The length of my life will take you to the time of Sputnik. The length of another such will take you back before Kitty Hawk. And just one more will land you well before the Civil War.

Change can be hard. And the fight never ends. But have hope: progress can be made. Both for individuals and for countries. Perhaps, even, for the whole world.

 

Jim Downey



“Uh, he’s already got one, you see.”

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has rightly been called one of the most important scientific tools in human history. It has brought the cosmos closer to us, just as it has helped to drive home an understanding of precisely how far away those twinkling lights in the sky actually are … and connected to that, just how old our universe is:

The depth of Hubble’s data, however, has touched or rewritten nearly every area of astrophysics. Ever since the discovery of the expanding universe in the 1920s, astronomers had struggled with the rate of expansion and what it means. The so-called Hubble constant, the universal rate of expansion, was much in doubt, with two factions arguing very different conclusions from the data. The Hubble constant is also inversely proportional to the age of the universe, another key holy grail of science. One of the primary goals of Hubble was to measure the Hubble constant accurately, using a variety of distance indicators, and by the turn of the 21st century, this helped define a relatively accurate Hubble constant of 72±8 and an age of the universe, which the more recent European Planck satellite has refined further to 13.8±0.04 billion years.

 

It’s an amazing piece of technology.

But I can’t help remembering that even as amazing as it is, a few years ago it was revealed that it was considered so … obsolete … that US spy agencies had just given NASA two other surplus Hubble-type instruments they no longer wanted to bother to store. As I noted at the time:

…we’ve just found out that what we thought was at the limits of our technology is so obsolete that it can be handed off as so much surplus junk. And the implication is that while NASA is currently without the means to launch and service something like Hubble, that there are plenty other agencies within our government which are not so inconvenienced.

 

Which brings me around to the title of this blog post. Monty Python fans may recognize it from this scene in the Holy Grail:

Which I just happened to watch this week, and snickered over, remembering the news item about the HST from 2012. Though of course, in this case I hope that the National Reconnaissance Office wasn’t *quite* so taunting of NASA …

 

Jim Downey



Not “Because it’s there.”

George Mallory, the famous British mountain climber who may or may not have been the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest, supposedly responded when asked by a New York Times reporter “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with “Because it’s there”.  This, in the spirit of the day, was understood to mean that it was a challenge to be conquered, man triumphing over nature.

When I was young, I found this quote to be inspirational. Aspirational. It was, I thought, the perfect explanation for doing the seemingly impossible. For pushing boundaries. For climbing higher than anyone had ever climbed before. Perhaps all the way to the Moon. And maybe one day, to the stars.

Half a century later, I have learned the wisdom of having goals — or, perhaps more accurately, motivations — which make more sense over the long run. Because while “because it’s there” may lead to a temporary triumph, it is hardly enough over the long haul.  If you want something to be more than just a moment of glory, captured forever in the record books but limited to only being in the record books, then you need something much more pragmatic.

So I was delighted to read this today, from Phil Plait’s visit to Elon Musk’s SpaceX factory and the question of why go to Mars:

Musk didn’t hesitate. “Humans need to be a multi-planet species,” he replied.

And pretty much at that moment my thinking reorganized itself. He didn’t need to explain his reasoning; I agree with that statement, and I’ve written about it many times. Exploration has its own varied rewards… and a single global catastrophe could wipe us out. Space travel is a means to mitigate that, and setting up colonies elsewhere is a good bet. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of modern rocketry) said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”

* * *

The overall atmosphere in the factory was one of working at a progressive company on an exciting project. Of course: They build rockets. But the feeling I couldn’t put my finger on before suddenly came into focus. The attitude of the people I saw wasn’t just a general pride, as strong as it was, on doing something cool. It was that they were doing something important. And again, not just important in some vague, general way, but critical and quite specific in its endgame: Making humans citizens of more than one world. A multi-planet species.

It’s easy to dismiss this statement, think of some snark as a way to minimize it and marginalize it as the thinking of a true believer. But—skeptic as I am—I’ve come to realize this is not minimal. It is not marginal. This is a real, tangible goal, one that is achievable. And SpaceX is making great strides toward achieving it.

That’s when I also realized that the initial question itself was ill-posed. It’s not why Elon Musk wants to get to Mars. It’s why he wants humanity to get there.

 

The Apollo Program was a phenomenal achievement. It was inspirational. Aspirational. But while it contributed many worthy technological advances, and led a whole generation of the best & brightest to go into science and engineering, there is a reason that there are still to this day only a dozen people who have ever walked on the Moon.

Musk’s goal is still visionary. And perhaps not pragmatic in the short term. But in the long term, species survival seems to be just about the most pragmatic goal humanity could have.

 

Jim Downey



Out for a stroll.

I mean, who doesn’t want to get out now and again, stretch your legs a bit?

More info here:

Recently, NASA released some pretty spectacular footage captured by an astronaut wearing a GoPro camera while spacewalking around the International Space Station. In the videos, Earth slowly rotates below the space station while astronauts fiddle with cables, install antennae, and work on the robotic arm.

 

Jim Downey