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Monday, June 13, 2016
Reading List: The Religion War
- Adams, Scott.
The Religion War.
Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2004
This a sequel to the author's 2001 novel
God's Debris. In that work,
which I considered profound and made my hair stand on
end on several occasions, a package delivery man happens to
encounter the smartest man in the world and finds his own
view of the universe and his place in it up-ended, and
his destiny to be something he'd never imagined. I believe
that it's only because Scott Adams is also the creator of
that he is not appreciated as one of the most original and
insightful thinkers of our time. His
blog has been consistently right
about the current political season in the U.S. while all of the
double-domed mainstream pundits have fallen on their faces.
Forty years have passed since the events in God's Debris.
The erstwhile delivery man has become the Avatar, thinking at a
higher level and perceiving patterns which elude his contemporaries.
These talents have made him one of the wealthiest people on Earth,
but he remains unknown, dresses shabbily, wearing a red plaid blanket
around his shoulders. The world has changed. A leader, al-Zee,
arising in the Palestinian territories, has achieved his goal of
eliminating Israel and consolidated the Islamic lands into a new
Great Caliphate. Sitting on a large fraction of the world's oil supply,
he funds “lone wolf”, modest scale terror attacks
always deniable and never so large as to invite reprisal. With the
advent of model airplanes and satellite guidance able to deliver
explosives to a target with precision over a long range,
nobody can feel immune from the reach of the Caliphate.
In 2040, General Horatio Cruz came to power as Secretary of War of
the Christian Alliance, with all of the forces of NATO at his command.
The political structures of the western nations remained in
place, but they had delegated their defence to Cruz, rendering
him effectively a dictator in the military sphere. Cruz was not a
man given to compromise. Faced with an opponent he evaluated as two
billion people willing to die in a final war of conquest, he viewed
the coming conflict not as one of preserving territory or self-defence,
but of extermination—of one side or the other. There were dark
rumours that al-Zee had in place his own plan of retaliation, with sleeper
cells and weapons of mass destruction ready should a
frontal assault begin.
The Avatar sees the patterns emerging, and sets out to avert the
approaching cataclysm. He knows that bad ideas can only be opposed
by better ones, but bad ideas first must be subverted by sowing doubt among
those in thrall to them. Using his preternatural powers of
persuasion, he gains access to the principals of the conflict and
begins his work. But that may not be enough.
There are two overwhelming forces in the world. One is chaos;
the other is order. God—the original singular speck—is
forming again. He's gathering together his bits—we call it
gravity. And in the process he is becoming self-aware to defeat chaos,
to defeat evil if you will, to battle the devil. But something has
gone terribly wrong.
Sometimes, when your computer is in a loop, the only thing you can do
is reboot it: forcefully get it out of the destructive loop back to a
starting point from which it can resume making progress. But how do
you reboot a global technological civilisation on the brink of war?
The Avatar must find the reboot button as time is running out.
Thirty years later, a delivery man rings the door. An old man with
a shabby blanket answers and invites him inside.
There are eight questions to ponder at the end which expand upon the
shiver-up-your-spine themes raised in the novel. Bear in mind, when
pondering how prophetic this novel is of current and near-future
events, that it was published twelve years ago.
Saturday, June 11, 2016
Reading List: Humans to Mars
- Portree, David S. F.
Humans to Mars.
Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2001.
Ever since, in the years following World War II, people began
to think seriously about the prospects for space travel,
visionaries have looked beyond the near-term prospects
for flights into Earth orbit, space stations, and even
journeys to the Moon, toward the red planet: Mars. Unlike
Venus, eternally shrouded by clouds, or the other
planets which were too hot or cold to sustain life as we
know it, Mars, about half the size of the Earth, had an atmosphere,
a day just a little longer than the Earth's, seasons, and polar
caps which grew and shrank with the seasons. There were no oceans,
but water from the polar caps might sustain life on the surface,
and there were dark markings which appeared to change during
the Martian year, which some interpreted as plant life that flourished
as polar caps melted in the spring and receded as they grew in the fall.
In an age where we have high-resolution imagery of the entire planet,
obtained from orbiting spacecraft, telescopes orbiting Earth, and
ground-based telescopes with advanced electronic instrumentation, it
is often difficult to remember just how little was known about Mars in the 1950s,
when people first started to think about how we might go there.
Mars is the next planet outward from the Sun, so its
distance and apparent size vary substantially depending upon its
relative position to Earth in their respective orbits. About every
two years, Earth “laps” Mars and it is
closest (“at opposition”) and
most easily observed. But because the orbit of Mars is
elliptic, its distance varies from one opposition to the next,
and it is only every 15 to 17 years that a near-simultaneous
opposition and perihelion render Mars most accessible to Earth-based
But even at a close opposition, Mars is a challenging telescopic
target. At a close encounter, such as the one which will occur
in the summer of 2018, Mars has an apparent diameter of only
By comparison, the full Moon is about half a degree, or 1800 arc seconds:
72 times larger than Mars. To visual observers, even at a favourable
opposition, Mars is a difficult object. Before the advent of electronic
sensors in the 1980s, it was even more trying to photograph. Existing
photographic film and plates were sufficiently insensitive
that long exposures, measured in seconds, were required, and even
from the best observing sites, the turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere
smeared out details, leaving only the largest features recognisable.
Visual observers were able to glimpse more detail in transient moments
of still air, but had to rely upon their memory to sketch them. And
the human eye is subject to optical illusions, seeing patterns
where none exist. Were the extended linear features called
“canals” real? Some observers saw and sketched
them in great detail, while others saw nothing. Photography could
not resolve the question.
Further, the physical properties of the planet were largely unknown.
If you're contemplating a mission to land on Mars, it's essential to
know the composition and density of its atmosphere, the temperatures
expected at potential landing sites, and the terrain which a lander
would encounter. None of these were known much beyond the level of
educated guesses, which turned out to be grossly wrong once spacecraft
probe data started to come in.
But ignorance of the destination didn't stop people from planning,
or at least dreaming. In 1947–48, Wernher von Braun,
then working with the U.S. Army at the White Sands Missile Range
in New Mexico, wrote a novel called The Mars Project
based upon a hypothetical Mars mission. A technical
appendix presented detailed designs of the spacecraft and mission.
While von Braun's talent as an engineer was legendary, his prowess
as a novelist was less formidable, and the book never saw print, but
in 1952 the appendix was published by itself.
One thing of which von Braun was never accused was thinking small,
and in this first serious attempt to plan a Mars mission, he
envisioned something more like an armada than the lightweight
spacecraft we design today. At a time when the largest operational
rocket, the V-2, had a payload of just one tonne, which it could
throw no further than 320 km on a suborbital trajectory, von Braun's
Mars fleet would consist of ten ships, each with a mass of 4,000
tons, and a total crew of seventy. The Mars ships would be
assembled in orbit from parts launched on 950 flights of reusable
three-stage ferry rockets. To launch all of the components of
the Mars fleet and the fuel they would require would burn a total
of 5.32 million tons of propellant in the ferry ships. Note that
when von Braun proposed this, nobody had ever flown even a two stage
rocket, and it would be ten years before the first unmanned Earth
satellite was launched.
Von Braun later fleshed out his mission plans for an illustrated
article in Collier's magazine as part of
their series on the future of space flight. Now he envisioned
assembling the Mars ships at the toroidal space station in
Earth orbit which had figured in earlier installments of
the series. In 1956, he published a book co-authored with
Willy Ley, The Exploration of Mars, in which
he envisioned a lean and mean expedition with just two ships
and a crew of twelve, which would require “only”
four hundred launches from Earth to assemble, provision, and
Not only was little understood about the properties of the destination,
nothing at all was known about what human crews would experience
in space, either in Earth orbit or en route to Mars and back. Could
they even function in weightlessness? Would be they be zapped by
cosmic rays or solar flares? Were meteors a threat to their craft and,
if so, how serious a one? With the dawn of the space age after the
launch of Sputnik in October, 1957, these data started to trickle in,
and they began to inform plans for Mars missions at NASA and elsewhere.
Radiation was much more of a problem than had been anticipated.
The discovery of the
Van Allen radiation belts
around the Earth and measurement of radiation from solar
flares and galactic cosmic rays indicated that short voyages
were preferable to long ones, and that crews would need
shielding from routine radiation and a “storm shelter”
during large solar flares. This motivated research into nuclear
thermal and ion propulsion systems, which would not only reduce the
transit time to and from Mars, but also, being much more fuel
efficient than chemical rockets, dramatically reduce the mass
of the ships compared to von Braun's flotilla.
Ernst Stuhlinger had been studying electric (ion) propulsion since
1953, and developed a design for constant-thrust, ion powered ships.
These were featured in Walt Disney's 1957 program,
“Mars and Beyond”,
which aired just two months after the launch of Sputnik.
This design was further developed by NASA in a 1962 mission
design which envisioned five ships with nuclear-electric propulsion,
departing for Mars in the early 1980s with a crew of fifteen and
cargo and crew landers permitting a one month stay on the red planet.
The ships would rotate to provide artificial gravity for the crew
on the trip to and from Mars.
In 1965, the arrival of the
spacecraft seemingly drove a stake through the heart of the
romantic view of Mars which had persisted since
Flying by the southern hemisphere of the planet as close as
9600 km, it returned 21 fuzzy pictures which seemed to show
Mars as a dead, cratered world resembling the Moon far more than
the Earth. There was no evidence of water, nor of life. The
atmosphere was determined to be only 1% as dense as that of
Earth, not the 10% estimated previously, and composed mostly of
carbon dioxide, not nitrogen. With such a thin and hostile
atmosphere, there seemed no prospects for advanced life (anything
more complicated than bacteria), and all of the ideas for
winged Mars landers went away: the martian atmosphere proved just
dense enough to pose a problem when slowing down on arrival, but
not enough to allow a soft landing with wings or a parachute.
The probe had detected more radiation than expected on its way to
Mars, indicating crews would need more protection than anticipated,
and it showed that robotic probes could do science at Mars without
the need to put a crew at risk. I remember staying up and watching
these pictures come in (the local television station didn't carry the
broadcast, so I watched even more static-filled pictures than the
original from a distant station). I can recall thinking, “Well,
that's it then. Mars is dead. We'll probably never go there.”
Mars mission planning went on the back burner as the Apollo
Moon program went into high gear in the 1960s. Apollo was
conceived not as a single-destination project to land on
the Moon, but to create the infrastructure for human
expansion from the Earth into the solar system, including development
of nuclear propulsion and investigation of planetary missions
using Apollo derived hardware, mostly for flyby missions.
In January of 1968, Boeing completed a study of a Mars landing
mission, which would have required six launches of an uprated
Saturn V, sending a crew of six to Mars in a 140 ton ship for
a landing and a brief “flags and footprints” stay on
Mars. By then, Apollo funding (even before the first lunar
orbit and landing) was winding down, and it was clear there was
no budget nor political support for such grandiose plans.
After the success of Apollo 11, NASA retrenched, reducing its
ambition to a Space Shuttle. An ambitious Space Task Group plan
for using the Shuttle to launch a Mars mission in the early 1980s
was developed, but in an era of shrinking budgets and additional
fly-by missions returning images of a Moon-like Mars, went nowhere.
The Saturn V and the nuclear rocket which could have taken crews
to Mars had been cancelled. It appeared the U.S. would remain
stuck going around in circles in low Earth orbit. And so it
While planning for manned Mars missions stagnated, the 1970s dramatically
changed the view of Mars. In 1971,
went into orbit around Mars and returned 7329 sharp images
which showed the planet to be a complex world, with very different
northern and southern hemispheres, a
almost as long
as the United States, and features which suggested the existence,
at least in the past, of liquid water. In 1976, two
orbiters and landers arrived at Mars, providing detailed imagery
of the planet and ground truth. The landers were equipped with
instruments intended to detect evidence of life, and they reported
positive results, but later analyses attributed this to unusual
soil chemistry. This conclusion is still disputed, including by
for the experiment, but in any case the Viking results revealed a much more
complicated and interesting planet than had been imagined from
earlier missions. I had been working as a consultant at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory during the first Viking landing, helping to keep
mission critical mainframe computers running, and I had the privilege
of watching the first images from the surface of Mars arrive. I
revised my view from 1965: now Mars was a place which didn't
look much different from the high desert of California, where you
could imagine going to explore and live some day. More importantly,
detailed information about the atmosphere and surface of Mars was now
in hand, so future missions could be planned accordingly.
And then…nothing. It was a time of malaise and retreat.
After the last Viking landing in September of 1975, it would be more than
twenty-one years until
Mars Global Surveyor
would orbit Mars and
would land there in 1996. And yet, with detailed information about Mars
in hand, the intervening years were a time of great ferment in manned
Mars mission planning, when the foundation of what may be the next
great expansion of the human presence into the solar system was laid down.
President George H. W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative
on July 20th, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on
the Moon. This was, in retrospect, the last gasp of the
“Battlestar” concepts of missions to Mars. It became a
bucket into which every NASA centre and national laboratory could
throw their wish list: new heavy launchers, a Moon base, nuclear propulsion,
space habitats: for a total price tag on the order of half a trillion
dollars. It died, quietly, in congress.
But the focus was moving from leviathan bureaucracies of the
coercive state to innovators in the private sector. In the 1990s,
spurred by work of members of the
including Robert Zubrin and David Baker, the
mission concept emerged. Earlier Mars missions assumed that all
resources needed for the mission would have to be launched from Earth.
But Zubrin and Baker realised that the martian atmosphere, based upon
what we had learned from the Viking missions, contained everything needed
to provide breathable air for the stay on Mars and rocket fuel for the
return mission (with the addition of lightweight hydrogen brought from
Earth). This turned the weight budget of a Mars mission upside-down.
Now, an Earth return vehicle could be launched to Mars with empty
propellant tanks. Upon arrival, it would produce fuel for the return
mission and oxygen for the crew. After it was confirmed to have produced
the necessary consumables, the crew of four would be sent in the next
launch window (around 26 months later) and land near the return vehicle.
They would use its oxygen while on the planet, and its fuel to return to
Earth at the end of its mission. There would be no need for a space
station in Earth orbit, nor orbital assembly, nor for nuclear propulsion:
the whole mission could be done with hardware derived from that already
This would get humans to Mars, but it ran into institutional barriers
at NASA, since many of its pet projects, including the International
Space Station and Space Shuttle proved utterly unnecessary to
getting to Mars. NASA responded with the
Design Reference Mission, published in various revisions between
1993 and 2014, which was largely based upon Mars Direct, but up-sized
to a larger crew of six, and incorporating a new Earth Return Vehicle
to bring the crew back to Earth in less austere circumstances than
envisioned in Mars Direct.
NASA claim they are on a #JourneyToMars. They must be: there's a
But of course to anybody who reads this sad chronicle of government
planning for planetary exploration over half a century, it's obvious
they're on no such thing. If they were truly on a journey to Mars,
they would be studying and building the infrastructure to get there
using technologies such as propellant depots and in-orbit assembly
which would get the missions done economically using resources already
at hand. Instead, it's all about building a
cost so much it will fly every other year, at best, employing a
standing army which will not only be costly but so infrequently used
in launch operations they won't have the experience to operate the
system safely, and whose costs will vacuum out the funds which might have
been used to build payloads which would extend the human presence into
The lesson of this is that when the first humans set foot upon Mars,
they will not be civil servants funded by taxes paid by cab drivers
and hairdressers, but employees (and/or shareholders) of a private
venture that sees Mars as a profit centre which, as its potential is
developed, can enrich them beyond the dreams of avarice and provide a
backup for human civilisation. I trust that when the history of that
great event is written, it will not be as exasperating to read as this
chronicle of the dead-end of government space programs making futile
efforts to get to Mars.
This is an excellent history of the first half century of manned Mars
mission planning. Although many proposed missions are omitted or
discussed only briefly, the evolution of mission plans with knowledge
of the destination and development of spaceflight hardware is
described in detail, culminating with current NASA thinking about how
best to accomplish such a mission. This book was published in 2001,
but since existing NASA concepts for manned Mars missions are still
largely based upon the Design Reference Mission described here, little
has changed in the intervening fifteen years. In September of 2016,
SpaceX plans to reveal its concepts for manned Mars missions, so we'll
have to wait for the details to see how they envision doing it.
As a NASA publication, this book is in the public domain. The book
can be downloaded for free
as a PDF file from the NASA History Division. There is a paperback
republication of this book available at Amazon, but at an
outrageous price for such a short public domain work. If you require a
paper copy, it's probably cheaper to download the PDF and print