Thursday, July 9, 2015

Man and the moon

Turns out Edgar Allan Poe wasn't too far off when he imagined Hans Pfaall making it all the way to the moon thanks to an ingenious balloon.  Kal Penn was showing on The Big Brain Theory how inexpensive it has become to get satellites into the stratosphere thanks to high altitude balloons for as little as $1500.  Here's one home project that reached a height of 124,000 feet or about 38 km.

Space, or at least the inner edge of it, is now in reach to most amateurs with a sense of adventure.  Of course they take the view in vicariously through a camera mounted inside the tiny capsule with a transmission device relaying the feed back down to earth.  It takes a little more effort and a lot more money to reach space yourself, but this is also being done at the amateur level.

Unfortunately, no one has figured out how to break into space itself as Hans Phaall did.  At present, it requires an enormous amount of thrust, which you are not going to do with a balloon.  After a certain point, these balloons explode and the only thing you have is a parachute to cover the 30+ km. free fall back to earth, which takes a very brave person to endure.  But, maybe there is a window in the ozone layer big enough for a balloon to squeeze through.

In any case, space is fast becoming the place for a whole new realm of experimentation and we have Edgar Allan Poe to thank for planting the seed all those years ago.  The amusing thing is that many actually believed that Poe's Great Moon Hoax was real, much like there were many who fell for Orson Welles' reading of War of the Worlds.  While an alien invasion still seems pretty far away, finding alternative ways to reach the cosmos is not.

Clearly we have to think beyond conventional means, as it will be a very long time before we get a man to Mars, the next bold frontier which has Elon Musk already taking reservations.  His SpaceX program took a big hit this past week when he failed to get one of his rockets out of the troposphere to resupply the International Space Station,  Fortunately, there was no one onboard.  Ever since NASA closed its space shuttle program it has been looking for private contractors to provide a means of reaching the space station.  As it is now, we are relying on Russia to deliver astronauts and supplies.

There is even talk of building a space elevator, first broached in the late 19th century by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.  Tokyo based Obayashi plans to have one in place by 2050.  But, something like this has very serious limitations.

Gravity is a real bitch, and this seems to be what is holding us back, quite literally.  It's relatively easy to overcome this in theoretical models and in movies like Interstellar.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson notes that time is a dimension we also need to overcome if we plan to take any long range human missions.  For now, we will have to content ourselves with NASA's long anticipated flyby Pluto, boldly going where no man is able to go.

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