Starship Century Symposium: Robert Zubrin

Robert Zubrin

Robert Zubrin

[This post is part of a series about the Starship Century Symposium held May 21-22, 2013.]

Robert Zubrin is President of Pioneer Astronautics and the founder and President of the Mars Society, and was responsible for developing the Mars Direct mission plan.

With the zeal of a prophet, Zubrin made fiercely anti-Malthusian arguments that the goal of building a starship in the coming century is attainable.

What are the requirements for a starship? He postulates a 1000-ton ship that travels at 10% light speed. What resources will society need for the mission? Zubrin said that to keep the cost from exceeding Apollo levels in proportion to society’s wealth, humanity will need a gross global domestic product (GDP) of 1000 times greater than existed in 1968, or 200 times greater than exists today.

To achieve a 200-times increase over today’s GDP, we will need a population of 54 billion. We will need energy of 2500 terawatts by the year 2200.

Pounding away at the opposite conclusions reached in Paul Ehrlich’s famous book The Population Bomb, Zubrin said, “If humans destroyed more than they made, the earth would be barren already. The real resource is human creativity.” Every mouth comes with a pair of hands and a brain. If we accept Malthusian advice, and act to reduce the world’s population, we will impoverish the future by denying it the contributions the missing people could have made.

For one thing, the more people, the larger the market, the easier to justify investments. For another, technological progress is cumulative.

Zubrin’s historical graph showed that GDP/per capita has increased with total global population over the years. This is because productivity depends upon technology, which is the cumulative result of human effort. For example, he pointed to the jump in worldwide wealth in the 1500s, something he credited to the development of sailing ships which unified the world and allowed inventions to be disseminated more rapidly than ever before.

Humanity’s escape from poverty depends upon energy use – GDP/per capita is a function of carbon use. Rising levels of energy consumption have correlated directly with rising living standards. Zubrin does not consider that this has been accomplished at the cost of a climate catastrophe. “The weather is about the same as when I was a boy,” he said dismissively.

In the future our energy resources will be (1) The sum of known and unknown Terrestrial fossil fuels, plus (2) local planetary He3.

He speculated that a winged transatmospheric vehicle that can use a gas giant’s atmosphere for propellant, heating it in a nuclear reactor to produce thrust (Nuclear Indigenous Fueled Thermal rockets) could be used to transport He3 from the planet to an orbiting tanker, which would deliver it to Earth orbit.

This would provide fuel for fusion reactors. A fusion configuration could theoretically yield exhaust velocities of 5% the speed of light. The thrust level would be too low for in-system travel, but would make possible voyages to a nearby star with trip times of less than a century.

Zubrin is counting on human wanderlust as the motive for colonizing the nearby planets, and in time the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. “Why go? Why stay? Why live on a planet whose laws and social possibilities were defined by generations long dead, when you can be a pioneer and help shape a new world according to reason as you see it?” The need to create is fundamental. “Once outward move begins, it will not stop,” Zubrin promised, “We can make it to the stars provided we remain free.”

A question session followed which might have veered onto unpacking the speaker’s data and endlessly processing his analysis, except that Zubrin, with a verbal flourish, used the first question to point to the fuller support in his book Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (2011) – a bit of verbal judo that gained applause from the many authors in the audience. Remember: Always Be Closing…

Mars Exploration Not for Profit?

The U.S. Tax Court has ruled that Donald Carl Barker, a former NASA systems manager, isn’t allowed to deduct expenses for his space exploration activity because he didn’t engage in it for profit.

The Tax Court thought the activity was commendable (“We do not fault petitioner’s strong passion for Mars exploration and its related technology. We believe he pursues a noble cause that one day could provide benefits to all humanity.”) The problem, in the Court’s view, was that Barker didn’t show he was still regularly and actively involved in his business activity in the year of the deductions, 2006. So they ruled against him.

Barker was developing a “Mars audio system” for use with the Martian surface suit. Derived from the Mars Polar Lander flight hardware, his audio system incorporated low power, low cost, off-the-shelf components including an intelligent sound processing chip, hearing-aid style electric microphones, and miniaturized speakers.

His system was field tested in 2002 at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, a reference that caught my eye because File 770 covered David Levine’s stint at the MDRS in 2009. (See ”Meanwhile, Back on Mars…”)

The full opinion was posted March 20 at the Tax Court website — Donald Carl Barker v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2012-77 [PDF file]

Meanwhile, Back on Mars…

MDRS upper floor.

David Levine had just reached Mars before my health problems distracted me from his adventures.

Since I last checked in the crew of the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) has been suffering problems of its own, only one of them medical, though it can’t be overlooked that the engineering problem would have been fatal had it actually occurred on Mars.

The least of these problems was the difficulty of getting to sleep in a strange place. David wrote

The hab is full of strange noises at night — whirs and thumps and gurgles — making sleep difficult, but eventually I put in earplugs and got a pretty solid night’s rest, finally getting out of bed around 7:00. I understand the ISS is also very noisy.

(Then add to that — getting into bed the next night David banged his toe so badly that he became he became the Health & Safety Officer’s first patient. Fortunately peroxide and mercurochrome, then a bandage, set all to right.)

Noise at night had been a problem. Sudden quiet was the problem by day. Everything dependent on electrical power went silent. When the crew couldn’t get a generator to restart after a diagnostic shutdown — and discovered the auxiliaries had a problem too — they were forced to send for help from Earth, er, Hollow Mountain.

With the Internet out, we had no way to contact Mission Support, and none of us have cell phone service here. Steve tried walking up to Observatory Ridge in hopes of catching a signal, but no dice. Finally Steve, Laksen, and Paul took V’ger into town in hopes that they’d be able to find DG at Hollow Mountain.

(Sidebar: V’ger is our Plymouth Voyager “pressurized rover” and DG is a Hanksville local who is absolutely essential to the continued operation of MDRS.)

DG came and diagnosed the trouble (it’s all in the journal).

Now the crew was free to fulfill its mission, right? Oops, no, make that — to fix the plumbing! Here, David’s home-owner skills helped them avoid a simple solution that would have been worse than the problem.

Anytime David is unleashed on Mars, however, he’s having plenty of success solving the mission’s technological problems, patching helmets, working on power packs, and getting webcams back online:

While lunch was cooking, I also ran up to the Musk Observatory to see if I could fix the #1 webcam there, which was completely washed out even when the sun wasn’t shining directly into its eye. Poking around at the computer there, I stumbled into a deeply-buried settings screen where all the contrast, brightness, and gamma controls were seriously messed up. A simple press on the Restore Defaults button brought the camera back to life. Go me!

I am not a number...
I am not a number…

Those power packs have big red numbers. Somebody with a science fictional sense of humor posted a snapshot of Number 6 and Number 2 walking companionably up the arroyo.

Whether that was David’s idea I don’t know. I see there are others in the crew with a sense of humor. A glance at Executive Officer/Engineer Laksen Sirimanne’s blog revealed that meal time brings out his comic side:

0800: Breakfast of instant oatmeal did not work out well. It ended up very sticky and I tossed it away although I should have used it to insulate the water pipes under the Hab.

1400: Lunch was Raman instant noodles and tea. I had two packets which had enough Sodium to Terraform most of Mars.

All this stuff is great raw material for a story. And who better to write it than…

The first sf writer on Mars

The first sf writer on Mars

Levine Reaches Mars

David Levine, faned, Hugo-winning author, and now simulated Mars explorer, has posted his first journal entry from the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station.

David begins by admitting that finding the MDRS is almost as hard as working the ballistic math in a Heinlein novel:

We did get slightly lost in that last stretch — we were following a vague and extremely sketchy map drawn on the back of a cash register receipt by the clerk at the Hollow Mountain — but we were only half an hour behind schedule when the white cylinder of the hab, familiar to all of us from photographs even though we’d never been here before, peeked out from behind a rust-colored rock formation.

There’s a break in the simulation while the old and new crew are in transition, for orientation, move-in and setup:

The current crew (MDRS-87) greeted us warmly and gave us a whirlwind tour of the hab, complete with safety instructions, an EVA suiting demo, a short hike to a nearby fossil bed, and instructions on dealing with the temperamental ATVs (every one different from the others).

As you might expect, it’s by far the most colorful post from anyone in the crew (links to the others are here.)

David says the Martian simulation will resume on Monday:

We aren’t really on Mars yet. But we’re definitely a long way from home.

P.S. David is also doing updates via Twitter: @MDRSupdates

Space Shuttle’s Computer
Is How Many Dog Years Old?

The Mars Society’s San Diego chapter gives a surprising answer to the question “Does the Space Shuttle’s Computer Really Run on Just One Megabyte of RAM? “

It’s true: The brain of NASA’s primary vehicle has the computational power of an IBM 5150, that ’80s icon that goes for $20 at yard sales.

… Besides, a complete overhaul would be horrendously expensive. The GPC’s oftware would have to be completely reconfigured for a modern computer and tested until proven flawless.

For proof that you shouldn’t fix a space computer if it ain’t broke, consider Russia’s Soyuz space capsule, which since 1974 has been running Argon-16 flight-computer software with just six kilobytes of RAM. In 2003 the Russians rewrote some of the spacecraft’s software, which experts suspect led to its subsequent crash-landing in a desert in Kazakhstan.

[Via Chronicles of the Dawn Patrol]