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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

Feedback on ‘Star Wars,’ the Cold War and more

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June 11, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Reagan's space legacy:
Ronald Reagan's space legacy was recognized 250 miles above the earth this week, with 40 chimes of the "ship's bell" heralding the passing of the 40th president. As astronaut Mike Fincke noted in his orbital tribute, Reagan pushed the idea of putting Americans aboard the outpost back in 1984 — although at the time he probably didn't imagine the first living quarters would be built in Russia.

Reagan also used missile defense research, known as the Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars," as a high-tech lever in America's Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. But on National Review Online, Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg argues that Reagan's true legacy in space extended to commercial matters as well as NASA and the Pentagon.

As President Reagan was laid to rest, Cosmic Log readers reflected on his space legacy:

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Bill Daniels: "The Strategic Defense Initiative was a brilliant ploy of statecraft and deception and will be remembered as the crown jewel in Reagan's legacy. Whether the system could work or not was beside the point. Betting that a technological breakthrough is impossible is a loser's bet, so the Soviet Union had no choice but to spend every ruble in an impossible effort to counter a system with thousands of ill-defined parts that only might work. The result was the Russian joke: 'The Cold War was a race to see who would go broke first, and Russia won.' I submit that result was exactly what Ronald Reagan intended. If only we had that level of sophistication in the White House now."

Ryan Shannon, San Francisco: "Reagan's legacy will be the fact that he was right to ignore the 'Chicken Littles' and those with a 'can't do' attitude on the left. They screamed about this 'cowboy' Reagan starting WWIII by daring to speak the truth about the evils of communism ... in the end he brought the 'Evil Empire' to its knees and freedom to the people of Russia. They also scoffed and smirked at the idea of missles being shot down out of the sky. Thank God these attitudes were ignored when men were inventing the phone, planes, space travel, microwaves, etc. Reagan's legacy will be his vision for the future based on his knowledge of the past."

Michael Hoffman, Concord, Mass.: "...Ronald Reagan damaged the world by taking missile defense from a modest research program to a major effort.  It was as destructive to our nation's attitudes as the fools who decided, during the Kennedy presidential campaign, that there was a 'missile gap' and that we needed a thousand ICBMs to keep us safe, thereby scaring the hell out of the Russians and launching the arms race that we were saddled with for 30 years.  We're still saddled with it, only now we're racing only ourselves. It's said that people become what they hate.  I believe our nation has become what it has always said it hates.  The militarization of space is symptomatic of a people in decline."

James: "We are spending billions on this 'Star Wars' thing, but will it be able to work if the nukes are set off within the United States and not by means of air? I feel we need to spend the money on home security instead of this nonsense. I could see if we were at war with Russia or China that this would be necessary, but not with terrorists who only have means by ground to attack, unless they hijack another one of our planes. ..."

Free video
Reagan's space legacy
June 7: NASA remembers President Reagan's role in the Challenger aftermath, the space station's origins and more.
Matt Boyk, Banks, Ore., on the missile defense system:
"I am sure it would be beneficial for its first intended purpose, but I feel it would better serve mankind if it were a near-Earth asteroid shield. We are currently tracking 700 to 1,000, correct? What about the ones we don't know of yet, like the one that passed us at a distance less than the moon. So far I'd say we have been very lucky. What if one lands on a major city? I'd like some protection from that."

C.P. on Reagan, the Strategic Defense Initiative and the Delta Clipper: "...If SDI hadn't been cut back drastically by Congress, they would have built at least the DC-Y, and NASA would have been forced to inherit a fully functional orbital vehicle. ... Reagan's legacy to the space programs has already been discarded by 15 years of neglect. We have to start over, and it looks more and more like Congress and the majority of the American public could care less about the space program than the supposed (and fictitious) 'Social Security Trust Fund.' Whichever country's businesses succeed in commercially exploiting space assets (more than the already-mature industries such as telecommunications...) is going to have enough money to pay any 'trust fund' social welfare/wealth redistribution programs that they want. It might be the U.S. The way we are headed, it just might be China or India. ..."

June 11, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Watch for space stars:
The solstice launch of SpaceShipOne is shaping up as a milestone event on three levels: The main appeal is the history-making aspect of what could be the world's first official spaceflight in a privately built craft — something science-fiction authors have assumed for more than a century would come to pass. The June 21 event could draw tens of thousands of people to Mojave, Calif., providing the additional atmosphere of a Woodstock or "Burning Man" happening. (A tip o' the link to Clark Lindsey at HobbySpace.)

The third angle has to do with the intersection of space and celebrity: Among the VIPs expected to attend are moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and California millionaire Dennis Tito, the world's first space passenger to pay his own way. Other big names, from Hollywood or beyond, might well come to Mojave.

Just this week, British millionaire/adventurer Richard Branson told The Guardian that he would make an announcement by the end of June relating to space tourism — and I have to think that the throngs in Mojave would include Branson, who wants to go into space himself and is working with SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan on the Virgin Global Flyer, a 'round-the-world plane. Mojave would serve as the most fitting venue for Branson's announcement.

June 11, 2004 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Weekend trips on the World Wide Web:
L.A. City Beat: 'Space Cowboys'
The Economist: Hunter-programmers
'Nova' on PBS: 'Who Killed the Red Baron?'
The Onion: Mischievous raccoon wreaks havoc in space

June 10, 2004 | 5:30 p.m. ET
Tomorrow's grand challenges:
Today, building a better rocket or robot could win you millions of dollars. Which technologies should take the prize in years to come? That's what NASA will be considering over the next week, during its first Centennial Challenges workshop and at an industry briefing on its new space vision.

In advance of the workshop, I asked Cosmic Log readers to come up with suggestions for prizeworthy space challenges. Some offered suggestions; others offered questions instead.

Here's a sampling of the feedback:

Michael Huang: "Build and run a closed-loop life support system that supports two people for a set time. At the end of time, the system must be in the same state as the beginning ('steady state'). When the first life support challenge is won, the next challenges will be progressively more difficult (support more people over a longer time) with larger prizes."

Vernon: "I would like to see NASA construct a working deep-space fusion drive to power the next generation of spacecraft."

Larry M. Beasley, Pflugerville, Texas: "... Space ain't dead. It's just been drained to a withered and anemic husk by the political practice of rewarding huge corporate donations with huge lucrative contracts. Anybody remember the successful tests of the vertical launch vehicle design by our own military? The only way space will be developed is by bulldozing a bypass around, over and through our so-called political leaders’ monopoly on research and development for near-Earth orbit. Hats off to the whole X Prize crowd for proving it can be done!"

Patrick Bishop, Caldwell, N.J., on the Ansari X Prize: "Building a system to pop our heads above the atmosphere is not a true steppingstone toward privately lofted orbital systems, but merely an extreme amusement-park ride. When we can get up and stay up — that will be something."

Steve Harmon, Bismarck, N.D.: "How much more space junk and pollution will this new rich man's adventure create? It's bad enough that governments continue this quest. ..."

J. Tacheny, Mankato, Minn.: "I believe strongly that all scientific evidence tells us the hidden mysteries of our oceans hold much more promise for the future health and habitability of Earth than any space exploration. Space has had a surreal and exotic attraction for humans preceding recorded history. But that does not mean we are on the right track. If even a fraction of the monies of the space budget and the space industry were spent on exploring ... underwater, then we would discover the bounty provided on our own planet to benefit humanity and the future of the health of planet Earth in profound and far reaching ways. Why travel far away at great expense when the benefits we seek are very likely right here at home? I for one do not believe the benefits of space exploration have justified the costs in money, human resources and time. Space exploration has become a 'given' in the world community that needs to be seriously challenged and examined by giving equal attention to the voices that disagree with this course of action."

On Friday, I'll pass along a selection of the feedback on Ronald Reagan's space legacy and the state of "Star Wars." If you have some final suggestions on space challenges, pass them along and I'll try to squeeze a few of those in as well.

June 10, 2004 | 5:30 p.m. ET
New life for ‘God Particle’: For years, particle physicists have been searching for an elusive quarry known as the Higgs boson, which is thought to give mass to all other subatomic particles. It plays such a key role in physics that it's been nicknamed the "God Particle," but the particle has not been definitively detected.

Now there's a new twist in the quest: In this week's issue of the journal Nature, researchers report a new estimate for the mass of another subatomic particle, known as the top quark. When you crank that estimate into quantum-mechanical equations, you get a significantly higher figure for the energy levels where the Higgs boson can be found. In fact, the levels (117 gigaelectronvolts, if you must know) are beyond the range of any particle accelerator currently in operation — which would explain why no one's been able to find the darn thing.

“It’s as if we’ve been digging a hole for the Higgs, and suddenly we realize we read the map wrong and it’s really somewhere else,” Thomas Ferbel, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, said in a news release.

And so the quest will continue, most likely using a European super-duper-collider due to start up in 2007.

If this is the sort of subject that gets your heart racing, keep an eye on Preposterous Universe, the Web log recently launched by University of Chicago physicist Sean Carroll. "I'm surprised that there aren't more physics-oriented blogs out there," Carroll tells Cosmic Log. "I suspect the field will continue to grow pretty rapidly, though."

June 10, 2004 | 5:30 p.m. ET
Dispatches from the online frontiers:
Slate: Why realistic graphics make humans look creepy
BBC: Nanotech guru changes his mind on 'gray goo'
New Scientist: Ring reveals ancient complex machines
Ananova: UFO fans create intergalactic currency (via Buzzworthy)

June 9, 2004 | Noon ET
Next robot race set: The second DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous robo-cars has been scheduled for Oct. 8, 2005, with the prize doubled to $2 million, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced Tuesday.

The previous Grand Challenge drew 106 applicants, and back in March, 15 finalists competed on a rugged course that wound through the Mojave Desert between Barstow, Calif., and Primm, Nev. None of the vehicles could finish the 142-mile course, but DARPA said it got its money's worth nevertheless. Collectively, the teams spent far more than the offered $1 million, on robotic research that is important to the military.

The Pentagon hopes future autonomous vehicles will take some of the risk out of resupply operations in future battlefields — a factor that has posed a serious problem in Iraq.

“This event is a challenge for American ingenuity,” DARPA Director Anthony Tether said in Tuesday's announcement. “It brings together individuals and organizations from the research and development community, industry, government, the armed services, academia, professional societies, and from the ranks of students, backyard inventors, and automotive enthusiasts.”

DARPA invited would-be participants to attend a preparatory conference on Aug. 14 at the Anaheim Marriott in Anaheim, Calif. Right now, Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team would have to be the favorite for Grand Challenge II, but it will be interesting to see how the field develops over the next 16 months.

June 9, 2004 | 1:30 p.m. ET
More robotic news on the World Wide Web:
Johns Hopkins: Students design land-mine robot
Globe and Mail: Robot speechless but agile
Nature: The brain learns like a robot
MATE: Underwater robotics, anyone?

June 8, 2004 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Math's Holy Grail: The Riemann Hypothesis has been called the "Holy Grail of mathematics" and "the greatest unsolved problem in mathematics." A $1 million prize has been set aside for the person who comes up with a solution.

Now a mathematician who has been working on the challenge for 20 years is putting his latest proposed proof on the Internet.

Purdue University Professor Louis de Branges de Bourcia has offered proofs before, only to withdraw them. By one account, the National Science Foundation has given him more than $450,000 over the years to work on the Riemann Hypothesis. This time around, de Branges has posted the proof online even before submitting it to peer-reviewed publications — in hopes of eventually claiming the $1 million from the Clay Mathematics Institute.

"I invite other mathematicians to examine my efforts," de Branges said today in a news release from Purdue. "While I will eventually submit my proof for formal publication, due to the circumstances I felt it necessary to post the work on the Internet immediately."

Back in 1984, de Branges delivered a proof for the Bieberbach Conjecture, another longstanding puzzle in the math world, so his colleagues tend to take him seriously. "It will obviously take time to verify his work," said Leonard Lipshitz, head of Purdue's mathematics department, "but I hope that anyone with the necessary background will read his paper so that a useful discussion of its merits can follow."

What's the big deal about the Riemann Hypothesis? The challenge dates back to 1859, when German mathematician Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann published a conjecture about how prime numbers were distributed among other numbers. Riemann could never prove the conjecture for all numbers, nor could anyone else since then — although a distributed-computing project called ZetaGrid has shown it to be true for the first 100 billion solutions.

The details are strewn with zetas, sigmas, pis and phis — the math Greek only a geek could love. But the bottom line is that an airtight, elegant proof of the Riemann Hypothesis could well shed new light on the "music of the primes."

Mathematicians have always been fascinated by prime numbers — integers that are cleanly divisible only by themselves and the number 1. More practically, prime numbers form the foundation for the cryptographic systems that keep online purchases secure. So any progress on primes would prick up the ears of very smart people around the world.

To learn more about the Riemann Hypothesis, click through this Web portal on the problem at the University of Exeter. I particularly recommend the applet on this Web page, which helps you visualize what Riemann was talking about.

June 8, 2004 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Watch this space: The President's Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond has rescheduled the release of its recommendations for noon ET June 16 ... overlapping with NASA's first Centennial Challenges workshop on June 15-16. Then the action moves to Mojave, Calif., for the June 21 milestone spaceflight by Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne — which some are already calling the "Woodstock of Space." This month's whirl is enough to give you a bad case of space sickness.

June 8, 2004 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
National Geographic: 'Exploring Space'
Wired.com: Water to boost satellite snooping
News.com: High hopes for unscrambling the vote
Technology Review: Biodefense boondoggle?

June 7, 2004 | 7:40 p.m. ET
Past and future ‘Star Wars’: Former President Reagan now belongs to the ages, but one of his most controversial legacies — the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" — lives on, and is due to take a significant step from Cold War dream to post-9/11 reality this year.

As proposed in the 1980s, "Star Wars" technology was supposed to render Soviet nuclear weapons harmless: Interceptors and killer beams would destroy the intercontinental ballistic missiles while in flight.

Back then, scientists questioned whether a national missile defense system could ever work. Some commentators now say that was beside the point: They argue that the mere existence of the program pushed the Soviet Union into a military mind game that hastened its Cold War defeat. Others downplay the historical role of "Star Wars."

In any case, the issue is of more than historical interest: After decades of theorizing and testing, the first elements of a real-life missile defense system are due to be deployed as early as September.

The reality will be far less ambitious than the grand "Star Wars" vision of 1983; the threat far more nebulous. Interceptor missiles will be placed first at Fort Greely in Alaska, then at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, to guard against the perceived threat of North Korean missiles. Eventually, the Bush administration argues, such a system will have to be expanded to protect against other "rogue states" or even stateless terrorists.

As in Reagan's day, the technological questions are overwhelmed by the political debate: Will "Star Wars" play an important role in the war on terror, or is it merely a distracting sideshow?

For the pro side, consult the Missile Defense Agency's Web site, which even lists potential civilian spinoffs from the military research, such as a deer-detection system for automobiles. For the con side, you can always depend on the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In addition to "Star Wars," other facets of today's final frontier parallel the challenges of the Reagan era. Then, as now, NASA had to deal with the tragic loss of a space shuttle and its crew. Back then, the centerpiece of Reagan's space vision was Space Station Freedom. Today, that vision has morphed into the international space station, with the heirs of the "evil empire" playing the lead role in its operation.

The space station plays a smaller role in the current president's revised vision for space exploration — serving as the testing ground for future giant leaps, but not as the jumping-off point. The President's Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond had been scheduled to release its recommendations this week, but Reagan's passing has forced a week's postponement. The new release date should be announced Tuesday.

Let me know what you think about the Reagan legacy in space, and how that legacy is likely to evolve in the years ahead.

June 7, 2004 | 7:40 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
BBC: Has Atlantis been found in Spanish marshes?
Science News: Dead zones widen in the seas
Nature: Patch of brain put to sleep
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Fresh warnings from Bill Joy

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


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