Monday, October 11, 2010

Los 33 and Sir Richard's Teeth

Los 33, trapped in the hellish underground deep beneath a mountain in the Atacama Desert. This is not a “Journey to the Center of the Earth” alongside the dapper Brendan Frasier and his hot co-star finding an underground oasis of life abounding within the underground chambers of a sound stage. Shades of the "Genesis Cave" ala Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn without the dramatic discovery that indeed cadet James T. Kirk beat the Kobayashi Maru scenario by cheating. For sure Los 33 will cheat death, but they will not have cheated either Ricardo Montalban nor will they ride from their purgatory via a Hollywood lava tube. They will arrive to the surface on Wednesday because a dedicated army of professionals, the best in the business, came to their rescue renewing our belief in technology and the human spirit.

But how did they get there in the first place?

Every country in the world digs holes in planet earth to extract the wealth locked beneath our feet. Whether they be the underground network of caves in Afghanistan used to dig for sapphires, coal mines in Pennsylvania, blood diamonds in Africa, open pit alumina mines in Hungry, or even the drilling for oil in the Gulf. Each is a different industry, each driving a market, each extracting a significant toll on the planet along with the wealth it extracts for its owners. Each brings technology, extreme conditions, and amazing individuals together in a macabre dance of prosperity for society with the risk of damage to the environment, while employing individuals who are doing incredible and dangerous things, for very little compensation.

Aside from the massive spill and deaths of the explorers aboard Deep Water Horizon, based on our love affair with oil, we are seeing the aftermath of our love affair with the aluminum can. As I drink my 23 oz Arizona Tea, which I purchased two for $2 dollars, another levy threatens to break and a sea of red sludge will blanket a few more small cities in Hungry. Apparently 4000 people are on the scene working to build a new retaining wall, the president of the company that owned the red sludge has been arrested and charged with negligence, and Hungarian government has taken over the company. Do a search on Karst collapse...see also man-made collapse...see also sink hole. It seems we have whole cities that are sinking and flooding with red ooze and other types of ooze as a result of mining activities. Yet we bore on...fields of untapped wealth...awaiting discovery and harvest.

So just yesterday Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic smiles into the camera declaring the success and safe glide back to landing of the first commercial spacecraft, “Space Ship Two”, after it's captive release from the carrier ship. Branson emerges as the great explorer. Somewhat fitting in a way since it is Columbus Day here in the United States. Come on people it’s 2010. Even the Hollywood version of Space Exploration, “To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before” hasn’t been achieved by this feat. The Virgin Galactic success comes 48 years after USAF Pilot Robert White did the same thing in the X-15 aircraft...he was the real explorer. I do not remember his flight because I wasn’t born yet. But I do remember the first captive release and glide back of the Shuttle “Enterprise” off the back of a 747 aircraft in 1977; I was thirteen and wrote a report on the Shuttle for my 8th Grade Science class. That was 33 years ago. Now, as I write this and the US emerges from the recession (or so we are told), thousands of NASA workers at Cape Canaveral are being told it’s time to go home, all because there seems to be a myth surrounding what is real engineering and what is Hollywood fantasy.

If the administration believes we can explore space on the shininess of Sir Richard’s teeth we have evidence of the real problem in our Country, which is a total lack of understanding of basic science and engineering principals. What it really takes to go to space. Sir Richard and his followers are capitalizing on 50 year old technology. Their eye is on the potential profit from high dollar thrill rides. If they really have signed up 700 adventures at $200,000 a seat, that’s $140 million dollars, which is incidentally, the cost of about one third of a single space shuttle mission. Why? Because two completely separate things are being achieved but the package is sold together.

The line separating the upper atmosphere from space has been arbitrarily drawn at 50 miles. Perhaps NASA made a mistake when in 2004 they awarded the brave pilots of the X-15 program astronaut wings. The precedent was set. If you venture above 50 miles you join the likes of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. Other than the fact that White and the others were brave test pilots who will live immortality in the hearts of aircraft and space enthusiasts, they fall short of the reaching an altitude to do much of anything useful in space. It’s practically straight up and straight down on these missions. To do anything useful an orbit must be achieved. Beyond that, one must escape the gravitational pull of the earth. Virgin Galactic will achieve neither so we shouldn’t applaud their successes any more than the success of a new roller coaster at Six Flags. I’m not going to completely bash investment in commercial space. SpaceX, for instance, is moving forward, however that is a longer and much more difficult story, and still includes a large influx of government support.

But doing useful things in space is also somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Some may view the scientific frontiers that have opened up as not useful to those of us who remain on earth. By the way I’m not going to attempt to justify NASA’s budget because they weighed in on the Chilean mining incident, but it is nice that those in the business of the extreme can come together in times of crises.

But space exploration, manned or unmanned, cannot be achieved because there is no profit in it. Not for decades to come…50 years is a nice number because we are on the brink of seeing commercial profit from space tourism 50 years after it was first achieved. This means that even with the technology explosion of the past century we did not improve our ability to move from government sponsored exploration to commercial enterprise by a full order of magnitude. It took 200 years from Columbus setting foot in the New World to the Hudson Bay Company turning a profit from his endeavor. The promise of riches to come took 200 years to generate commercial interest to do something useful.

So space exploration is not ready to turn a profit. Yes we are undergoing a serious explosion in technology, which will help. But more government investment is still necessary. Profits do not materialize in terms of cash. They materialize in the form of new technology and most importantly new maps. That’s what explorers do. They map. In order to map they create new technology. Maps help us explore further. They push us to go beyond the map, to go beyond the world’s end. And they are pushing us higher, faster, farther, and in the case of Deep Water Horizon and the Chilean miners, deeper.

But before the mining machines show up on Pandora and we have to displace the Na’vi people we must explore and draw maps. In the past two years we have witnessed the discovery of huge pockets of ice on the moon. The promise is for the moon to be our first stage into the solar system. By mining the moon we can leave the resources necessary to travel into the solar system here on Earth. The discovery of water was a major first step. Although miners are still many years away, nothing will happen without more government investment. If that investment doesn’t come from us then it will come from other countries vying for a piece of the action and the glory. We will be left on the sidelines.

Not since Apollo 13, during our voyages and conquest of the moon, has the world held its breath as humans now reach down to rescue the miners trapped at 6000 feet. They might as well be on another planet. By most accounts it was easier to bring the crew of Apollo 13 home. At least it didn’t take three months. But indeed we have learned several lessons about the extreme. With technology and the human spirit we can still tame mountains…but not without the maps made by the explorers first.