Making the World a Better Place

I was direct messaging with an internet friend recently about what to do to find a “mission” in life–always a big thing for me–because I like a solid reason to get up in the morning and be motivated. What I came up with as a potential project was to start researching technologies to make the world a better place. Today I’ll take a shot at explaining what I mean by that and then, over subsequent posts, I’ll discuss individual topics or technologies of interest. This could be a hit, it could be a flop; in any case, it’ll keep me entertained. And being the harmless egoist I am, that’s pretty much why I’m doing this. So let’s start with something “simple,” like answering, “What do I mean by ‘make the world a better place’?” Onward! Continue reading “Making the World a Better Place”

Impressions from AIAA Space 2018, Part 3

This is my third of three summaries of what I observed at the AIAA Space 2018 Forum (the other posts can be found here and here). This isn’t necessarily the last posting on this conference…I might write later about my overall impressions of the space business in a separate entry in a week or two. However, these entries are long enough (this entry runs over 3,300 words, my apologies), so let’s get to it. Continue reading “Impressions from AIAA Space 2018, Part 3”

Impressions from AIAA Space 2018, Part 1

It’s been around 10 years since I last attended a conference for the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the professional association for aerospace engineers. I attended the AIAA Space 2018 Forum this week, and it felt like a different experience from when I was a NASA contractor 2006-2012. I also wasn’t attending as a reporter or for a job, just Bart Leahy, AIAA Member and interested space geek. Part of that could be my age, part of it was a reflection of what’s happening in the space business now. Exciting times to be in the business or just observing it as an interested member of the public. What follows are some of my notes from the various sessions for your reference. Continue reading “Impressions from AIAA Space 2018, Part 1”

Working Through Depression

Life doesn’t always go the way we want. You might be going through emotional pain or upset. I’ve been there, and after multiple bouts with depression, I developed a set of habits that–if it doesn’t prevent The Suck from getting to me, at least shortens the amount of time I suffer through it. What follows is my approach; it might or might not work for you–and if you’re in serious trouble, I recommend a therapist. But for those times between visits to the shrink, you might find this helpful. Continue reading “Working Through Depression”

Do We Belong Among the Stars?

For the last month or so, it has really sucked to watch the news. It started with the terrorist attack at a gay nightclub in my home town of Orlando, Florida, and it quickly devolved into mayhem and macabre behavior in Istanbul, Baghdad, Kabul, and elsewhere. Social turmoil roils abroad and at home, with the racial divide at its all-time worst level in years and law enforcement-related shootings and politicians of all stripes fanning the flames. At the same time, we have contentious elections and presidential candidates who don’t have the full confidence of the nation to solve the problems we face.

There have been worse times in human history, but there have also certainly been better, and right now we seem on one of those downhill slopes that does not bode well for peace or prosperity.

And while all this is going on, I’ve been contemplating human beings going into space. Not just to the International Space Station, our 16-year effort to engage in international engineering and science. No, I’m a space advocate by inclination, which means I spend some of my free time writing things to encourage policy makers or the general public to get behind the notion of going back to the Moon and on to other places in the solar system. Maybe even different solar systems eventually.

I can hear some of you now: For gosh sakes, why?!? Be realistic. Don’t we have more important things to worry about? Don’t we have better things we could spend our money on?

Maybe. And then again, maybe not. Space advocacy—all geekiness aside—has lofty goals for humanity:

  • Improve our technologies out in space and, by extension, here on Earth.
  • Expand and improve Civilization.
  • Ensure that humanity survives somewhere in case there’s some sort of massive war or other disaster here on Earth.

Our imperfect species

And yet the question must be asked: are we capable of putting aside substantive and petty differences to unite for the purpose of expanding out of this world? Some of my more cynical friends would even ask, should we?

I won’t deny that there is more than a helping of utopian optimism in the space advocacy community. Some of it is born out of the Star Trek vision of a positive future, some of it born out of perhaps-unrealistic expectations about how space settlement will affect us as human beings. We tend to accept only our best and brightest into the astronaut corps, and the Russians, Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans set high standards for their space voyagers as well. And yet we’ve had astronauts who cheated on their wives, one astronaut who drove cross-country in pursuit of a romantic rival, and another former astronaut charged with killing two kids in a drunk driving accident.

Astronauts are people, too. They’re not mass murderers, to be certain, but neither are they immune to the frailties of our species—rage, lust, pride—pick your deadly sin. For as much as the late Gene Roddenberry and others might believe that we will improve as a race, I’m not so certain.

And yet…

Despite all my misgivings, I still get angry with people who suggest that humanity is so far gone, that we have done such awful things to ourselves and the Earth, that we should stay here so as not to contaminate the rest of the universe. I consider that, to put it mildly, balderdash. For all our hubris and evil—and heaven knows there’s plenty of both to go around—I’m not convinced we’re that far gone.

Human beings are also capable of great ingenuity when it comes to solving problems. The tech blogs I read regularly identify new technologies for or from space that can solve many of the environmental challenges we face here on Mother Earth. Some of them are at a technology readiness level (TRL in NASA-speak) of one—meaning only theoretical. Others are in testing. Some are operational—level 9.

There have been, are, and will be lessons learned space that can help make life better here. That’s been proven many times. The effort to investigate and explore other worlds continues to pay dividends and will do so as long as we continue the effort.

But should human beings establish permanent settlements on the Moon, on Mars, or on stations flying above our heads in orbit? To borrow from one of our more popular space operas, when Luke Skywalker asked his mentor Yoda “What’s in there?” The little green oven mitt replied, “Only what you take with you.” So will it be when we send people to other worlds to be permanent residents.

We will have capitalism and communism and socialism. We will have greed and lust and rage. We will have politics and regionalism and struggles for power. We will have religious practices, both sublime and sinister. We will have love and generosity and kindness and heroism. We will have families and strong communities and people we admire. We will take all that we are and move it into the harshest environments imaginable because we seek glory or power or wealth or military advantage or freedoms or ways to fix the environment on Earth. We will take all these things with us because that is who we are.

What is it all about?

We have international treaties and statements of intent to prevent specific types of conflict from happening. We have banned weaponry in space, though we continue to develop space weaponry. And even Star Trek, optimistic as it has been, uses phasers and photon torpedoes.

Some would prefer that we establish only a small set of justifications for going into the space frontier, but until space is opened up to multiple interests, we will most likely not go. (And for those who think we are irredeemable as a species, that would probably be just fine.)

We’ve had great plans to explore the ocean floors or polar regions, yet those places remain nearly empty and they’re easier to work with than the Moon or Mars. “Science” is not enough of a motivator to build in those places and so we don’t—such was the intent.

So should we extend human civilization to other worlds? A similar question to ask might be, “Should you and your spouse have a child? If so, why?” The bottom line is that we have children to perpetuate ourselves. We do so out of love for our partners or hope for the future. Mind you, I don’t have a spouse or children, but I see that as a reflection on my limitations as a potential spouse or parent, not because I think marriage or children are bad things.

I believe we’re capable of doing good—enough good in the future to warrant staying around and making more of ourselves. In similar fashion, I believe that we will and should one day spread out into the solar system. No, it will not be Utopia. But we can try to make things better than we’ve had them, one person or instance at a time, just as we keep trying here on Earth.

That’s still worth doing, regardless of how the headlines read

Why Space?

Occasionally someone will ask, so below are the reasons I’ve supported space exploration–particularly human space exploration–as an eminent good worth pursuing.

Economic & Intellectual Growth

I think space exploration–the robotic and human variations–leads to economic growth because people must be employed and equipment must be designed and built to make the journey happen. Because of the unique environment of space itself as well as the planets in our solar system, that hardware must meet unusually high standards of performance that are never required on Earth. However, once the technologies are developed for exploration elsewhere, those high standards can and do result in better tools here on Earth.

I also responded to philosophy professor Gonzalo Munevar’s concept of serendipity, wherein discoveries made in space only afterward become useful intellectual “spinoffs” when someone realized that a knowledge gained in one place could be useful for a more practical problem here on Earth. Moreover, the continued scientific exploration of the space frontier changes science itself and causes those who practice it to change the nature of the questions they ask and answer. Those types of changes have happened throughout human history.

The Potential for Improving Our World

One anti-space argument I hear often is, “We shouldn’t explore space because a) we haven’t made Earth perfect yet or b) we have screwed up Earth so badly.” Argument a) is ridiculous, as the “perfection” of Earth is either physically or socially impossible, especially if the definition of “perfection” keeps changing. Argument b) assumes that the listener will accept the “guilt” of humanity in permanently screwing up our home planet. I don’t guilt that easily, as there are innumerable amazing and positive changes and works of art and science that would never have happened without the presence of humans. Yes, we’ve done (and continue to do) bad things, from clear-cutting forests to pollution. But we also have the ability to take action to fix those problems, and space exploration has given us the realization that we need to do something (think of the Apollo 8 Earthrise photo) and in some cases space exploration provides us with the tools to fix the problems.

600px-Apollo_10_earthriseOne can look at space-based solar power as one potential energy source that could improve the level of pollution put out by hydrocarbon fuels.

During the last Iraq war, a water filtration system originally designed for the International Space Station was installed in a village in Iraq to provide clean water for the people living there.

NASA technologies used for exploration have been turned around and used to treat cancer.

Now I know some people get tired of hearing the “spinoff” argument–and I’m not certain about the actual rate of inventions anymore. However, it is my contention that just spending money directly on an Earth-based problem will only result in a refinement of an existing technology rather than applying a wholly new technology to a problem like cancer. Or any other problem.

Inspiration & Other Human Reasons

Space exploration is, for me, one of the most challenging, inspiring actions humans can perform. It speaks to our willingness to explore, to investigate, to learn, to reach beyond our current abilities, to develop ingenious devices capable of solving complex problems. Some day, it will lead to human beings building homes, families, and whole new ways of life beyond the world of our birth.

And yes, we will no doubt take our conflicts with us out there–our fears and doubts and religions and competitions and paranoias and poor judgment. We will go for science and we will go for wealth. We will go to find new and better ways of life and no doubt some will go for power. But all the same, we will be who we are, and we will make supreme efforts to survive in unreal and dangerous environments because that is part of what we do. The effort will not radically change who or what we are in the near term, but in the long term we might learn how to ask new and better questions of ourselves, and that’s an adventure worth attempting.