|The Week That Was
February 7, 2004
1. New on the Web: OUR GORDON PRATHER EXPLAINS SOME OF THE FINER POINTS OF ALTERNATIVE MOTOR FUELS: Why methanol is a better bet than ethanol.
2. MTBE DISPUTE IS HOLDING UP ENERGY BILL
3. NASA MONOPOLY BLOCKS THE WAY TO MARS: Book review
4. FUSION ENERGY FROM THE MOON? A PIPEDREAM
5. HUMAN EXPLORATION OF MARS -- VIA ITS MOONS
6. WHITE HOUSE SPACE INITIATIVE IS DYING
7. A MINOR GLOBAL WARMING DISPUTE SETTLED
8. NEW BOOK SKEPTICAL OF GLOBAL WARMING BY DUTCH AUTHORS
9. AN ENVIRONMENTALIST'S LAMENT
2. MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) dispute is holding up energy bill
The sticking point is the "safe harbor" provision that would shield manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE from law suits from municipal and private water companies. Congress sanctioned the use of MTBE in the 1990 Clean Air Act to provide oxygenated fuel that produces less carbon monoxide. But it has turned out to be a nasty kind of pollutant if it leaks into ground water from defective fuel storage tanks. The irony is that EPA misjudged and that in any case oxygenation is no longer needed with modern cars.
Cleanup costs could reach $29 billion nationwide and liability suits could increase these amounts greatly in the hands of skilled tort lawyers. It would bring financial ruin to the oil industry that manufactures MTBE, and blends and distributes the oxygenated gasoline. The state of New Hampshire filed a defective-product lawsuit last September, causing the House to insert the "safe harbor" provision. Incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Joe Barton (R-TX) vows to defend this position in what shapes up to be a major battle.
Of course, there are many who hope the energy bill, laden with financial
goodies, will fail altogether.
3. The Monopoly That Blocks The Way to Mars
Lacking the vision thing? Not this George Bush. He wants the U.S. government to build a moon base, which would then function as a launching pad for expeditions to Mars.
It's not going to happen, or at least not the way the president imagines. Why? It is a hugely expensive enterprise and a difficult one, but those obstacles aren't insurmountable. The big problem is that Mr. Bush plans to leave a hapless dinosaur of a bureaucracy in charge -- NASA. For the past quarter-century, NASA's manned spaceflight program has had trouble getting to low earth orbit, much less to the moon and beyond.
Brave rhetoric, by contrast, orbits with ease. President Kennedy's moon-striving speech in 1962 started it all. Two decades later, Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Space proposed a moon base by 2006 and a Mars base by 2015. In 1989, the first President Bush boldly proposed going "back to the moon, and this time to stay." He set 2019 as the date for landing on Mars, the half-century anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Last week, the current President Bush set 2020 as the date for a moon base, with a Mars mission receding into the indefinite future.
For a clear-eyed analysis of why such rhetoric is not reality -- that is, why NASA can't do the job -- we now have Greg Klerkx's scathing "Lost in Space" (Pantheon, 392 pages, $27.95). Mr. Klerkx is a longtime denizen of what he calls the "alternative space community." He is also a former senior manager of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project, a computer-networked attempt -- sponsored by Sun Microsystems, Dell and various universities -- to scan the heavens for signs of life.
With vivid examples, Mr. Klerkx argues that NASA is "a government-sheltered corporate-supported monopoly that will fight competitive enterprises with all its considerable clout and resources." He approvingly cites journalist Andrew Stuttaford's quip that NASA today is "little more than the postal service in a space suit." Its highest goal is not the stars but bureaucratic survival.
Mr. Klerkx takes readers from the triumphant days of the Apollo moon-landings through the tragic losses of the space shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003). When NASA was seeking project-funding in the 1970s, it promised that the space shuttle -- what Mr. Klerkx calls the "spacefaring equivalent of a Ford Pinto" -- could be launched at least 50 times a year. But it's an expensive Ford Pinto: A single space-shuttle launch involves more than 20,000 people and costs $500 million. And so far the highest number of yearly launches is nine (in 1985).
While NASA's unmanned program has fared better, it has its problems too. Yes, it is exciting to see the Spirit rover now on the surface of Mars. But one should not forget debacles like the Mars Climate Orbiter mission in 1999. That $350 million probe burned up in Mars's atmosphere simply because NASA radioed it navigational commands in feet instead of meters.
But competition seems to be out of the question. Mr. Klerkx describes how NASA undermined efforts to privatize the Russian Mir space station, which it saw as a rival to its own. NASA also killed off efforts to produce alternative space vehicles like the Delta Clipper, which would have challenged the space-shuttle fleet. The agency has fiercely discouraged space tourism. In 2001, NASA administrator Dan Goldin denounced U.S. businessman Dennis Tito as "unpatriotic" when he arranged a $20 million visit to the International Space Station by flying on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
If an unreconstructed NASA remains in control of our attempt to take humanity into space, it's a good bet that tens of billions of dollars will be wasted and that we're still going to be right here on Earth when Mr. Bush's 2020 moon-base deadline passes. Mr. Klerkx is right: "Founded as a trailblazer and an innovator, NASA has become a barrier."
What to do? Unleash the private sector. Mr. Klerkx points to private companies like Kistler Aerospace and Scaled Composites that are developing cheap new launch vehicles. In 2001, the joint American-Russian company Mircorp announced that it plans to launch a small three-man space station for only $100 million. If the government wants to free space exploration from the dead hand of NASA's bureaucracy, why not offer a $20 billion Mars Prize as a reward to the team that first gets there and back?
"More often than not," Mr. Klerkx concludes, "history's most successful pioneers and explorers of the modern age were not government employees like Neil Armstrong, but privately sponsored entrepreneurs, like Roald Amundsen and Charles Lindbergh." If we don't want to stay lost in space, the lure of profit is the only sure way to go.
Mr. Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent.
4. Moon Dust: A pipedream
A major justification for a Moon base has been the "mining" of helium-3, implanted in the lunar soil by the solar wind, as a source of fuel for nuclear fusion reactors.
He-3 is a rare isotope of helium -- here on Earth its abundance is about 1 part per million. It is abundant in meteorites, created there by cosmic-ray bombardment of heavier nuclei -- but of course not commercial.
It is also abundant in the solar wind -- and then implanted to some extent -- not well known -- into the lunar soil. It should accumulate up to a point because it also escapes quite easily from lunar gravity back out into space.
The commercial interest might be in its use in a fusion reactor to make electric power. But consider the problems:
* Mining vast areas of the Moon to recover a dispersed minor gaseous component of the lunar soil and then processing it without losing it.
* Transporting it to Earth.
* After 50 years of research and many billions, we still don't have a fusion reactor. We don't even have a laboratory demonstration of sustained fusion capable of producing a net energy output -- and may not have such a reactor for another 50 years -- if ever.
* Finally: We don't need fusion. We have fission, which works well and safely. I have looked at engineering studies of a future fusion reactor. It would have to be huge -- at least 10 times larger than our largest fission reactor - and therefore hard to accommodate into most electric grids. And it is not clean. No fission products, to be sure , but the neutrons generated would make its components highly radioactive.
To sum up: A pipedream by "lunatics"-- and a poor excuse for
setting up a lunar base
5. Human exploration of Mars -- via its moons
The nation needs an overarching goal for space that encompasses science and creates popular interest and excitement. Human exploration of Mars fits the bill perfectly. It would completely transform our understanding of the origin of the solar system and of the possibility of life beyond our small blue planet. And it can be done within the present NASA budget. First, however, a true confession:
I have been active in space projects since the very beginning, more than
50 years ago; but I am not a space cadet. To me, a base on the Moon is
just the Space Station writ large - and a lot more expensive. The scientific
payoff is minimal and the cost exorbitant. Besides, "we've been there,
done that." Habitation of Mars has at least some novelty - but it
too will soon wear off. Bases on asteroids or colonies out there in space?
I want to know how Mars came about, how a planet assembled out of little planetesimals. How did it get hot enough to melt? Did radioactivity provide the missing energy or was there some other planetary heating process? Is the core still molten as on Earth, and what happened to Mars' magnetic field?
What about the Martian oceans whose historic existence is quite evident? Where did they go to and why? How much water is left? Volcanoes were once active producing huge mountains. Could the same events happen on Earth?
We can see evidence for weather in the Martian atmosphere, which in some respects resembles ours, yet is quite unique. Ice caps that shrink and grow with the seasons and over time. Giant dust storms that blanket the planet's surface. Can the climate models developed for the Earth account for what we see on Mars? And once we study the sediments in Martian rocks, will we find past climate changes that match what we know about the Earth's climate of the past millions of years?
The BIG question is the existence of life on Mars. One no longer expects to see "canals" or evidence of intelligent life, but we might find primitive organisms in the subsurface soil or in polar regions where there is moisture. Or maybe it will just be evidence of past life, now died out. Will it resemble any kind of terrestrial life in chemistry and in form? More fundamentally, is creation of life a given if environmental conditions are right or is there something unique about the Earth? Answers to these questions impinge on philosophy and even theology -- and also on whether there is intelligence somewhere out in the Universe beyond our solar system.
There is also the mystery about the origin of the two moons of Mars. Phobos and Deimos are tiny rocks, about the size of Manhattan, discovered by Asaph Hall in 1870 at the Naval Observatory in Washington DC. Are they captured asteroids? Not likely. Were they formed along with Mars? Not likely. Are they similar in composition? To find the answer we will need samples. How did they get into their peculiar orbits, with Phobos slowly shrinking into Mars, destined to crash? Were there other moons that have now disappeared? We don't yet know the answers but they could hold the key to the puzzle of the origin of planets and their moons, including ours.
It's now nearly 30 years since the first unmanned probes landed on Mars - and we are still a long way from bringing back samples for direct examination. Truth is we are still decades away from answering the burning questions if we proceed with occasional probes -- that often fail and are not cheap. Beagle is but the latest example. Here is where a human presence can make a decided difference - not necessarily on the planet's surface but close enough to control exploration in real time by tele-robotic rover vehicles. The ideal base would be on Deimos - almost within reach of the planet - directing exploration to different locations, returning and studying samples in a fully equipped laboratory, and following up with more probes as necessary.
A Deimos base would be safer and a lot cheaper than a base on the Mars surface - and would accomplish more. A manned mission to Phobos and Deimos amounts to a simple transfer of a habitat from Earth orbit to Mars orbit. It could be done sooner than establishing a Mars base, for about $30 billion over 10-15 years - well within the present NASA budget. A comparable sum has been spent since 1967 on 36 unmanned missions to Mars, more than half of which failed.
How to kick it off? I think that the initiative has to come from the private sector. It would take only one person, a real visionary, to get it started - mainly through publicity: a book, a documentary, a TV special. The next step is to get the aerospace industry to contribute the necessary design and detailed engineering studies, including all the trade-off calculations. How much does it cost in extra propulsion to shorten the time of transit to Deimos and back, and what is gained by keeping the mission to less than a year or so?
The manned Ph-D project to Mars is a worthy goal: not just a publicity
stunt but true scientific exploration that also benefits life on Earth.
At the same time, it provides inspiration for all of the citizens of the
Based on his experience in the design of miniaturized scientific instruments for flight on captured V-2 rockets, physicist S. Fred Singer presented the first practical proposal for the instrumented satellite MOUSE (Minimum Orbiting Unmanned Satellite of the Earth) at a 1954 Hayden Planetarium symposium in New York City. At that time, only giant manned space stations and interplanetary expeditions were widely discussed, although never seriously contemplated. After numerous scientific advances in the field of space physics (satellite lifetimes, planetary exospheres, radiation belts, magnetic-storm theory, meteorite ages), Singer went on to become the first director of the US Weather Satellite Service and contributed greatly to its systems design. For this work he received the Gold Medal award from the US Department of Commerce, a White House commendation from President Eisenhower, and the first Science Medal of the British Interplanetary Society.
He has published several scientific papers on the early history of
Mars and the origin of its moons Phobos and Deimos. The Ph-D mission,
first proposed by him in 1978 as a practical project to explore Mars and
its moons, represents a first step towards manned exploration of the solar
6. White House Space Initiative is Dying
The main problem seems to be money. While no figures have been suggested for the whole package, numbers bandied about reach into the hundreds of billions. The "down payment" is certainly modest enough; but everyone still remembers the price tag of $450 billion for the Space Exploration Initiative of Bush-41. And Congress suffers from guilt feelings after its spending spree of the past two years. What better way for members to demonstrate their probity and fiscal restraint than by dumping on space projects.
To many, a base on the Moon is simply the Space Station writ large. It's not "bold" and it's not new. It does little to advance science, human adventure, or the prestige of the United States. On the contrary, it diverts scarce resources from more worthwhile programs. A "stepping stone" to Mars? More likely a detour. It looks like a rather transparent ploy to back out of the Space Station. Sort of trading one White Elephant for another White Elephant.
It is likely to backfire politically: Bush "Moondoggle". Or: "If you like the Space Station, you'll love the Moon base." Trust Jay Leno and the other comics to come up with appropriate epithets and epitaphs -- not to mention the merry band of Democratic presidential hopefuls.
What will a Moon base accomplish? The scientific return is minimal -- certainly when compared to Mars. And you always have to ask: Can the same job be done without a manned base?
Resource exploitation? Helium-3 mining for nuclear fusion, when a working fusion reactor on Earth is just a gleam in someone's eye? Ice near the lunar poles? We have a lot of that right here on Earth. A solar power supply for beaming energy to Earth? Wrong place -- even if you believe in space solar power. Stepping stone for manned interplanetary flight? What technology will they test on the Moon that cannot be tested in the Space Station? Worse even; you cannot test the effects of zero-G on the Moon.
I find it hard to keep a straight face when reading an op-ed in the Jan 8 Wall Street Journal. The author wants "a self-sustaining lunar base" ... "to assure the survival of civilization, both against its own murderous proclivities and in a dangerous universe, by spreading its seed." [Yes; just look at the craters from continuing impacts of meteorites.] He then claims that "the Moon has the minerals and other constituents necessary to support life" -- [Yes, except for readily available water and a breathable atmosphere.] -- and goes on to cite other dubious advantages.
It reminds me of the Army generals some 50 years ago, who argued for a Moon base because military doctrine demands occupying the "high ground." When I asked how they knew that the Moon was "high ground," they just pointed to it: It's always "up there." Seriously.
And from the NYT (1/22/04) we learn that this notion is not dead. "The Moon is a beachhead," according to one Alice Slater, director of the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, a private group in New York. "It's the high ground from which they want to control space" she said of the Bush administration.
Even sober scientists have succumbed to these notions, as evidenced by the International Lunar Conference, held in Hawaii in Nov 2003. Over 130 participants "spent many long hours and 4 major discussion sessions to complete the Hawaii Moon Declaration." Here are some excerpts:
"We need the Moon for many reasons: to use its resources of materials and energy to provide for our future needs in space and on Earth, to establish a second reservoir of human culture in the event of a terrestrial catastrophe, and to study and understand the universe...Our vision is one of expanding humanity into space on an endless journey. We believe a human return to the Moon is the next step into the Solar System and the future of the human race. Aloha."
Can the White House initiative be saved? To achieve the plan at a much
lower cost -- and much sooner, all one really has to do is change one
word: From "setting up a manned base on the moon AND Mars" to
"setting up a manned base on the moon OF Mars." Infinitely easier,
almost as dramatic, full of good science, and definitely less costly.
Such a program can be done for not more than $30 billon over 15 years
- well within the current NASA budget.
7. A minor Global Warming dispute settled
A fundamental problem is to explain how the greenhouse effect operates. For this purpose it is often sufficient to use an extremely simple model that has only one dimension (height) instead of three, and eliminate time dependence by considering the steady-state equilibrium state. The model can be further simplified by considering the atmosphere confined to a single layer that exchanges (long-wave, infrared) radiation with the surface. For energy balance, the outgoing LW radiation escaping into space must equal the incoming (short-wave) solar radiation absorbed by the Earth surface.
Well-known global warming supporter Kevin Trenberth (NCAR) published his results for such a model and drew erroneous conclusions about temperature trends for the surface and the single-layer atmosphere. Singer, Douglass, and Knox corrected the error in his fundamental equations and obtained a different result.
All of this is published (message #14067) on the web site of ClimateSceptics, moderated by Timo Hämeranta. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/climatesceptics
It is not often that a dispute in this contentious area can be definitively
settled. The fact that simple models do not include many known effects
does not negate their usefulness. We believe that those who work on more
realistic models should understand the simple models.
8. "Man-Made Global Warming: Unravelling a Dogma"
Just out - by climate skeptics Hans Labohm (international relations expert),
Simon Rozendaal (scientific journalist), and Dick Thoenes (chemical engineer)
--- questions the science, the politics , and the motives of those driving
the warming scare. Published by Multi-Science Publishing Co, Ltd. www.multi-science.co.uk
9. An Environmentalist's Lament
I love all trees and buzzing bees