What If Our Spaceships Can Make It, But Our People Can’t?

October 19, 2015 § 3 Comments

Matt Damon. Need I say more? Some say that love is moving past physical attraction and toward a gradual love of the person’s personality and quirks. I sat in my movie seat smiling when he smiled, laughing when he laughed, and really worrying for him when his potatoes froze. The Martian might as well be a love story up there with The Notebook and Titanic. I wouldn’t mind living on Mars if it were with him.

Ahem. Anyways. Once I overcame my beating heart, my brain finally got enough blood to do some actual thinking and processing. I heard prior to seeing the film that producers collaborated with NASA to make the film more realistic, and with that in mind, I spent the movie scrupulously analyzing and critiquing every little detail. Was Mars’ atmosphere really thin enough for Mr. Damon to cover the nose of his ship with a tarp and blast off the planet? Could the soil on Mars, when enhanced with a few human contributions, really support plant growth? Could Mars have such violent storms if it has a thin atmosphere?

And then it hit me. Say all of the scientific plot points were plausible and accurate with sufficient scientific developments. Say everything I doubted, questioned, and critiqued was suddenly true without a scientific doubt. Would Matt Damon’s character have the psychological health and mental endurance to thrive through such an ordeal?

Researchers with Georgetown University, among other research facilities, have investigated that concern and found that a combination of alienation from relationships on Earth, cultural differences, language barriers, differences in personal values, restriction to small facilities on the space crafts, and other physiologically influential variables can lead to the gradual physiological deterioration of those onboard. And in a series of studies conducted by both government and independent space exploration organizations, researchers often found negative consequences of long-term space travel, including suicidal thoughts and tendencies, decreased group cohesion, sleep disorders, irritability, and changes in appetite.

So what does all of this mean for Mars and the future of long-term space exploration? It means that human development may not keep up with scientific development. I say “may” because, for all I know, there could be incredible advances in psychology and medicine that overcome the negative consequences of extended space exploration. But from where we stand right now, Matt Damon probably wouldn’t be so positive and clear minded being stranded on Mars.

And for our relationship’s sake, I really hope science can figure a way around human psychology. I can’t spend my life with a negative and depressed person, so I guess time will tell if we make it or not. I mean that both in marrying Matt Damon and society making it to Mars without killing each other.

– S. Jamison

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Americans and Fascination with the Unknown

October 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

Even before stepping foot into this class, I knew that I was a die-hard space fiction fan. Regardless of my inability to understand the physics, engineering, or astronomy concepts behind the plots, I remained riveted by stories of space travel and exploration. In fact, whether they were fictional or not, reading about missions into outer space has always filled me with feelings of excitement and left me with the impression of living vicariously through the adventures of others.

Why, if I showed little to no interest in other areas of science (sorry, biology and chemistry majors!), did the idea of outer space specifically interest me? And why, if it interested me so much, did I not feel any desire to explore it on an academic front, rather purely consuming it as entertainment?

Beginning in the 1950s, the United States was engaged in the Space Race: a competition between the US and the USSR for who could, essentially, shoot things away from Earth the before the other. Here there existed a clear confluence of the social sciences (something that I actually understand!) and the physical: spurred purely by competition with the other country, each made grand advancements in space exploration that might not otherwise have existed. In the United States, Americans sat rapt with attention as our best and brightest worked towards achieving our goal of exploring space, which fell under the larger umbrella goal of “beating the Russians.” One hundred and twenty five million people watched the Neil Armstrong land on the moon in 1969. Clearly, space exploration had captured our attention, and at what many would consider the height of achievement in the field, there existed a sense of national pride at our accomplishment.

But, besides the collectivity that resulted from our beef with the Soviet Union, would these Americans not have been equally as excited and impressed at the same accomplishments? Sure, NASA’s discoveries seem to draw less and less news media attention as time goes on, but perhaps that’s because the discovery of a new planet has become the norm in the eyes of many. (For the record, I personally still get incredibly excited when they find something new; I’m postulating on behalf of the larger public.)

I would contend that, even if we explored space solely of our own accord, the American people would still have been fascinated and excited by the developments of the mid-to-late twentieth century. At the time, such technological advancements would have seemed out-of-this-world (pun intended).

Think about it: this was a time before the Internet was widely utilized, before text messaging your friends to say “Sup?” was the norm; microwave ovens were just starting to gain popularity, and there were fewer than five television channels. We hadn’t become collectively inundated by innovations that connected us to each other, nor could we have ever imagined how quickly they would come about. We couldn’t communicate horizontally, across Earth and to each other; it makes sense that we would be thrilled my moving vertically, towards the sky and beyond.

–JR

The New Space Age

October 9, 2015 § 1 Comment

As our world moves further and further away from the space fervor of the Cold War, increasing doubt is cast on the ability of government programs such as NASA to propel us into the new space age. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe a government program wasn’t meant to take us where no man has gone before. The government, which (theoretically) serves the people, doesn’t really have any motivation to invest money into space programs. Even though funding NASA is already a tiny fraction of the United States federal budget, the unfortunately common view is: “Why waste money on space when there are problems on Earth?”. Enter space entrepreneurs.

If anything, the recent proliferation of popular interest in space is an indication that this dream hasn’t died yet. Stagnated? Yes. But still breathing. Recent films such as Gravity and The Martian are notable for their portrayal of space as almost mundane. Sure, it’s exciting and full of danger. But both plots hinge on the premise of humans casually exploring our solar system. Well, not very casually. Still, there is no faster-than-light travel, no alien species. It’s a future that isn’t difficult to envision.

Real-life Iron Man, Elon Musk, decided to take matters into his own hands. In the early 2000s, Musk made a substantial part of his initial fortune by merging his online money-transfer service with a similar company, forming PayPal. When the company was sold to eBay, he made $180 million. This he almost immediately invested into creating a new company called SpaceX, with the goal of basically colonizing Mars. Actually the goal is to revolutionize the cost of space travel to propel humanity towards becoming a multi-planetary species. Same thing.

Besides founding SpaceX, he also founded Tesla Motors and SolarCity, all roughly two years apart, with the ambitious aim of creating a sustainable future for humanity. None of these sound like particularly safe investments, so it’s not surprising he almost went broke around 2008. The survival of his companies seemed largely based on luck.

It took SpaceX a while to get off the ground (literally). Not only is starting up a company incredibly difficult, this one also necessitated the building of a functional rocket. The first three attempted launches crashed and burned (also literally). With only enough funds for one more launch, it would either work or the company would have to shut down.

The launch was successful, of course. And it prompted NASA to give the guy a $1.6 billion dollar contract to carry out about 12 launches for them. So far SpaceX has carried out 23. It is one of four organizations to launch spacecraft into orbit and bring them back down, the other three being federal agencies: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (US), the Russian Federal Space Agency (Russia), and the Chinese National Space Administration (China).

So what does the future hold? For Musk, 1 million people on Mars. At first glance the idea is insane. Let me amend that statement. Objectively, the idea is insane. But that’s precisely the reason that private companies are necessary. There is no way that any government would invest significant funds into colonizing Mars. Luckily, there are some crazy, potentially genius, entrepreneurs who are willing do to so. And with the current state of environmental problems on Earth, with the ceaselessly growing population, this may just end up saving our species for a little bit longer.

-Confused Vulcan

Top (& Bottom) Five from Gravity

October 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

***Spoiler alert***

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity follows astronaut Ryan Stone’s tumble through the cosmos to land back on planet earth. Here’s the good (and not so good) from my perspective.

Top Five

1.The opening credits of the earth and the views of space throughout the movie were breathtaking!

2.“Wow this would be awesome in 3d!” Unlike many films which use 3D as a gimmick, Gravity would be really cool to see in 3D. Not only for the excellent effects but also to get a sense of how big space is!

3.    The cinematography was way impressive. From the display of space to the zero-gravity scenes within the space station Gravity nails it in terms of special effects.

4.Dr. Stone’s backstory of her tragically deceased daughter fit in surprising well with the story’s general plot. It made it easy to understand her emotional and mental struggles without needing to have her explain it point for point.

5.The movie has a happy(ish) ending! Despite all the odds, Stone returns to planet earth safe, sound and arguably better than before she left it.

Bottom Five

1.Sandra’s panicked breathing distracted me for a large part of the film. As a viewer I understand the need to show her panicking in space, but after a bit I found it taking up more of my attention than the general plot.

2.Three words. George lets go.

3.There is a lot of time just watching Sandra “hang out” in space. Maybe it’s just my short attention span as an American viewer but I found my interest drifting (pun intended) after a few shots of the same general moment.

4.Back to Sandra, I didn’t like how she (the woman) had to be the one freaking out for the film’s duration and how George (the man) got to be perfectly cool floating away to his space-death. I wish we’d seen him express a bit more humanity because I bet he was scared too!

5. Jarring transitions between silence and sound were unsettling to me throughout. Understand it thematically, didn’t love it as a viewing experience.

-Laura Davia

The New Equations

September 25, 2015 § 4 Comments

Because everyone deserves a happy ending.

(Continued from The Old Equations, by Jake Kerr)

March 1, 2194—LC-E transmission

Kate, your final message inspired me, but it is so hard to sit here and just wait. And wait. And wait. I’ve kept the QE link from Earth open, even though nothing ever comes through. Still, I hope. And wait.

And wait.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

December 1, 2195- LC-E transmission

Sail calibration is normal. Propulsion subsystems are working. Thermal systems are in place. I’m still searching for Genesis 751, but I’ve only advanced a little on the mission trajectory.

I’ve kept the quantum link open, but I really don’t have any hope of my messages of ever reaching Houston.

Kate…..

October 10, 2199-LC-E transmission

I’m still not quite there yet. Even though time is moving faster for me, it still feels like an eternity on this goddamn spaceship. Why the hell did I agree to spend 10 years or rather 41 years away from Kate? We had a future together, and I’ve swindled it away.

June 30, 2205-LC-E transmission

James is still alive! Happy birthday to me.

I’m about 10 hours away from Genesis 751. My mission was to find this Earth like planet because we humans have exploited our planet for our avaricious needs. For what? But don’t you worry, Captain James is here to find a panacea! A whole new planet for us to destroy again!

The hypocrisy of my mission, which made me feel so noble once, now makes me sick.

I wish Kate were here.

February 17, 2206-LC-E transmission

MY GOD! Genesis 751 has trees and water!? And an atmospheric cover similar to Earth’s! I can finally breathe fresh air…

The planet is much more similar to Earth than our estimates could ever hope for. Could we begin a new life here? Could we start afresh? I’m going out to explore its landscape now, and make detailed reports about its biodiversity.

September 23, 2213-LC-E transmission

I have explored Genesis 751, and I can safely say that with a few technological and biological modifications and adjustments, it is a planet fit for human survival. Its star, Centaurus 809, is smaller than the sun, but taking orbital distance and speed of revolution into account, it doesn’t affect planetary features in a detrimental way. Genesis 751 is our potential home.

May 11, 2220-LC-E transmission

My food supplies from Earth have been running low, but Genesis 751’s biodiversity makes it easy to find fruits. The flowers and trees are not quite the same as those on Earth, but there aren’t any fundamental differences in taste or appearance. There aren’t any sentient animals here though. A planet full of trees and flowers, but no birds or bees…

December 1, 2229-LC-E transmission

I have begun my journey back to Earth, after spending 5 weeks on Genesis 751. (I don’t know how long it’s been in Kate’s years). God, I miss Kate. General Marsden should look after her well. Tony will also take care of her, I hope.

The radioisotope thermoelectric generator gave me a few issues, but nothing my MIT and NASA training couldn’t help me fix.

It’s such a relief to finally set the coordinates to Earth, to Kate.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

On June 26, 2235, 41 years since his takeoff, astronaut James returned safely to Cape Canaveral, Earth, receiving a hero’s welcome. Fortunately for him, the Earth he saw now didn’t look very different from the one he left 10/41 years ago. General Marsden had died of heart problems a few years after James’s departure from Earth. James however, was just 35 years old.

After preliminary biological and decontamination procedures and tests, James was taken to home to Nashville. He was told that Kate was at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

She’s old now, and we don’t have enough time together, thought James, regret and sorrow stabbing at his heart.

Apparently, Kate was the Bioinformatics and Genetics Department. Why? As James waited for the elevator, the curiosity was killing him. I hope she’s ok.

As he entered her room, he prepared himself to see a 70-year-old Kate. I don’t care, he assured himself.

When he walked into the room, he saw a sleeping Kate lying on the hospital bed, but she looked only 30 years old. HOW?!

Kate’s doctor rushed in. The doctor, prepared for debriefing the confused space-drifting James, said:

“I know how hard it must be for you to see Kate right now. Relativity has altered your perception of time, and even though you’ve only experienced 10 years, you were mentally prepared to encounter an Earth 41 years older. However, ever since you’ve left, we’ve made significant gains in the fields of gene modification, enabling us to live longer and look younger for many more years. With the help of newly discovered equations, we’ve successfully reversed the aging process using telomere lengthening.”

“The enzyme, telomerase, which replenishes telomeres after replication, allows a cell to live longer and combat aging. We give people periodic injections of the telomerase enzyme to reverse aging, and this form of genetic engineering is now used worldwide. I use it on myself too. The Kate you left is nearly the same Kate you see now, in terms of health and apparent age at least.”

As the doctor finished his explanation, Kate woke up. James rushed to take her in his arms. It wasn’t too late. They had a future, a long and loving future ahead.

“I told you I would see you again, didn’t I?”

-dreamer2205/Aditi Thakur

More Than Just a Year in Space

September 25, 2015 § 1 Comment

When confronting the problems of long-distance space travel we have the usual culprits: the impossibility of travel at light-speed, the minuscule breadth of human lifetimes (generation ships, anyone?). Science fiction already has all the solutions. Science doesn’t. But some topics even science fiction doesn’t seem to explore very often. What if humans simply deteriorate? What if our bodies are too fragile to withstand the unique environmental conditions of space? Late March this year NASA launched a mission to determine just that.

Most NASA missions on the International Space Station (ISS) last only 4 to 6 months. Scott Kelly, a NASA astronaut, and Mikhail Kornienko, a Russian cosmonaut, are spending an entire year up in orbit. Yes, an astronaut and a cosmonaut are the same thing. I know you were wondering.

The goal of the One Year Mission is to see how human bodies would be affected if they were to endure a future mission to Mars (and beyond?). Due to the unfortunate lack of ships with hyperdrive, such a mission would last 500 days or longer. Scientists are investigating medical, psychological, and biomedical challenges that may arise. Muscle atrophy, vision impairment, and bone loss are among subjects of concern. The below video provides a short summary regarding the necessity of a good physical regiment while in space. Essentially, in a zero-gravity environment the human body is in a resting position, which is what induces some of the negative effects, such as bone loss.

Another awesome aspect of the experiment is what is known as the ‘Twin Study’. Scott Kelly has an identical twin brother, Mark, who is remaining on Earth. Interesting fact: Mark Kelly is actually a retired NASA astronaut. The two brothers will be the subject of several comparative genetic studies, trying to determine subtle changes that may occur as a result of zero-gravity. This is a joint effort between NASA and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and has 10 different areas of interest. Among the topics being researched are things such as differential effects on telomeres, DNA and RNA methylation, and sequencing of the microbiome in their gastrointestinal tracts. These were chosen from among 40 research applications.

But the two astronauts aren’t just loitering in space for a year. They are conducting nearly 400 different experiments! The majority of these will serve to advance not only deep-space travel, but also technology on Earth. For instance, Veggie, a plant growth facility, helps provide astronauts with nutritious food, but may also improve farming practices down on the planet. Studies on the effects of delayed communication, especially in the event of emergency, may also refine procedure for Earth-based teams in remote locales. The Amine Swingbed, a piece of engineering designed to remove carbon dioxide and moisture, will provide astronauts with breathable air while taking up less space than earlier systems. On Earth, a potential use is the removal of harmful gases.

It will be exciting to see the results of the mission once it is complete. Undoubtedly it will help with NASA’s plans to send a manned spacecraft to Mars by the 2030s. And after that, who knows where we’ll go?

To learn more about the mission and its progress, check out this link:

http://www.nasa.gov/1ym

-Confused Vulcan

Travel Through Space and Time is Lonely for Everyone (Except Andre 3000)

September 18, 2015 § 1 Comment

It isn’t easy being a protagonist in science-fiction literature about time or space travel; loneliness often seems to be a precondition to their lives.

Sometimes, this loneliness is unavoidable: a solitary ten-year-long spaceship ride will probably make you miss other people, and it’s always difficult to develop a robust social rapport with people thousands of years in the future, with their unrecognizable languages and inexplicable habits. Frequently, however, these lonely types are surrounded by people like them as they hurtle through space and/or time – they feel they way they do because of some distinct characteristic or internal bent, something that sets them apart from the others.

Now, these lonely characters aren’t a distinctive trait of science fiction; fiction writ large is full of lonesome brooding adventurers – Ishmael immediately comes to mind, from what many consider to be the Great American Novel. So don’t take this acknowledgement as a critique or judgment of value. Besides, prose fiction naturally invites a certain degree of internality and solitariness – the very act of reading is about silently constructing an internal world to which someone who is sitting a few feet from you would have no access.

However, science fiction doesn’t just exist as prose literature, so we can look at other artistic forms of science fiction to determine if the genre is actually more lonesome. To my mind, the most obvious alternative form to consider is popular music: not only does a fruitful history of science fiction music exist, the artistic form of music is fundamentally oriented toward communal interaction in way that literature isn’t. Music almost begs to be heard alongside others, which is one of the reasons why many concerts can outdraw even the most popular book reading.

But, upon a quick glance at some of the “classics” of the science fiction musical genre, the sense of loneliness found in the literature is still present. David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” tells the unnerving story of an actual severing of connection between an astronaut and ground control, and, in doing so, actively creates a scene of inescapable solitude, soundtracked by distant instrumentation that reiterates that lonely void. The narrator of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” explicitly talks about missing his wife and kids while on a “long, long” trip to Mars. Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” tells of a time traveler who, because of his inability to communicate with other people, brings about mass-scale destruction.

So, perhaps the genre of science fiction simply invites this solitude – this wouldn’t necessarily be that surprising. Space and time are both inconceivable massive expanses that can’t help but make a person feel somewhat insignificant and alone. Additionally, the core demographic for science fiction is often thought to be primarily composed of socially uncomfortable – regardless of the accuracy of this notion, it has at least been a prevalent stereotype.

However, a notable exception to the loneliness of science fiction music can be found in Outkast’s “Prototype” and its corresponding (and hilarious) music video. The song and its video depict and alien version of Andre 3000, who looks just like the regular ‘Dre 3K except with a terrible blond wig, landing on what seems to be Earth with his crew of shipmates; within minutes, Andre and an earthling woman have seemingly fallen into passionate love. While video is ridiculous and only really enjoyable for its absurd kitschiness, “Prototype” serves as an interesting departure from the loneliness of space travel. Everything in the video is utopian; Andre, his crew, and the Earth woman are existing peacefully and lovingly as a community only moments after arrival, a significant departure from the paranoid loneliness elsewhere seen. This apparent love is the opposite of traditional loneliness.

While extrapolating from a single case is dangerous, I think it is worth pointing out that Outkast is a hip-hop duo, while the previously cited musicians were classic rockers. Arguably, diverse participation in science fiction could allow for such shifts in tone and subject from classical models to new iterations. This theory of a shift from lonely, exceptional protagonists being propelled by diverse participation is further supported by artists such as Janelle Monae, an R&B singer who has produced some fascinating love songs within a science fiction framework.

Therefore, by enabling more diverse participation within the genre, the music of science fiction is perhaps finally being utilized to exhibit an imagination of communal connection across space and time. Whether or not the literature of science fiction has enacted (or should enact) such a broad shift away from loneliness, however, I’ll leave that up for debate.

— Lucas Hilliard

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