As a follow up on my blog suggesting that NASA’s so called plan for a human expedition to Mars in the 2030’s is absurd and will never happen since it is primarily a jobs program, the NASA advisory committee has indicated huge doubts that such a Nasa sponsored Mars expedition is realizable and has suggested concentration on the even more absurd, politically motivated and essentially pointless (except as a way to justify huge funding in the districts of certain powerful Congressmen) “Asteroid Redirect Project.” Absent a major technological breakthough or a major political shift NASA will never (yes NEVER!) achieve the goal of a manned expedition to Mars. Las Vegas oddsmakers rate SpaceX as the most likely to accomplish such a mission, with Russia (despite an economy that is near collapse), the somewhat crazy Mars One proposals, and China as being far more likely to achieve such a goal.Personally, my money is on the Chinese. Sad.
NASA’s recently released (or hacked) plan for placing a human on Mars sometime in the 2030s is a complete joke. At an estimated cost of $400 billion (multiply this by ten and you might be close to the real cost), it simply will never happen. Emphasis: IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN and NASA knows it.
It won’t happen in the 2030s. It won’t happen in the 2050s. NEVER!
So what is really going on?
Answer: Politics as usual. This is not a space program. It is a jobs and corporation welfare program. It has more to do with where the hardware is being developed (i.e. which Congressional district) than any desire or intention to reach Mars. With the expendisure of vast funds, NASA reaching lunar orbit by 2025 is possible but forget Mars.
The problem is the use of expendible rockets. This is simply not sustainable or even rational. Nasa’s plan forsees launching their big booster at a rate of one every two or three years because that is what is affordable under the current and reasonably forseeable NASA budgets. The absurdity of this “plan” is mind boggling.
The hope for a viable Mars progam if there is one ( I have become rather pestimistic that it will happen in this century at all) lies in three areas:
1) Private companies such as Space X who have rational plans but limited financial resources,
3) technological breakthrough (i.e fusion, Q Thruster or some other unanticipated development that is a game changer).
Congressional moves for an “Independent” investigation of Space Xs recent booster failure make it clear that the politicians will never permit a private program to succeed. I am sad to say that Musk needs to consider relocating his efforts to a more hospitable environment if he is serious about his Mars program).
Technological breakthoughs will happen at some point but anticipating them within such a brief window is probably unrealistic.
I’m putting my money on China even though their technology currently is largely derivitive of Russia’s. ( estimated Mars arrival date for Chinese program: sometime in 2040s if we are lucky although the 2050s is probably more realistic).
Question: What are the single most important items Americans will need to return to the Moon or to reach Mars?
Answer: A passport and a Chinese visa.
NASA Eagleworks reports that further experiments in a vacuum of the “Impossible Drive” showed significant thrust, increasing the likelihood that the EmDrive (electromagnetic Drive) or its closely related cousin the Cannae Drive or Quantum thruster (Q Drive or Thruster) may soon open the solar system to relatively easy and very fast access for both robotic and perhaps manned spacecraft. These recent experiments address objections of some skeptics who postulated that the previous experimental obsevations might be explained by external thermal effects. While it remains possible that an “artifact” of the testing procedure is an explanation for these results, Eagleworks believes that the level of the observed effect makes this very unlikely. (in July 2015 Martin Tajmar, a professor at the Space Institute at the Desden University Institute of Technology who is widely known for finding experimental artifacts which explained erroneous findings of allegedly breakthrough technologies such as antigravity experiments performed by NASA, presented a scientific paper which confirms the finding of thrust from an EmDrive at similar levels reported by other researchers; however, he continues experiments searching for experimental artifacts which may offer mudane explanations for the observations. A Romainian researcher also has reported thrust in similar experiments. There are also reports that experiments related to q thrusters are underway at dozens of research centers including at a number of major universities who prefer to remain unidentified until their research has progressed and peer reveiwed scientific papers can be filed explaining the results of their research ).
Eagleworks maintains that their theory of how the drive works does not violate basic well established scientific principals such as the conservation of momentum but others, such as Elon Musk, remain skeptical as to whether the observed effect is real, suspecting a flaw in the testing procedures. While a healthy level of skepticism is justitfied until the effect is independently confirmed, it should also be realized that those who have made large investments of time, emotional commitment, and finances in more conventional space efforts have a vested interest in disregarding and even ridiculing breakthrough technologies. More neutral observers should curtail their enthusiasm while encouraging further research. Further tests are planned on the EmDrive and Q Thruster at higher power levels in the coming months. (Early reports suggested that It is also possible the military is currently testing some variation of this drive in its top secret X-37B space plane which was recently launched into low earth orbit. Leaks confirmed the testing of a potentially revolutionary space drive although the reported nature of those experiments have been contradictory with the current official story being that an advanced Hall effect electromagnetic Drive is being tested which may promise significant if unspectacular improvements over existing Hall effect thrusters. It is somewhat odd that the military would be conducting parallel research on Hall effect thrusters when NASA has a similar and vigorous program in connection with its “Asteroid Redirect” program, however, with so many conspiracy theorists and other crackpots about it is difficult to determine whether or not the reports of military testing of the EmDrive can be taken seriously).
Roger Shawyer, the inventor of the EmDrive, claims that research and development is currently underway on a phase 2 version of the EmDrive utilizing superconductive materials and that this updated version promises to increase the thrust considerably. He suggests that the improvement in thrust is so significant that a revolution in air travel and the development of flying cars (and hoverboards perhaps?) become a distinct future possibility (Such extravagant claims should make anyone interested in these devices cautious to say the least). He also claims that NASA is far behind his efforts to develope the EmDrive and to be working with certain undisclosed nations, presumably not the United States or in Europe (China perhaps?). Recently, some level of cooperation with German researchers has been disclosed. It should be noted that although Eagleworks tested both the EmDrive and its cousin the Cannae Drive (Q Drive) invented by Guido Fetta, Harold White habitually refers to NASA experiments with Q thrusters (Quantum thrusters), which he apparently considers the generic term for the devices and more consistent with his theory of the operational mechanism which produces thrust, perhaps in part to distance NASA and himself from the scientifically implausible initial theories published by the inventor of the EmDrive.
Based on Chinese experiments, it appears that, if the basic observed effect is not an illusion, a device may quickly be developed which would permit station keeping by the International Space Station (or spy satellites) without the expendisure of fuel (except for a small power source required to generate microwaves). Since the EM Drive and the Q Thruster operate without fuel, possibly relying on quantum effects of zero point energy, the long term implications for human space flight may also be profound (or the effect may be found to be real but with limited applications), however, the experimental observations still await replication at independent labs with scientists at Harvard and Johns Hopkins having expressed an interest in this process but with a number of independent researchers already well advanced in attempts to confirm the effect ) as well as the publishing of widely accepted and peer reviewed explanations of the experimental results. Until this occurs only a restrained level of enthusiasm is justified.The next year should be very interesting as new experimental results are reported. (As noted above the recent experiments by Professor Tajmar of Dresden University noted measurable thrust during their testing of an EmDrive in line with that seen by other researchers but, contrary to some media reports, stopped short of actually confirming the effect while indicating that additional experiments would follow in an attempt to reveal artifacts that may explain the measurable thrust. Criticisms of the Geman’s methodology and indeed of all tests performed to date,however, suggests that the only confirmation that will be accepted by skeptics is an actual Q thruster spacecraft operating in space.)
Potentially even more astonishing and far reaching is the research being conducted by NASA Eagleworks to see if a warp bubble may be created which ultimately might permit effective Faster than Light travel, perhaps before the end of this century. Harold White and his Eagleworks team have created an interferometer for the purpose of testing whether small, even microscopic warp bubbles are created in an electromagnetic field as a proof of concept experiment. Until recently the results of these experiments have been interesting but inconclusive.
Although these experiments initially were not connected to the EmDrive or Q Drive research, the investigations are conducted in the same lab at the NASA Houston Spaceflight Center. The White-Jaday interferometer which is being used to detect a warp bubble essentially splits a light (laser) beam into two pathways shining one though the experimental location to see if the two beams emerge with a wave shift, change in path length of the emitted photons or at different effective “speeds.” Repeated experiments in which beams were passed though an operating Q Drive resonate cavity reportedly demonstrated statistically significant differences suggesting the possible existence of a very small or microscopic warp bubble; i.e. the photons which transversed the Q thruster resonate cavity appeared to do so at effective FTL speeds. Since the constraints of Relativity Theory and the resulting 11th Commandment (“Thou shall not exceed the speed of light”) prohibit superluminal velocities, this suggests the creation of a warp bubble shortening the distance the photons actually traveled. The actual observations were somewhat more complex than this suggests with trials indicating both the shortening and expansion of the distance traveled by the emitted photons. (the obervation that emitted photons seemed to travel at speeds less than the speed of light in a constant enviornment is as astonishing as the observation of apparent superluminal speeds.) The key fact is that photons seemed to travel at different effective speeds, a shocking observation assuming identical environments.which is postulated to be based on both the shortening and lengthening of the distance traveled by the emitted photons i.e. multiple warp bubbles. Announcement of the findings of apparent superluminal “speeds” have been downplayed by Eagleworks, presumably because of the expected skepticism, even ridicule, it would certainly engender in the scientific community..
If confirmed, this finding would be a remarkable confluence of the Eagleworks two main areas of research. Indeed, White recently asserted that the physics models they are examining suggests that the design of a Q thruster (EmDrive) is the same as would be needed to create the negative energy required to produce a warp bubble and that if this model is correct as many as 10,000 of the simple devices might be used to create the warp bubble required for a “FTL” drive .
The next step is to repeat the experiment in a vacuum to ensure the observed effects are real and not caused by extraneous factors. If the results of testing in a vacuum prove to be positive, tests by an independent laboratory hopefully utilizing a different experimental methodology should quickly follow.
If the existence of a warp bubble is confirmed, this alone does not address reservations by many (most) scientists including Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre who developed warp theory after watching an episode of “Star Trek”. Albcubierre believes that the energy required to create a usable “FTL” warp would equate to the mass of Jupiter rendering the idea impractical. Harold White, on the other hand, theorizes that through a redesign of the hypothetical spacecraft and fluxuating the energy level required to create and maintain the warp bubble, the energy requirement for a spacecraft capable of generating a warp capable of producing effective 10c “velocities” could be reduced to approximately equal to that of the mass of the Voyager space probe. It should be noted, however, that many scientists reject the very concept of a warp bubble as relying solely on Relativity Theory rather than Quantum Mechanics with the further concern that an effective FTL drive raises casuality (i.e. time travel) issues with all the paradoxes that implies. White and others reject this as a necessary result of the theory.
Even should Dr. Alcubierre’s thesis that a workable “FTL” warp drive would require immense and impractical energy levels or objections based on causality concerns for “FTL” speeds prove correct, warp theory may still be a game changer for human interplanetary and “slow” (i.e. subluminal) interstellar voyages. The creation of a warp for subluminal “speeds” should require energy levels orders magnitude lower than that required for superluminal flight and no causality issues would apply. Subluminal warp flight to Mars using a warp bubble at say the equivalent of .1c or more would seem possible at least in theory. This would suggest an Earth to Mars flight time of less than two hours. In addition to immense effective speeds, such travel would have the advantage of almost instantaneous “acceleration” without any negative affects on the human occupants of the spacecraft since it would be space that is moving (or being shortened in the direction of travel), not the craft itself (much as a surfboard riding on a giant wave). Accordingly, we can imagine humans residing on Earth commuting for Martian jobs and returning home for a late supper.
However, if the theories of some physicists are correct, the release of energy upon arriving at the destination would be of considerable concern. It would be rather disconcerting to arrive in the orbit of Mars only to discover that the planet had been rendered into a cinder by side effects of the warp drive (This possibility raises weaponization concerns and the likelihood of suppression of warp technology by the military). We can hope that the reduced energy levels of a subluminal warp drive may substantially reduce this concern or that methods to avoid such an inconvenient outcome will be developed.
Utilizing a hypothetical warp drive for subluminal interstellar missions might result in an effective velocity of .9c or better without requiring the immense energies theorized by Dr. Albcubierre and without casuality issues. Since “acceleration” would occur essentially instantaneously, a one way voyage to the Alpha Centauri system would take less than five years, however without the time dialation effects of normal travel at near light speed since the spacecraft is not actually moving; only the space bubble that contains it has attained a substantial fraction of the speed of light (or more accurately, space has been shortened in the direction of travel). Accordingly, manned space craft would need to be huge in order to be self contained for such extensive periods. Only arificial intelligence crews would “man” smaller craft unless biological crews were able to utilize some form of hibernation or temperal stasis technology. Probably over the next few millenia if subluminal warp missions become practical all of these alternatives would be attempted.
The above commentary is, of course, highly speculative. Many observers might assert with some justification that such speculation is premature and at least should await independent comfirmation of the reported effects of the Q Thruster and/or the existence of a warp bubble. Criticism of Dr. White for “grandstanding” by publishing fanciful depictions of a warp space craft are widespread in the scientific community and have had the unintended effect of deminishing Eagleworks’ scientific credibility (but seeing the drawing of the hypothetical craft certainly was exciting for the lay public and perhaps has motivated others to become interested in the research being explored by the Eagleworks team). It should also be noted that the depiction of the hypothetical warp spacecraft was in response to and in furtherance of mathamatical analysis of methods to significantly reduce energy requirements.
We will await further research results with a fair measure of skepticism but the long term implications of this research are too profound to ignore altogether. It will be interesting to see, perhaps a decade or so from now, whether this all is determined to be no more than fantasy and the product of wishful thinking or whether we then will truly stand on the cusp of becoming an interplanetary and perhaps even interstellar species.
We are living in fascinating times. Stay tuned.
Addendum 8-1-2016: It has been reported that in March of this year Paul March, an engineer at NASA Eagleworks, revealed that a scientific paper on the EmDrive is under peer review and that verification experiments will be conducted at three independent labs including at John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. A significant delay can be expected since a well considered peer review will await the results at the independent labs. It may be fairly assumed that no paper would have been submitted without positive experimental results but whether these results will or can be duplicated remains to be seen. Stay tuned!
As a young boy of seven or eight, long before there were earth satellites, astronauts, voyages to the moon, space shuttles or space stations in real life, I became enthralled with the concept of human space flight. My enthusiasm was largely prompted by early SciFi films such as Destination Moon, Forbidden Planet, Rocket Ship X-M, Flash Gorden, Buck Rodgers etc. (my favorite space film of all time is Silent Running starring Bruce Dern, its emotional impact exceeding in my opinion even 2001: A Space Odessey. This flic is despised by many technology oriented SciFi fans because of its pro environment and perceived anti tech theme.*) I also “religiously” watched early space themed TV shows such as Captain Video and his Video Rangers (yes, at age nine I had an “official” ID attesting that I was a Video Ranger in good standing) and its west coast imitator Tom Corbet Space Cadet. I eagerly consumed juvenile science fiction novels and short stories too numerous to list but especially works by Robert Heinlein such as Rocket Ship Galileo , Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky and Starman Jones and Issac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy as well as his Lucky Star series (written under a pseudonym). One of my favorite juvenile SciFi books even to this day despite a somewhat archaic style is When Worlds Collide written by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. The volume I obtained at the local library also contained its thrilling sequel After Worlds Collide which totally captivated me.**
As early as the third grade I was writing short stories of space exploration complete with alien adversaries and friends, all written in the first person as if depicting actual adventures I had experienced. For a class project I even had my mother make me a “space suit ” and helmet (assembled from a cardboard box with radio antenae affixed to the top which actually were discarded TV “rabbit ears”), such construction under my strict and critical supervision since only I knew exactly how it must appear. I yearned to be an astronaut long before the term had been coined.
When the Soviet Union placed Sputnik, the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit and quickly therafter orbited a dog (poor Laika, the first casualty in human efforts to reach for the stars) I was excited beyond words that our species had made its first step into space but dismayed that America was lagging behind our Cold War enemies, even more so when several of the first American attempts to match this feat exploded on the rocket pad
America’s first attempt to place artificial satellite in Earth orbit results in catastrophic failure when Vanguard rocket explodes on launch pad.
(I remember well my class being herded by teachers with much excitement into a large TV room at school to watch the first Vanguard attempt to launch an American artificial satelite only to see the rocket burst into flames and disintergrate in a massive fireball to the total horror of us all. In shocked silence we were returned to our classrooms.***) My views, of course, have evolved from those simplistic days but my enthusiasm for human space travel has never wavered in the slightest.
By junior high school most of my private thoughts and fantasies that weren’t related to the opposite sex or baseball concerned space flight and particularly Mars. I recall in eighth grade each member of my general science class was assigned to make a verbal report to the class on an astronomy subject of our choosing. I was assigned as a partner a young lady whose name now escapes me but on whom I had something of a crush. Of course our presentation was on Mars. To my surprise she was as knowledgable on the subject as I was myself.
Immediately following our presentation, two female classmates gave a report on astrology. I was insensed, loudly proclaiming that it was superstition not science and certainly not astronomy. Apparently my protests became a bit too vociferous and I was sent to the principal’s office. A letter to my mother resulted with a threat of suspension if i did not apologize in writing. I resentfully wrote the notes to the two young ladies, to the teacher and, for reasons I still don’t understand, to my partner. The presenters on astrology received an “A” for their efforts; my partner also received an “A” but I received a “B-“. (So ended all hopes I had for a budding romance). (It was a valuable lesson on the merits of keeping some thoughts private, however, my opinion of astrology has not changed. I have always been secretly proud that at such a young age I had the courage to object to such a casual confusion of science and superstition.)
Saturn V rocket lifts Apollo mission bound for the Moon
Why I didn’t choose science as a career path is a long and involved story. I think in part I was dissuaded by the ridicule I received from family (“you are too old for such nonsense”) and friends for my interest in such things. My Dad would have loved it if I had followed in his footsteps to become an engineer but my mechanical ineptness led me to conclude that such was not for me. For unknown reasons my Dad held science, “pointy head” professors and scientists and particularly my interest in space in considerable disdain. (In his youth one of the most insulting things you could say about a person was that he was a “dreamer” which was the equivalent of a wastrel or bum. I guess he was rather disappointed in me). For years I didn’t even mention the ideas which occupied a great part my thoughts to anyone save a handful of acquaintances who were similarly obsessed.
View of Earth as Apollo VIII emerges from behind the Moon
The history of American efforts in manned spaceflight began with incredible highs with the nation entranced by unbelievable and unforgetable achievements including Alan Shepard’s initial suborbital flight and John Glenn as the first American in orbit (the fact that the Russians Yuri Gagarin and later Gherman Titov preceded him in this feat did not lesson the excitement at all). Later the first circumlunar voyage by Apollo VIII and the next year the first Moon landing and Moon walk bordered on the surreal. No one ever dreamed that we would see pictures of the Earth taken from a spacecraft as it emerged from behind the Moon (with the astronauts reading the creation myth from Genisis as a captivated planet watched) or that we would witness the first step of a human on another world on live TV. The first Moon landing drew the world together, despite worldly disputes and ongoing wars, as no other event had before (people from around the planet typically did not say that America landed on the moon; they said we landed there). Unfortunately, these incredible events shared by the nation and indeed by the entire world were soon followed by depressing lows as the public largely lost interest in space flight and political and financial considerations and an underlying anti science bias led the country to retreat from all sense of vision or accomplishment, perhaps endangering the very survival of our species in the process.
Neil Armstrong, first human to walk on the Moon
Of course, the question always arises as to why we should spend our national treasure on “that Buck Rodgers stuff ” (as my Dad use to say) when we have so many problems on Earth that require our attention (ironically my Dad wound up working for NASA for several years on Syncom, one of the early communications satellites and later, after he had retired from the C.I.A., he became a vocal advocate of Reagan’s “Star Wars” largely space based missle defense system.) The argument in favor of a vigorous space program have been made so many times and are so overwhelmingly pursasive (at least in my mind) that I will only list a few here:
1) funds spent on space exploration are spent on earth creating tens or hundreds of thousands of well paying jobs and encouraging our youth to consider science and engineering as a career choice;
2) investment in space related areas leads to research and technological development with widespread earthside applications that would not otherwise occur (much as war spurs innovation but without the carnage, injustice and suffering);
3) investing in space is a way of channeling the innate aggressiveness of our species from warfare to worthwhile, nonviolent goals and adventure that does not involve murdering our fellow man;
4) the intrinsic curiosty of our species demands that we learn as much as is possible about the universe we inhabit and thereby perhaps gaining some measure of insight into our place in it. Humans learn best by “hands on” direct experience;
5) the search for life and ultimately other intelligences and/ or civilizations is perhaps the most exciting quest that humans can undertake. Interacting with other life forms or, alternatively, concluding that we are alone in the universe will change us in ways we cannot now begin to predict;
6) moving our heavy industry into space may be the only way in the long term that we can both maintain a technologically advanced civilization while preserving the Earth’s unique and irreplacable environment
7) resources in space are plentiful and given the development of the technology to reach them, readily available. The time will come when humans everywhere will regard the exploitation of resouces on our home planet as an abomination, a mindless and unnecessary rape of what should be maintained as a garden, not converted into a cesspool by its exploitation;
8) human space flight is cool. Unmanned scientific space probes are also important and may result in profound leaps in our collective knowlege but will never have the excitement or public interest of manned space adventures;
9) Long term human survival demands that we become an interplanetary and eventually interstellar species. As long as we have all our eggs in one basket, we are extremely vulnerable to sudden and unexpected extinction. The possible means of that extinction are unpredictable but extensive including the following:
a) war involving thermonuclear bombs or other weapons of mass destruction;
b) ecological collapse resulting from our inability to be good stewards of our beautiful planet;
c) impacts from planetary debis; somewhere out there, there is an asteroid or comet with Earth’s name on it. It is not a question of if but only of when a civilization ending or even extinction level impact will occur. Whether that happens tomorrow or ten thousand years or more from now, astronomers are in universal agreement that some day it will occur;
d) uncontrolled technology whether it results from genetic manipulations and experiments, artificial intelligence which surpasses our own and deems us unnecessary (hundreds of scientists and computer innovators including Stephen Hawkin, Elon Musk and Bill Gates have recently publically stated that they believe this is a serious and imminent concen; Musk has stated that the danger could be as little as five years away.), released nanoparticles which systematically destroy our enviornment, natural or accidentally induced volcanic action and earthquakes on a massive scale, Mathusian effects resuting from overpopulation which finally exceed the ability of new agricultural methods to keep pace, political and/or economic collapse (which after the events of 2008 seem far more likely than once believed), the collapse of our technological infrastructure which has become more and more vulnerable even as it has become more complicated, or some other world wide disaster that we have not yet forseen.
10). without seeking to turn our dreams into reality our existence becomes meaningless and our activities objectively and subjectively worthless.
Apollo Command and Service Modules in Lunar orbit
Lunar Excursion Module prepares for touchdown on Lunar surface
Nixon’s cancelation of the Apollo lunar program with three additional missions ready to go (and its hardware mostly discarded and junked, wasting billions of dollars, destroying countless careers and dispiriting much of the scientific community) dismayed me beyond words. The disaster which became the Space Shuttle at first gave me renewed hope of a viable space program. Indeed it was a marvelous looking machine but it quickly became obvious that compromises in its design which we later learned were primerly caused by military demands that it’s cargo bay be large enough to transport huge spy satellites as well as technology choices guided primerly by finances rather than an objective evaluation of alternatives and ultimate goals ensured that the Shuttle would never live up to its advertised purpose of frequent, safe and affordable access to near Earth space.The tragedies that subsequently occurred were almost as predictable as they were sad. It seemed that America’s infatuation with space exploration except for military purposes was over.
Space Shuttle during lift off
Space Shuttle in Earth orbit
Even the International Space Station (ISS), a complex and politically inspired mishmash of technologies of half a dozen nations which swallowed NASA’s budget for a decade or more with marginal scientific purpose was actually a backward step from early and far more simpile and inexpensive space station efforts such as Skylab. With the retirement of the Shuttle in part because of the realization that further disasters were probable, the U.S. has been compelled to hitchhike with the Russians to have access to the huge financial and political investment we had made in the creation of the ISS, a humbling situation to put it mildly which persists to the current day. Even more dismaying, the International Space Station is totally irrelavent to either establishing a Moon colony or for a mission to Mars and attempts to justify its existence by requiring its use for such missions only makes such ventures more complex, outrageously expensive and functionally impractical.
International Space Station
I have long noted that most written discourses on where we should go from here with a viable space program either emphasize alternative and seemingly mutually exclusive destinations (the Moon, nearby asteroids, Mars etc) or discuss proposed or actual hardware (Orion, various craft in development by private companies such as SpaceX, Boeing etc) or debate whether robotic craft should be emphasized over more expensive and risky human flights. There is little discussion of what capabilities are needed to actually transform mankind into a interplanatary species. In my view before technologies are adopted we should examine in some detail what would be required to satisfy long term space related goals for the remainder of this century.This must be done before any rational decision can be made as to which technology should be pursued.
Chemical rockets have served us well in making the initial small steps beyond our home world but their time is quickly passing despite ongoing programs by NASA, SpaceX and others to develope huge new chemical rockets in support of uncertain future space program goals. Such efforts may be useful in the short term and may be used to orbit materials for assembly of the craft in space which will really open the solar system to human exploitation but they essentially will only return us to the launch capabilities of the early 1970s.
Current chemical rockets have thrust may times 1g (one “g” of thrust is equal to the gravity experienced on the surface of the Earth) with acceleration at 5gs or higher being commonplace but such thrust can only be sustained by chemical rockets for a matter of minutes. Chemical rocket technology was marginal even for manned Moon flights requiring multiple stages and complex flight arangements. Indeed the argument has been made that the entire Apollo program was an anomoly brought on by Cold War competition before technology really had advanced to the point that the effort was reasonable. Of course, this makes its success all the more remarkable.
The specific impulse (a measure of the efficiency of a rocket engine) of these awesome but dangerously complex chemical rockets is small compared to alternatives that should soon be available and we are approaching the absolute limits of their capabilities. For exploration beyond our own moon chemical rockets are problematic at best although in one version of NASA’s proposed manned Mars exploration contingency plans chemical rockets are used with perhaps a small nuclear reactor for onboard power requirements. NASA indicates that the entire trip would take over 600 days (another study envisions a trip with total mission time of four years). The mission would use the new NASA heavy lift rocket currently under development and might include a flyby of Venus as well as Mars with no landing. Assuming the political decision is made to proceed (a doubtful assumption at best) this mission would take place in 2025 if only a flyby was intended or in the mid to late 2030s at the earliest if an actual Mars landing is planned. Other NASA projected dates for a Martian landing suggest it may not occur until well into the 2060s (hopefully, Chinese, Russian, Indian and even European explorers will welcome the American astronauts when they belatedly arrive).
The NASA proposal for a flyby is risky. From the point of view of the radiation to which astronauts would be exposed, the difficulty of maintaining equipment in a hostile enviornment for such an extensive period, the effect of prolonged weightlessness on astronauts, the size of the space vehicle and the vast amount of chemical fuel required, not to mention the impact on physical and mental endurance of the astronauts, in my view this proposal of a 600 day mission is unlikely to be successful (the four year proposal is absurd and will never happen). There are solutions to most of these problems but they involve additional technological risk. We could use modern day astronaut heros to inspire our unconcened and aimless youth but I don’t think any of us desire dead heros or failed missions which end in catastrophe.
Equally challenging are various plans by private concerns for Mars missions using chemical rockets. Indeed there are so many proposals for non government manned Mars expeditions with constantly changing parameters it is a challenge to determine which are serious and which are pipe dreams.
a) One such plan (“Inspiration Mars” ) would be a circumnavigation or flyby of Mars by a “couple, preferably married” without a landing much as Apollo VIII did with the moon in 1968 but with a one way trip time to Mars of at least seven months and total voyage time of slightly over five hundred days. This mission allegedly is planned to be launched in January of 2018 and arrive in the vincinity of Mars in August thereby beating NASA’s similar proposed mission by seven years.
b) Other plans would be one way trips with the crew permanently staying on Mars and being resupplied periodically with materials and additional colonists (“Mars to Stay” and “Mars Direct”) or multiple Mars vessels containing two astronauts each which would offer a continuing resupply, rescue and replacement capability.
c) Another proposal (“Mars One”) suggests landing four persons on Mars in 2025 (the entire mission to be broadcast to Earth in a unique edition of reality TV) with an additional four adventurers to arrive every two years with a total number of colonists expected to be twenty by 2033. One critique of this plan estimates each colonist’s life expectancy, assuming they arrive safely on the surface of Mars at all, to be sixty-eight days and others have called the plan fanancially bogus, fanciful, scientifically irresponsible and suicidal. Even this assessment presumes the proposal isn’t a scam as some suspect. Despite this and frank statements by the organizers that the colonists would never return to Earth, there reportedly have been over 200,000 volunteers (the accuracy of this figure has been disputed) for this one way mission.
d) Elon Musk of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX fame has proposed a settlement of 80,000 vegetarians (Don’t ask. Even billionaire visionaries have their quirks) in a permanent Mars colony to be established beginning in the mid 2020s with the Martian colonists largely surviving by using natural resources available on Mars.
These proposed missions, although very exciting, even thrilling for advocates of space exploration and colonization, have a high probability for disaster if they actually are attempted at all. The concern is that should these missions fail with the resultant loss of life it may significantly set back or even cause the cancellation of more robust Martian manned mission plans.
On the other hand, should any of these missions be successful, it probably would greatly encourage further exploration efforts. Waiting for NASA and U.S. policy to determine such ventures to be viable and in the national interest has not been fruitful since the last Lunar landing in 1972. Many have concluded that such missions may never occur if the decision to proceed is left to the politicians or to NASA and that, accordingly, the inherent risks of these proposed missions are justified. Of the nongovernmental plans, “Mars Direct” (which would largely utilize existing or developing hardware and would forsee a far more economical mission) seems the most practical but it would rely on boosters and spacecraft under development by NASA or perhaps by SpaceX. Since both have their own ideas of how to proceed with the space program and seem jealous of alternatives, it is difficult to see how this plan will proceed. The most optimistic senario would be a colaboration between SpaceX and the Mars Society which has proposed the Mars Direct Plan. Of significant concern for private sourced Mars exploration is the recent statement by NASA’s Director in response to a Congressional suggestion that NASA and private concerns should compete to be first to Mars. He reponded that no private firm will reach Mars. This may be fairly interpreted to mean that NASA will not allow it to happen and has the political connections to enforce this determination.
NASA seems intent on awaiting the ideal and mature technology before attempting a Mars mission. This would be like Columbus waiting for a modern cruise ship before commencing his voyage. With each election redirecting (pun intended) the NASA effort, it may be that we must either endorse a nongovernmental effort or accept that such missions will be attempted by other nations if they occur at all.
The innate limitations of chemical rockets has led NASA and others to consider alternatives for interplanetary exploration including VASMIR and other electromagnetic based drives, small fission reactors (an area of intense Russian research), compact fusion and even antimatter.
Irrespective of its power source, the ideal spacecraft for exploration and colonization of the solar system as well as interstellar exploration (assuming no way is ever found to bypass the speed of light limitation ) would be capable of sustained acceleration of 1g or 32 feet per second per second. Assuming the ability to maintain such acceleration until half way to the destination, then decelerating at 1g for the second half of the journey, the implications are breathtaking. The ability to accelerate at such a level has the advantage that Hohmann transfer orbits can be avoided, greatly shortening the distance to be traveled and giving significant flexibility not possible with the minimum thrust levels currently utilized in all manned and robotic interplanetary craft. With such acceleration you would simply aim at the point your destination will be at the time of arrival without consideration of resticting orbital mechanics. A continuous 1g acceleration has a side benefit of maintaining normal gravity for the astronauts throughout the voyage, avoiding the difficult choice between an extremely complicated apparatus to simulate gravity or deterioration of the astronauts’ musculature, skeleton and immune systems caused by prolonged exposure to a zero or micro g enviornment.
For a hypothetical Mars mission we will assume an average distance from Earth of 100 million miles. At closest approach (at opposition) Mars occasionally comes to within 35 million miles of Earth (and at opposition will approach this distance in 2018) but this is rare because of Mars’ highly eccentric ellipsical orbit. More commonly the closest approach distance between Mars and Earth is between 45 and 60 million miles. Even this only occurs every 26 months. Our utilization of 100 million miles in our calculations assumes that we would not always want to await the closest approach and takes into consideration that both Earth and Mars would continue in their orbits during the voyage making the distance between them to undergo continuous change.
An acceleration of 1g for one day results in a speed relative to Earth (delta V or change in velocity) of around 500 miles per second or perhaps 43 million miles per day. After accelerating for a day and coasting for about thirty-two hours or so and then decelerating for another day the spacecraft would arrive in the vicinity of Mars with a total elapsed travel time of around 3 1/3 days (Travel time would be around 2 1/2 days if 1g acceleration was sustained to the halfway point). Compare this with the NASA proposed 600 day mission of which up to nine months would be spent enroute. Amazing!!!
Mars seen with realistic coloration
When Mars and Earth are farthest apart the distance between them is approximently 240 million miles. Presuming a travel distance of 300 million miles (since the intervening sun would inconveniently restrict a more direct route) and 1g acceleration for one day and deceleration for a like period, the one way travel time from Earth to Mars would be just eight days.
Similar calculations for a trip to Jupiter with acceleration at 1g for one day and a similar one day deceleration at the end of the journey (assuming a one way mean distance of 700 million miles) results in a one way travel time of just over 17 days. If the spacecraft for our hypothetical Jupiter mission could accelerate at 1g for two days and decelerate at the same rate for the final two days (perhaps refueling in Jupiter orbit or on one of its moons for the return trip) the travel time to Jupiter is reduced to slightly over eleven days.
For interstellar missions, acceleration at 1g for a period of a about one year results in a speed of .95c (95 per cent of the speed of light) (this calculation of velocity does not take into consideration relativistic effects. When relativity is factored in, the time to attain a speed of .95c is actually slightly more than a year from the perspective of an Earthbound “observer.”) With deceleration at 1g also for a bit more than a year the total travel time to Alpha Centauri ( a 4.37 light year distance) would be approximately 5 1/2 years from an Earth based measurement of time. Significantly less than this time would transpire from the perspective of the spacecraft crew because of time dialation effects: at .95 C the spacecraft crew would experience a little less than one year for every three years experienced on Earth, however, during aceleration and deceleration the average time dialation factor would be small. Accordingly, the total voyage time experience by the crew would be around three and a half years: see Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. The formula for determining time dialation effects of relativistic velocities is
t =T/ (1-v²/c²)½
where t = time observed on the spacecraft, T= time observed on Earth, v=the speed of the moving craft relative to Earth, and c= the speed of light in a vacuum. Simple calculations demonstrate that the dialation effect is for all practical purposes negligible until a velocity that exceeds .6c or so is attained and becomes truly remarkable above .9c.
Interestingly for those contemplating voyages to stars more distant than Alpha Centauri is that the measurement of voyage time from an earthbound perspective given the ability to accelerate at 1g for a period of a little more than a year or so and decelerate for a like period is always around a year longer than the distance traveled measured in light years (except for extremely long voyages of hundreds of light years or more) , i.e. a bit over 11 years to travel 10 light years, a bit over 21 years to travel 20 light years etc. From an earthbound perspective, acceleration at 1g for longer than a one year period does not reduce travel time in any significant way (accelerating at 1g for two years only increases velocity of the spacecraft to .99c) although again due to time dialation effects the travel time from the spacecraft crew’s perpective could be substantially reduced by continuous acceleration. (At .99c seven years would pass on Earth for every year that is experienced by the crew; at .9999c, which would require five years of acceleration at 1g, 70 years would pass on Earth for every year experienced by the crew). Indeed from the crew’s perspective the center of the Galaxy, a distance of thousands of light years, could easily be reached within a single lifetime if continuous 1g acceleration becomes feasible even though thousands of years would have elapsed on Earth during such a monumental journey.
Artists impression exoplanet: credit ESO
Certainly problems exist for any interstelar mission which is able to attain a significant per centage of the speed of light, such as the danger of encountering even a dust sized particle at such speeds (which would be catastrophic with an energy release in the order of magnitude of a large nuclear explosion) as well as experiencing unique and potentially deadly radiation generated by such speeds, but these are simply issues future technology will need to address, not game stoppers in themselves (theoretical scientists have already proposed several possible solutions to these problems). If the means is found for continuous 1g acceleration, a significant challenge to put it mildly, doubtlessly these issues will be resolved.
We currently have no technology which would permit 1g acceleration for a day much less a year or more. Continuous acceleration at 1g for periods of one year is inconceivable with any technology currently envisioned (well, excluding the emdrive/Cannae drive which in theory might make such accelerations possible but whose feasibility or even existence has not yet been confirmed despite promising experimental studies by NASA and the Chinese. NASA Eagleworks’ experiments with the ultimate goal of developing a warp drive which might enable high sub light speeds almost instantaneouly in addition to opening the possibility of faster than light travel are even more speculative. See my previous blog: Random thoughts: Perpetual motion, Dean Drive, cold fusion, the em (Q)drive and warp drive.)
Dr. Harold White of NASA’s Eagleworks and artist Mark Rademaker created this rendition of a future (and perhaps fanciful) warp drive spacecraft that might be capable of high sub light and even effective FTL “speeds” which in theory might permit voyages to Alpha Centauri in two weeks.
On the other hand, 1g acceleration for the four days needed for nearly ideal interplanetary voyages to Mars and other destinations in the inner Solar System ( i.e. 1g acceleration for a day followed by 1g deceleration for an additional day each way for a round trip voyage) may become possible with technology that will be available within the next 25 to 30 years ( perhaps using a combination of fusion technology and a Vasmir electromagnetic drive system). The day when routine and rapid access to the inner planets is commonplace is approaching but we will have to wait awhile longer for the technology to arrive.
Rendition of proposed fusion drive spacecraft under development by MSNW LLC and the University of Washington. Craft utilizes solar array for auxilliary power and/or ignition.
It is likely, however, that we will have the technology to build a somewhat primitive fusion drive capable of .16 g acceleration continuously for two days within the next decade or so. (The Russians appear to be taking a different approach, using small fission reactors instead of fusion and may achieve a similar operational capability within a comparable time frame.) As an alternative depending on technology issues, a significantly lower acceleration, slightly over .07g, for a longer period, say eight days (which at least one report to NASA suggests is the optimal period of acceleration for fusion drives currently under development), or continuous burns at even somewhat lower g levels might work almost as well. Of course four “burns” would be required for a round trip voyage which also seems attainable within ten years or so. (note: gravitational effects of the sun, approximately .06g, would significantly effect these calculations and although the overall effect on the round trip would be negligible with accelerations of 1g, it becomes increasingly more significant at lower accelerations and would require a higher acceleration than a direct calculation would suggest). For clarity, the below calculations are simplified but are fairly accurate.
After two days the Mars bound spacecraft accelerating at .16g (factoring in the sun’s negative .06g gravitational effect on the outward Mars bound journey for a net effective acceleration of .1g) would have attained a velocity of 100 miles per second or 8.6 million miles per day. For Mars exploration this is more than satisfactory. For the 100 million mile Mars voyage hypothetically discussed above this results in a one way travel time to Mars of two weeks. A mission of 30 days which includes perhaps two days in Mars orbit (or on the Martian surface) thereby becomes feasible in the near future.
On the other hand, an acceleration of .07 g (again factoring in the sun’s negative gravitational effects for the outward Mars bound journey for a net effective acceleration of .01g) for eight days (with deceleration at approximately the same net rate and duration) results in a one way travel time to Mars of thirty-eight days allowing a mission of 90 days including two weeks in Mars orbit (or on the Martian surface).
NASA has studied both 30 day and 90 day roundtrip Mars missions using anticipated fusion technology. Even utilizing the most conservative estimates of the efficiency of fusion drives under development, the studies conclude that both missions should be feasible within the forseeable future (with a goal for the mission to be accomplished in the mid to late 2030s). While the technology for such a mission may become available before the mid 2030s, it is doubtful that the political will to proceed will exist before then absent the prior establishment of colonies on the Moon or voyages to Mars by the Chineese and/or Russians.The fact that a huge investment will have been made in NASA’s heavy lift chemical rocket may also discourage a sudden switch to a more capable spacecraft.
The primary difference between a 30 day mission and a 90 day mission in the NASA study of fusion powered Mars missions is the portion of the spacecraft which will be payload rather than fuel. It is estimated that for a 90 day expedition as much as 70% of the beginning mass of the spacecraft could be payload while for a 30 day voyage only about 30% to 35% would be available for payload. (Both of these estimates far exceed todays chemical rockets in which only a miniscule fraction of the start weight is payload.) The longer 90 day trip would allow a larger payload because of smaller fuel requirements but some of this additional mass available would be utilized because of significantly higher requirements for expendibles such as oxygen, water and other provisions as well as signifiicant additional weight for radiation shielding needed because of the longer exposure times in space. For these and other reasons, the 30 day mission seems very attractive.
There also have been studies of a nine month Mars mission using a less capable fusion drive or perhaps a Vasmir or other electromagnetic drive utilizing solar and/or a compact fission plant for power. Although this is certainly better than the 600 day proposal, it still would place an enormous strain on both crew and equipment. It is likely this alternative for the initial Mars landing expedition will be selected only if technological or financial considerations make a more rebust spacecraft unfeasible at the time the mission decisions are made.
So that is what we need to again have an exciting space program and perhaps guarantee the survival of our species in the process. How do we get there?
First, we must understand that publicity of the new Orion spacecraft currently under development by NASA is somewhat confusing and disconcerting to put it mildly. “Orion” is a puzzling name adopted by NASA for this latest space program. A prior research project of the 1960s dubbed “Project Orion,” totally unconnected to the current effort of the same name, would have used external nuclear pulse propulsion, i.e. thousands of nuclear bombs ranging in size from .1 kiloton to a hundred kilotons or more which would be exploded behind a pusher plate to attain interplanetary capability. Indeed, studies indicated this proposal had the capability to send a crew of two hundred on a four week roundtrip mission to Mars and theoretically had the capability for a “slow” interstellar mission.
Original Project Orion proposal powered by thousands of external nuclear blasts
Surprisingly, this was actually technologically feasible even in the 1960s but totally terrifying despite Carl Sagan’s somewhat whimsical comment that it would be a marvelous way to be rid of the massive nuclear arsenal we had accumulated. Yes, during the Cold War insanity seemed to reach even scientific ranks. The 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty put an end to research and development of this rather bizarre idea).
Current Orion crew capsule under development
The current Orion, a somewhat larger and more technically advanced version of the Apollo Command Module (and on casual examination looking very similar to it), although originally descibed as a Mars vehicle before Obama changed NASA’s short term priorities, by itself could never be used for a Mars landing mission although a circumnavigational loop around the moon copying the 1968 Apollo VIII mission or even a similar mission around Mars is possible. Its proposed use to reach and “redirect” a nearby asteroid is interesting but actually the idea is probably a politically motivated evasion based on the decision to abandon any thought of returning to the Moon in the near future**** because of funding considerations while still maintaining a program which has financial tentacles firmly entrenched in dozens of Congressional districts. Recently, NASA modified even this modest idea to dislodging a 12 foot long chunk of an astroid and redirecting this to lunar orbit, justifying this absurd venture as a means of testing ion drives which just as easily could be tested in earth or lunar orbit. It is a sad politically inspired joke but no one is laughing). (One view suggests any space program is better than none at all, but this idea is all but useless except as a spur for enabling technology. Better to have the funds invested in more advanced technologies than wasted on this boondoggle). As for using it for a Mars expedition, imagine two or four astronauts confined in such a craft not much larger than a large bathroom for more than 600 days during a mission using chemical rockets. Seemingly impractical and perhaps suicidal (or homicidal lol).
Recently there has been mention in NASA circles of one or more Orions docking with a crew habitation module for a future Mars expedition. For reasons discussed above, this also is risky using chemical rockets. Although NASA has not yet officially announced how a Mars mission might be accomplished, it is clear that their funding of research on more exotic propulsion methods, including Vasmir, small fission reactors and fusion, is aimed at the development of more capable transportation systems with the Orion hopefully being little more than a means to reach the actual Mars craft, perhaps some version of the Nautilus X proposal, the Orion serving as a lifeboat in case of trouble during the voyage, perhaps venturing to the two small moons of Mars after attaining Mars orbit and used to land the crew back on Earth once the larger craft returns to Earth orbit. It could not even be used to land on Mars after arrival in Mars orbit. Under this senario, the actual Mars spacecraft, perhaps including landing craft, presumably would be assembled in Earth orbit much as was done with the ISS. At least this seems a reasonable alternative that would utilize the investment in Orion without attempting to use it as a habitation module for an overly ambitious 600 day mission.
Nautilus X proposal
As reported in previous blogs the Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works announced last year that it is working on a 100 megawat compact fusion reactor and expected to have a prototype within five years and a production model suitable for military and other government uses within a decade. If accomplished within this time frame it is likely Lockheed-Martin, which specializes in high performance aircraft and rockets, will quickly develope a version suitable for space flight. A competitor, Helion Fusion has under development a fusion reactor and have announced they expect to have a 50 megawatt prototype in operation by 2019. This company is a sister to MSNW LLC which is investigating fusion power for space drive applications. Both companies arose as a result of fusion research conducted at the University of Washington and have noted fusion researcher Professor John Slough as a prime contributor/founder.
Interestingly, Boeing, a competitor and sometimes collaborator with Lockheed-Martin on various space ventures, recently announced the relocation of a dozen of its scientific/engineering staff to the University of Washington where a new joint research laboratory for aircraft and spacecraft manufacturing and assembly has been created. It is believed that Boeing is also active in fusion research with emphasis on spacecraft applications although perhaps trailing Lockheed-Martin in the race to produce a production model of a compact fusion reactor. While the new joint lab does not appear to be directly connected to fusion research, it streaches credibility to believe their relocation to the University of Washington where cutting edge fusion research is taking place is only a coincidence. If it does suggest collaboration between Boeing, Helion and MSMW and perhaps an infusion of needed funding, it may be that we will see progress in fusion development even more quickly than the Lockheed-Martin announcement suggests. At this point the only real question is whether the U.S. will muster the political will to make this a reality or whether vested interests (read Big Oil) will successfully supress a technology that could be a game changer not only in our space exploration efforts but in satisfying our earth bound clean energy needs as well.
I am a little pessimistic concerning the current political realities in part because of our history of abandoning goals after considerable time, effort, and treasure has been invested into space related ventures. A failure of one of the more ambitious missions, especially if there is a loss of life, would likely be used by those in opposition to manned space flight as a justification for cancelling funding for such efforts.
Many, including scientists engaged in diverse areas of research, reject manned space flight as a worthwhile goal, urging the funds to be placed in other research areas. The assumption that they are competeing for the same research funds is highly unrealistic, even naive, but purvasive in the scientific community.There is little understanding that only if the public again gets excited about science will funding in all areas of research surge. Others assert that government funds should not be used for such purposes when we have unmet needs on Earth and/or that the alternative of additional tax cuts would be far more popular with taxpayers even though our nonmilitary space budget has been less than 1% of the total federal budget every year since 1975. Compare this to the total military budget which is typically 16 to 20% of the federal budget. In 2015 NASA is budgeted to receive $18.5 billion out of a total federal budget of $4 trillion, the NASA budget totalling slightly over one-half of one percent of the Federal budget, while the Depatment of Defense is technically budgeted for $585 billion but with actual overall defense and national security expendisures close to $1 trillion. With the gross national product of the U.S. being around $18 trillion, the portion of the total economy invested in government funded civilian space activities is one dollar in a thousand, hardly an excessive amount for an activity that is hugely important to the economy and crucial for long term human survival.
In an ideal world the NASA budget would be at least doubled which would still only bring its total budget to around 1% of the total Federal budget (for comparison, during the Apollo Moon landing program NASA’s budget reached 4 1/2% of the total Federal budget. We can only imagine what might be accomplished with such funding today). In the real world this is unlikely to occur anytime soon; however, if the NASA budget was increased by 25% to 30% with incremental annual budget increases thereafter many opportunities would open. My recommendation would be that we abandon our support of the ISS, an unnessesary drain on NASA’s budget with marginal purpose or benefits (initially it existed primerily to provide a destination for the Space Shuttle but the Shuttle no longer is operational), that the asteroid redirect program be cancelled (and villified as politically inspired nonsense) and that we concentrate our efforts on establishment of a Lunar colony by 2025 while simultaneously funding an aggressive Mars mission with the goal of also establishing a permanent Martian colony by 2035 (if a short term choice between the two goals becomes necessary because of funding considerations I would favor the Mars colony which has the promise of becoming self sustaining within a reasonable period as well as showing significant results, one way or the other, in our search for extra terrestrial life). (Termination of the SLS heavy lift booster does not seem practical or politically possible at this point and indeed such termination might cause the cancellation of virtually all manned progams. Accordingly, it should be continued despite the huge waste of treasure and effort it has entailed). NASA wastes billions on programs which scarcely match the technology of the late 1960s while offering pittances to advanced research which have promise but little political support. As long as this situation continues it is difficult to see how the space program will advance beyond its current snails pace.
With such additional funding and redirection of effort and resources, realistic funding should also be available for long term research and development of advanced technologies including fusion drives and, should further investigation justify it, Q Drive (EM Drive and/or Cannae Drive) and warp drive research. We should not, however, await the development of ideal technologies before proceeding since there will always be the prospect of something better in the future which would in effect mean forever turning our backs on space missions which can be accomplished now.
It may be that reliance on NASA for future American space efforts is misplaced since as a governmental agency it will always be subject to political forces. If this is true, our last hope for a viable space prgram may lie in the private sector with companies such as SpaceX but until these companies develope independent funding sources they remain little more than contractors for NASA and are subject to the same political forces. If various proposals, such as hotels in space, mining asteroids etc. do become financially rewarding, then the whole picture changes with at least a chance that the space program shall become self sustaining.
I am convinced that we are in a small window of time in which we will either see humankind become an interplanatary mutiworld species within the lifetime of many of those living today or we will forever turn our backs on such ventures, grinding on to our ultimate and inevitable extinction, a passing which will be little noted nor remembered by an unimpressed universe. In the old (1933) melodramatic scifi movie Things to Come (based on H.G. Wells “conversation “The Shape of Things to Come”) a noted scientist and political leader named Cabel (played by a famous actor of the period, Raymond Massey), after launching the first spacecraft to the Moon despite violent opposition to the venture and to all forms of human progress, addressed a skeptical public (using somewhat politically incorrect terms but with significant relevence to our current situation):
“For Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on. Conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him.Then the planets about him and then across the immensity of the stars. And when he has conquered all the depths of space and all the mysteries of time still he will be beginning. If we are (no) more than animals (who) only snatch at our little scraps of happiness, we live and suffer and (die) mattering no more than all other animals do or have done.” (He points at the stars) “Is it that…or this? The whole universe…or nothingness?… Which will it be?”
A bit corny? Perhaps, but if you have a greater vision of the destiny of mankind, I would be interested to hear it. (Please no religion. I have neither the interest nor the patience for such impossible to resolve debates).
* Silent Running is a very unusual movie, a unique blend of SciFi, space opera, cute robots, allegory, tragedy, environmental warning, murder and suicide with a botonist as its primary protagonist. It contains one of the most moving single lines in any movie not called To Kill A Mocking Bird. To the best of my memory it went something like this: “When I was a boy I put a message in a bottle and threw it into the ocean. I never learned if anyone found it.” To learn why this is so great a line, watch the movie. You won’t regret it.
**Finding decent science fiction today is difficult. One of my pet peeves is that fantasy, magic, sword and soccery, wizards, horror, dragons, vampire series etc. are all placed within the genre of “SciFi.” at most book stores and libraries They are actually as far from traditional SciFi as any literature could be. Although speculative in nature, true SciFi is in large measure based on scienctific knowlege or reasonable extrapulations from such knowledge.
*** what we didn’t suspect then was that these early failures would prompt an unprecedented interest in science in general and space in particular and eventually led to Kennedy’s announcement of the goal of placing a man on the Moon. It was for the wrong reasons, a overwhelming concern that we were “behind” the Russians, but it did wake the nation at least for awhile from the smug certainty that America would surely prevail in all fields over all other countries without effort or commitment.
****The extremely ill advised abandonment of the goal of returning to the Moon has led to the following quip: “Question: What are the most important items Americans will need when we return to the Moon? Answer: A passport and a Chinese visa.” Yes, I support both a Moon Colony and a Mars mission. Although essentially unrelated (no, the Moon is not a stepping stone to Mars except perhaps metaphorically) both ventures are critical if humans are to become a spacefaring species.
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Recent news reports indicate that the Virginia Governor has proposed certain new gun restrictions on both the sale and possession of firearms. While these proposals have essentially a zero chance of passing through our State legislature, it does give an opportunity to examine and expound upon our own views on the issue.
A few background facts: I am a gun owner as are many if not most people living in rural America. I rarely hunt but I do hold dearly my right to defend myself, my home and my family should, heaven forbid, the circumstance ever arise. Those of us who reside in rural areas of this country know, even if city dwellers do not, that law enforcement protection is largely theoretical, i.e. the police may solve crimes but rarely prevent them. If confronted with an intruder we either defend ourselves or rely on the criminal’s mercy with the police left to clean up the mess long afterwards. There are some really evil people out there. In my opinion those who rely on their mercy (or upon blind luck to avoid interaction with them) are not only foolish; they are irresponsible, residing in a fantasy land rather in the real world.
Once I had a concealed weapons permit but I let it expire since I rarely carried a weapon except to the gun range. Indeed the primary reason for having the permit was to prevent hassles with the police or others while transporting a weapon in my vehicle since it does not have an enclosed trunk. I, as virtually everyone, have been shocked and dismayed by gun violence and the loss of life, particularly of children such as at Sandy Hook. I am not a fan of the NRA and under ideal conditions would support reasonable laws to protect the public while still preserving the right to bear arms; however, I am concerned by those whose ultimate goal seems to be to remove all firearms from private ownership.
Some of the Governor’s proposals seem reasonable if taken in isolation from other factors; others do not.
As I understand it, the Governor’s proposals include the following:
1) Restrict buyers from purchasing more than one firearm per month ( this was the law in Virginia except for holders of concealed weapons permits and law enforcement officers until 2012 when it was repealed).
2) Require background checks for private sales at gun shows.
3) Making it illegal for anyone who has been charged and/or convicted of domestic abuse to own or possess a firearm or bar possession if under a protective order for domestic abuse or upon conviction of two incidents of misdemeanor simple assault (conviction of a felony already bars the owning or possession of firearms unless the right is restored by court order).
4) Making it illegal for anyone behind in child support to own or possess a firearm and/ or revoke concealed weapons permits of those behind in support payments (reports I have seen vary as to the restriction proposed).
5) Because of recent news related to a law suit filed against the manufacturer of the AR-15 used at Sandy Hook, I include in this discussion one gun control mrasure which has been proposed many times and for a time was the law although not proposed by the Governor, i.e. a ban on the sale and/or possession of assault type weapons.
The issue in my judgment is which, if any, of these proposals would protect the public or whether they restrict Second Admendment rights without purpose other than political advantage and antigun bias. I address my reaction to each proposal below.
1) It is difficult to see how restricting firearm purchases to one a month will protect anyone. There are already laws in effect prohibiting straw purchases Most crazies need only a single weapon to cause mayhem and even if for some reason they wanted more, most plan their acts well in advance, allowing them to accumulate whatever weaponry they desire despite a one a month restriction. This proposal is an antigun measure masquerding as public safety, however, it also seems rather benign, imposing only a slight burden on those who wish to purchase firearms for legitimate purposes.
2) Background checks at gun shows for private sellers seems reasonable on the surface. Gun dealers selling weapons at gun shows already are required to do the background check . Although rarely has there been a report of a gun purchased at a show without a background check being used by someone bent on crime much less mass murder ( when stolen guns are readily available on the street, only a truly dumb perpetrator would take the chance of being traced by such a purchase) it certainly is possible this could happen. The additional or alternative proposal that gun shows cannot advertise that no background checks for private sales are required almost certainly is a violation of First Admendment free speach rights since such advertising merely states the existing law (this element shows a certain disdain for all constitutional protections).
The real concern here is the next step contemplated by gun control advocates, perhaps requiring all transfers between individuals, even within a family, to first undergo background checks thereby preventing very common gun transfers, sales and trades that are a routine part of country life and may severely limit the inheritance of firearms. This cannot be seen in isolation from the fact that in some states firearms (sometimes worth thousands of dollars) are confiscated by the police on the death of the owner and promptly destroyed before heirs can make a claim to them, a direct but fairly common violation of the Constitution provision prohibiting the taking of private property without due process and reasonable compensation.
Subject to clarification, limitations and assurances that no attempt will be made to enlarge the requirment, this proposal has some logic to it.
3.) In the abstact it is difficult to contest why someone who has commited domestic abuse or who is constantly in violent situations should not be prohibitted from owning or possessing a firearm. There are several problems with this proposal, however.
First, It is unclear whether the proposal would permanently bar a person from having a firearm or whether the bar would be removed at some point (or perhaps require court application for such restoration, which might be a reasonable alternative to a lifetime ban). Also, the proposal does not make clear whether the bar on having a firearm would include preliminary protective orders which may be imposed without a hearing or an opportunity for legal defense or if the right to own and possess firearms would be automatically restored if the final protective order was withdrawn, dismissed or otherwise ended or nulified.
Subject to clarification and noted limitations this proposal seems reasonable.
4.) The proposal to revoke a concealed weapons permit and/or bar possession of firearms by anyone behind in child support has little to do with protecting the public. There is no evidence or study of which I am aware that establishes or even suggests that someone in arrears in support payments is any more likely to be a danger to the public than someone who has, for example, failed to file tax returns or who owes back taxes, or who is in significant debt or has not paid parking tickets or who is allergic to cats. This is an antigun proposal without even the pretext of being justified by public safety concerns. In its most generous interpretation, it is an attempt to enforce support orders, much as drivers liscenses can be revoked or suspended for failure to pay support, however driving is deemed by law to be a privilege, not a Constitutional right. Depriving an individual of the constitutonal right to own and bear arms for failure to pay support makes as much sense as removing a persons free speach right or their right to free exercise of their religion because they were in support arrears. In part, the proposal reflects many Courts’ reluctance to enforce their own orders either through their contempt powers or through criminal charges for failure to provide legally required support. There is little likelihood this measure would be effective in compelling the payment of support and the measure seems arbitrary in the extreme. It appears to be antigun without any legitimate public safety element whatever. By even proposing this the Governor reveals his antigun bias and anti Second Adnendment viewpoint.
5) A ban on assault type weapons also does not seem entirely unreasonable at first glance. The problem is that there is no clear definition of what an assault weapon is and what would be banned, leaving owners of weapons not intended to be restricted at considerable legal risk. Understand that civilain assault type weapons are not fully automatic as would be the military version (fully automatic weapons are federally banned with severe penalties for violation unless a special federal liscense is obtained). Assault weapons currently legal for civilian possesion are “semi-automatic,” (more correctly “auto loading”) as are the majority of handguns in private hands and many other weapons that do not fit the usual “assault weapon” description. The defintions used in the past seem to be based mostly on appearance, not any unique design. Laws in the past prohibiting assault type rifles contained long lists of specific models banned with a vague addition prohibiting “similar weapons,” leaving it open to interpretation precisely what was intended.
The rational for banning these type of weapons seems based mostly on their appearance and assumed intended use. The parents of a victim filing the law suit as a result of the Sandy Hook massacre allege negligence by the manufacturer in making and selling a weapon whose sole purpose is use against people. While this is not entirely correct, some hunters do use assault type weapons although more traditional minded hunters have little respect for them, and others enjoy using these weapons at gun ranges, including in competitive matches, it is probably correct to say such weapons are primerly purchased for self and household defense (although I think many who purchase these weapons do so simply because they are cool and fun to fire, perhaps with the thought at the back of their minds that possesion would be desirable for home defense if our society falls apart as some predict). Others purchase assault weapons out of fear the purchase of them will again be banned. (it is a simple principal of economics and human psychology that goods which are deemed desirable by a substantial portion of a population group become even more desirable i.e. valuable, if supply is restricted or the ability to obtain the good is expected to be eliminated altogether).
The problem with banning assault type weapons based on their assumed intended use or the fact that they have been used in the past for crime or by the deranged for mass murder is that the same can be said for virtually all handguns and actually the use of assault weapons in crime, particularly for mass murder such as at Sandy Hook, is extremely rare (despite depictions on TV and in film). The rational for banning such weapons could easily be used to ban all handguns, which are used in crime and specifically that have been used for mass murder with far greater frequency than assault style weapons. Seen in this light, the Sandy Hook law suit against the manufacturer of the AR-15 weapon used to perputrate that attrocity is not only an attack on manufacturers of assault type weapons; it is an attack on all manufacturers of firearms with the purpose or effect, if succesful, not only of establishing a worrisome precedent perhaps affecting all firearm manufacturers but of substantially increasing their perceived or actual financial risk ultimately for the purpose of preventing such manufacture or reducing the volume of firearms produced to the point that production becomes financially unviable. (note: with the advent of 3d printing soon permitting the manufacture of weapons at home, the goal of reducing the volume of weapons manufactured through this strategy seems unlikely to be succesful. Indeed, in the long term it appears that the financial viability of firearm manufacturers is directly threatened by 3d printing and keeping firearms from the hands of felons and the deranged will doubtlessly become even more difficult).
For those who support gun rights this is a wedge issue. We would need to have assurances on an unprecedented level that a ban on suitably defined assault weapons would not soon lead to a ban of handguns (probably in steps such as restricting the size of magazines or banning what has become the most widely owned pistols; i.e. semi automatic weapons). We who value the Constitutional right to bear arms will never agree to to the ban of handguns and if that is the ultimate goal of those supporting additional gun restrictions, there is no possibility of compromise.
I understand that these proposals may be seen in other lights by some. As indicated above, if clarified, I would tend to support some of these measures. However, there are two reasons why those of us who are not fans of the NRA and would like to support reasonable and effective gun control legislation, perhaps even some of those proposed by the Governor, to protect the public from both criminals and lunatics bent on mass murder while still maintaining our right to bear arms find ourselves allied with the most extreme advocates of gun rights in opposing any legislation whatever no matter how reasonable it may seem.
The first reason we believe we must oppose virtually all gun control legislation no matter how reasonable it may seem is the continued and repeated assertions by gun control advocates that the Second Amendment does not protect the private ownership and possession of firearms. This is both historically and logically wrong. If the Second Amendment does not ensure the private ownership and possession of firearms, this Amendment is totally meaningless and there is no right protected by this “Bill of Right” whatever. While the Supreme Court recently has ruled that the Second Amendment does provide for and protect the private right to own and bear arms (see McDonald v. Chicago), the vote was 5 to 4. A single death or retirement of a Justice could lead to a reversal of this opinion. If gun control advocates really want to have a discussion related to reasonable gun control, they must first concede that this Constitional protection is valid. Until there is a consensus that the Second Amendment does protect the individual right to own and bear arms and that such right has equal importance to the rights protected by the First Amendment, we really have nothing to discuss and those of us in the middle have no choice but to support the NRA position of no compromise.
Connected to the Second Amendment issue are the comments we constantly hear from gun control advocates to the effect that whatever proposal is being discussed “is the first step” in gun control. This leaves us to ponder what the next step will be, or the step following that …or the last step (which can only be the total prohibition and confiscation of fireams or regulations so draconian that the effect is the same: see laws in New York City, Britain and Canada). This many of us will resist to the bitter end (and indeed millions of otherwise law abiding citizens would refuse to comply with and would actively resist confiscation laws even if enacted, creating a senario I dont think any of us wish to contemplate).
At this point those of us in the middle of this debate have been left with little choice but to hold our noses as we embrace the NRA and its no compromise position. Perhaps someday those who favor more stringent but reasonable gun controls will modify their extreme positions to allow a true discussion of the public safety and gun control issues to begin. However, I doubt we will see this anytime soon.
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Over the years various inventors have proffered devices that in some way allegedly defied all known science. Perpetual motion machines, for example, have been offered and rejected for patents since the early days of the 20th century (and perhaps before). Often these devices were publically demonstrated and casual examination seemed to confirm that somehow they operated as advertised. Further investigation of these complicated contrivances (usually consisting of a complex array of multiple flywheels, pulleys, pendulums, counter weights, hundreds of springs and well concealed power sources) eventually revealed them as frauds although quite a few scientists and engineers were deceived for awhile into accepting the inventor’s claims. (It has been noted that an examining scientist is no better equipped to detect outright fraud than a layman. Indeed, their eagerness to understand a new and intriguing phenomenom may make them particularly susceptible to unscupulous charlatans).
In the 1950s an enigmatic and secretive (even paranoid some said) man named Norman Dean announced a “reactionless space drive.” It was soon dubbed the “Dean Drive” by John Campbell, noted speculative science and science fiction writer, publisher and editor. If valid, it was believed that the Dean Drive would open the solar system to rapid human exploration and colonization. Although Dean applied for and received several patents related to his invention, he always claimed that certain essential elements were not included to prevent intellectual theft.
Several demonstrations of the Dean Drive were given but such demos were always under Dean’s direction and control. Campbell claimed to observe one of Dean’s devices on a scale with its weight substantially reduced as he watched when it was energized. At one point several scientists including Harry Stine also observed his demonstration of the device. Although not entirely convinced, Stine has stated that one of his most vivid memories is that of an unknown and unseen force pushing firmly against his hand when he placed it into the field allegedly created by the Dean Drive. This led to further research by Stine without Dean’s cooperation or consent and without a sample of his Drive. The investigations were hampered by Dean’s resistance as well as his claims they involved patent infringments and amid threats of law suits. Dean died without leaving a working model of his device or a detailed description of the secret aspects of its design. Funding for Stine’s investigations evaporated.
The Dean Drive became the subject of several articles in popular science magazines and was featured in countless science fiction stories but it soon faded from serious attention. Dean’s secretiveness and unwillingness to provide a working model of his invention as well as the fact that it seemed to violate universally accepted scientific laws such as the conservation of momentum and Newton’s Third Law of Motion left virtually all scientists convinced it was a fraud and not worthy of further examination. Various explantions were given for the observed motion of the device that did not violate accepted scientific principles (and which would render it useless as a space drive) but there has been no direct explanation of Stine’s claims of experiencing a strong force on his hand or of Campbell’s claim of observing reduced weight of the device when energized. (Some theorize that they were both bamboozled by a man who was no more than a con artist. Others suggested possible self deception: many of us really want it to be true despite its inherent implausibility.)
There have been numerous claims by other inventors that they have developed a reactionless space drive, much as in a previous era seemingly endless variations of perpetual motion machines were proposed. Until recently, none of these claims of a reactionless device have ever been supported by independent testing. The pendulum test is key to such examinations. Place the alleged reactionless space drive on a pendulum. Turn the device on. If it moves without occilating and maintains the movement distance until it is turned off, then just maybe you have something. Over a period of half a century no such device is known to have passed the pendulum test (perhaps until tests were performed on new versions of “reactionless” drives within the past few years by the Chinese and NASA: see discussion below).
The Dean Drive and all similar devices have been considered by most reputable scientists to be elaborate hoaxes, useless as a space drive. Indeed, if they did work as advertised it would be rather simple to create a perpetual motion machine by attaching the devices to a flywheel. (This may offer one reason most scientists. are skeptical). Despite a half century since its “invention,” without progress or duplication of the claims of its inventor, the Dean Drive to this day has a cult following which insists that if only further tests were performed and development was pursued, a revolution in space exploration would result.
The simularities of the historical experience with perpetual motion machines and the Dean drive (and similar contraptions) to the cold fusion (LENR) controversy are difficult to ignore (see my previous blog for a more detailed discusion of cold fusion). All have or had a considerable cadre of true believers who are or were dismissive of any who express doubts. All have or had inventors with few visible qualifications as the progenator of an allegedly world changing technology.
Particularly the experience with Andreas Rossi’s cold fusion device which he calls the E-Cat (energy catalyzer) seems oddly analogous in its presentation to the early history of the Dean Drive. According to Rossi (an inventor who has been convicted of tax fraud and environmental dumping in his home country), a one megawatt version of the E-Cat is in the process of installation or early operative testing now at an unnamed industrial company site presumably in the United States and household versions will become widely available as soon as they are “certified” although there seems to have been little progress since these claims were first made three years ago. Rossi maintains as a company secret the fuel which energizes his E-Cat thereby preventing true independent testing (Rossi was present and participated in the recently reported “independent” test so it cannot be taken seriously. The absence of proponents or anyone connected to them is critical during independent testing to ensure the absense of fraud or even subtle attempts to influence the test results). Whether the announced commercializtion of the E-Cat has any truth or is merely the product of a clever advertising scheme (perhaps with the intent of obtaining investors?) soon will become evident. Many suspect it is a total scam that is now falling apart. If unexpected problems arise in the commercialization resulting in substantial and unexplained delays or if silence ensues as to the progress in bringing the E-Cat to the public, we will be able to draw the unescapable conclussion. On the other hand, if the details of the industrial application are revealed, truly independent observation is allowed and E-Cats begin appearing in households everywhere, we will be compelled to admit to Rossi’s genius and cheer as he receives the Nobel Prize as we welcome a new Millennium.
Even if Rossi’s E-Cat proves to be less than advertised, this does not mean that LENR research should stop. Reputable researchers apparantly have established that the widely scorned cold fusion, ie. LENR, is a phenonmenom that deserves further examination . Hopefully, the research will continue even if the E-Cat does not prove to be viable.
Another example of new technologies which some claim will change our civilization has significant simularities to the Dean Drive. The Em drive (RF resonate cavity thruster) invented by an areospace engineer named Rodger Shayers, and the Cannae Drive (formerly known as quantum thrusters or “Q Drive”) invented by Guido Fetta seemingly refer to the same phenomena although the observed effects have been given varying explanations. The Em Drive uses microwaves (generated by an external low power source) to create a fuelless drive (i.e. no reaction mass) although whether it is reactionless is in dispute. A Chinese researcher, Juan Yang at the Northwest Ploytechnical Institute reports a higher energy thrust than even the inventor claimed. More recently, Harold White, a physicist at the NASA Advanced Propulsion Physics Laboratory also known as the Eagleworks confirmed a thrust was observed both from an Em Drive tested and the similar Cannae Drive with more tests expected. Dr. White rejects the concept that the device is reactionless in a technical sense (although no reaction mass is required) and postulates that the drive results from certain quantum effects. i.e zero point energy believed to be found even in space devoid of both mass and observable energy. All this is strangely reminincent of the Dean Drive although probably unrelated.
What to make of all of this? A space drive not requiring reaction mass would be an unprecedented development, instantly opening the solar system to both robotic and manned space craft. A journey to Mars might be accomplished in two or three days; a voyage to Jupiter in less than a week, a flight to the nearest stars in less than a lifetime. The possible energy implications for use on earth also would be staggering, rivaling the most optimistic predictions of cold fusion advocates. That there has been independent confirmation from two different sources, one of them NASA, is staggering. Dr. White in a recent statement suggested his lab was moving from the research stage to engineering. China, on the other hand, has been silent on the subject since their initial confirmation of the effect. On the surface, it looks cautiously promising.
Dr. White and his Eagleworks team are also reseaching whether a warp in spacetime can be formed, opening the possibility that “faster than light” travel to the stars may become possible before the end of the century. Based on the initial theories of Miguel Alcubierre, a Mexican Physicist, who, after watching an episode of Star Trek, decided he would investigate whether an artificial space time warp was possiible in the real universe. This possibility was based in part on the currently widely accepted inflation theory that the Big Bang resulted in ( or more correctly was) the rapid expansion of space in the first nano seconds of this universe. While no physical object can exceed the speed of light, space itself can and (at least the inflation theory postulates) has expanded at rates perhaps millions of times the speed of light during the brief period of inflation. Creating a bubble of warped spacetime around a spacecraft in theory would permit a duplication of this effect. The effect might allow a craft to travel to Alpha Centauri in weeks instead of centuries although technically not exceeding light speed, i.e. the warped spacetime bubble surrounding and containing the craft would move, not the spacecraft itself.
The catch: creating such a space warp requires incredible amounts of negative energy, something that has been observed in only miniscule amounts (see Casimir effect). Many physicists believe that negative energy is self constrained since the ability to produce or contain useful amounts might not only permit warp space drives but also the ability to open and maintain wormholes to other space, times, or universes and also permit time travel with all the paradoxes that would imply. Dr. Alcubierre himself doubts that a practical warp drive or perhaps the creation of a warp at all is possible because of the vast amounts of negative enegy that would be required to produce a useful warp. Dr. White, however, through the redesign of the hypothetical spacecraft, asserts that the amount of such negative enegy would be greatly reduced from Alcubierre’s projections, significantly increasing the possibility that a warp drive might be practical (assuming a warp can be created at all).
Using a interferometer designed by White and his team for measuring whether a minute warp has been created, it is hoped that soon the Eagleworks will be able to confirm that a warp is at least possible.
So, is all of this merely a repeat of our experience with perpetual motion machines and the Dean Drive, i.e. fraud, self deception or fantasy? In a few years will we all be embarrased by our infatuation with cold fusion, reactionless drives and warp theory? (Even if all are found to be fantasies, it seems certain that each will continue to have fanatical supporters no matter how convincing the evidence may be that discourages the rest of us). The fact that NASA has confirmed the “Impossible Drive” may give some confidence that there is more to it this time, however, evaluating Dr. White and his team and therefore the validity of their research is difficult without more information. Key question is whether Dr. White is well respected by his collegues outside Eagleworks. Some of his theories and even nomenclature have been criticized by other physicists. It may be that areas of research no one else cares to investigate are relagated to his Eagleworks team with no expectation of results on the mere remote possibility that unexpected discoveries from time to time may result from the exploration of fringe ideas.
Time will tell. If cold fusion experiments or Em Drive or warp research prove to be fruitful, the future may be almost as exciting as the one depicted in Star Trek.
Probably most of those with scientific interest are aware of the “cold fusion” controversy of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In brief summary, two researchers, Stanley Pons (University of Utah) and Martin Fleishmann (University of Southhampton, then one of the world’s leading and award winning electrochemists) reported they had experimentally observed the release of excess energy in a solution of heavy water that they believed could only be explained by a fusion reaction essentially at room temperatures. They also reported fusion by-products remained after the conclusion of the experiment. This reported discovery was promptly deemed “cold fusion” by the media.
The implications were breathtaking: that all of the world’s energy requirements could be met by simple, safe and inexpensive devices that could be easily mass produced thereby replacing fossil fuels, nuclear power plants, solar, wind and all other current and proposed means of producing energy including vast projects underway that had the ultimate goal of producing fusion energy at very high temperaures.
This report caused an uproar among researchers and produced immediate suggestions that Pons and Fleishmann were either mistaken, incompetent or even charlatans. They were severely criticized for making such an annoncement before peer reviewed scientific papers had been published (although this reportedly was forced by the University of Utah over the objections of Pons and Fleishmann). Reknown physicists immediately asserted that there was no known scientfiic basis for the reports and that “cold fusion” was contrary to well understood scientific knowlege and principles.
Indeed, numerous attempts to replicate their experiment failed (although there were at least two reports of confirmation). Eventually the Physics department at MIT, which had invested considerable resources with the apparent goal of debunking this entire field of research, held a ‘wake” (a costume party) for cold fusion, gleefully branding it a fantasy and substantially discrediting the scientific reputations of Pons and Fleishmann.
End of story? Not quite. Over the years since the 1980’s there were suggestions that those who had attempted to duplicate the experiment were in such a rush to discredit the findings that they proceeded with insufficent information of the details of the original experiment (the results of which which Pons and Fleishmann admitted they did not fully understand themselves) and accordingly their experiments did not actually duplicate the original attempts by Pons and Fleishmann. Researchers in India, China , Italy and elsewhere and a number of American researchers (working “underground” lest their professional reputations be ruined) repeatedly observed tantalizing but inconclusive hints that there might be validity to Pons and Fleismans early experiments. (If researching this on line look for e-cat and LENR (low energy nuclear reactions), the new name of cold fusion substituted since the very term cold fusion can be a career killer for researchers). Pons and Fleishmann themselves continued to research cold fusion for several years in France with funding provided by Toyota , however, most prominant physists continued to insist that cold fusion is contrary to all know physics and accordingly is impossible (but these objections have become fewer and at a considerably lower decible level as experimental evidence has mounted that there might be something to it after all).
Unfortunately, the entire issue has been muddled by “true believers” who without scientific credentials almost religiously and with scarcely disguised fanaticism have insisted on cold fusion as a solution to virtually all energy needs and problems and as an absolute certainty rather than as an interesting phenomena deserving further investigation. There are even reports that a LENR 1 mgwatt generator is available for order now (the E-Cat invented by Andrea Rossi) and that cold fusion devices for use in individual households for home heating and perhaps electrical generation may soon be marketed but whether these reports are real or fraudulent or are phantoms existing only in the journals of the cold fusion subculture remains to be seen. (Of course even a fanatic or a lunatic can be right on occasion. See the movie “Conspiracy Theory” for a detailed depiction of this possibility).
The bottom line: recent experiments not only seem to verify that excess heat is generated at room temperatures but at least suggest that such heat may be the result of a nuclear reaction (although alternative explanations for the excess energy generation have been suggested). The experimental data has become so pursuasive that cold fusion (now called LENR) has emerged from its underground research status even in this country and world wide scientific conferences on LENR have become routine. NASA and the Department of Energy are now providing funding (albeit at a low level) for LENR research projects and the U.S. Navy is or has been involved in LENR research. According to NASA researchers several labs have blown up and windows have melted during LENR research, graphically demonstrating that significant energy has been produced. Even MIT professors have sponsored conferences and classes on the subject (although it probably is fair to say most MIT researchers remain skeptical). Alternative theories as to how the excess heat is generated have been offered but there is now little dispute that excess heat is in fact generated as reported by Pons and Fleishmann (apologies to these researchers are due but too late. Fleishmann died two years ago and Pons has given up his American citizenship and now is a citizen of France).
The implications indeed are enormous. The devices currently being used in experiments are small and inexpensive. They suggest the possibility of a LENR device in individual households and possibly to an end to the use of fossil fuels altogether.
Unfortunately there are vested interests in continuing more traditional fusion research who scorn all LENR research. It certainly is true that entire careers of hundreds if not thousand of researchers may be brutely interrupted or ended if LENR pans out. The tokamak research reactor under construction in south France (ITER or International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor)) which is not yet close to a break even and self sustaining energy production point (i.e. more enegy produced than required to operate the reactor which is the holy grail of fusion research referred to as the “ignition point”) and the total investment required to bring it to the break even point (which is not expected to be attained until 2020) will be over $50 billion. (Interestingly, it appears that the entire tokamak approach may have been rendered obsolete even if LENR turns out to be a blind alley because of research being done at Lawrence Livermore and elsewhere using lasers to produce fusion and/or alternative confinement approaches. Livermore is currently retooling for heavier elements and is expected reach the break even energy production goal or ignition point within the next year or so).
Which brings us to the Lockheed-Martin announcement which I discussed in a previous blog. Despite the technological credibility of the Skunk Works, there remains a considerable amount of skepticim of this announcement (that they will have a working model fusion reactor able to be transported by a small truck and able to generate 100 mgwatts within five years) which emanates largely but not solely from the same people who debunk LENR. Indeed, the implications of both the Lockheed announcement and the potental of LENR are so enormous that a certain amount of skepticism is justified (In the words of Carl Sagan, “extraordinay claims require extraordinary proof”). It has even been speculated by some *mostly by cold fusion advocates) that the (perhaps premature) Lockheed announcement was sparked in part by recent LENR developments since they too have an investment of money, time, and careers in more conventional if dynamically robust fusion research although the announcement may also have been the result of progress made by competing companies such as Helion (which indicates the expectation to have a compact fusion device of 50 mgwatts ready by 2019) or even as a result of the reasons expressed in the announcement: i.e. seeking collaborators and additional outside funding.
I will await eagerly for future developments from Lockheed, Lawrence Livermore and LENR research (and perhaps from Helion who if their reports are to be believed may astonish us all). I consider the Livermore and Lockheed research highly likely to produce positive results based on the technological credibility of both organizations. LENR research, on the other hand, can only be deemed very interesting until firm and replicable research results are revealed and credible and widely accepted scientific explanations for the obsevations are published. The most we can say for now is that unlike what occurred with its cold fusion incarnation, LENR research should not be casually dismissed and should be carefully examined. It may even turn out to be the miracle its supporters have long and insistedly maintained; however, caution is required since some of the leading figures (i.e. Rossi) have “colorful” backgrounds, are resistant to truly independent tests and are very secretive as to the details of their inventions (which often but not always is a hallmark of fraud).
As for the Tokamak research and the ITER facility in south France, much valuable scientific knowlege doubtlessly has been obtained from it but it appears the time may be approaching to pull the plug on what has become an unrewarding financial black hole and apply these funds to more promising areas of research.
The times they are a changing. Stay tuned.