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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Review: Ben Bova's Powersat 

My latest review is up at the Huntsville Times! An interesting novel, at least nominally about a subject I've become very interested in - solar power satellites!


Monday, January 24, 2005

New Web Site and Organization 

It's past time for some real action on the energy alternatives - we'll be collecting and posting articles on real solutions: things that are, at least in theory, technically and economically capable of replacing oil in the next few decades. Should be interesting...


Sunday, January 02, 2005

Baroque Cycle Review 

Looks like they finally got my latest review up, of Stephenson's last book of the trilogy. Not bad... :-)


Moon/Mars and Physics 

Well, it's a new year, time for an update!

My recent letter to APS News on the "Moon-Mars" program was published in the November 1st edition - a copy is also appended below. Meanwhile, however, my beloved organization went ahead with publishing an anti-"Moon-Mars" report . I've exchanged some email with the report authors, particularly Joel Primack - but I don't think we've convinced anyone of anything yet. Oh well.

Here's the letter:

Moon/Mars Offers Physics Opportunities

The August/September APS News highlighted a June resolution of the APS Executive Board, urging review of the Moon/Mars proposal and NASA's recent redirection. Calling the 10-15 year timeline for a return to the Moon a "rapid pace", the statement indicated concern about the impact on science and budgets.

Given that the most immediate scientific impact of the new "vision" is a termination of physical science research on the space station, there is certainly reason for this concern. But coming from APS the new statement is ironic in light of the still unrevoked 1991 APS Council "Statement on the Manned Space Station": "The United States needs a vigorous space science program, but such a program can be implemented for the foreseeable future without the proposed manned space station."

Science was never a good justification for the space station. Former APS Public Affairs director Robert Park is widely known as an outspoken critic of human space flight. Park is absolutely correct that human spaceflight is still far too expensive to justify any scientific returns. So far.

With a limited budget, hard choices have to be made on which programs will benefit society more. The money spent to make the aging space shuttles safer, since the Columbia accident, is taking away from science programs at NASA right now. The space station still has billions of dollars worth of committed funding before it can be declared even minimally complete. Bush, in announcing the new Moon/Mars direction, called for an end (by 2010) to the wasteful space shuttle, and thereafter a phasing out of space station commitments as well. This will both protect the substantial continuing science programs at NASA, and leave room for the new program as well. Whatever your views on our president, it's a logical way to proceed.

The reason we need humans in space is not for science. It is to learn how to do things better in space. Robots don't have the intelligence and insight that humans bring. The problems are basic: in our laboratories on Earth we take for granted simple things—shelter from the outside world, a steady internal climate, access to substantial electric power, and of course an abundance of graduate students to put the equipment together, twiddle the knobs, and fix it when it breaks. Fixing things in low gravity isn't so simple—even soldering doesn't work. Small-scale bench-top science that could bring great breakthroughs in space requires all of these, and we don't know how to do any of them cost-effectively yet—and we'll never learn by just sitting in our armchairs and thinking about it.

If the APS is interested in having any real impact on NASA's future, it should make an effort to understand the changes under way. Is it a good idea to turn NASA centers into independent research centers more like the DOE labs? Are there physical science areas that can contribute significantly to the new program, and should receive new funding?

Can we imagine any science we would like to do if the more robust and inexpensive private and federal space infrastructure expected actually comes to pass?

The Moon/Mars decision doesn't have much to do with science—and despite its political origin, has an inevitable logic that a new administration would be hard-pressed to reverse. NASA people are energetically tackling the new challenges they've been given—there are real opportunities here for physicists and physics research, if we are willing to be a part of it.
Arthur Smith,
Selden, NY


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