Polesitter 2 - Angie letter pt. 1: On Australia and how unbeatable NASA is, with reference to solar sails in The Amalgamated Aggromulator

  • Aug. 11, 2015, 6:53 p.m.
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(Long title. Start a naming convention in haste, repent at leisure.)

I won’t have an excuse to mention it later, so: a movie to get in DVD - almost certainly by ordering it from Japan, as I did, because it’s as yet unreleased internationally - is Hayabusa: The Long Voyage Home. I found out about it because of the Woomera connection. It is a beautiful movie, one of the clearest about a scientific enterprise I’ve ever seen. It’s about their probe that landed on an asteroid and made it home with samples.
It did really well at home, when a country battered by tsunamis and the Fukushima disaster needed a way to feel good about itself.
I will be saying something about how beating NASA at something may really be no great shakes, but, with the reputation, still - it is never a bad thing for the people of a nation to know that they beat NASA at something. (And this sort of competition, and the achievement, is somewhat in the world of dreams.)

I’ll now be saying some things pertinent to how that’s possible. (And saying some impertinent things about Australia, that should have made me more nervous about bombing Angie with them than I was about the last email. I didn’t even notice. I was rolling . . .)

Here’s the first part of the letter.

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I am still slightly dazed that I popped off that intemperate email to you with the space report. But it got me fired up.

And I posted about Woomera, so you know what it got me fired up in combination with. I am whole new varieties of irrational emotional non-objective in this area. See, I conceal nothing from you.

You can also generalize that out to a special view of Australia. Australia is not just any country to me. But in my own peculiar way.

Since I sent you that, a saner view has me feeling a bit silly.
But - as you are very likely still rather tied up with teething and sleep deprivation - and as I myself have miles to go before I manage to sleep tonight, for residual coffee reasons, so it’s as I’m passing you at a distance, close enough for semaphore - rather than waiting on your possibly-soon reply, I may as well give you more detail on the continuing silliness . . .

It’ll give you more material to mock me with, should you be minded to. It’s only fair. :-)

My favorite idea at the moment - which there are probably things wrong with, maybe even deal-killers - takes the frustration I showed about Australia and space and combines it with much more recent frustration about solar sails.

I’m going to have to explain a bit about both first.

(. . . [BLEEP], I just realized how much I’ve just bitten off to make this combination clear. How insomniac am I?)

The frustration with Australia part is not the important part, and I’ve probably made enough clear already in that one email . . . except to say that the wilting of the Australian space thing reminds me of some things I’ve read over the years, about, for example, biotechnology investment in Australia. There’s this weird thing that I’ve read happens with it, where “we can’t compete with America”, or “if there’s anything to this, America or Europe will do it better, so there’s no point going into it.” So people can’t get the funding or the backing.

Which......... faugh.

I of course haven’t been in Australia in ages. I’m sure that it’s not really still like the old days, where there was this residual feeling that Australia was a sort of tag-end to Great Britain, or that, as a country, Australia was really deep down just a desert sheep station that had just started a ladies’ auxiliary. That was starting to fade in the ‘70s.
But, still, when I read, when I follow it, Australia can seem like . . . Australia will never be caught being a tall poppy if Australians have anything to say about it.

Which (stated however, in a different light) is something that I’ve loved about Australia. And I mean ravingly loved. The . . . do I call it national modesty? America has NEVER had that, not even in the colonial days we didn’t. It’s endearing. It can make Australia really sane in the way it deals with international cooperation (or often, or it has). I still remember the almost supernaturally evenhanded way that Australian TV covered an Olympics way back when. (Whereas over here? . . . Let’s not dwell on that.) And so on.
But - in some contexts - it can also make me want to claw my eyes out.

Australia . . . has . . . everything. You know you do.
And Australia’s got the chance and the room to do a lot of things better and smarter than a lot of places manage overseas. It can do things for itself, if it wants to.
Like, with that bioscience sector stuff I remember reading about: what, the U.S. and the E.U. and Japan are what they are so Australia can’t do anything? Bioscience work is particular. (Might as well say that any one person might as well not go into it because of all the people already there.) Or, closer to the current topic: With 24 million people, Australia can’t afford NASA? well, who was talking about it doing full-blown NASA? Australia is sure the bloody hell capable of doing something.
If it wants to. If it decides to.

And as for doing better than NASA in some way sometime . . . Well.
NASA can have its head stuffed up its ass sometimes. And if a clever country of 24 million cannot on occasion do better than a 320-million-person country when the latter has substantially lost the plot, then I’m misunderstanding something. :-)

Never even mind my very personal wanting to see Woomera a thriving concern again like God and Len Beadell intended . . . my frustrated imagination has recently wanted to cast Australia as a David. A David who could make all the Goliaths look like idiots, or more like who could make the Goliaths notice and wake up from their idiocy.

There’s one way that comes to mind.

First, I need to fly around a couple of other things.

There are lots of strings that lead to Big Space in my head.

+++ I think - it’s my topic-slogan - that we’d be more likely to be able to actually do something about any dangerous incoming comet or asteroid if “we had a spaceship behind the comet” - or more literally if we already had good multipurpose spaceships scattered around the solar system for various purposes. Trying to suddenly throw something together in front of it in time, starting after we detect it, on the other hand . . .
+++ I believe that broadening our options, and getting to those options earlier rather than later, is one way we can definitely help the future. (With anything else, how do we know what they’ll want or need?).
+++ I believe that mining the atmospheres of Saturn and Uranus for He3 fusion fuel, if it can all be made to work, would give us a lot of time in which to think about what to do about any other problems.
+++ I believe that humanity could stand to find some new hobbies.
+++ I believe that dealing with space as if it’s real rather than wallpaper broadens humanity’s reality and is psychologically good for it.
+++ I believe in the highway department.

NASA itself only appears to agree with me. Really, the space agencies aren’t naturally what we tend to think, or what they should be. They are those things only under very special circumstances, that we aren’t maintaining.


Do you know what solar sails are?

It’s a mode of spacecraft design where big incredibly thin sails catch the very faint physical pressure of light from the sun.

The big deal about this is that every other way of moving in space is the equivalent of standing on a railway cart that is covered with bricks and throwing bricks backward as hard as you can to make the cart move forward. This is described by something called the “rocket equation.” It’s very logically confining. Because, if you want to speed the cart up by very much, you need a whole lot of bricks to throw - you need most of the weight of your card to be bricks - but a pile of bricks like that is very heavy, so throwing bricks moves you less the more bricks you have . . . It means that everything is very expensive, and that a lot of things turn out to be impossible, and that other things turn out to be necessary . . . It is a pain in the tuchus.

But, with solar sails, you do not have to carry your fuel with you. Because the sun is pushing on your sails.

I am deeply regretting a long-gone OD entry of mine that I cannot link to!
Suffice it to say that, for one thing, in theory, solar sails could make it possible to move large cargoes (just use a vast enough sail attached to them) around the inner solar system, and without having to wait on those bloody orbital launch windows, or without waiting on them nearly as much. Because the acceleration imparted by sunlight on the sail may be very, very small compared to a rocket - but it is constant acceleration. And it doesn’t have to push that giant load of fuel that the solar sail isn’t carrying.

This possibility is not as big a deal as cheaper access to orbit from Earth would be - that’s the biggest bottleneck - but it makes a lot more suddenly possible. It opens up whole new areas of logistics.
Catch a few of those kinds of things, which theoretically open up a lot, and after a while the opening up isn’t only theoretical.

So, surely this is strategically important to work on. There are a whole lot of difficulties, puzzles, steps.

Well. JAXA, Japan’s space agency, has already flown a solar-sail probe called IKAROS, God bless ‘em, and it actually took a trip. But the tech is primitive. A small sail unfurled by centrifugal force, by spinning the craft. Again, surely . . .

I will spare you my years of starry-eyed hopeful waiting for NASA to have a solar-sail project.

As I write, the Planetary Society, a nonprofit, has flown their own preliminary tinkertoy, basically repeating a smaller version of what JAXA did. They’ll now do a slightly bigger model down the line. Whoopie.

But NASA had something called the Solar Sail Demonstrator planned, and nicknamed “Sunjammer.” Yes, of course NASA would want to work on solar sails!

Well, they [BLEEP]ed it, very casually. I found out quite by accident. (Most of the web pages about Sunjammer are still up! You’d never know.)
Sunjammer was scheduled to be carried up in a rocket this year, along with a lot of other things. The company making the solar sail asked NASA and its associated group of companies for help manufacturing the spacecraft that would carry the solar sail away from the rocket to its orbital takeoff/unfurling point. And nobody at NASA or the various companies would help them! So the solar sail company tried to also make the spacecraft itself despite having no experience making spacecraft (!!!), and they predictably fell behind. And so NASA pulled the plug.

So I raged at NASA - what the hell?? why this strange careless oblivious fumble? why isn’t NASA behaving like developing solar sails is strategically important to it?!?

And, of course - I refreshed myself on the history and thought about it . . . NASA has no such strategy or awareness, institutionally. NASA can’t.

I wrote this to someone on Facebook:

This white-knuckling about things for decades seems to me
to bargain us down to getting excited about finding a toenail
paring - because often there isn’t even a toenail-paring project
at the moment. With solar sails, or with nuclear rockets, or etc.,
JAXA has already demonstrated a small solar-sail probe;
what we need isn’t more demonstrator modules (although
I am excited about each one), what we need is actual
development of the technology into more working forms, and up
to systems able to handle large sizes and masses. And the
timeline for that ever happening is . . . wait a minute, is there
a timeline anywhere?

Even in NASA’s collective mind?
There’s a weird mismatch between what we want from NASA -
between what we might expect from extrapolating from the early
days of development and the things that the real NASA is
institutionally able to do or perhaps allowed to even propose.

There is no intrinsic ongoing “We Will Build Greater-Capacity
Systems” segment of NASA’s budget or alleged “strategic plan” -
it’s all current mission areas and specific mission-support
projects and isolated small-tech fiddling and science clients.
And there’s no privileged status to NASA’s budget since Nixon
stopped it.
NASA last “went long” on a real general-capacity expansion
with the shuttles - and got very high costs, failures, and the
program ended. Now, NASA putts along on whatever things
manage to get some senators interested. The organizational
leadership itself has often said remarkable things to the effect
that America has many priorities these days and the national
budget is tight and space might be one of the luxuries. NASA’s
bigger ideas usually turn out to be just something that some
NASA researchers know about - that could in theory
happen someday.

I’m big in favor of government space opening the way,
strategically - but that requires a space program that we actually
do not have and that we need to get - a space program that
can actually have a long-term multistage strategy. Unless
something very specific is changed about how NASA runs itself
and the way it is funded and its mandate . . . we’re daydreaming.
The “why don’t they . . .” aspirational NASA is a mirage that
distracts us from demanding NASA.
(Like having a highway department that stays within its
budget, and that doesn’t build highways, just a few busy
local streets, and occasionally sends a single car out into the
boonies. There are some budget savings, because of the lack
of highway-building. The private sector sneers at its inefficiency
and talks vaguely and large, but doesn’t actually fill in the gap
because there are no highways and no customers live way out
there yet because of this lack of highways. The whole economy
stays in town. In this situation - instead of daydreaming about
steamrollers - the thing to do is change the highway department
to one that actually fricking builds highways. Or to at least
notice the problem.)

NASA is not authorized to tell Congress what it’s going to need -
NASA is not authorized to propose big moves - NASA is not
authorized to be the part of America’s mind that thinks about
space. That would be Congress. (Which is not a bunch of space
experts or space-interested people.)
NASA did not take its eye off the ball with Sunjammer. It has
no eye. It has no ball.

That much of the email, not just for venting, but for laying the ghost that says that if something that has never been done could be done then NASA would be all over it. There is room. For something.

What I was building up to is in the next entry . . .


Last updated August 12, 2015

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