Let's be more realistic and do what we really can
November 26, 2012
My personal story is that I'm highly inspired by what's actually been done to explore space, and I'm not inspired by "science fiction" (a misnomer for engineering fiction because most of it relies on unrealistic assumptions about future technology). Of course the assumption highest on everyone's wish list is that transportation to and in space will be easy someday, even though little has changed in 50 years. The reality is that people who work in the propulsion field toil at the bottom of the social totem pole, which is kind of contradictory to the wish list. People who rise through the aerospace ranks come from hot fields like software and radar (and accounting!), which results in propulsion being taken for granted with a limited understanding.
Can't resist a brief sidebar with an example. JPL leaders realized by 1960 that having a bright future required moving into electronics (the "J" and the "P" are very dated). I might be biased as a Caltech alum (no I'm not a JPL person), but I would have to say the robotic Mars exploration program is the epitome of achievement in space exploration by humans. The Viking landers are what inspired me during my formative years (prior to my time at Caltech). The point is that we should do more robotic exploration on a smaller scale in order for the transportation to be affordable. If there's really a hope of people ultimately living on Mars, a present priority should be to send a lot more robotic missions in order to fully understand Mars. At the same time we need to improve propulsion.
The rest of my personal story is that I worked professionally for 2 decades in an effort to implement launch vehicle style propulsion technology on a very small scale. Along the way I realized that a miniature launch vehicle is exactly what is needed to depart Mars, for the always-elusive Mars sample return mission. I published professionally on this subject from 1997 to 2008. In 2011, the planetary science community formalized Mars sample return as the highest priority for all solar system exploration. Strangely enough, no one seems to care that we don't have a funded community of rocket engineers working on how to get the samples off of Mars. Instead, the propulsion community (at least in the USA) comprises two factions that are barely relevant. Propulsion researchers mostly focus on chemistry and combustion and "far out" ideas. People who build real propulsion systems are highly constrained to work within the realm of proven technology.
For the problem of launching geology samples off of Mars, peer review of ideas doesn't even work because too few people understand the problem. It is embarassing when NASA pays people to say that Mars ascent will be accomplished by "a systematic systems engineering process." That is a direct quote from a 2012 publication by engineers at a major aerospace company. Given that new technology is the life blood of space exploration, we should all be asking why it is fashionable to think of engineering as a "systematic process" instead of as an exciting, challenging endeavor for highly creative people who actually want to build things and make them work.
An asteroid or comet headed for Earth is the only large-scale natural disaster we can prevent. Working together to fund our Shoemaker NEO Grants for astronomers, we can help save the world.