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Love at Intel

This is not a fiery office romance story. (But the title got you thinking, didn't it?) I'll write one of those eventually, probably around the time electric blankets become popular in hell. And not Dante's version, mind you. If you'd like to read that sort of thing sooner, set me up with someone. :)

Rather, this is about NASA astronaut Dr. Stanley Love's visit to Intel. Why did he come to Intel? I'm still not sure. There were approximately three Intel employees in attendance at this event. Lots of schoolchildren were bussed in, though. (…hmmm, it's strange for me to use the word "bussed" in the transportation sense.)

I knew in advance that this was an event for kids, not for engineers. I went anyway because (1) I had a question to ask, and (2) I've had fun reporting on interesting events recently.

Dr. Love was introduced by my Congressman, David Wu, who I voted against. My manager also attended (and brought his son!), and said the obligatory "woo-woo" (Wu-Wu) when I pointed to the Congressman. I don't think Wu held the attention of the students. He talked briefly about a committee he's on and used words like "obstruse" and "nascent" and "balkanized" — the kids didn't care.

After Wu's introduction, Dr. Love segued to a short video about space exploration. After the video he talked very briefly about exploration before going to Q&A. There was no speech! He basically said that we haven't been to the moon for 30 years, and that we're planning to go back as a stepping-stone to Mars. He mentioned that his current role is to consult on new spacecraft, and that's what I hoped he'd talk about, but right when I was getting interested we went to Q&A. I felt somewhat cheated, but this arrangement did maximize time for the Q&A, and maybe the interaction was the raison d'être for the event.

I was the only adult who asked a question. (But I look young!) See if you can spot which one was mine. The following are my hastily typed and paraphrased notes; I only got a handful of direct quotes. I was very happy to be able to use a laptop during this; there's no way I could have written things down quickly enough. Kids ask short questions, so there were lots of them. Dr. Love's responses were longer than the impression you'd get just from the below; I essentialized them.

Have you been to the moon?
No, I was seven years old at the time.
Where have you been in orbit?
I haven't flown yet. I expect to either go to Hubble or to the ISS someday.
What engines will we use to get to Mars?
We're still trying to answer that. Solid chemical fuels aren't suitable. Liquid chemical fuels (H2+O2) are the default. Also looking at nuclear-electric and nuclear-thermal propulsion.
Do the different layers of the atmosphere have different gases?
The atmosphere is well-mixed below about 86km (the turbopause). Above that it's less mixed and you see more hydrogen and helium.
Will you go to Mars?
Probably not, I'll be too old. The moon is a possibility.
How long does it take to get to the moon?
Depends on how fast you're going. [Too bad there was no one doing sound effects to give him a rimshot - ed.] The Apollo way (coasting there from low earth orbit) takes 2-3 days.
What's the optimum age for spaceflight?
Sally Ride was in her early 20s, John Glenn was 87. (I think these were both wrong, unless I misheard him: Ride was 32 and Glenn was 77.) Most astronauts are in their 40s. For a mission to Mars it would be better to be an old man due to the expected level of radiation. It won't catch up with you so much if you won't live long anyway.
How fast does a rocket go?
Going up isn't the hard part of reaching orbit. What's important is having enough tangential speed to remain in orbit. It's about 17,500mph for orbit, another 10k to reach the moon, or 15k for Mars. Our spacecraft in the outer solar system are much faster.
Did they go by Saturn?
Yes. Both Voyagers, one Pioneer, and Cassini.
Will there be foreign involvement in the next space vehicle?
They've been invited, but we'll build it on our own if necessary.
I want to go to Mars. Should I become a pilot?
"It can't hurt." Historically, the early astronauts were test pilots. It's part of the culture to look for people with aviation backgrounds. Don't do something just to bcome an astronaut — do it because you think it's interesting. Only twenty out of thousands of applicants become astronauts. [I applaud Dr. Love's injection of caution here.]
I'd like to hear your thoughts on private spaceflight efforts.
"More power to 'em." One day we (NASA) will be less relevant. The private groups are "doing great work" and they have the freedom to do things we don't. We have to follow more rules. They have the benefit of small groups with less oversight. "One day they will surpass what the government does."
(I missed this question. It was something about education.)
I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Majored in physics. Got a doctorate in astronomy. My training is in planetary science (i.e. not cosmology).
What are you doing right now?
"Talking to you guys." :) There's a 60-day study underway about how to go back to the moon. Once the architecture is in place, I'll help with vehicle design as the crew advocate. (Example: He'll make sure the ship has a window.)
When did you join NASA?
In 1998, after 7 years of applying.
Have we grown food in space?
Yes, but only in small quantities.
Is Spirit still on Mars?
There are two rovers. Yes they're still there. One has become stuck.
Why can't we use the Apollo spacecraft to go back to the Moon?
There are only two left, and they're in museums.
Can't we build new ones?
We'd have to redesign them — "I understand the plans cannot be found." Plus, we'd want to use modern materials.
What technological achievement would most help us getting to Mars?
Propulsion to get us there in less than a year. The second research area is crew health for a long (3-year) mission.
When will we go back to the moon?
The first section of the new vehicle should be orbiting in 5-7 years. Moon would be 5 years after that.
What other types of propulsion have you heard of?
Solar sails, magnetic sails, some incredible things. Default answer for politicians like Wu is that we'd use chemical rockets because they're a known entity. Nuclear has technological and political hurdles. Solar sail will be tested in a couple weeks by a private company. (More info)
Are we concerned about waste in space?
Things in low earth orbit eventually come back in. Most spacecraft have no nuclear material. Lunar landers had some, and it's still there on the moon.
Are we concerned about leaving waste on the moon?
It's not a concern because the moon is biologically dead. [It's a "radiation-blasted wasteland" - ed.] What we are worried about is the possibility of contaminating Mars with life from Earth.
Could we dispose of nuclear waste in space?
IMHO if you have nuclear waste, space is a good place for it. But the expense of getting it there is too high. And rockets sometimes fail. The best plans I've heard are places far from people, in bedrock, in dry environments, with lots of warnings that will be understood even ten thousand years from now. An interesting idea is dropping nuclear waste in steel torpedoes over seafloor subduction zones. It would punch in hundreds of meters into the seafloor. But seawater is good at corroding metal.

That was the end of the Q&A. Wu concluded with some political remarks. He said that the political problem with space travel is getting consensus on paying for it. He said, "You all are the converted. You need to go out and convert others." He made a tie-in with the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was over-budget and late. "I'm not here to defend late federal projects or overspending…" instead to say that exploring the unknown has risks and takes courage.

I beg to differ with my Congressman. To recognize the value in space exploration, and to be an evangelist for government spending, are two very different things. I don't think the government has any business whatsoever in space exploration outside its military applications. If I were in charge, I'd immediately terminate government funding for a return to the moon or a mission to Mars.

I do not believe it is acceptable to steal from people (by taxation) in order to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. NASA has created wonderful scientific and engineering results, but its method of funding is immoral. Let people choose individually whether or not to support space exploration. Some would contribute eagerly. Others have different priorities, and they should be respected.

Why did this event occur at Intel? No reason was ever offered. I find it hard to believe we have the only large auditorium in the area. I more cynically expect that it was a political decision of Wu's, who is happy to be seen as a buddy of both technology and education. I don't know what Intel got out of hosting this.

Tiny Island