By Jason Pontin
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 evaporated too.

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 use.

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 bad governments.

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.

Some 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.


By Brian Bergstein
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 Mars.

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."

NASA 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.

Even before 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.

The 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.