Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Final Frontier

I was never a great student, but I was always a reader, and I tended to latch fiercely onto anything about exploration. One of the first books I recall reading was Roy Chapman Andrew's account of exploring the Gobi Desert. I stuck with late-19th and early 20th Century explorers through elementary school. In middle school and high school I veered off to stories by WWII fighter pilots. In my pre-adulthood, which lasted much longer than it should have, I was a Star Trek fan. So, I've always been interested in the idea of exploring new worlds, and I cling to the hope that someone will come along to show me a good reason to fling people into space.

I stumbled on an article this morning entitled "Why Explore Mars?". Sadly, it offered no new rationale for making a trip beyond Earth's atmosphere. It is ironic that proponents of manned space travel who are quick to accuse space flight critics of a lack of imagination show so little of that trait themselves. Instead, they offer up the same old tired arguments which don't stand a chance of winning the simplest cost-benefit analysis contest. Today's Discovery News article rolls out the same ideas we've been hearing for decades now: Spin-off benefits, and preserving the human species by finding new worlds before we wear out this one. It really doesn't seem worthwhile delving into those dead-ends yet again. Instead, let's look at some genuinely out-of-the-box innovations that could make space travel more practical and palatable.

First up, let's examine who we've been sending up there. Mostly, they're approaching-middle-age white guys with engineering degrees. More importantly, they are average-to-large size. If we are going to get serious about getting people all the way to Mars, it really seems like we should be giving shoe size more priority in astronaut recruitment. I'm wondering if our NASA talent scouts have spent any serious time considering this issue. I say we help them pack for a trip to the Congo and the Kalahari where the little people live.

  Photo: Wikipedia
The photographic evidence makes it an open and shut case about where we should be getting our astronauts. The guy in the middle is pretty much in the mold of our current space travelers. Quite obviously, with the right selection process and for the same investment in high-tech life support systems, we could put a whole family in the place of that one guy on Mars. Of course, we also have to consider the possibility that no amount of incentives, financial or other, will convince the little people that being rocketed into space is a better idea than staying right where they are.

But wait, there's more. Given the progress being made in bio-engineering there's really no reason we can't downsize those engineers. In a couple generations we could have Cal Tech grads even smaller than those folks that aren't under a pith helment. If more incentives are needed we could start by making the cramming of bodies into phone booths an Olympic event. We might even consider applying the downsizing to the population in general, thus making room for two or three times the current population of the Earth. Talk about Spin-off benefits!

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