Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Cure for Space Burnout--Remember Why You're Here in the First Place

It’s not pretty, and we don’t like to admit it, but job/career burnout can happen in any line of work, even careers we’re passionate about. Such things usually happen through overwork, lack of creative control, lack of challenge, or as Dr. OZMG likes to say, “deeper underlying issues.” I’ve had a three-year job adaptation cycle for awhile now, where I spend the first year absorbing the content, the second year kicking arse using that content, and the third year repeating the performance of year two, but usually with a lower level of enthusiasm. My pal D2 reported a similar phenomenon to me, so it’s not unheard-of. The challenge, of course, is what to do if you’re burned out in the literal career of your dreams.

When I worked at Walt Disney World, I went through several three-year cycles, but managed to stay with the same company for 12 years. One of the things I would do just to keep myself happy and motivated was to “renew the wonder.” This would involve something like staying in one of the hotels I hadn’t stayed in before, taking a Disney Cruise, or just hanging out in the parks with no set agenda. My favorite personal recharging is still a walk through Epcot.

It’s a little hard to revisit rocket launches in the space business because they don’t happen very often. In fact, we’re only five missions away from the end of the Space Shuttle Program. That little fact is beginning to creep up on people outside NASA for the first time, and so now normal (i.e. non-space-geek) people like my family, Disney friends, and Dr. OZMG are starting to ask, “You’re closing down the Shuttle? Really? What do we do then?” And if you’ve been in the middle of that debate with little to no influence on the outcome but a whole lot invested in the outcome, you have to ask yourself what you can do to keep your spirits up and avoid the stress of prolonged uncertainty and possible massive changes in your program. In my case, I have to remind myself why I got into this business, what it means in normal-person terms, and what it means to me personally. Below is such an exercise. As usual, these views do not reflect those of NASA, my employer, etc. They are an English major’s view of why the space program matters to him.

The Big Picture

Before I got interested in space as an actual business or line of work, I was a science fiction fan. Science fiction encompasses everything from the space fantasies of Star Trek and Star Wars to the sociological utopias/dystopias of Ursula K. LeGuin and Ray Bradbury to the “hard” science fiction works of Larry Niven, Arthur C. Clarke, and Michael Crichton. Many of these stories depict human beings living, working, and having regular human problems in a future where space travel is not just possible but commonplace. We are nowhere near there yet, but that’s the “vision thing,” as George H. W. Bush might’ve said.

The space advocacy group I belong to, and currently write policy/position papers for, is the National Space Society (NSS). Their vision is “People living and working in communities beyond the Earth.” I dug that. I liked the idea of homes and businesses on the Moon, on Mars, in space stations circling this planet or others. It intrigues me that human beings could explore the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, collect helium 3 from the atmospheres of Neptune and Saturn, and use water-ice objects from the outer solar system to add water to the atmosphere of Mars. It startles and humbles me that I live in an age where objects made by humans have and can leave the solar system. I can’t do any of it, but the dreams are big, and such things appeal to me. If NSS is doing our jobs right, we get those aforementioned normal people to take an interest in the policies and technologies that will make such a future possible.


It’s not just a matter of zipping around to other planets, making footprints on the sand, and taking pretty pictures for political consumption back home. There have been and continue to be huge benefits from space exploration, direct and indirect, to people on Earth who would never in a million years consider being an engineer or an astronaut. The revolution in miniature integrated circuits—the basis for our computers today—had its birth in data collection for the Saturn V. We can thank the space program for many of our most advanced high-technology medical tools, from the CAT scan and MRI to improved breast screenings and lightweight eyeglasses. Would these advances have occurred if we hadn’t gone into space? Perhaps some, but not most of them. The key to “spinoffs” is what philosopher Gonsalvo Munevar called the serendipity of exploration:

  • You develop a widget that helps a spacecraft (probe) perform a task or survive in a place with no atmosphere, high vibration (upon liftoff), temperature extremes, and strange radiations not encountered on Earth.
  • You work on improving the device, material, process, or technology for future use.
  • You or someone else realizes that the new device—which would never have been invented if it hadn’t been for our crazy desire to explore space—has certain properties that would also be useful for more mundane but equally useful Earth-based purpose.
  • Life is improved on Earth through the new application of the space-based device.


There are two big gorillas in the medium-term future of space power that deserve to be investigated: space-based solar power (SBSP) and helium-3 fusion.

The idea behind SBSP is that you put a large farm of solar panels—say, one square mile’s worth—into geosynchronous orbit (the sort of orbit where the satellite’s period of revolution around the Earth is exactly one day, so it always stays in one place in the sky). The solar panels collect unfiltered sunlight 24 hours a day—at roughly three times the intensity felt on Earth’s equator on a hot day in spring—and transmit the energy in concentrated form via microwaves to a receiving/rectifying antenna (rectenna) on Earth. The rectenna is plugged into a city’s power grid, and voila! Fewer brownouts, fewer coal-burning power plants, less pollution, fewer hydrocarbons used. I’ve heard arguments against SBSP, but until we invest in one and put it into orbit, we really won’t know. And if we want to continue to have a prosperous, high-technology future, we’re going to need new sources of energy; “green” technologies are all too small to have much impact on our future large-scale needs.

Another potential future energy source would be nuclear fusion using helium-3, an isotope of helium that is more easily fused into other elements without as much hard radiation as a side effect. We’ve been pushing for fusion for over 50 years, and it’s always been “only 20 years away.” Helium-3 is most likely a longer-term energy solution, but again should not be discounted until we at least try it. If we want both a high-technology civilization and an improved environment, space technologies offer two possibilities worth investigating. The long-term energy supply from both of these sources runs into the centuries, not just decades.


John S. Lewis has postulated that a nickel-iron asteroid a few miles across would be enough to meet the metal needs of our planet for 20 years or more. The reasoning being, these asteroids have a lot more than just nickel and iron (an decent combination for making stainless steel, by the way), including platinum-group metals, and other useful metals, not to mention organic materials (carbon, nitrogen) and water ice, all of which could be used to build things in space or meet our metal-hungry civilization back on Earth. Of course we’d need more routine access to and from space before the cost of hauling in such a treasure trove was possible, but in the meantime, the possibilities asteroids open up for building a civilization in space are very exciting.


Raised in the American Midwest as I was, I grew up learning about the Northwest Ordinance, and the six-by-six-mile squares that were parceled out to German and Irish and other European farmers to make the settlement of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin possible. The government offered up land for sale, and people bought it, promised nothing save the right to make what good use of it they could and the responsibility to pay taxes when they did. The “frontier narrative” speaks to me as a freedom-loving American. It won’t be completely repeatable in space because human-made habitats will be extremely vulnerable—much more so than wagon trains moving across the Great Plains—but space as a place offers the hope of establishing a new life for the very dedicated few.


Exploring and living in space will require our very best efforts. It will take the combined works of many, many smart people to make it so safe that someone who is NOT that smart to live out there without a degree. The specialties cover the range of human civilization to date, from garbage collection to quantum physics. Everything that we do here we will do or try in space. We just have to learn how to do them all over again, and that will take a very unique educational system, very technical and very creative. To make those works possible, we will need people educated people capable of understanding how structures, machines, and people will act in unfamiliar environments. We will need artists and musicians and yes, even writers to be out there eventually to convey the views of people living away from the blue-green-brown-white ball we call Earth and taking their best shot at the meaning of it all. If expanding our civilization into space is our long-range goal, then our educational systems must rise to meet the challenge. Just developing the curriculum for that would be the work of several lifetimes—but how rewarding, if successful!


So there you go: I want it all. I want a thriving, bustling, free civilization in space. I want to see great works of art and architecture. I want to see risk-taking, new experiments in freedom, an expanding pie of economic growth, cheap and plentiful energy and materials for a combative world. And I believe space exploration can make such things possible. However, it is very easy to get wrapped around the axle with the current politics or arguments of the day: where do we go first? What rockets do we build? What do we spend money on, how much do we spend, and who spends it? Should we send robots or humans? How far should we go to prevent pollution of the space environment?

Space is as much a philosophical as it is a technical adventure, as America was to the Europeans 500 years ago. What lessons might we learn today that we didn’t learn then? That is the reason I stay in this gig: I want to learn—and maybe even contribute—some of those answers.


Keith Henson said...

The biggest problem with power satellites is the lift cost to GEO. There may be ways to get this into an acceptable range with a large enough traffic model.

It is also possible that thermal cycle power satellites will more effective.

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Keith henson

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Robert said...

In my opinion, going beyond the Earth, Moon and Mars, will be only possible if using aneutronic fusion reactor powered by helium-3.

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