John Young, one of America's premier astronauts, has always been known for his blunt and outspoken nature on the matters that mean the most to him. Fortunately for us, one of his primary loves is space exploration. He has written, IMHBCO, a brilliant case for its continuation.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
The BIG Picture
- an essay by John Young
In the last 25 years of NASA exploration we have learned a lot about our Earth's relation to the Solar System. In particular, we have discovered that our place is dynamically evolving. This normal evolution will certainly produce bad events on Earth for humans.
Historical Volcanic Activity:
Active volcanoes are very common events on our Solar System satellites and planets. The Smithsonian Institute Global Volcanism Program lists over 1500 Holocene volcanoes. Those were the discovered volcanoes that have erupted on earth in the last 10,000 years. As a former lunar field geologist I was able to see many of these volcanoes on field trips in the United States in the '60s. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo put 8 cubic kilometers of ash in the atmosphere. The worldwide temperature temporarily lowered 1 degree F from 1991 to 1993. The geologic record shows that volcanoes that produce 1000 cubic kilometers of ash or greater happen about twice per 100,000 years on Earth. The last discovered was the volcano Toba in Sumatra. It erupted about 76,000 years ago. Toba put 2800 cubic kilometers of ash in the atmosphere. In theory, the worldwide temperatures in the temperate zones must have been below freezing year around for several years in a row. If that happens today, tens of millions of humans will starve. Due to the frequency of these volcanic eruptions, the chances are about 1 in 1000 that in the next 50 years a volcano will erupt more than 1000 cubic kilometers of ash on planet Earth.
Historical Asteroid/Comet Impact Activity:
The Solar System satellites and planets are covered with impacts. The Earth surface erosion and dynamic plate motions cover up the Earth's impact craters. We have been able to discover only about 150 impacts on Earth so far. As one who has seen many relatively new, large, bright-rayed craters on the lunar far side, I am very concerned about the need to prevent these events. [Michael Paine defined] the need for funding in Australia for an Australian Spaceguard Program, stating that the chance for a 1 kilometer diameter asteroid impacting Earth is 1 in 2000 in the next 50 years. The impact speed will be about 70,000 km/hr. The reference noted that this impact would not be an 'extinction event' but perhaps 1/4 of the Earth's population would die -- 1.5 billion of us -- and civilization would collapse. The Spaceguard Survey goal is finding 90% of the 1 kilometer diameter or larger objects in the next 10 years. To meet that goal, about 400 Earth-crossers per year must be discovered. From July 1997 through June 1998, Spaceguard astronomers found 38 new asteroids 1 kilometer diameter or larger. The Spaceguard survey must be beefed up with dollars and people.
Historical Solar Activity:
Can we count on the sun? Two hundred thousand year old Greenland ice cores show that the Earth's temperature varied between 3 and 5 degrees C in 20 years time. No doubt, those bad old Neanderthals were using too many CFC'S? Not likely. In recorded history, the 'Little Ice Age' was centered on solar activity when sunspots declined and the sun was quiet for about 70 years. Sunspots declined in 1615 and reached an all time low in 1670.
What Can We Do?
The amazing fact is that, purely by accident, all the things that we must do to put humans permanently on the Moon, Mars, and suitable Earth crossing asteroids are exactly the kinds of things we will need to do to save lives on Earth and our civilization when bad event(s) occur.
What Are We Doing?
We know that to live and work on the Moon or Mars, we will require the following:
Reliable, Uninterruptable Power:We can readily achieve this with the Space Power Reactor which for 5 Curries of launch radiation will supply 750 kWh reliably on the Moon or Mars. Why does not the United States require that our electric power to be reliable and uninterruptible as a matter of national security and national survival? Lives are lost every year when electric power fails. On a high priority, Space Power Reactor development must be supported and accelerated with upgraded power capabilities.
Terraforming:To survive on the Moon and Mars we must grow our own food in totally closed-loop systems. We continue to demonstrate how to do this. A National Geographic article recently reported that 80 bushels of wheat an acre is a great crop. Under IR light emitting diodes to avoid heat, our wheat produces 600 bushels an acre in 75 days. And, Dr. Bugbee has proposed a new higher production wheat with shorter growing times. Our engineering development demonstrations of our Terraforming ability should be supported and accelerated on a high priority basis.
Closed Loop Environments:Humans on other places in the solar system will recycle everything they eat, drink and breathe. The recent 90-day tests at JSC and the future Bioplex are demonstrating these capabilities. These closed-loop systems will be controlled by sophisticated computer software with provisions for manual maintenance and repair. The Bioplex facility should be accelerated on a high priority basis.
Transportation:To go to Mars, fast heavy lift will be required. It is possible to prove out the better and cheaper but slower methods of transportation. From the standpoint of human radiation, fast heavy lift will be far better. Magnum Booster development and Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz's rocket engine developments should be accelerated on a high priority to transport people and hardware to these places.
Propellant Production on the Other Satellites and Planets:To minimize the weight requirements to Mars, we will develop automatic factories that produce and load rocket propellant into the return rockets. The automatic production of propellants using the materials on Earth-crossing asteroids will be very helpful in allowing people to work successfully on Earth-crossing asteroids. Needless to say, if an Earth-crossing asteroid has Earth's name on it, moving the asteroid out of a collision orbit with its own propellant and its own rocket guidance and control package is far better than the 'Armageddon' approach which won't work. 'In-situ' propellant development on the Moon and Mars should be accelerated.
Pressure Suits:To work on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, reliable, lower weight pressure suits will be needed. We now have two Advanced Pressure suits at the Johnson Space Center. To work in very cold temperatures on Earth, caused by volcanoes, asteroids, or the sun, the layering and insulation of these new pressure suits will be a natural for human operations when Earth gets cold. Who knows, even our heated gloves might be required. Acceleration of Lunar/Mars pressure suit development must be pursued on a high priority basis.
Very Big Event Scenarios:
Unfortunately there can be very big Earth events such as giant volcanoes or very large asteroid impacts or combinations about which we can do nothing. We will probably be a long time making the scientific and technical progress we will need to cope with these events. When we learn how to live and work on other places in the solar system, partial planetary evacuation of Earth will become possible.
The human race is at total war. Our enemy is ignorance, pure and simple. The last 25 years of NASA's Solar System exploration including Earth is telling us what we need to do to preserve our species. This new knowledge is useless unless we act on it. Large volcanoes on Earth, giant impacts on Earth, or unreliable solar activity cannot be ignored. Historical statistics show that these events are likely in our lifetimes or the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. Knowing what we know now, we are being irresponsible in our failure to make the scientific and technical progress we will need for protecting our newly discovered severely threatened and probably endangered species -- us. NASA is not about the 'Adventure of Human Space Exploration,' we are in the deadly serious business of saving the species. All Human Exploration's bottom line is about preserving our species over the long haul.
It is recommended that we:
- Beef up Spaceguard with dollars and people.
- Develop uninterruptable power supplies such as Space Power Reactors on a high priority basis.
- Accelerate the Bioplex schedule to learn how to best Terraform and 100 percent recycle food, water, and waste.
- Accelerate the development of heavy lift such as the Magnum Booster and Dr. Chang-Diaz's powerful rocket engine that we need for rapid space travel.
- Accelerate the development of the Automatic Robotic factories that will produce rocket propellant on the asteroids and other places in the Solar System.
- Accelerate the development of Advanced Pressure Suits to provide for "routine" operations on other places in the Solar System.
John W. Young
Associate Director (Technical)
NASA Johnson Space Center