Friday, January 24, 2003
1. NASA: TWICE ABANDONED, IS NUCLEAR
ROCKET DEVELOPMENT ON AGAIN?
Efforts to develop a nuclear rocket engine were abandoned in 1972 to make
funds available for the space shuttle. That was the first bad choice.
The idea was secretly revived in the eighties as project Timberwind, based
on the use of a uranium carbide particle bed reactor to heat hydrogen
as a high specific impulse propellant. It was intended to provide a pop-up
launcher for a Star Wars missile defense. That wasn’t a great plan
either, and Timberwind died when SDI died (WN
5 Apr 91). Now, as project Prometheus, its development is being linked
to possible human exploration of Mars. It is even rumored that President
Bush will announce plans for human exploration of Mars in his January
28 State of the Union Address to Congress. That’s yet another bad
idea. The exploration of Mars should be carried out by robots, but that’s
no reason not to develop a nuclear rocket. It would greatly speed up robotic
exploration of the solar system.
2. BIOSPHERE-2: COULD A HUMAN COLONY
ON MARS BE SELF-SUSTAINING?
When eight "biospherians," dressed in Star-Trek uniforms, marched
into their gleaming 3-acre terrarium in 1991 and closed the air lock,
it was hailed as a bold experiment. They vowed to remain for two years,
recycling water, air and waste and growing their own food. It didn’t
take that long to get an answer. Within weeks, the crystal-clear "ocean"
turned to slime. Biospherians were soon gasping for air; then the crops
failed. Texas oil billionaire Edward Bass, who had bankrolled Biosphere-2,
turned to Columbia University to find a legitimate science use. But the
original research question was already answered: Far larger and more elaborate
than anything that could be transported to Mars, Biosphere-2 could not
sustain eight humans. Columbia is pulling out, but Biosphere-2 could still
be useful. Anyone who proposes a space colony could be sent there to live
for two years.
3. PRIVACY: SENATE BLOCKS "TOTAL
INFORMATION AWARENESS" FUNDING.
By a voice vote, the Senate yesterday voted to ban funding for the "Total
Information Awareness" program until the Pentagon provides an analysis
of its impact on civil liberties (WN
20 Dec 02). The program would involve electronic surveillance of personal
data of all Americans. The senators were also concerned that the program
would be under John Poindexter, who was national security advisor to President
Reagan. Poindexter was convicted of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra
scandal. On appeal, his conviction was set aside only on the grounds that
his immunized congressional testimony had been used against him. The TIA
ban is not yet law. Introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), it was added
to a spending package which must still go to House/Senate negotiators
to resolve differences.