MIT Technology Review, October 24, 2012
Edited by Andy Ross
On July 21, 1969, Buzz Aldrin climbed out of the Apollo 11 lunar module and
joined Neil Armstrong on the Sea of Tranquility. Their presence on the
moon's silent, gray surface was the culmination of a huge effort.
Eight years before, President John F. Kennedy had asked the United States
Congress to "commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out,
of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." His
challenge was absurdly ambitious. No American had orbited the planet. NASA
didn't know if it could be done.
The Apollo program was possible
only as a lavishly funded, semi-militarized project. At its peak, NASA spent
more than 4% of the federal budget. The program employed around 400,000
people and demanded the collaboration of about 20,000 companies,
universities, and government agencies. NASA had to solve a bewildering
number of problems decades ahead of their time. But before the program ended
in 1972, 24 men flew to the moon, and 12 walked on its surface.
Kennedy wanted to demonstrate the superiority of American rocketry over
Soviet engineering. But that does not convey how the lunar landings were
understood at the time. The strongest emotion at the time of the moon
landings was of wonder at the transcendent power of technology. Yet since
Apollo 17 in 1972, no humans have been back to the moon, or gone anywhere
beyond low Earth orbit. Blithe optimism about technology's powers has
Since then, computers and communications technologies
advanced because they were well and properly funded. But the venture capital
business has always struggled to invest profitably in technologies, such as
biotechnology and energy, whose capital requirements are large and whose
development is uncertain and lengthy. Venture-backed entrepreneurialism is
not sufficient by itself to solve big problems.
Sometimes we choose
not to solve big technological problems. We could travel to Mars if we
wished. NASA knows how it might send humans to Mars and bring them home. If
the agency received more money or reallocated its current spending and began
working to solve those problems now, humans could walk on the Red Planet
sometime in the 2030s. But there are more useful things to do on Earth.
Sometimes we fail to solve big problems because our institutions have
failed. In 2010, less than 2% of the world's energy consumption was derived
from advanced renewable sources such as wind, solar, and biofuels. The
reason is economic: coal and natural gas are cheaper than solar and wind,
and petroleum is cheaper than biofuels. Economists, technologists, and
business leaders agree on what national policies and international treaties
would spur the development and broad use of such alternatives. But without a
practical way to collectively test and optimize innovative energy
technologies, and without some means to share the risks of development,
alternative energy sources will continue to have little impact on energy
Sometimes big problems that had seemed technological turn out
not to be so, or could more plausibly be solved through other means. Until
recently, famines were understood to be caused by failures in food supply.
But famines are political crises that catastrophically affect food
distribution. Technology can improve crop yields or systems for storing and
transporting food, but famines will still occur because there will always be
The hope that an entrenched problem with social
costs should have a technological solution is seductive. Malaria, which the
World Health Organization estimates affected 216 million people in 2010, has
resisted technological solutions. The most efficient solutions to the
problem of malaria turn out to be simple. Combined, they have reduced
malarial infections. But that hasn't stopped technologists from trying to
impose a technological solution on what is a problem of poverty.
big problems elude any solution because we don't really understand the
problem. The first successes of biotechnology in the late 1970s were
straightforward. But further breakthroughs in biomedicine have been more
difficult to achieve, because we have struggled to understand the
fundamental biology of many diseases.
We can solve big problems
through technology. But political leaders and the public must care to solve
the problem, our institutions must support its solution, it must really be a
technological problem, and we must understand it.
MIT Technology Review, October 24, 2012
Edited by Andy Ross
In his office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Bret Drake explained
how six astronauts could be sent on six-month flights to Mars and what they
would do there for a year and a half before their six-month flights home.
Drake, 51, has been thinking about this since 1988. But in 2008, Congress
prohibited NASA from using any money to further the human exploration of
The benefits of putting humans on Mars are mostly intangible.
The idea that people should colonize the planet to improve humanity's odds
of survival don't pass the duck test. Exploring Mars might have scientific
benefits, but the Curiosity rover is already doing that job pretty well. The
success of such robotic missions weakens the case for sending humans.
Mars was proposed as a goal long ago. In the 1950s,
Wernher von Braun argued the case
for Mars in Collier's magazine in 1954: "Will man ever go to Mars? I am sure
he will — but it will be a century or more before he's ready."
made a long-range plan in 1959. But in 1961, when NASA had hardly started
realizing the plan, President John F. Kennedy jumped ahead and vowed to
reach the moon by the end of the decade. He saw going to the moon as a proxy
for a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. At its peak in the mid-1960s, NASA
got $5 billion a year, more than 4% of the U.S. budget.
the lunar landing in 1969, NASA's budget was being slashed. NASA continued
its program of exploration with unmanned probes such as Viking, Mariner, and
Voyager. The space shuttle flew 135 times from 1981 through 2011 and helped
build the International Space Station.
Drake completed a design
reference architecture for a Mars mission in 2009. Going into space for more
than two years would subject the astronauts to an unprecedented degree of
isolation and extended weightlessness. Cosmic rays would hit the spacecraft
in flight and threaten the astronauts on Mars. NASA could reduce exposure to
the normal background radiation in space, but it needs better forecasting of
solar flares to warn astronauts to retreat into storm shelters.
Martian atmosphere is thick enough for a lander to need thermal protection
against friction during entry, but too thin to slow the craft down much. A
sky crane wouldn't work for a craft that could weigh 30 times more than
Curiosity. NASA is building a heavy-lift vehicle, but a lander is not yet in
the works. A much bigger challenge would be protecting and feeding humans on
Mars over a long stretch.
Astronaut Stan Love: "Exploring is one of
the best things people do. Explorations that aren't easy inspire us. We
learn new things."
AR This is a great theme in my worldview.