Don’t get too comfortable…

An artist's depiction of an extrasolar, Earthl...

An artist’s depiction of an extrasolar, Earthlike planet.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All in all, planet Earth is not a bad place, but one day, no matter how much we like it, we might have to up sticks and leave. Maybe we’ll have polluted the place so much that it’s no longer viable to live here. Perhaps the water level will rise so far that there’s no dry land. Or NASA could detect a large foreign body hurtling towards Earth at an alarming rate and Bruce Willis is not returning their calls. Let’s hope it doesn’t involve mushroom clouds.

Read any science fiction novels or watch any films and it’s almost a given that sooner or later, the human race will colonise other worlds. As worlds go, planet Earth is just about perfect. Unfortunately, it’s in the minority. If we want to be choosy about where to migrate to, we need to travel a very long way before we get there.

Unless someone comes up with technology that can move us many orders of magnitude faster than we can today, the only way to get to our new home will be to launch a ship on which people are born, grow old and die many times before the ship reaches the destination. That’s assuming they make it. Space is a hostile environment and there’s no shortage of cosmic debris moving at frightening speeds. A rogue meteor could be the difference between a nice day’s space flight and hard vacuüm.

Not only that, but they will need to pack for every eventuality. Unlike my wife, I can pack for a couple of weeks away  with a case no bigger than a shoebox. If I forget something, it’s easy enough to go and buy whatever I need. When you’ve been in space for 30 years, nipping back home for a new toothbrush or spare parts is impractical.

The crew need to be entertained too. For a long space voyage, half a dozen DVDs are not going to cut it. What are they going to eat? I can imagine that ration packs washed down with recycled urine gets real old real quick. With people cooped up in close proximity for so long, discipline will become an issue. Someone needs to keep the peace.

Depending on the target planet, the journey might be the easy bit. What if we land on LV426?

I do hope that someone, somewhere is quietly working on all these challenges. The time to start trying to solve them is not 72 hours before the asteroid hits.

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The numbers don’t lie

English: Captain Smith of the Titanic. This ph...

English: Captain Smith of the Titanic. This photo appeard in the New York Times some days after his death in the sinking of the Titanic. Français : La capitaine Edward John Smith, mort à bord du Titanic. La photo a été publiée dans le New York Times peu après le naufrage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Commander Edward John Smith had a reputation as a safe pair of hands. He had been a sailor for over 30 years and had been a captain for nearly a quarter of a century. He was decorated and saw service briefly in the Boer War. Whenever his company had a new high-profile assignment, he was the natural choice. He ran his vessels like clockwork. Every man was left in no doubt as to where he should be and what he should be doing. He established a routine, such that anything out of the ordinary would stick out like a sore thumb.

The chief stoker below decks carefully monitored the instruments showing the head of steam and made sure that the stokers shoveled just the right amount of coal into the fireboxes. The men on the bridge knew how many knots the ship should be making and which heading they should be on. They were trained to tap their instruments occasionally to make sure that the sensitive needles, being mechanical in nature, did not get stuck in any one position.

All this so that Commander Edward John Smith could spend time with his passengers, making sure that their voyage was the best it could be. One particularly cold and foggy night, a night that has become an immutable historic event, Commander Edward John Smith’s vessel struck an iceberg and sank. Right up until the moment of collision, the readings on all the instruments were perfectly OK.

English: Space Shuttle Columbia memorial in Ar...

English: Space Shuttle Columbia memorial in Arlington National Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NASA is an incredible organization, started over 50 years ago by the US Government in order to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research. In that time they have spent nearly a trillion dollars in today’s money exploring the near and far reaches of outer space. Space exploration is a risky business, so they have had their fair share of mishaps and in this kind of endeavour, they are usually fatal. One such accident was the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, in which a number of astronauts lost their life when their craft exploded and broke up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA knew that the space shuttle was not perfect. They knew that the heat-resistant tiles had a habit of falling off under the stress of the mission and they had a system in place to deal with it. When the space shuttle reached its destination (usually the International Space Station), the number, position and types of tile that had come off were recorded in a spreadsheet and a model used to decide whether the damage was severe enough that it needed repairs or whether the mission could carry on regardless. On the mission in question, the missing tiles were recorded, the numbers crunched in Excel, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. There was no need to undertake expensive and time-consuming repairs, the shuttle was safe to continue. Unfortunately, as we all know, it wasn’t.

There are many well documented cases where spreadsheet mistakes have had catastrophic results (http://www.eusprig.org/horror-stories.htm) and indeed, there are several scholarly articles which give sage advice about the risk of relying on spreadsheets and yet they are almost universally relied upon. They have a habit of multiplying because people take copies of spreadsheets and make their own changes to do their own analysis. They have a habit of networking with other spreadsheets and then feeding into spreadsheets into still more spreadsheets.

All of this means that a single mistake in a spreadsheet can have a wide-ranging effect. And because spreadsheets tend to be appended to, the effect of such a mistake can multiply over time. Given the potential for error – why do we do it ?

There is no arguing that a spreadsheet is a powerful tool, and it’s precisely that power that is so enticing. It draws us in with its ease of use. The way that seas of figures can be magically crunched in the blink of an eye means that they are tremendous labour-saving devices. Beautiful three-dimensional graphics turn the boring figures into extremely persuasive visual metaphors for the point that we are trying to argue. But you must always be on your guard, for they are constantly trying to lure you over to the dark side….

They want you to take their figures at face value. They want you to trust them. Once it is in a spreadsheet – then surely it must be the truth, and it is. The spreadsheet contains the exact results of all the numbers in the spreadsheet after the formulae have been applied (assuming your hardware is all in order http://www.willamette.edu/~mjaneba/pentprob.html). It only takes one number or one formula to be wrong and your numbers cease to be reliable.

Just remember, when all your numbers look OK – look up now and then to make sure you’re not heading for an iceberg…

To infinity and beyond…

Apollo insignia. Italiano: Stemma del programm...

Apollo insignia. Italiano: Stemma del programma Apollo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a child, I had such a thirst for knowledge, I used to enjoy reading encyclopaedias from cover to cover. I found them absolutely fascinating. Every page I turned over, I read about something completely new which I knew nothing about. One of the areas that particularly piqued my interest was space travel.

The thing about space is that it is so vast and so full of the unknown that the possibilities seem endless. If anything, the literature I was exposed to and the TV and films I tuned into during my youth only reinforced my obsession with all things cosmic.

I was born in the seventies (just) and things looked so very promising. Man had just walked on the moon and the Apollo missions were in full swing. All the textbooks were quite confidently predicting that there would be a 2001 style space station in orbit and we would have established bases on the moon and Mars. I used to look up at the sky and think that one day, I would walk on another world.

Films like Star Wars and TV programs like Star Trek and Space 1999 only reinforced this notion and I used to revel in fiction like the Stainless Steel Rat. The first time I saw Alien, I thought it was so realistic even though the prospects of long range space travel and discovery of aliens have yet to be realised decades later.

So here we are and we have seen all the significant dates like 1984, 1999, 2000 and 2001 fly past. I have to confess to being bitterly disappointed with mankind’s progress into the universe. In every other endeavour, we have made leaps and bounds but truth be known, we would struggle to repeat what we did in 1969 – put a man on the moon.

There have been glimmers of hope, like the space shuttle, skylab and the International Space Station, but by and large progress has been glacial. As the old cold war superpowers have lost interest, other emerging nations have stepped up to the plate, but to date, no-one has really set their sights much higher than that amazing mission in 1969.

More recently, I have been encouraged by some green shoots. Governments seem to have largely given up, so it is left to entrepreneurs like Richard Branson with his Virgin Galactic programme to commercialise space travel. Today, I spotted a news story on Twitter about Peter Diamandis who is widely expected to launch a startup company to mine asteroids for diamonds. How cool is that?

So do I still harbour ambitions to walk on another world? Well, no, probably not. But I’m sure by the time we get there – they will have jet powered disabled scooters – with twin lasers mounted front and rear…

May the force be with you – engage and make it so!