I woke up at about 5AM this morning with a terrible headache and feeling very “tired but not tired” and realized within a minute, by luck or by nature, that I wasn’t breathing. Forced myself to do for for about ten minutes before it seemed to kick in on its own. So many nights lately I feel like I’m really rolling the dice, and even when I’m awake I know something’s not quite right. On one hand I feel like I’m oxygenated, and yes, I realize that my medical problem is that I can’t always sense CO2 levels in my blood, so maybe that doesn’t mean anything, but it’s not as if I’m getting dizzy or feeling tired out when I do things, other than from the muscle damage of course. But everything I’ve read says that it’s very abnormal to have a breath rate of four to six bpm. Maybe I’m just second guessing myself out of paranoia because I have no frame of refernece — it’s not like we’re ever taught how to breathe, short of yoga and martial arts of course — but I feel like when you breathe out there should be some natural instinct to breathe in again fairly quickly, but I’m not feeling that happen. Of course, as soon as you start thinking about your breathe, it completely changes because it switches off the autonomic system and moves over to conscious control. So it’s almost impossible to self-monitor it accurately anyway. I just really want to make it through the summer though. To be honest I am surprised to have made it this far, but I really want to make it through the summer…
Anyway, I managed to find a copy of Discovery’s incredible “Race to Mars” (aka “Mars Rising”) six part series (there is a barely-alive torrent and the DVD is for sale on their website) and it’s been absolutely wonderful to watch and very on topic with my latest post about the planning of Mars missions up to 1967. That said, one of the problems with having so thoroughly educated myself on the history of various proposals is that I noticed a number of minor historical errors in an otherwise well-researched documentary series — for example using footage of Ernst Stuhlinger’s US Army Ballistic Missile Agency solar-electric mission presented to the public by Disney (the ten ships carring two hundred people were very pretty, looking like giant mechanical flowers) but describing it as von Braun’s equally preposterously massive 70 person, multi-ship mission imagined in the 40s. But wow did I enjoy it and so will anyone who dreams of humans breaking free of the Earth and colonizing another world (…and then another, and another, and another…).
I have in the past complained that I think Elon Musk charges too much for Falcon 9 launches at $54 million, due to my support for “big dumb boosters”, low tech mega-rockets. But in some ways I am revealed as being too hasty when I read about his “Red Dragon” proposal and other Mars ideas. But I want to introduce some thoughts before I discuss them.
When you ask Americans what NASA’s budget is, the average response is that it’s about $750 billion (which they believe is too high). The reality is that NASA is massively underfunded, currently at $18 billion, and as a percentage of the budget it has dropped every year. Additionally, they are cursed with a repeating fiasco of one President scrapping all of NASA’s current plans and announcing his own “bold” (or in Obama’s case, decidedly not bold) vision, only to have it again scrapped and replaced by the next President. The end result is that not only do the scientists and engineers and astronauts live with a constant cloud of disappointment, it also results in massive amounts of wasted money. That said, it is very important to point out that NASA is one of the few US agencies that actually operates at a huge profit because of the technology they develop and inject into the private sector, to say nothing of secondary benefits like keeping high tech jobs in America. Most studies have shown that every dollar invested in NASA pays off in the long term by an order of 5:1 or more. But it seems like nothing is changing and any politician who has the appearance of being a “fan” of space development — Newt Gingritch comes to mind — is teased mercilessly for it. America’s aggressive pro-stupidity prejudice against intelligence is deeply ingrained.
But perhaps this new phenonmena that has been discussed a lot in the media lately of financially successful nerds of the tech sector lining up to invest in the tech sector will change things. Paypal, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google executives (and many others) are all pouring them money into space startups, with Paypal’s SpaceX being perhaps the farthest ahead. I just described Obama’s space policy as “decidedly not bold”, and that’s because it’s incredibly slow, expensive, and cautious. The long slog he proposes to get us to Mars will take thirty plus years and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It’s ridiculous. But as I mentioned in the previous entry, the smallest Mars mission that NASA has ever proposed came in at about $30 billion. The private sector though, which seems to be the future of the space industry, believes it can do better.
The Red Dragon mission (pictured above) that I mentioned earlier is an unmanned mission to Mars by SpaceX. It uses their Dragon capsule, which is capable of carrying astronautics, but for this mission is run roboticly. Elon Musk is telling NASA that he can do this mission for a scant $400 million, plus another $150-$200 million for the launch (using his Falcon Heavy, which is about half the size of a Saturn V). It’s an exciting mission because not only is it cheap enough to make funding very likely, but it will not only be searching for life, but also assessing surface habitability, research the ground ice (which is not just interesting for researching the climate history, but also essential in colonizing Mars), test many systems required for manned landing and do research on in-situ resource utilization. It’s the first Mars mission that’s a big step toward a real manned mission. So I was very excited to read the artical about Elon Musk in the December 17, 2012 New Scientist:
“Must would like to be the person who takes humankind to Mars.
That moment may be closer than anyone thinks. Musk declared recently that he could put a human on Mars in 10 to 20 years’ time. It is a remarkable claim, yet even more astonishing Musk tells me that he could do it for $5 billion, and possibly as little as $2 billion — a snip when you consider that the International Space Station (ISS) has cost at least $100 billion to build and operate, or that $2 billion is roughly the cost of launching four space shuttle missions.
Musk doesn’t just want to stop at one human. In his Heinlein prize acceptance speech, he said he wants to put 10,000 people on Mars. Musk rarely makes public statements merely for effect but a call for 10,000 would-be Martians is extraordinary, even by his standards. When I query him on this point, he pauses. Is he reconsidering? Yes… byt as with so much else about Musk, not in a predictable way. “Ultimately we don’t really want 10,000 people on Mars,” he says, after letting the pause linger a few seconds more. “We want millions.”
If he really can do it for that small an amount of money, I really hope they give him a shot. And if NASA won’t, maybe the private sector will. Whoever gets there first effectively owns the planet. He also goes on in the article to point out that on his launches, only 3% of the cost is fuel. He wants to see “rapid reusability”, whereas I’ve voted for extremely cheap rockets, but he makes the important point that when you’re talking about Mars, reusable (read: durable) technology is extremely important, since it’s not like Earth where you have highly accessible and long-refined raw materials and an established manufacturing sector. The Falcon Heavy, his new vehicle, has more emphasis on rapid reusability than anything he’s built yet.
Of course as much as I said I just want to make it through the summer at the start of this entry, I would really much rather make it long enough to see humans on Mars.