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Panel Explores Future of NASA

Kevin Cannon

Published: Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

On Tuesday evening in Cushing Hall, Boston College hosted several presentations and a panel discussion debating the future of space travel. The speakers included Jim Schier, NASA’s chief architect for space communications and navigation, NASA’s Brent Sherwood, and BC professors Dominic Papineau and Charles Carrano.

 Keynote speaker Schier outlined NASA’s goals and varying objectives for the next 30 years, highlighting the usefulness of the International Space Station, as well as other near-Earth objectives. “More than 1,200 experiments have been performed on it to date, supporting more than 1,600 scientists worldwide in 59 countries,” he said. “But we have to figure out how to solve the problems of both sustaining the environmental control and life support systems, since shipping a pound of air or water to space costs upwards of $10,000, and how humans can recover from the physical detriment of space. It takes three years to recover the lost bone and muscle mass from a six month stay in orbit.” He added that over 30 million students have interacted with the astronauts aboard the space station.

 The second half of his presentation summarized the next generation of exploration systems, including the Space Launch System (SLS). This vehicle is designed to carry the Orion spacecraft, cargo, equipment, and science experiments to Earth’s orbit and to destinations beyond. It is similar to the Saturn V rockets used during the Apollo program in the 1960s. Finally, he said that “government has essentially sucked all the oxygen out of the air in terms of allowing the privatization of space, and to that end we must figure out how to support a capability-driven human space exploration framework that involves both the public and private sectors.”

 Carrano gave a short lecture on an emerging field of science called space weather that deals with the relationship between physical processes on the Sun and changes in the space environment. He underlined the potentially damaging effects on future astronauts from a host of radiation events emanating from the Sun, including solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and other solar particle events.

“A typical American’s yearly dose of radiation is received in about four days when in space,” Carrano said. “In August of 1972, for instance, in between the Apollo 16 and 17 missions one of the most powerful radiation events in recorded history occurred, and scientists now estimate that had astronauts been on the moon there was a 50-50 chance at least one would have received a lethal dose of radiation.”

 Papineau delivered a short presentation on the subject of exobiology. In short, it is concerned with life in space. A majority of the discipline revolves around studying the earliest forms of life on Earth through geology and fossil records to see whether life could have come from outside a terrestrial origin. However, he also pointed out the various spots within the solar system hypothesized to be hospitable to life, as well as similarities between rock compositions found on Earth compared to that of Mars. To this end, he also addressed a long-standing conundrum in the scientific community regarding a Martian rock found in the 1970s, which he said jokingly “is the most- studied rock in the universe,” that might have proof of extra terrestrial life.

 NASA’s Sherwood, who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, offered some other options besides the moon and Mars that he thinks do not get as much attention in the public eye. “We could spend hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade or so to satisfy our societal need for a hero and have six civil servants put their boots on Mars by 2020,” he noted. “But since each and every one of you pays for these programs every April 15, I would like you to know there are other options that are perhaps more important and useful to us right now.”

 He suggested using orbiting solar arrays to generate an enormous amount of clean energy that could be beamed down to generators on the ground by means of microwave rays. Most interestingly, he suggested, “If you can imagine something akin to the surface area of the U.S. Interstate Highway System in an array of solar panels in space, you could solve the world’s energy crisis and provide clean water through desalinization for most of the third-world. There are other options out there, and we need to take the time as a government institution to let the public know what we could be doing with your money.”

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