Wonders of Flight and Patterns in Time

17 07 2013

Flight

Space Really Isn’t that Far Away

A quick note today on two thoughts resulting from the same image (above).

Taken with my phone while pressed against the starboard-side window during a recent cross-country flight, (I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately), the first thing you’ll probably notice about this picture is that I’ve inverted it.

Why?  Simply, it was for those who may not be quite as impassioned about space exploration as I am.

I did it to illustrate what I felt, as an aspiring astronaut, every time I look up and away from the plane at altitude.  Look at how close space feels here!  It’s almost as though you could touch it, or hanging from the Earth by your hands, stick your toes in it.

(At the time and altitude this picture was taken, the plane was nearly 10% of the way there!)

Now, under ordinary circumstances, the trick is that I don’t think people notice the sky darkening above them as they rise out of the lowest parts of our planet’s atmosphere.  Flip the image over to turn conventional experience on its head, however, and now it’s easier to see that the reality of space is much more in-your-face.

Instead of a simple window view from an airplane, the picture now shows (at least to me):

The Earth’s cumulus clouds, floating in a thin, cobalt band of blue atmosphere, puff outward over the infinite black abyss of outer space, shackled to the Earth only by the iron grip of our planet’s gravity.

Look again!  Note how suddenly, in the precise same image from a different perspective, space seems wildly close and our atmosphere amazingly thin!

Feel free to tell me if you think turning this image on its head provides the dizzying sort of effect I was going for – illustrating that space really isn’t so far away.  And next time you fly, maybe when no one is looking, try turning your head upside-down for a moment and peek outside.  You might be surprised at how it feels.

(As an aside, in the same way inverting the view from an airplane window can bring space closer to home, perhaps just by upsetting the way we look at other ordinarily-abstract, obscure, or esoteric pursuits, they might also be made to feel more real?  Two cents.)

Patterns in the Past

Secondly, immediately after taking the above photo, I was compelled to consider just how much of the conventional, hum-drum experience of modern life is anything but conventional when viewed through the lens of human existence.  The view was amazing!  But is there any way to quantify just how amazing or extraordinary many of our day-to-day activities truly are?

As it turns out, with a simple geometric expansion of time moving backwards, and after making some very, very generalized assumptions about human perception, it’s pretty easy to pick out a rough pattern in just how unconventional the experience of our modern world really is.

Allow me to show you what I mean.

Looking at the above image once again, (even right-side-up), I would argue that actually achieving that view with human eyes would have been considered:

  • Completely commonplace last year;
  • Just as commonplace ten years ago;
  • Truly wondrous a century ago;
  • Utterly fantastic (as in the stuff of fantasy) one millennia or so ago;
  • Completely unimaginable by our ancestors ten millennia or so ago.

That’s an easy order of magnitude with each step, (i.e., 1, 10, 100, 1,000, and 10,000 years, respectively).

Think on it – What we grumble at having to suffer through (TSA screening, layovers, jet-lag) would have been the very realization of the fanciful dreams of, say, the ancient Greek inventors, philosophers and mathematicians – to master the elements and achieve the power of flight!

(Contrast that with the reality that when flying today, many of us slide a shade down because the view above the clouds is too bright, and we read a book or nap instead!)

Patterns in the Future

However, in addition to attempting to highlight some of the wonder that may slip under our collective radars in the commotion of our modern lives, I also quickly realized that the above exercise has another, more functional and perhaps more surprising and seductive utility.

In a way, by walking through and establishing the (if only rough) time-perception pattern above, we actually can claim to have created a tool we can use not only in looking at ourselves and at the past, but also in looking forward.  It becomes a tool that gives us an intriguing and strangely mathematical window into what our future might look like.

So, if the logarithmic pattern I mentioned above can be said to generally hold true, then it certainly has something to say about our future.

It begins sensibly, but then it quickly carries us into (in my opinion) extremely interesting territory.  So, based on our ancestors’ perceptions and using flight as a guide, playing the aforementioned temporal pattern model forward from now gives us the following:

  • That which will be commonplace one year from now will have also been considered commonplace today.
  • That which will be commonplace ten years from now will have generally been considered commonplace today.
  • In a hundred years, that which inspires wonder in us today will have become commonplace.  (Spaceflight?)
  • In a thousand years, our most fantastic modern technological imaginings can and likely will have been made real.  (Interplanetary travel?  Colonies?  Medical immortality?  Mind-transferability to machines?  Teleporters?  Time Machines?)
  • In ten-thousand years, we will have accomplished feats that are unimaginable to us today.  (????)

What fun it is to try and imagine what the achievements of that last point might be!

Perhaps in recognizing a pattern, we can have a leg up on the game.  (How about it?  Could we use the McGee Scale to truly relate the passage of time to the rate of technological advancements within a civilization?  Does this work at all scales?)

The take-home here is that, with history as a guide, maybe nothing really is impossible to a self-aware and curious species given enough time, persistence, and trial-and-error…

I think I’ll play around with this and see if it holds up with technological advances other than flight… Thoughts welcome!

Advertisements




Russia announces new Nuclear Rockets for manned Mars trip

16 04 2011

1960s Aerojet General rendering of a nuclear rocket in flight configuration.

For the first time in possibly four decades, two electrifying space technology phrases have managed to show up in the same sentence in earnest.  Quietly nestled in the murky details of a somewhat thrilling AP news story about a potential new Russian spacecraft to be produced in the next few years are the words: “manned mission to Mars,” and, “new nuclear engines.”

This is fantastic, as “nuclear engines” can only mean a resurrection of the triumphant nuclear thermal rocket technology pioneered and successfully tested during the Cold War.

Why is this significant?  First, U.S. and Russian testing of nuclear rockets during the Cold War proved not only that the relatively simple technology worked, but that it was amazingly efficient.  So efficient, in fact, that the rockets tested under the NERVA Program are still twice as powerful as our best rockets today, (half-a-century later!).  Secondly, these rockets are of the weight and power necessary to significantly trim down travel times and make interplanetary manned missions feasible.

So, if the nuclear rocket technology is superior, why don’t we have this technology today?  Well, politics and paranoia led to the death of the nuclear rocket back in 1972, when:

  1. a new project called the Space Shuttle drew funding away from the NERVA Program and set our course in space exploration for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) instead of back to the Moon and Mars, and
  2. in the Cold War nuclear holocaust climate, the word “nuclear” became (understandably) a source of irrational fear.

Only a few experts remain alive who worked in the thick of original nuclear thermal rocket research and testing, and with NewSpace set to take over LEO cargo and crew transportation services, it is time to set our sights back on the more ambitious goals of lunar settlements and expanded human exploration of the solar system.  Nuclear thermal rockets will be the technology to take us there.  The Russians apparently realize that, and perhaps an international kick in the pants is what the U.S. research and industrial community needs to realize that it’s time to pick this research back up.

A nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia nearly ended the world.  It seems a fitting contrast that in the 21st Century, a nuclear space race between the U.S. and Russia could help humanity settle new ones.








%d bloggers like this: