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.

Stop polishing nose cones!

Rocket Engine, Liquid Fuel, H-1

Rocket Engine, Liquid Fuel, H-1 (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

Working on a “nice to have” feature when there are more important requirements to fulfil is a crime. It becomes a heinous crime when it happens in a resource constrained environment. And yet – I see it all the time. If you ever find yourself working on a nice to have feature – stop, and ask yourself “is this the most urgent problem that needs solving?”

We have a special term for such work which, according to my trusted sources, originated in the IBM lab’s. We call it “polishing nose cones“.

Imagine if you will, a factory building rockets. The man in charge runs a tight ship and he organises his factory into departments. The engine department takes care of the bottom of the rocket, the propellant and coolant department takes care of the mid-section of the rocket and the nose cone department takes care of the very top of the rocket.

The guys down at the business end of the rocket, the engine department, have their work cut out. They have to develop the rocket engine (or more correctly the rocket motor) which involves some tricky engineering. The engine guys have to come up with a rocket motor that will get the vessel into space without running out of fuel and without blowing the rocket into smithereens. Their work takes a long time.

The coolant and propellant guys also have a mountain to climb. They have their specifications from the engine guys and they are pretty demanding. Some how, they have to provide enough coolant to stop the engine consuming the rocket in a ball of flame, but enough fuel to make sure that the rocket can make it to orbit. Not only that, but they have to operate within strict weight criteria.

The nose cone guys have the easiest job of all. All they need to do is manufacture the pointy end. Sure they have weight constraints, but their only job is to make something aesthetically pleasing. So the nose cone guys finish long before the coolant and propellant guys and the engine guys still have a ton of work to do.

So do they go and help the other guys – no – because they are in the nose cone department. Once they have finished the essentials, they start on the “nice to haves”. They start polishing their nose cone.

If I ran the factory, I would get away from the department idea and create a resource pool. All the engineers would constantly be picking up the most important tasks on whatever part of the rocket. OK – so maybe my nose cone wouldn’t look quite as good – but I bet my rocket would be ready for launch first.

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!