Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Aliens Are Not Among Us

Today I'm going to revisit an essay I wrote for Baen Books in 2011 called, "The Aliens Are Not Among Us."  You can find the original post here: http://www.baen.com/Aliens.asp

I recently attended a space professional conference filled with engineers and scientists who work in the space and aerospace industries - from NASA, Lockheed-Martin, Boeing and many other well-known companies and universities.  As you might expect, most of the papers presented were heavily technical and provided a fairly good snapshot of today's rocket and space technologies.  Very few covered novel advanced space transportation systems and fewer still talked about systems that might one day take us to the stars.

Yet, at lunch, the topic of interstellar travel came up which included, unfortunately, a digression into 'flying saucer' lore.  We covered it all: from ancient astronauts, to Roswell and pyramids on Mars with alien autopsy videos interspersed within.  Most, like me, quickly dismissed the notions that we are being visited and/or that our government can keep anything of this magnitude secret.  And yet... some were not convinced, or at least it seemed that way.

When I was a teenager, I was a 'believer.'  I read all the books, including those by J. Allen Hynek and Brad Steiger; those about Project Blue Book; and still others about alleged alien abductions.  My skin used to crawl and I spent many hours stargazing, wondering from where they came.  That stargazing played a major role in my studying physics in college and graduate school and it shaped my career.  Physics and a liberal arts degree from Transylvania University (it's real; look it up) taught me critical thinking and that's what led me to where I am today - a 'non-believer' in alien visitors.

Why?  It all a matter of probabilities and our tendency to radically underestimate Deep Time. 

Read the Baen essay and you'll understand what I mean.

Les Johnson
co-author (with Ben Bova) of Rescue Mode - coming in paperback this September from Baen Books

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Mars Awaits!


Just saying the name of the red planet evokes in a science fiction fan a sense of wonder and adventure.  From Edgar Rice Burroughs’ visions of Barsoom in A Princess of Mars to Andy Weir’s The Martian, generations of space enthusiasts have been inspired to dream of exploring Mars. 

Space scientists have also given the notion a great deal of thought.  I have a copy of a NASA Technical Memorandum (TM X-53049) titled, “Proceedings of the Symposium on Manned Planetary Missions 1963/1964 Status,” which describes the status of America’s plans and capabilities to explore Mars as described in a meeting held in January of that year.  (5 years before we landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon; 3 months before the first Gemini flight.)

The report is fascinating.  Fascinating because these audacious engineers were planning to send people to Mars before we’d even flown two humans in space simultaneously and fascinating because they clearly understood the technical challenges facing anyone choosing to mount such a mission – and many of these same challenges remain with us today.  (We’ve made progress toward solving most of the technical challenges.)  Dare I say almost all of them can be resolved sufficiently to risk sending a crew on a 2-3 year round trip mission to Mars with reasonable chance of mission success and bringing them home alive.  So why, then, haven’t we undertaken the voyage?

The simple answer, which would be wrong, is money.  The United States, for example, has a gross domestic product of ~$16.7 Trillion Dollars.  That’s $16,700 billion dollars.  The US Government budget in 2015 is $3.9 Trillion Dollars ($3,900 Billion Dollars).  A Mars mission, in round numbers, should cost no more than $10B - $25B dollars (total, not per year).  Surely a country where a soft drink manufacturer (Coca Cola) has a gross revenue of $45.9B (in 2014), or roughly twice the total projected cost of a Mars mission, can afford to pay for the trip.

No, in my opinion the answer is much simpler: Lack of will.  Sending people to Mars isn’t happening because there aren’t enough people making enough noise to make it happen.  And that’s a pity.  Mars is within our reach and has been for decades.  To quote Werner Von Braun from his Introduction to the 1964 Mars study, “Although our nation is firmly dedicated to achieving a manned lunar landing in this decade, a landing on the Moon is not an ultimate goal.  Man will travel beyond the Moon to explore the solar systems.  When, I do not know.  But perhaps, after this symposium, we shall have a better idea of when man could conceivably venture out to Mars or Venus and return safely to Earth.

We’re discovering other solar systems and we haven’t yet ventured (with people) into our own beyond the Moon.  When, indeed, shall we venture to Mars?  I say we’ll go as soon as we decide we want to do so.  (Hurry up!)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Using Outer Space to Improve Life on Earth (Or Why Space Advocates and Environmentalists Should Work Together)

Today, instead of a new post, I'll refer you to my recent article on the Baen Books website in which I describe how we can use space technology to help solve the very real energy and environmental problems we face here on Earth.  The subtitle, "Why Space Advocates and Environmentalists Should Work Together" should be a wake up call to those who believe that high tech space development is somehow not compatible with being a good steward of planet Earth.  On the contrary - the two are not only synergistic, they are intertwined.  I firmly believe that in order to protect and preserve our home planet we have to embrace space development -- sooner, rather than later.

Read on...   http://www.baen.com/Using_Outer_Space.asp

Monday, May 26, 2014

I think Evelyn Beatrice Hall Would Approve (and Voltaire too!)

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - Evelyn Beatrice Hall*

As I celebrate and contemplate this Memorial Day, I believe we seem to have forgotten what used to be this truism in American culture.  Personally, I value the opinions of those who have views on issues that differ from my own.  My wife and I host a monthly discussion group that embodies the spirit of Evelyn Hall; members of the group disagree more often than they agree on many issues yet we still manage to eat pizza together after many a spirited debate/disagreement.  Some members are liberal, some conservative.  We’ve had members who are Christian, atheist, and Hindu.  Views are expressed that some find offensive, and they say so – but they still come back each week to discuss issues and seek to understand the viewpoints of those with whom they vociferously disagree.   These are my friends and they define by example what it means to be tolerant -- I think Hall (and Voltaire) would approve.

*(this quote is often incorrectly attributed to Voltaire)  

Les Johnson

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Future Is In Good Hands

Last week, I had the privilege of providing a colloquium at The University of Kansas (the other UK, or as they write it, KU) in the Aerospace Engineering Department.  The topic of was solar sails and how they will not only benefit exploration and science within the solar system but also, potentially, take us to the stars. 

I was there because of the initiative of one young man – Brooks Pierson.  I met him at the Icarus Interstellar Congress last summer where he invited me to come to KU to talk about interstellar travel using solar sails.  Brooks single handedly made all the necessary arrangements for my travel and even had a gift bag containing chocolates and cookies waiting for my wife and me when we arrived.  The day went like clockwork and included a lecture to a graduate-level aerospace engineering class, lunch with students, meetings with the Dean and a former NASA astronaut now on faculty at the university, and concluded with my departmental colloquium.

The response was tremendous.  Unlike when I’ve spoken at some other universities, the room was packed; no one appeared to be sleeping, and afterward I was mobbed with students asking thoughtful, intelligent questions.  Carol and I then went to dinner with a select group of students where the discussion continued until much later in the evening.  It reminded me of being in college – back in the day.

Thank you, Brooks, for your interest and initiative.  You will go far.

Upon my return, I received this email:
Hello, Mr. Johnson.

My name is John Doe (yes, I changed his name – I don’t have his permission to reprint the letter), and I'm a junior in Aerospace at the University of Kansas, and an AFROTC cadet. I would just like to thank you for coming and speaking at the University of Kansas' aerospace colloquium. Your presentation was honestly the most engaging and interesting one that I've seen in my 3 years of taking the class. I wanted to say this in person, but you had a small army of fans in line and I had a meeting shortly after class.

I found your lecture so fascinating because the sole reason I am in aerospace is to contribute to furthering deep space exploration. As you highlighted in your lecture, not only would this reap an unfathomable scientific and exploratory benefit, but the economic and environmental prosperity would be massive.
Thank you very much for your time.
The passion for space and space exploration is alive and well at The University of Kansas and, I suspect, at colleges all across the USA and around the world.  The future is in good hands, indeed.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Perils of Being an Optimist

I admit it.  I'm an optimist.  I believe that the future can and will be better than today.  I'm also drawn to ‘end of the world’ type movies – but only ones where the good people prevail and the evil (leader, country, monster, alien, virus, sentient computer, whatever) is thoroughly trounced.  And yet…

I still like to watch the movies where the bad guys sometimes win.  I'm haunted by them and I replay them in my mind while envisioning the many other ways the good people could have won if only…  if only they'd done this or that differently.  And that both troubles me and piques my interest at the same time.

That’s why this post from the SyFy Channel (I still prefer “SciFi”) caught my attention.  I simply had to watch the “grim alternate endings.”  I couldn't resist.  I’m also glad alternate endings remained ‘alternate.’  Otherwise I would have lost a great deal of sleep thinking of ways the story could have turned out differently.

Les Johnson - editor of "Going Interstellar" and co-author of "Back to the Moon"
Personal Homepage - http://www.lesjohnsonauthor.com/

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

We Need To Dream Again

My parents’ generation dreamed big and accomplished much.  They were members of what has been called, “The Greatest Generation.”   My father was born in the second decade of the 20th Century in a country that had just entered the world stage during World War 1.  During his lifetime, he
  • saw the Great Depression begin and end.
  • fought in World War II (North Africa).
  • witnessed aviation progress from Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic to daily non-stop jet service to and from nearly every major city on the planet.
  • experienced the birth of nuclear energy --  both nuclear weapons and commercial nuclear power.
  • benefitted from the development of antibiotics, the near-eradication of polio, and the end of smallpox.
  • saw rockets progress from being Robert Goddard’s curious ‘invention’ to taking people to the Moon and the launch of Voyager.
  • rode in the family Model T and later the family’s air conditioned Buick on the nation’s interstate highway system.
  • listened to a crystal radio as a boy and watched color television as an adult.
  • the list goes on, and on, and on...

I’m not saying that we aren't inventing new things today or that even the pace of innovation has slowed, which I don’t believe it has.  I am saying that we don’t seem to be doing the BIG things anymore.  Yes, the internet and cell phones are revolutionary, but they pale in comparison to the quality of life improvements made by the previous generation.  

Many seem to think that our best days are behind us and that we should therefore diminish our expectations. After all, our industrial base is declining, the middle class is shrinking and we are in so much debt that all we can do is maintain our social programs – ambitious projects are just not affordable anymore.  To this I say, “nuts!”  These problems are miniscule compared to those facing the country when my father was a young man and look at what he and his generation accomplished!

The future can be better than today, and it is up to us to make that happen.   Now is not the time to diminish our expectations.  Rather, now is the time to dream big, tackle BIG and ambitious new projects, and make tomorrow better than today.

Les Johnson - editor of "Going Interstellar" and co-author of "Back to the Moon"
Personal Homepage - http://www.lesjohnsonauthor.com/