Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fission Rockets. Deep Space. Opportunity.

Technology is a weird animal.

Look at some of these recent headlines:
"NASA Rover Spends Winter Probing Inside Red Planet"
"Beijing Releases Air Pollution Data""
"Nike Unveils Wristband that Measures Athletes' Movements"
"Congress Shelves SOPA, PIPA"
"Project Bitfrost: Rockets of the Future?"
"Internet Uprising Shuts Down Piracy Bill"
"1st Private Rocket Launch to Space Station Delayed Until March"
"Rescuers Use Explosives to Open Costa Concordia Wreck"
"Senior Al Queda Figure Killed In Drone Strike"

Talking about it can sound like a foreign language, but technology allows us to do an awfully lot. We can change the structural shape of our faces. We can travel anywhere--to China, to Antarctica, to the top of Mount Everest, to the bottom of the ocean, to space. We can make the blind see and the deaf hear. We can destroy entire cities. We can build entire cities. We can build machines to do our work for us--from calculators, to computers, to oil drills, to remote surgery, to robots, to space probes.

But you know where we've failed? Rockets.

Look at it this way: if you bought a computer last year, it's already old. This form of technology is progressing so rapidly that in the last fifteen years we've gone from giant clonky old things with very limited storage space and processing power to the average consumer having instantaneous access to information and being able to store multiple terabytes of it with their own equipment. The phones we carry around with us everyday have more processing power than a room full of computers did in the 1980s. Playing music in the last twenty years has gone from 8track tapes to regular tapes to CDs to ipods.

But since the Cold War, since we put Buzz Aldridge and Neil Armstrong on the moon, how far has our rocket technology come? To answer this question, let me quote Tabitha Smith, research lead for project Bifrost: "The rockets that sent men to the moon were powered by chemical combustion, which in its most powerful form ignites hydrogen with oxygen. The space shuttle main engine, essentially the state of the art for rocket propulsion, uses the same chemicals." In other words, this technology hasn't progressed very far. This method of propulsion, while it does its job getting us beyond the atmosphere and into the empty space beyond, can't take us very much further.

Rockets are not only used for spaceflight but for war. We use rockets for warheads and rocket sleds, fireworks and ejection seats, satellites and jet packs. So why have we neglected research in this area? Probably because it's expensive.

There are new technologies on the horizon. Currently, scientists are working on Project Bifrost, which is a method of rocket propulsion that uses fission instead of combustion. If this technology succeeds, it would allow scientists to man deep space missions, to go search for and visit all the new planets the Kepler telescope is finding, to explore nebulae and galaxies and to experiment with time by orbiting a black hole.

I want to go to space. But more than that, I want us to go to space. I want humans to spread out and multiply, to occupy other planets, other galaxies, other worlds--to explore the universe.

Here's why:

It's beautiful, it's magnificent, it's breathtaking. It's a risk--one that I hope we are willing to take.

1 comment:

  1. Nuclear rocket technology has been available since the sixties and they could have gotten to Mars in weeks instead of months, but nobody wants to be responsible for nuclear accidents half way into (or falling out of) orbit.