SpaceDaily Frontpage The Dream Palace Of The Space Cadets

Space travel is the most difficult technological feat mankind has ever attempted. Unfortunately many of its strongest advocates seem to be technological illiterates.
By Jeffrey F. Bell
Honolulu HI (SPX) Nov 24, 2005
I spend some time lurking in many online discussion groups concerned with space travel. From this I have learned that these opinion columns have made me something of a bete noir to the pro-space community. People attribute all kinds of sinister motives and bizarre behaviors to me, just because I try to take a detached and skeptical view of manned space flight.

On a particularly idiotic message thread at Space.Com, a relatively sensible user called "mattblack" wrote in frustration at the ignorant drivel being posted by others: "Somewhere, Jeffrey Bell is laughing like a hyena..."

Actually, I wasn't laughing then. I never laugh while reading foolish online discussions about space. My reaction is intense frustration. It is frustrating to find that many Space Cadets are shockingly ignorant about space technology - and even more frustrating that the average level of ignorance seems to get worse with every passing year.

On the face of it this makes no sense. The first thing you do when you become obsessed with something is study it obsessively, right? And 21st century Space Cadets don't have to plow through yellowing books in college engineering libraries like I did in the 1970s - today the basic facts are there at web sites run by people like Mark Wade and Marcus Lindroos who make extraordinary efforts to dig out obscure information.

But for years now, I have been meeting people who are both wildly enthusiastic about space travel as a broad intellectual concept and completely ignorant of the practical details. They don't know how rocket engines work. They don't know the basics of orbital mechanics. They don't know the facts (or the uncertainties) about the dangers of radiation and microgravity.

Even worse, they have no idea how much space travel costs, or how these costs compare to other areas of human activity like war or mountain-climbing. They think that Will is all you need to colonize the solar system- they have no concept of the political, financial, and technological investment that it would take.

But the small fraction of the pro-space community I meet in person seems tame compared to the internet space chat community. One regularly finds long discussion threads on politically impossible ideas like a one-way Mars suicide mission, financially impossible ideas like building spaceships on the Moon, and technically impossible ideas like ion-powered space blimps. In all these discussions, the few informed people who try to point out the massive problems with these ideas are swamped by a much larger number of enthusiasts who clearly don't know enough basic science or engineering to even understand the issues.

I get even more frustrated when I visit the web sites of the various space advocacy groups. They are a pale shadow of the L-5 Society and the Space Studies Institute (both of which I joined in the 1970s). Many of these organizations seem to live in a dream palace of their own creation that has no relationship to the real world at all.

This dream palace is symbolized by one particular image that one sees far too often these days. This is an artist's concept of a future Moon base/colony with a small spacesuited child playing joyfully in the regolith like it was a gigantic sandbox.

Logically, this image makes no sense.

1) Spacesuits are so expensive and so tailored to individual measurements that no Moon parents could afford to have a whole series custom-made for a growing child.

2) EVA is so dangerous that no one would allow an irresponsible child out in vacuum. (Even the Robert Heinlein kid's SF novels that we Boomers grew up on were relatively sane on this point.)

3) The child would be exposed to deadly cosmic rays at a critical time in its development.

4) No child could grow normally in the low lunar gravity. Even adult astronauts are carried away on wheelchairs after only 6 months in space (the last American to return from the ISS actually fainted from the stress of normal gravity).

Back in the 1970s, you never saw this misleading and emotive propaganda image. It was clearly understood back then that permanent colonization of the Moon was impossible due to the debilitating effects of low gravity (which had just then been discovered on the early space stations Skylab and Salyut). This was a major reason that Gerard O'Neill developed the concept of free-floating space habitats with normal gravity provided by rotation. O'Neill was always quite clear that in his vision the Moon was just a strip mine with temporary crews working short shifts.

But there was a problem with those free-floating rotating habitats that became obvious as serious design studies were done: They were impossibly expensive to build. They required the lifting of vast tonnages of raw material from the Moon or the Belt and vast fabrication facilities. They required big construction crews that had to be housed, fed, and sent home to Earth before their bones melted away.

Pretty soon there were several generations of "construction shacks" and "initial colonies" in the O'Neill program. It would clearly be decades before any ordinary families would be living in space. The whole Vision faded away as the real costs and problems of the rotating 1-g space habitat became apparent.

So it isn't any surprise that today's space settlement advocates have drifted back to the 1950s vision of living on the surfaces of the planets. Superficially, it looks easier. The initial capital investment can be much less. There is no need to lift massive amounts of material out of a gravity well. You can imagine a few hardy pioneers digging their own shelters and gradually expanding an initial small foothold into a town.

Unfortunately, the new generation of organizations like the Space Frontier Foundation and the Mars Society and even the staid National Space Society mostly lack something that the old L-5 Society and Space Studies Institute had: technical sophistication.

Just look at Bob Zubrin's vision of Mars colonization. Nowhere in Zubrin's books is there the kind of detailed engineering design for Mars colonies that the O'Neillians produced for their L-5 colonies. The problems of sustaining human life on Mars are dismissed after superficial discussions devoid of any hard numbers.

And there are obvious problems with colonizing Mars. The first one is that it gets incredibly cold there - probably down to -130C on winter nights. Every robot Mars probe has used small slugs of Pu-238 to keep its batteries from freezing at night.

And there is air on Mars - not enough to breathe, but enough to conduct heat. The Martian regolith will not be the perfect insulator that the Moon's is. Thermal control on Mars will not be simply a matter of adding layers of aluminum foil to reflect the sun. Bases and rovers will need to be insulated and heated. And how do you keep a human in a spacesuit warm in this climate?

And Mars has permafrost - at least in some places and those places are the ones to colonize. How do we keep the heat leaking out from our habitat or farm greenhouse into the ground from heating up the ice and melting or subliming it away? This is a severe problem in permafrost areas of the Earth - how bad will it be on Mars? Zubrin even proposes underground habitats. These will be in direct contact with the cold subsoil or bedrock which will suck heat out at a rapid rate.

If Gerard O'Neill was still alive and advocating Mars colonies, he would be doing some basic thermal transfer calculations to see how bad the Martian cold problem really is. He would be figuring out how big a fission reactor to send along to keep the colony warm and how often its core will need to be replenished by fresh U-235 from Earth. He would even have a rough number for the amount of Pu-238 everyone will have to carry in their spacesuit backpacks.

Bob Zubrin is perfectly competent to do these calculations since he has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering. But you never see this kind of hard engineering analysis from the Mars Society. Instead, we get propaganda stunts like the Devon Island "Mars Base" which is only manned during the peak of the Arctic summer when the climate is tropical compared with that of Mars.

Another thing you never see from the Mars Society is a realistic discussion of what would happen to the human body in the low Martian gravity. Zubrin has discussed at length the need for artificial spin gravity on the 6 month trip to Mars. But he assumes that the problem ends once the astronauts land on Mars. The problem of bone loss in a 0.38g field on Mars for ~18 months is completely ignored.

When I read Zubrin's book The Case For Mars, I was so intrigued by this surprising omission that I consulted a friend who is a space medic at JSC. He tells me that this issue was once discussed at a conference of medical doctors who had actually worked with the long-term residents of Mir and ISS. NONE of these experts thought that humans could adapt permanently to Mars gravity!

Why don't the Zubrinistas discuss these issues? They will have to be solved before anyone lives permanently on Mars (or even for the ~18 months which is the minimum useful stay time as fixed by orbital mechanics). It's not too early to think about them.

But at the Mars Society web site, you don't find any study groups of scientists and engineers and grad students actually working out the technology we will need to colonize Mars. Instead you find - a MARS COLONIZATION SONG CONTEST!!

No, I don't laugh like a hyena while reading the opinions of today's Space Cadets. I weep in frustration at how the pro-space movement has been taken over by technically illiterate cultists.

Jeffrey F. Bell is a former space scientist and recovering pro-space activist.

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