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Space 2004

September 28, 2004 By Mark Peplow This article courtesy of Nature News.

Organised by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Space 2004 brings together about 1000 scientists, engineers, military top brass and NASA bigwigs to discuss how to go further, faster and more frequently into space. While grounded in Sa

Day 3: Hardcore outreach

The chairman of the first session of the day, Charles Stegemoeller of Johnson Space Centre, Houston, Texas, is out in the corridor touting for business. "Come one, come all," he cries, waving people into the room. "Come and learn about bioastronautics - and then see the bearded lady," he adds cheerfully. His fairground schtick is only improved by the fact that he's wearing brightly coloured 3D cardboard glasses. "I picked these up down at 'Education Alley' yesterday," he explains. "They're way cool."

Bioastronautics is basically all about keeping humans healthy in space. Stegemoeller, a friendly chap who manages NASA's Human Space Life Sciences program, says that the subject has been out of vogue for a long time, and has received little attention from the space science community in the last decade. Although this is changing now that there's extra emphasis on manned missions in the new vision for space exploration, it still needs a lot of encouragement, he says. Apparently so.

Eugene Tattini, deputy director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, likewise has a plan for getting more people involved in space sciences in general. "We must drag the young people of this country kicking and screaming into science and engineering," he says. That's hardcore outreach.

Day 3: Insert module A into slot B...

What's wrong with the International Space Station? According to the astronauts who live and work there, the answers are surprisingly mundane. Cynthia Rando, from Johnson Space Centre, Houston, Texas, surveyed 22 people who have spent a total of roughly 3,600 hours up there. Their top five complaints were: it's too cluttered; poor lighting; it's noisy; there are too many acronyms to learn; and last, but definitely not least, the written instructions for using the equipment are really hard to follow. Pictures would be better, apparently. Like those little guides you get with Ikea furniture. I can't help but wonder if there's any potential there for a collaboration that might ease the ISS's budget problems?

Day 3: This mission WILL happen

I've already mentioned that education and military use of space are key themes here, but exploration probably has the most talks devoted to it. Almost half are by representatives of small companies with mission proposals - some contracted by NASA, and some still trying to sell their ideas. The sheer number of them all makes for an awful lot of nice ideas that will probably never happen. At least they have fantastic films to show for their hard work, though: some have computer-generated movies of their spacecraft that would put George Lucas to shame. In one, a docking sequence is even accompanied by Johann Strauss' Blue Danube waltz, à la Space Odyssey. Whenever they run the graphics, it's always introduced with the same phrase: "And THIS is what it WILL look like." Ta-daaaa. A few say it tongue in cheek, but most are entirely fervent. Unshakeable faith can be a beautiful thing, especially when it has got booster rockets.

Day 2: Education alley

It seems that like virtually every other scientific field, astronautics is suffering from a lack of fresh blood. So a good chunk of this conference is devoted to the pursuit of gaining new recruits.

Ron Sega, director of defence research and engineering at the US Department of Defense, says the situation is particularly bad for the defence aspects of space science. In the United States, as in most other countries I suppose, they don't like Johnny Foreigner working on military projects. In the last decade, declining numbers of students graduating in the physical sciences have been buoyed by an influx of oversees students. But take those out of your potential workforce, and the situation could soon be very bleak indeed, especially since about 25% of the existing scientists working on defence projects are due to retire in the next decade.

Everyone nods and murmurs about how important it is to reach out to the new generation. But as I pass the session on education later that afternoon, there are only four people in the room.

Nevertheless, the conference boasts an 'Education Alley', which has played host to about 20 different school and university space projects, including re-enactments of old shuttle missions. A steady stream of school children are being ferried in to a room where they fling foam rockets at each other, screaming "incoming!" and startling passing scientists with rubber missiles. The little darlings - clearly a career in ballistics beckons.

Day 2: The greatest show on Earth

Steve Squyres is hero of the moment. As science manager for the Mars Exploration Rovers, he is the public face of a highly successful interplanetary mission just when NASA really needed some good PR. The conference organisers have rewarded him with a medal, and a prime evening lecture slot in front of about 800 people. And by golly he's good. Years spent talking about the Mars mission to peers, media and public have honed his skills as a performer. When he tells the story of Spirit and Opportunity - even though I know the ending already - it's as exciting as a Martian detective tale.

"We've found lots of clues, but who could have modified these minerals billions of years ago, sergeant?" "The water did it, sir." "The soggy blighter. We've got him now!" By the end Squyres is bouncing around the stage, arms pinwheeling with enthusiasm and a huge grin on his face. The audience is enraptured. Someone give this man a television show.

Day 1: Serve and protect

It's only 8 am, and the opening ceremony is already shaping up like a Hollywood blockbuster. A fast-cut montage of space images flashes up on the enormous screens at the front of the hall, accompanied by a thumping techno soundtrack. From the bewildering mixture of pictures, I can pick out favourites from this year's NASA missions to Mars and Saturn. But there are also graphics of missiles being shot out of the sky by laser cannons, and battlefield simulators that track individual 'strike targets' as they totter blindly towards virtual doom.

Then a group of naval types in neat white uniforms solemnly carry a series of flags to the front of the room, where they are greeted by a rendition of the US national anthem. The audience rises as one with their hands pressed firmly against their hearts.

Patriotism thus inspired, we are treated to a very short history of the US space program from Wes Bush, president of conference-sponsor Northrop Grumman Space Technology, which makes defence technology for the US military. He reminds us that the first US space project built an intercontinental missile - since then, space technology has been driven by the need to make the US unassailable by other nations. "And that's where we want to keep it. We like our unfair advantage," he says.

But what's this? A new threat from "faceless terrorists and rogue nations" means that we must develop space technology with renewed vigour, he says, to ensure the US doesn't lose its top dog status. For Bush (Wes, that is), this is clearly an opportunity to urge the delegates to cheerlead for more investment in space technology. The conference program reflects his words - there is plenty on military applications of astronautics, but just as much about outreach projects to win the hearts and minds of school kids who will grow up to be scientists, engineers, and taxpaying voters who sometimes need to be reminded why the US pours billions into this field every year.

Day 1: Realising the potential

The theme of the conference is, according to the programme, "realising the potential for space." Exploiting the dual meaning of 'realise' is very deliberate and a masterstroke of marketing, because it brings the dreamers and the doers into the same rooms, both thinking the conference is all about their particular contribution. "Hey guys, I've just realised that we could do this really cool thing in space," says one with a flash of awareness. "It's high time we turn all this potential into a reality," replies the other, striving for the other type of realisation (possibly while stroking the medals on his chest). Sometimes - just sometimes - a conversation begins. Genius.

Day 1: Decisions...

Caption at the bottom of a slide on space-based military tracking software: "Cursor over target - kill it, save it, or learn more about it." Decisions decisions ...

Day 1: Backup plan

The Moon could be the ultimate backup location for valuable computer data, according to a group of entrepreneurs. They say that for just $300 million, a credit card company like American Express could safeguard its business against disasters by storing their last four months of business records in a device on the Moon.

In the event of a targeted terrorist attack, or a massive natural disaster such an asteroid impact, it's the only place you could be sure your data was safe, they add.

Ray and Elise Erikson are space technology consultants from Boston, Massachusetts, who today explained their plan.

Many companies go to great lengths to keep their records secure. American Express, for example, keeps one set of computer records of all their customers' business transactions in New York, and fly back up tapes to London, says Ray. Four month's worth of records is enough to efficiently restart a business, he explains, and for a massive corporation like Amex, that should take up roughly 600 gigabytes of memory. But even on opposite sides of the Atlantic, the records are still vulnerable. "There's no way anyone can fly an airplane into the Moon," says Ray.

The lunar depository would take three days to reach the Moon after launching from Earth orbit, and then land on the flat, equatorial plain of Sinus Medii. Once there it would deploy solar arrays and a radio antenna so that it could begin to receive data from Earth. A laser communication system might carry more data, admits Ray, but would potentially be unreliable, as the atmosphere might be thick with dust from a volcano. The data would be stored in flash memory rather than on a hard drive, as this is more resistant to radiation.

The couple are about to pitch the idea to a US government agency - although they would not say which one. They believe that while large companies would benefit from the system, the government is more likely to buy into the project at this early stage.

I explain to them that I'm sceptical - it's an intriguing project, but completely unrealistic, which seemed to be the reaction from most audience members. What's more, nothing has actually landed on the Moon for about thirty years, so there is no tried and tested lander to use. They are unfazed, exuding the calm confidence of the true believer. "It's based on off-the-shelf technology," says Ray. "I think we can do it. It could be the vanguard of a self-sustaining space business." As I leave, I wish them all the best with their project, and it's no lie - when you're realising potential like that, you deserve a little support.


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