June 22, 2018

Review: Beyond Earth by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix

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What’s next in space exploration? We are literally at a crossroads now at the end of the second decade of the the 21st century, a time of crisis and opportunity. Sure, technology has come a long way, as we all carry exponentially more computing power in our pockets than was used to take humans to the Moon.

We also seem, however, to be stalled in low Earth orbit, as the moving goal post of humans on Mars always seems 20 years away…

We read an interesting road map that just might show us the way to get space exploration rolling again. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix out from Pantheon Press is an exciting look at what could be. Both authors draw off of their respective and extensive backgrounds in space exploration technology and the very latest developments and innovations in space flight.

And this sort of optimism is coming none to soon. Already, the gap between the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program and the promise of SLS—another moving goal post—is longer than the transitional span between the final Apollo era mission (The Apollo-Soyuz test project) and the launch of space shuttle Columbia on STS-1. The James Webb Space Telescope is facing yet another delay, and one by one, our eyes in the outer solar system are going dark, as Cassini, Juno and New Horizons all wrap up their respective missions. And while it’s true that NASA is set to receive another budget boost in 2018, we’re stuck in a flip-flop loop from going to Mars, then the Moon, then back again with every change of administration.

Beyond Earth looks at the overall big picture, and what new players like SpaceX and their Mars or Bust vision might mean. I particularly like how the book flips from one chapter to the next between a future science fiction narrative versus modern science reality—there’s enough idea to provide sci-fi fodder here for any budding writer.

The core tenet, however driving Beyond Earth is not Mars, but a much more distant goal: the case for colonizing Saturn’s large moon, Titan. The authors correctly point out that the large moon has an atmosphere thick enough that bulky pressure suits aren’t needed… and dense enough that a wing suit equipped human could fly. There’s lots of methane and ethane fuel just lying around on the surface, and lots of available carbon for us carbon-based lifeforms. The chief problems presented by Titan are its chilly temperatures and immense distance from the Sun. Big problems for sure, but not insurmountable.

We still maintain that we need to start practicing with a self sustaining colony in Antarctica… a harsh but still much human-friendlier location than anywhere in the solar system.

The book also delves into real ideas for exotic virtual particle drives, ships that begin with a thrust gentler than a puff of air but eventually build up to enormous velocities. And while such a system might still be very much on the drawing board. Spacecraft such as NASA’s Dawn mission at Ceres used a similar Xenon-fueled ion drive to build up a small but dependable thrust.

be sure to read Beyond Earth to get a look at where 21st century space exploration may (hopefully) be headed.

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