We Got There Then, We’ll Get There Now

Whether by sail or spaceship, we will get there.
Whether by sail or spaceship, we will get there.
Cultures go through stages of rampant xenophobia and isolationism. They fear the new, they fear change and they try to lock themselves within self defined borders. Anything from beyond those borders is considered “bad” and anything from within is considered “all that’s good and holy.” Here, in America, we have seen that scenario play out several times. The most famous isolationist movement happened in the late 1920’s and early 30’s and had Charles Lindbergh as its figurehead. History doesn’t tell us if he ever saw the irony in being the person who helped make trans-Atlantic travel possible while also being the one who wanted us to hide behind an imaginary wall and wish the world away. My guess is that he didn’t. It’s almost impossible for a person who sees things in black and white to enjoy the shades of gray that irony requires. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that there is a similar mentality permeating our great land today. The obvious problem with such a mindset is that it’s not only selfish but ignorant. Selfish because such a mentality always starts with “I,” “me,” and “mine.” Ignorant because it assumes we live in a vacuum. As if our actions here do not affect others and the happenings in lands not ours have no bearing on how we face the day. Lindbergh, and his ilk, allowed the Nazi war machine to grow to unprecedented proportions and nearly take over the world. The only thing that truly stopped it in the end was the ineptness of its leaders. I shudder to think what will happen if similar people gain control in American today.

To be blunt, just because it’s somebody else’s problem doesn’t mean it’s not yours as well.

Long before Jesus walked the earth, the Romans had figured out the basics. Oh, sure, they had onerous taxes and an oppressive military, but underpinning it all was their comprehension that trade between cultures was the best way to hold everything together. And, to that end, they came up with some very clever inventions to make that possible. Even today we are discovering things that Romans took for granted but which changed the face of the world back then. One, and please don’t laugh, was a portable fish tank.

Rossella Lorenzi from Discover News, takes a look at the hows of it all. I’ll tell you the whys once you’re done reading.

The ancient Romans might have traded live fish across the Mediterranean Sea by endowing their ships with an ingenious hydraulic system, a new investigation into a second century A.D. wreck suggests.

Consisting of a pumping system designed to suck the sea water into a fish tank, the apparatus has been reconstructed by a team of Italian researchers who analyzed a unique feature of the wreck: a lead pipe inserted in the hull near the keel.

Recovered in pieces from the Adriatic sea in 1999, the ship was carrying a cargo of processed fish when it sank six miles off the coast of Grado in northeastern Italy.

The small trade vessel, which was 55 feet long and 19 feet wide, was packed with some 600 vases called amphoras.They were filled with sardines, salted mackerel, and garum, a fish sauce much loved by the Romans.

Now the archaeologists suspect that some 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of live fish, placed in a tank on the deck in the aft area, might have also been carried by the ship during its sailing life.

“The apparatus shows how a simple small cargo vessel could have been turned into one able to carry live fish. This potentiality, if confirmed by future studies, shows that trading live fish was actually possible in the Roman world,” Carlo Beltrame, a marine archaeologist at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in Italy, told Discovery News.

Measuring 51 inches in length and featuring a diameter of at least 2.7 inches, the unique lead pipe was located in a sort of “small bilge-well” and would have been connected to a hand operated piston pump (which had not been found within the wreck).

Ending with a hole right in the hull, the pipe intrigued the researchers.

“No seaman would have drilled a hole in the keel, creating a potential way for water to enter the hull, unless there was a very powerful reason to do so,” Beltrame and colleagues reported in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

According to the researchers, the reason wasn’t the need for removing bilge water from the bottom of the boat through the pipe.

Indeed, bucket chain pumps were able to discharge bilge water from the side in a much safer way, possibly recovering between 110 and 225 liters (30 to 60 gallons) of water per minute.

“It seems unlikely that sailors aboard the small Grado ship abandoned the usual chain-pumping apparatus in favor of the more complex bilge pump,” Beltrame said.

Rather than serving a bilge pump to send water out of the ship, the pipe could have supported a sucking pump to bring water onto the vessel, the researchers argued.

But what could have been the purpose of such an unusual hydraulic system?

According to Beltrame and colleagues, the ship was too small to justify the presence of the pump to wash the decks or extinguish fires (similar piston-driven suction systems were employed on warships such as Horatio Nelson’s HMS Victory).

“Given the ship’s involvement in the fish trade, the most logical hypothesis is that the piston pump worked to supply a fish tank with oxygenated water,” said Beltrame.

The researchers calculated that the small trade vessel could have carried a tank containing around 4 cubic meters (141 cubic feet) of water.

This water mass would have created no problems for stability while housing some 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of live fish, such as sea bass or sea bream.

Connected to the lead pipe, the hand operated piston pump would have easily allowed the necessary exchange of the water mass.

According to the researchers, the water would have needed to be replaced once every half an hour in order to provide a constant oxygen supply.

“With a flow of 252 liters (66 gallons) per minute, the piston pump would have filled the tank in 16 minutes,” Beltrame said.

According to Rita Auriemma, a marine archaeologist at the University of Salento, it is plausible that the hydraulic system in Grado ship served for live fish trade.

“The context in which the ship operated makes this the most logical explanation,” Auriemma told Discovery News.

“The near Istria coast was known for numerous vivaria, large enclosures to breed fish. It is possible that the Grado ship transported live fish from these vivaria to large markets in the high Adriatic,” Auriemma said.

Indeed, it would have taken about 10 hours to cross the nearly 30 miles of sea that divided the Istria vivaria to the river port of Aquileia, one of the richest Roman towns during the imperial period.

“Such a trip could have been sustained by the live fish only through an apparatus of continuous water exchange similar to that of the Grado ship,” Beltrame said.

Besides the obvious fact that people could get exotic, and very fresh, yummies from around the world, there is another fact that needs to be considered. By transporting live fish from point A to point B, the Romans were able to introduce non-native species into waters and change the nature of local ecosystems. Proof that they did it is easy to find. Just look at the many spots in the world that have goldfish, koi and Asiatic carp. All were local to China and northern Japan until the Romans began trading with the east and, eventually, set up a new capital in Constantinople.

Which, technically, made them Constantinoplians and not Romans, but who am I to quibble?

Earlier in this article I mentioned that you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see the problems with isolationism. However you do need to be one if you are going to come up with any feasible way to expand humanity beyond the borders of this earthly realm. Fortunately for you, we have one available. Richard Obousy is the co-founder of Project Icarus and it, as the name implies, hopes to fly us close to the stars.

Albeit without the whole flaming to our death ending of the original story.

Before I get to the article I should note that he talks a lot about disruptive technologies. He is not talking about bombs or political unrest. Think of it this way, linear technology would go like this; wheel, unicycle, bicycle, tricycle, qudracycle all the way to motorized vehicles that traverse our roads today. Disruptive technology would be more akin to wheel, car.

As you can see, many of the intermediary steps disappear. I admit my example is very simplistic, but I wanted you to have a grasp of the basics before we continued.

Projections for the first interstellar voyages, based on extrapolations of our current technological state and current investment into space exploration, will almost always place such missions hundreds of years into the future.

To emphasize this point, the Augustine Committee, a review of the United States human space flight program, found that a heavy lift rocket that could return us to the moon — a destination that, in the grand scheme of things, is right on our cosmic front doorstep — would not be available until approximately 2030.

Compound that with the fact that the committee also determined that the lunar lander, necessary for manned landings, would not be ready for many years after. It’s therefore easy to grow skeptical about the prospects for an interstellar mission that could be launched this century.

While this is true, I believe it would be a gross misjudgment to write off an interstellar mission so quickly, since it does not take into account disruptive breakthroughs in both technology and the economy that might drastically accelerate such an aspiration.

Broadly speaking, there are three areas of possible ‘disruption’ that might fast-forward humankind’s first exploration of another star system.

1. Ease of Access to Space

Access to Earth orbit is expensive, and wildly wasteful. A typical space shuttle mission, capable of transferring about 25 tons into orbit costs close to half a billion dollars, requires months of planning and a small army of support staff. Access to space is neither easy, nor routine.

However, the space shuttle paradigm is only one model of space access. For example, the UK company Reaction Engines has been designing and testing elements of the Skylon launch vehicle, which would utilize an air-breathing rocket to access earth orbit with just a single stage engine.

Using the ‘Sabre’ engine, Skylon would require much less propellant than any conventional rocket, and would reduce launch costs by about 23 times, making access to space far cheaper and, possibly, ushering in a new era of exploration as the technology is adopted.

This is just one example of many “disruptive technologies” that would provide us with cheap and easy access to space. Possibly the most exciting examples of ‘easy space access’ is the Space Elevator concept, popularized by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel ‘The Fountains of Paradise.’

The central idea behind a Space Elevator involves lowering a cable — perhaps constructed from asteroid material — from geostationary Earth orbit to the surface of the Earth. The cable would connect with some point on Earth located at the equator, and would allow mass to be transferred to orbit using electricity instead of rocket fuel. Prices for space access would be approximately $100 per pound, or about 100 times cheaper than conventional launch systems.

Skylon, the Space Elevator and other pioneering technologies are receiving serious attention within the space community and any breakthroughs over the coming decades would profoundly change our attitudes toward space exploration.

2. Commercialization of Space

Space exploration is often seen as an expensive adventure, with little return to the economy, or the investor. I would argue that the Apollo program accelerated the development of miniaturization technologies, including the microprocessor — now responsible for multi-billion dollar industries.

However, it’s important for investors to see tangible, rapid and direct returns on their investments. Thus, one critical component to accelerating the construction of an interstellar mission will be the commercialization of space.

John Lewis, in his book “Mining the Sky,” estimates that one of the closest asteroids to the Earth holds a mineral wealth upward of $15 trillion. To put this in perspective, this is about the same as the entire annual GDP of the United States.

When you keep in mind that there are millions of such asteroids within our solar system alone, one can quickly see how space mining could very quickly become a terrific commercial opportunity. Currently, the Return on Investment for any space mining enterprise would be very low (likely not profitable at all) due to launch costs mentioned earlier. However, if the disruptive technologies currently being explored are shown to be realistic, then the commercialization of space could begin in earnest.

Space policy/law currently imposes extremely high tariffs on any materials returned from outer space, and so this law would have to be revisited to really cultivate an entrepreneurial environment to truly capitalize on the abundant resources within our solar system, but this is certainly within our grasp, and is really nothing more than a bureaucratic hurdle.

3. Breakthroughs in Fusion Technology

The real Holy Grail for an interstellar mission will be breakthroughs in our ability to harness thermonuclear energy — namely fusion. Nuclear fusion is what powers all Main Sequence stars in the universe, and efforts to exploit this energy have been ongoing for decades.

Although the challenges are certainly intricate, to say the least, they are not insurmountable. For example, the National Ignition Facility located in Livermore, California, is predicting a major milestone accomplishment of ignition sometime in 2011/2012. While breakthroughs in fusion may appear slow to the public, leaps in our understanding of how to harness this energy are being made daily around the world, and it’s only a matter of time until a working commercial reactor is constructed.

Interestingly, a number of high profile entrepreneurs are investing a lot of money into non-government fusion research programs. For example, Jeff Bezos, Chairman and CEO of Amazon, with a net worth of about $18 billion, has recently invested almost $20 million in a privately held Canadian energy company. It may be that a maverick research organization beats the government behemoths to the finishing line.

Once fusion is better understood, and is being harnessed routinely, it’s a small leap to apply that technology for propulsion purposes. Pound for pound, fusion releases about one million times more energy than conventional chemical rocket fuel, and could conceivably propel a spacecraft to a reasonable fraction of the speed of light, and produce an interstellar rocket that could reach a nearby star on timescales of a human lifetime.

My conclusions are that the ‘safe bet’ for predicting when the first interstellar mission will occur will always lie hundreds of years into the future. But certain pieces to the interstellar puzzle have the potential to fall into place far sooner, and disrupt our current approaches to thinking about this problem.

If we are to take seriously the notion of interstellar travel, and ultimately construct plans to make this happen, then we are forced to push the limits of what is possible under the most optimistic conditions.

Probes that could accomplish this seemingly extraordinary task may be within our grasp, if the appropriate studies are supported today.

The incredible thing, to many, is that all of this can be done without the help of space aliens. Although, if they want to drop by and offer a few helpful pointers, I’m sure they’d be welcomed with open arms. One thing is certain, there is money to be made in space and, because that is so, trade will come sooner rather than later.

Our old pal, Ian O’Neill, wanted to share a video with you that might help you comprehend the joys of space travel. I’ll let him tell you about it.

What do you get when you mix space exploration with an industrial rock band? If you’re thinking a bunch of Klingons trying their hand at slash metal, you’re not the only one. However, if you asked designer/director Chris Abbas a very different blend of space music would result.

Using archival footage from the Cassini Solstice mission, which continues to dazzle us earthlings with incredible imagery from the Saturnian system, and a tune from the band Nine Inch Nails, a rather surprising — and atmospheric — experience awaits.

CASSINI MISSION from Chris Abbas on Vimeo.

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!

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