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Sunday, May 25, 2014
Outer Space ... Society ...

One of my interests as a kid was space exploration and rocket launches. I grew up during the exciting days of the “space race” in the 1960’s, when the Soviets and the USA were competing to outdo each other in putting men into space and making machines sail to Mars or Venus (or even to the outer planets, such as the Pioneer 10 mission in 1972). Teachers would bring TV’s into classrooms on days when a manned Mercury or Gemini mission was to be launched, and we would interrupt our boring history or english classes to “join the countdown” at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Thus I became something of a space geek, reading up as much as I could about the US and Soviet space programs. Since my father worked for a defense contractor (Bendix Aerospace) that made stuff for certain NASA rockets and satellites, he would occasionally chat a bit with me about the latest space shots. (He didn’t really like to do it too much, though, as it sort-of put him on my level, or vice versa. My father had an old-school “I’m the boss and you’re the kid” parenting mentality. But not to complain, as he was relatively gentle about it, he wasn’t a tyrant. Nonetheless, he was definitely not like today’s parents, who want to be “friends” with their kids – and we’re now seeing just how well THAT turned out.)

So I was recently looking at some YouTube videos of rocket launches, reveling in the clipped, precise communications going on between the ground controllers and technicians, and the hushed sense of anticipation and danger that eventually gave way to the goose-bumping final countdown and the crescendo of excitement as the rocket came to life, with booming sounds and steaming clouds and fire. Then came the slow, majestic ride into the skies, getting faster and faster, farther and farther away, with the techies putting in their occasional commentary such as “roger, three engines, nominal burns, initiate roll sequence” to maintain the pretense that the whole affair was under control. It still thrills me after all these years.

The well-known sidebar on YouTube offers a variety of variations on the theme that you are interested in, and the rocket launch sidebar inevitably offers a selection of fantastic failures, rockets that blew up on the ground or half way into orbit. So I watched a few of them (staying away from that ill-fated Challenger Space Shuttle launch; to me, watching that is a bit like viewing pornography, a cheap thrill that later makes you feel sullied and uncivilized). And all the explosions and flame reminded me of something that may be easier for a techie like myself to realize and appreciate: a rocket launch is really a controlled explosion, and rockets themselves are not that much different in design and character from a bomb.

The average layperson who watches a rocket launch on the news or in a movie doesn’t usually sense this. The rocket puts out a lot of flame and smoke, but everything usually goes well, nothing gets blown up. But once in a while, things do blow up. And then you realize that anyone who would put themselves in a rocket is strapping themselves to a bomb, a very powerful bomb, right under their butt. Those first astronauts and cosmonauts were brave guys indeed. As as we later found out courtesy of the Space Shuttle, things have not changed much in the 50 years since Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard first ascended into the heavens on these flaming chariots.

But space travel is progressing, if more slowly than we expected when I was that kid in fifth grade staring fixedly at the black and white TV screen as Walter Cronkite and other news journalists joined in with the “10-9-8-7-” chant. So now we already have a few billionaire “space tourists” like Dennis Tito, and both government and private industry groups are planning to expand those ranks within the next few years. For example, Boeing is developing a space capsule called the CST-100 in conjunction with a company called Space Adventures, with the intent of to flying some hobbyist astronauts to orbital space along with the professional NASA people. “We hope, come 2015, we’ll be able to start flying some paying passengers” on the CST-100, said Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures. A number of other companies are working on schemes for offering both sub-orbital trips (such as the “standing room only” Tyco Brahe mini-rocket) and full orbital rides to tourist-adventurers, and hope to bring the cost down from about $30 million to around ½ million within five years.

I just hope that these space tourism enterprises are ethical enough to publicize the risks involved. They should require anyone wanting to blast into space to watch some launch explosion videos, such as this one and this one. I hope they make it clear to all potential customers: you are putting your one precious life on top of a bomb. If all goes as planned, this bomb will not go boom, but will release its energy over 2 minutes (versus 2 microseconds or so for a bomb). If something goes awry, which is known to happen, the bomb will suddenly burst and you will probably die in an instant. (And that doesn’t even count the risks in space and getting back home from space — remember the destruction of the Columbia on re-entry).

I looked up some energy calculations as to get a rough sense of the forces involved. The energy needed to get 1500 kg spaceship (approximately like the early Mercury 1-person capsule) into earth orbit is around 4.9 x 10 ^ 10 Joules, based on an average of about 3.3 x 10^7 Joules needed per kilogram to launch to low orbit. For a 13000 kg CST-100 ship with 7 people: 3.3 x 10^7 Joules x 1.3 x 10^4 → 4.4 x 10^11 Joules. The biggest conventional bomb used in WW2 released (RAF’s Grand Slam, used to destroy viaducts and submarine pens) released about 2.7 x 10^10 Joules, and a small atomic bomb (say 10 kilotons TNT equivalent, slightly smaller than the first Hiroshima bomb) releases about 4.2 x 10^13 Joules. So, the one-person capsule needs a rocket with the power of almost 2 Grand Slam bombs or about 1/1000 of an atom bomb; the bigger CST-100 needs around 16 Grand Slams-worth, or about 1/100 of a nuke. Given all the damage that an atomic bomb can do, one-thousanth of it is clearly more than enough to instantly shred and incinerate you and your little stagecoach to the stars.

Well . . . modern civilization is all about putting more and more energy at human fingertips. A young, strong caveman could throw a 3 pound stone or javelin at about 30 to 50 mph, and could build a slingshot to get a quarter pound pebble up past 100 mph. Horses could propel you up to around 40 mph; then came railroads in the 18th century, which could get you up to around 100 mph. Today, an average person can push a few thousand pounds of metal and plastic over an interstate at 70 mph, or buy a plane ticket and have their 180 pound body wisked along at around 500 mph (many do both on the same day, without any fanfare).

But when it goes bad, though, the consequences of modern energy harnessing can be much greater than a caveman might experience if he slipped while making his throw, or his slingshot’s bow snapped. Horse accidents could break your bones (and admittedly could kill or cripple you if you land the wrong way), but often you could walk away with just some bruises. Train accidents were worse, involving more uncontrolled force packed in a small place; plane crashes and car crashes today can be even worse still. Still, it’s not too surprising that someday (soon), people will want to escape the earth’s bounds. But good luck with keeping all that energy in the right place at the right time, and dealing with what happens when things go wrong.

P.S. –

Given that a rocket is really a cousin to a bomb, it is not as bizarre as it might first seem that NASA actually did consider powering an interplanetary space mission using nuclear bombs. That was the infamous Project Orion, which would have gone to Mars and beyond by blowing up a series of nukes right behind the space ship, getting a sudden boost in speed with each blast. Obviously, Project Orion never went anywhere; nukes in space is just not a good thing, politically speaking.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:55 pm      

  1. Jim, Amazing! They are working so that within 5 years the cost of going into space will come down from $5 million to only $500,000! OOH! Wow! Just wait a second while I save my few pennies up so I can go too.

    Several tho’ts run thru my mind at the point you’re making in this post. One is that some people just have too much money; they have difficulty finding how and where to spend it. Now they have to go into space. I read something recently by Hans Kung who commented in one of his books that people these days (and here I paraphrase with gusto, but I still have the idea) cannot seem to find enough of anything. They must always have the newest this or that, the best something else, the biggest, the highest, the most, the greatest of whatever it seems is new on the market. (And, of course, our technology and economics feeds into that desire.) Then he asks (and here I quote):
    “And are we happier than former generations, as we are offered ever bigger and better products, from cars, computers, and stereo systems to household equipment and sports clothes? As research into satisfaction has shown, human beings are subjectively satisfied only provisionally, because time and again even newer and better offers overtrump the earlier ones and create a desire for new experiences.” Hans Kung, A Dignified Dying 1995, p. 11.
    I couldn’t help but think of a trip to space being yet one more thing in this list he mentions.

    A second related tho’t comes to mind, but I can’t figure out how to “feel” about this tho’t. A ride into space makes me think of those who have a need to climb Mount Everest, drive in the Indie 500, fight in boxing match, or do any of the myriad things that are extreme and also, by the way, life threatening. (Was the whole “Jackass” thing a program or a YouTube thing or something else? People doing life-threatening things just to do them.) While one feels very sorry for those who actually lose their lives doing these kinds of things (and just recently there was the avalanche on Mount Everest that cost so many lives), I find myself thinking, well, if people put themselves in danger, what else can they expect? Talk about mixed emotions!

    Then there are all the automobile deaths! It seems in 2012 (last year I could find statistics for) there were 38,000+ deaths caused by cars; this is *not* to count injuries caused by such accidents. While it is true car accidents have gone down in the beginning of the 21st Century (likely due to better safety built into the cars), still, if 38,000 people had been killed in plane accidents or any other kind of accidents, a serious rebellion would take place regarding that “something else”.

    Then too, in my random tho’ts about people traveling into space for enjoyment and the experience of it, I find myself thinking of what I heard Warren Buffett say recently. He was speaking of the project he, and I think it’s the Gateses, have – to ask billionaires (billion, with a B) to live on half their money *only* $500 million!) and give the other $500 million to the poor of the world (or perhaps a foundation Buffett and the Gateses have – obviously I caught only the last part of his comment as my info on the first part is lacking so ridiculously). . . anyway, Buffett said that he got to the point where, when he called people and they refused, he wondered (perhaps became somewhat annoyed, I add) if it was impossible for some people to live on only half a billion dollars instead of the full billion. Proving once again, some people just have too much money and don’t have a clue of what to do with all they have lying around.

    I’m far from taking a ride in a rocket and sitting on top of a bomb to do so. But, the comment that there’s actually an effort being made to bring the cost down to a half a million dollars set me to wondering my various tho’ts.

    And I find myself back to Hans Kung: In the end who will care if he/she went to space, experience everything on his/her “bucket list”, had every possible experience he/she longed for?

    Worry about sitting on top of a bomb to get into space is one of those things that brings on those “mixed emotions” I mentioned above. While on the one hand I’d feel sorry that someone died; on the other hand I’d find myself wondering why on earth would one want to do something so dangerous just to be able to say, “I did it and lived”? Just piling up experiences somehow seems in the same bracket as addiction – the more one has the more one wants. (Come to think of it, money too seems to be in that same bracket for a lot of people.) MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 25, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

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