Thursday, October 25, 2007

Revamping NASA

Okay, it's time to downsize NASA. In many ways this organization has performed very well, with the highlight of their efforts being the dramatic Moon landings in 1969-1972. Since then, NASA has completely rested on its laurells and saddling the American public with a multi-billion dollar series of boon-doggles called "Space Shuttles" which has had a 25% failure rate and killed 14 American Astronauts, the worst astronautic debacle in world history. However, NASA remained wedded to the Space Shuttle program instead of pursuing more logical, cost effective, and useful programs like constructing solar power satellites to feed Earth's energy needs or even more simple ideas like magnetic levitation launch instead of the horrifically expensive and dangerous chemical launches from Florida that NASA engineers and leaders seem to think is still "cutting edge". In fact, the only decent technology to come from NASA in the last 20 years was the Ion Engine, which only saw birth because most of the work didn't "challenge" funds for the Shuttle program.

Now is the time to boldly reshape NASA into the organization that it should be. Too hide-bound to actually produce significant results, this organization should be re-worked into a think tank only. A good example for this recommended change is the failure of adopting the "TransHab" by NASA leadership. A brilliant and innovative idea on getting large objects into space, NASA briefly funded the effort to put large inflatable Kevlar-like sections of the space station into space instead of using heavy metal frame objects. NASA killed the project in 2000 but a bright-eyed and innovative wealthy industrialist (by the name of Robert Bigelow) bought the rights to the TransHab and hired more than a dozen ex-NASA professionals to make it work. The rest is soon to be history.

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Bigelow in many ways is the ideal guy to get the average American into space and make the use of space commercially viable. His efforts include building a hotel in space as well as microgravity labs in orbit, allowing scientists to do research for far less than the 100 billion dollar "International Space Station", and it will be done within 5 years. For a (cheap) fee of $12 million dollars you get to spend 4 weeks in orbit at his space hotel, built out of TransHab modules.

NASAs complete (and foolish) failure in utilizing TransHab, and Bigelows' showing them how it can be done, has proven the
ineffectiveness of overall NASA operations and leadership. Tom Clancy once said that NASA was an airline with 55,000 employees and 6 aircraft.....and he was right. NASA has become a complete waste of money and should be revamped.

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Other very important efforts that should be pursued by NASA should be getting commercial solar power online, and abandoning the ridiculous and absurdly dangerous "trip to Mars" by humans (another 100 billion dollar boon-doggle). Robots can do the job of exploring our solar system just fine and in light of NASAs disastrous failures in the Space Shuttle program (and subsequent deaths) that organization should not be allowed to do manned missions until its safety record is significantly increased.

Finally, NASA should focus more on a more plausible and cost-effective program of building solar power collectors on the Moon. Americans are not going to continually fund NASA to the tune of tens of billions of dollars without seeing significant results from this group of scientists and leaders. Moon solar collectors are the real legacy that NASA can leave Mankind, and here's how:

The key to a prosperous world is clean, safe, low-cost electrical energy, according to University of Houston physicist David Criswell. And his idea for how to get it is literally out of this world. For more than 20 years, Criswell has been formulating the plans and the justification for building bases on the moon to collect solar energy and beam it through space for use by electricity-hungry Earthlings. Criswell estimates that by the year 2050, a prosperous population of 10 billion would require about 20 terawatts of power, or about three to five times the amount of commercial power currently produced.

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The moon receives more than 13,000 terawatts of solar power, and harnessing just one percent could satisfy Earth's power needs, he says. The challenge is to build a commercial system that can extract a tiny portion of the immense solar power available and deliver the energy to consumers on earth at a reasonable price. "A priority for me is getting people to realize that the lunar power system may be the only option for sustainable global prosperity," Criswell says.

Criswell's lunar-based system to supply solar power to Earth is based on building large banks of solar cells on the moon to collect sunlight and send it back to receivers on Earth via a microwave beam. Solar cells are electronic devices that gather sunlight and convert it into usable electricity. The microwave energy collected on Earth is then converted to electricity that can be fed into the local electric grid. Such a system could easily supply the 20 terawatts or more of electricity required by 10 billion people, Criswell says.

The system is environmentally friendly, safe to humans, and reliable since it is not affected by clouds or rain, either on the Earth or the moon, which essentially has no weather. The moon continuously receives sunlight, except once a year for about three hours during a full lunar eclipse, when stored energy could be used to maintain power on Earth, Criswell adds.

The system could be built on the moon from lunar materials and operated on the moon and Earth using existing technologies, he says, which would greatly reducing the cost of the operation. He estimates that a lunar solar power system could begin delivering commercial power about 10 years after program start-up. Technology under development at UH increases the options for successfully building a lunar power base. UH researchers at the Texas Center for Superconductivity and Advanced Materials (TcSAM) are developing nanotechnology techniques that could transform the lunar soil into solar cells.

"The raw materials needed to make solar cells are present in the moon's regolith," says Alex Freundlich, research professor of physics, who has examined lunar material to determine whether it contains the necessary ingredients for making solar cells. He, research scientist Charles Horton, Alex Ignatiev, director of TcSAM, and a team of NASA-JSC and industry scientists also have used "simulated" moon soil to determine how to go about manufacturing
the solar cell devices on the moon.

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"Our plan is to use an autonomous lunar rover to move across the moon's surface, to melt the regolith into a very thin film of glass and then to deposit thin film solar cells on that lunar glass substrate. An array of such lunar solar cells could then be used as a giant solar energy converter generating electricity," Freundlich says.

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Finally, solar power beamed from the Moon can also feed a potential NASA sponsored Mars expedition using solar sail driven craft, dramatically cutting down travel time to the Red Planet and fuel costs.

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Hopefully someone in Washington, D.C. will wake up to that fact that NASA is failing and dramatically change the entire organization for the betterment of all Mankind, instead of letting it falter and move into the past as another man-lead group that eventually and ultimately failed in its' mandate.

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