Greetings, and welcome. Today I have some items that illustrate that the handbasket we seem to be plunging downward in isn't without some light.
This first observation was inspired by an entry in Pikaresque's blog. One positive aspect of the whole Hurricane Katrina mess is the effect it has had on the media. Usually they stand aside in thier pressed shirts and polyester pantsuits and watch people suffer and ask the most inane of questions. This time the combination of absolute devestation and official inertia shocked the media out of their electric towers and dragged the humanity out of them. Plus I have, for the first time in my life, not heard a single Floridian commentator chuckle, grin slyly at the camera, and say "Boy, aren't we glad that one missed us?"
Some stories from the world of science are hopeful too. Scientists have been seraching for some time now for a way to make a nuclear fusion reactor. We have had fission reactors ever since the 40's, but these are inefficient, dangerous, and creates tons of toxic waste. [side note: I just looked up the toxic potential of plutonium, which I had always believed to be the most toxic substance on Earth. It isn't. The primary danger from plutonium is radiation, and even then it's not as bad as other substances. The alpha particles emitted by plutonium aren't energetic enough to penetrate the skin, so surface effects are it's main danger. If ingested, or inhaled, then there are great cancer risks. It is certainly not a safe substance, but cyanide will kill you faster, and if a little bit of plutonium were introduced into a water supply it would not kill an entire city.] Fission is the famous splitting of atoms, thus releasing their stored energy. Fusion, on the other hand, is the combining of atoms, thus forming other substances, and releasing far more energy, without the nasty byproducts. This process is very difficult to achieve, and has only been accomplished in very limited forms, for very brief times, and at exteremely high temperatures. Cold fusion, the current holy grail of physisists, would permit a fusion reaction at room temperature. With the exception of a few, unverifiable and unreproduceable claims to the contrary this has never been achieved. On Earth, that is.
At the center of our system is a huge fusion reactor, the Sun. For decades we have been trying to harness that bountiful, endless supply of energy directly using photo-voltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity. These are hiddeously inefficient and expensive, and just don't seem to be the way to go. Now bio-engineers are going in a direction I never imagined, and it's brilliant. Plants convert sunlight into energy with incredible efficiency, so geneticists are working on creating bacteria or algea that can, through photosynthesis, convert sunlight into ethanol, or hydrogen without messy byproducts or chemicals. This science is in its infancy, but across the board engineers are turning to nature to solve problems that evolution has already figured out. Remote Air Vehicles are being designed to mimic birds and flying insects, submarines are being patterned after fish and sea mammals, so it's only natural [heh heh] that scientists look for biological solutions to our looming energy problems.
On the space front, it seems that there is a little start-up group that may just be able to pull NASA's chestnuts out of the roaster. A company called Trasformational Space, or t/Space has been working with NASA funding to create a relatively inexpensive low Earth orbit craft to use as a back-up for when the shuttle isn't working. NASA has been trying something new, giving small research grants to companies to encourage them to come up with new space flight vehicles. As a company clears certain hurdles, NASA trickles them some more funding, thus getting more bang for their buck, and avoiding the inhearant bloat and waste of government research. t/Space has already successfully tested a full-sized re-entry capsule mock-up that splashes down in the ocean, and a 1/4 scale launch vehicle dropped from a Scaled Composites Proteus aircraft. The launch strategy is nothing short of genius. The two-stage rocket is lifted to 50,000 feet above the Earth, well above any potential bad weather, by a specially fitted aircraft. It is then released, and a drough chute pulls the rocket away from the aircraft and orients it tail down. The single engine is fired, and the rocket is soon in orbit. This is not meant to be a replacement for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, due in 2011 or so, but it will be finished long before the more expensive and complex shuttle successor. Since the shuttle program is scheduled for termination as soon as the ISS is complete, this will keep the manned spaceflight program in this country alive for the forseeable future. And t/Space isn't only focusing on government contracts. They are planning to capitalize on their low cost to orbit strategies, and are one of the possible contractors working with Robert Bigelow, a developer who hopes to have a commercial space station in orbit by 2010.
This story gives me hope for two reasons. First of all it shows that the commercial exploitation of space will bring real results much more quickly than the government will. And secondly it shows that NASA is finally realizing that they have to shift their paradigm if they are going to remain relevent. Let's hope it works. :-)