Exploration Mindset

Talk of Mars is getting more and more media attention. Because of that, reporters have been calling astronauts, agencies, schools and government officials to get their take on a mission to Mars. Much of the conversation has been centered around Mars One, a newcomer to the Mars race. Being the newcomer, the established players are rightly skeptical. However, I’ve found that skepticism has turned into negativity. It’s very easy to find criticism of the mission and difficult to find optimism. I find this troubling.

I find it especially troubling coming from Canadian astronauts. As a Canadian, I want my country’s astronauts to be the embodiment of the “can do” attitude. Their responses to the Mars One mission, a company up against formidable odds, shows me the Canadian Space Agency is becoming more and more risk averse. More than that, a general unwillingness to entertain new ideas seems prevalent in their culture.  to A sad state of affairs for the third nation in space.

Compare these two statements: It can’t be done vs How can it be done.

The knee jerk reaction I’m seeing is that a mission to Mars can’t be done. Everyone hopes it will, but they aren’t making a personal effort to get it done. They are more than willing to offer excuses as to why it won’t work, instead of solutions to get it to work. There is a big difference in thinking between the two mindsets.

Chris Hadfield

Hadfield is a household name around Canada. I’ve never met him, but I’ve watched his talks online and read his book. As the ISS commander, he no doubt understands leadership and determination. That makes it all the more confusing to me when a bold plan is announced, he’s against it.

“There’s a great, I don’t know, self-defeating optimism in the way that this project has been set up, I fear that it’s going to be a little disillusioning for people, because it’s presented as if for sure it’s going to happen.”

But that’s exactly how you set goals. You set an objective, a time line then start working the details. You don’t set a goal to “maybe”. You set a goal to “we are doing this”. As ISS commander I’m sure he did this over and over again. There were goals in place, and he had to make them happen. You set your goals and adjust your strategy as time goes on to ensure they happen. You may not know all the details when you start towards a goal; the most important thing is that you start.

“I want to know: How does a space suit on Mars work? Show me how it is pressurized, and how it is cooled. What’s the glove design? None of that stuff can be bought off the rack. It does not exist. You can’t just go to SpaceMart and buy those things.”

Hadfield is talking about the details. The short answer is they haven’t been worked out yet. However, MIT and NASA are both working on new suits for Mars. The details are being worked on. Why didn’t he say “I’m anxious to see how the new prototypes work” rather than tell the media they don’t exist. I’m sure he’s aware of the efforts being made. He choose to talk in the negative; implying that it’s better not to even try. As for Space Mart, it’s looking like the aerospace business is going in the direction.

Why isn’t he using his public clout to get people excited and engaged with new space ventures?

Robert Thirsk

Bob is a fantastic man. I’ve personally been to his lectures, chatted with him and shared a few beers. I’ve even spoken to students about Mars at the high school named after him. He’s very knowledgeable, calculated and detail oriented. He’s also said an effort to colonize Mars would be a suicide mission.

“I don’t think we’re ready … we don’t yet have the reliable technology to support a one-way trip to Mars … It’s naive to think we’re ready to colonize Mars — it’d be a suicide mission.”

He doesn’t say “let’s get ready” or “here are the steps” or even “I would rather see…”. He said it’s naive to think we are ready, and trying is the same thing as suicide. That to me is uncompromisingly defeatist. I will agree, we do not have reliable technology. My solution would be to get reliable technology, not to call it adempted suicide. When confronted with an obstacle, the winner starts to think how they will overcome it; the loser goes home. It’s a frame of mind that seems to be missing from the Canadian astronaut alumni.

Bob is the current University of Calgary Chancellor, a position that carries academic visibility. The UofC has a department of space research and an observatory. So why the negative comments about a new space venture? Why wouldn’t he use his position to encourage students to critically examine the mission? Instead honest effort is causally dismissed.

Julie Payette

Julie is one of the few women who’ve made it into space. When I heard her talk in Montreal, she spoke about overcoming the male dominated aerospace industry during her journey to becoming an astronaut. She spoke about the uphill battle against the preconceived notions of the day. That makes her harsh words for the mission all the more baffling.

“So, if you meet any of those people, don’t tell them they’re courageous because the only courage they had was to sign up on a website.”

I wonder if any of her male colleges told her the same sort of thing as she was trying to prove herself. I wonder if they said things like, “Don’t pay attention to Julie, she’s a woman”. Yes, the Mars One mission looks completely different than what’s been done in the past. It goes against conventional mission planning. So did women in aerospace and engineering at one point. How she doesn’t see that parallel is baffling to me. Her reaction is to say it can’t be done, instead of asking how it can be done.

“We don’t have the technology to go to Mars, with everything we know today, so I don’t think that a marketing company and a TV-type of selection, is sending anybody anywhere,”

She goes on to say:

“We are going to go to space on a commercial basis and it’s at our doors, It’s a reality that will become the norm in the next decades.”

She’s saying it both ways. A marketing company can’t get into the space business, but space will become commercial in the next decades. This is the positive talking that I’m referring to. Looking to what’s possible and what’s on the horizon. Commercial space will become a reality and space travel will become monetized. Why then, such negativity when a company attempts to do just that? She displays outright hostility to those who want to follow her footsteps and reach for something bigger than themselves. She believes that taking steps to Mars, small as they may be, are worthless.

This attitude is coming from the Chief Operating Officer of the Montreal Science Centre. A centre whose mission is to “… to help visitors of all ages acquire an understanding of science and technology for use in building their future” Why is she lashing out at people who are trying to do just that?

 

 

I ask my questions with the hope of an answer. Why are Canadian astronauts so negative towards new ventures?

Mars One Round 3

Today the Mars One Round 3 candidates were selected, and I was not among them.

It was nearly 14 months ago when I was first chosen to be a Mars One candidate; part of the 1058 in Round 1. Since that time my life has changed quite a bit. I’m a much more capable person now, I’ve had experiences that I otherwise would have not done. The past 14 months has been an adventure for me and I’m going to take what I’ve learned and continue that adventure.

Since learning that I was a candidate for the Mars One mission, I’ve spoken to hundreds of adults and thousands of kids about Mars and space exploration. I spent 9 weeks at the International Space University increasing my knowledge about everything space. I’ve gained new skills I’m not about to stop now. While the decision is disappointing, it’s reassuring to have an answer. Now I can fully commit to other endeavours that I was unsure about.

I’ve signed up with the Alberta Science Network and I will continue to talk to people about Mars and space exploration. I have a new job and I will be honing my project engineering skills. I will continue to physically train myself and set ever higher goals.  I will continue to support Mars One and any mission that brings people closer to the surface of Mars and exploring our solar system. 2015 is going to be a busy year and I’m absolutely looking forward to it.

Life on Mars won’t be awful

Is life a disgusting toil of never ending disappointment to you?

Myself, I believed my life, and life in general is rather fantastic. There are those who walk among us who disagree. Gerry Flynn wrote a blog titled “Life On Earth Is Shit, Life On Mars Will Be Just As Awful“. It’s just as full of adolescent name calling and unrealistic hyperbole as one would expect from the title. The first sentence completely sets the tone: It says a lot about our life on Earth that when Mars One announced in April 2013 nearly 200,000 meat-sacks decided that their futile existence of toil, eczema and club-points would be infinitely improved if blasted millions of miles away from the rest of society and into space. The post is a complete fabrication  from the author’s opinions, however I feel it important to tackle the text. Misconception is never a good thing. I realize it’s been posted under comedy, but I don’t find this angry text fun or beneficial to the wider understanding of exploration.

Life On Earth Is Shit, Life On Mars Will Be Just As Awful

Let’s start with the title. We have it good on Earth, despite what the news will tell you. We live in the most peaceful time in human history. We have an ever increasing life expectancy across the world. We are constantly creating an increasing amount of data that tells us more and more who we are. Things are good, and they are getting better.

I absolutely reject that life on Earth is shit. It’s never been better. Life on Mars will be difficult, just as any exploration is. Because something is challenging doesn’t make it awful and extending falsehoods about Earth to future exploration in the solar system is damaging to those explorations.

Firstly, my suspicion was aroused by the involvement of Lockheed Martin – a company who having long since perfected the art of decimating mankind with the ruthlessly efficient innovation of high powered death machines and are now taking time out from their regular schedule of being a real-life version of ACME from Looney Tunes to assist Big Brother in Space (as I’m sure it’ll be renamed before liftoff) in propelling the next generation of humanity into another fruitless existence on an even more barren and inhospitable planet than Staines could ever aspire to.

If your suspicions are aroused by the involvement of Lockheed Martin in a space mission, that tells me you know nothing about space. Lockheed build the Hubble, the spacecraft that gives us all those fantastic background pictures for our computers. They’ve been involved with half a dozen other space telescopes, not to mention being the prime contractor for several Mars missions including the Phoenix lander. This is of particular importance, because the Mars One lander is based off the Phoenix architecture due to the similarities in water extraction for both missions. This is a perfectly reasonable course of action and is no cause for alarm.

What with the Mars One mission statement consisting of barely a single paragraph, namely extolling the virtues of “inspiring future generations,” but chiefly aiming to establish a human settlement on Mars, it’s hard to see what the point of all this interstellar butt-fuckery is.

A mission statement should be clear, easily understood sentence. It reads It is Mars One’s goal to establish a human settlement on Mars. That seems pretty clear to me. The point, as was eloquently put, is to establish a permanent settlement on a celestial body other than Earth. There are many reasons to study Mars, and many more to settling the planet. It’s a big idea, with lots of complex parts. I get that it’s not easy to grasp. It is not, however, butt-fuckery. Nor is it interstellar; that’s something completely different.

Considering what an awful, money-grubbing, bastard society of shit-gobs we’ve crafted down here on Earth, what little hope can be reserved for our colonising cousins – especially when the Mars One website compares its batch of space-monkeys to “Vikings and famed explorers of Old World Europe.” So in essence they’re going to go and introduce credit-lending financial systems to whatever resides out there in the black and crush any resistance they meet with an iron fist, presumably before subjugating any extraterrestrial existence under a brutal regime of rape and murder all in the name of televised entertainment.

I consider the people of Earth to be much more than that. Composers, artists, engineers, dreamers, athletes and comedians. It’s easier than ever to pursue what your passion is, and it’s up to each person to put the effort in. There are those that don’t, true, and it could be argued that the barrier to entry is a bit short in places. The world is full of good, and exploration helps us become better at being us. Without explorers we would all be living in caves, with very little technology to aid us. Getting to Mars is a stretch goal that will aid humanity into becoming even more amazing.

Also, there’s no reason to get mad at the Vikings, they were rather normal people for their time. Almost all the stories that are told about them are exaggerated. They were great explorers and skillful traders. Their culture has a lot to be admired, and I do admire their exploration spirit. I was given a copy of the Viking laws by a Scandinavian man I met at ISU and I keep in on my fridge. I run into a lot of negativity about missions to Mars and it usually dissipates once I get a chance to share some of the facts.

Mars One – Thoughts from Twitter

I monitor twitter and other news sources for information and discussion about Mars One, and Mars exploration in general. I find it interesting to see what conversations are going on, to see what people are saying about it, and just listen. Every once and a while I make a comment or try and answer a question. Sometimes I need to write a longer answer than Twitter will allow. This is one of those times. Below is the tweet that started off a conversation.

I understand George’s reluctance to endorse the Mars One project. It looks very, very different from a government program, or business in general. The premise sounded flimsy when I first heard it as well, gathering the funds for a Mars mission through a media event, viewership and sponsors. But it started to make sense the more I thought about it. Entertainment is big money. Globally, we spend $35 billion dollars on movie tickets in 2013. The film Gravity made $270 million on a $100 million dollar investment. India sent a robotic mission to Mars for less that that.

The game is changing. This isn’t your father’s Space Race (Apollo)

Myself, Melissa and George had a few tweets back and forth. Then George tweeted this, between many tweets

Even if I think of #MarsOne as an experiment and not as a colonization project, it’s still ahead of its time. Several other experiments should take place beforehand in order to develop the necessary protocols that would govern the interaction with Mars. For instance, a disaster on the surface would result in a possible uncontrolled “contamination” of the area with microorganisms with unpredictable results, which would be impossible to undo or contain Developing such guidelines and protocols is not the job of an entertainment company, but of an international organization of experts.

This is a point that comes up now and again, that humans will contaminate Mars somehow. If this is true, we already have. We have landed several craft on Mars that would have carried with them bacteria and Earth bits with them. The Viking landers were the only ones that were completely cleaned before launch. There are strict guidelines for sending craft to other plants. There are international people working on this. There are entire schools for Space Law! Many people around the world are thinking about this, protocols are being developed.

On the other side of the coin, biological interaction between Earth life and Mars life is very, very unlikely. Here on Earth, organisms don’t usually interact on a biological level. I can’t get a tree pregnant, fish don’t get the flu, and spider legs can’t be transplanted to a dog. There are some examples where biology does match, and those are very rare. Life on Earth has evolved side by side, and is very different from each other. Life between Earth and Mars has billions of years of separation. Contamination is not likely. And we won’t know for certain until we go.

 

There are plenty of experiments planned for Mars, Mars One is not the only show in town. Mars One is planning on visiting Mars with robots in 2018 and 2020. There is lots of work to do before people set foot on the planet.

ISECG_MissionScenario

 

George, I understand your reaction to Mars One, it looks very strange. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. There is lots of science going on around Mars and we learn something every day. It’s time to start preparing a crew for the mission. We’ve had the technology to get to Mars since the 1980s, we just haven’t implemented it. Mars One has a plan to get the funds needed to implement this technology and I support them.

Where We Should Build Our First Off-World Colonies

This post is in response to an article posted on the Discover website. The author claims we should forget Mars as a destination, and that of course gained my attention. He made some assumptions that I don’t agree with, and I’m going to go through the post and point out a few things. This is in the spirit of open discussion of course, and I welcome feedback on my own ideas.

First, lets stop calling it colonization. That world has too much negativity associated with it. I much prefer to talk about human settlements on other planets.

I don’t agree with the authors premise for off-world settlements.

It’s not because it would be cool to have people on multiple worlds (although it would). It’s not because Earth is becoming overpopulated with humans (although it is). It’s because off-world colonies would improve the chances of human civilization surviving in the event of a planetary disaster on Earth.

The fear based reasoning doesn’t work for me. Of course we want to have humans survive a disaster on Earth, but that speaks to our base instincts. We are better than that. We have a whole solar system to explore and live in. I would love to see humanity fly among the stars, but we must first master living in our own backyard, our solar system. We have mastered living on Earth, but we chose to use that power negatively, causing famine, climate change and pollution. These are the consequences of the choices we’ve made. To me, going to Mars is a hopeful journey, not one that should be done in fear. Fear will only lead to more negative outcomes.

Creating a Mars Colony

David jumps right to the conclusion that a settlement would be terraforming from day one. His information is sound, but the conclusion is off on the wrong direction. Neither Mars One, SapceX or NASA has terraforming in any of their plans. It’s so far off that it doesn’t make any sense to talk about. By the time we are in a position to terraform anything positively (Climate change is accidental terraforming) our technology will be vastly different than today. The first settlers will be busy with staying alive, not planetary engineering. The cart is fully in front of the horse here.

The Problem of Distance

He gets ahead of himself here again. He’s using a study of an interstellar generation ship to generalize a Martian settlement. The two are very different. It could take 10,000 – 40,000 people to maintain genetic diversity, I don’t know. I do know that the main driver for population increase of these settlements would be immigration. The population would grow from people leaving Earth as more room became available. He then goes on to see how long SpaceX would need to hit 40,000 people using the immigration model, not realizing you don’t need to hit 40,000 people if they keep immigrating; that’s only for a closed system where no new people are added.

Distance is something you have to deal with when working in deep space. It’s a frontier that humans just don’t understand. The vast distances between objects don’t make sense to what we see and interact with everyday. It will take a new sort of thinking to deal with it. Anyone making the trip to the Moon, Mars or beyond knows it’s dangerous. We’ve gotten quite use to flying anywhere in the world and being able to rent a hotel and buy a lunch. The universe isn’t setup like that and we won’t have these luxuries as we travel beyond Earth. Accepting that is much easier than trying to bring all the comforts of Earth with us.

Close to Home

I don’t think anyone in the space exploration community is suggesting that we pick one spot over the other. If you want to go to the Moon, go for it! Making a space station, have at it! Private companies can do what they like, and I encourage us to go after all the targets. Governments have to chose specific targets, due to budgets and politics. But governments aren’t going to set up a settlement either, NASA has said it will bring all of their astronauts back. At the moment, it’s only private companies talking about settling on Mars. There could be MoonCorp that shows up tomorrow wanting to set up a spa on the Moon, and they are free to do that. The location is a trade off however, and if we want to get to the stars, Mars is the best place to start that journey.

The Problem of Gravity

Here’s a common misconception; that the adaptations of astronauts to micro gravity is negative. There is bone loss and muscle atrophy, yes, and that’s part of the adaptation process. If they never left micro gravity environment, it wouldn’t be a problem. The loss of body mass is a problem if they return to Earth. If future settlers don’t plan on returning to Earth, the adaptation to their new environment is just that, and adaptation. There will be changes that we can’t foresee, but for those of us who want to live on Mars, it’s all part of the process.

A New Home in the Solar System

There are plans for Moon bases and space stations. The great thing about space is that there is room for everyone. Let’s get out there, and let everyone create what they want. There are no limits in space.

Solar Roadways

I’ve made the casual comment on social media that solar roadways are a bad idea. It’s a terrible idea, and I wanted explain a few reasons why. It’s a really cool idea and I understand why people are excited. That’s all well and good, but when you start to look at the problem objectively without the hype, it starts to fall apart. This of course, coming from a guy who is planning to live on Mars.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, there is a mom and pop company that is looking to replace the current road system with solar panels. The idea being that the roads are empty space, and we could have them doing work for us. To get yourself into full hype mode, read 7 REASONS WHY SOLAR ROADWAYS ARE F!#%ING AWESOME and watch the video below.

I want to call bullshit on a few of their features.

  • LED LIGHTS! If you were to make road lines with lights, it would be hard to see in the day and way too bright at night. Try looking at your cellphone in direct sunlight, how well does that work? We don’t change road configurations often enough to make this even remotely useful. One of the only times that lanes change is for traffic control or construction. We can use signs for traffic control like we do now and the panels wouldn’t be hooked up during construction. “But they are solar! They could run on their own during construction!” Live power and construction is a big no-no. That’s not a good idea.
  • NO MORE SNOW! So much bullshit on this one. There is no way, and I mean absolutely no way that the solar panel make enough power to melt ice. Solar panels are taking the energy from the sun, converting it to electricity, then converting it back to heat. The sun is the original source. If the sun can’t melt the ice, there is no way that power from the sun will melt the ice.  Black roads absorb heat more efficiently than a solar panel and a heating element can make it, therefor blacktop should be able to melt ice more efficiently than the Solar Roadway. Sure, you can melt ice with heaters, people do it all the time, but it will take power, the road cannot generate the power needed to melt ice with solar power.
  • UNDERGROUND CABLES! Putting rainwater a runoff channel right next to a power cable channel is a bad, bad idea. We put our high voltage lines in the air for a very good reason; the Earth is the other conductor, and if power cables touch the ground, they short out and things blow up. Solar power is DC, and all our power lines are AC. To convert we need to install step up transformers all along the trench.  They put these behind fences for a reason, they are fucking dangerous.
  • THEY ARE MADE WITH RECYCLED MATERIAL! Asphalt roads are 99% recycled. This is a buzzword argument.

Lets take a rational look at this. For these roads to be worth exchanging for our current system, they will have to perform better or cheaper. To make the solar panels worth the cost of installation they will have to make more energy than it takes to make, install and maintain them. I want these panels to meet these two criteria:

  1. The surface they are planning to use must be better than the surface we are currently using.
  2. We have to be able to use the power these panels produce.

I want to know, why replace our roads with glass that have solar panels under them, instead of just making more solar power plants?

Here is the claim made by Solar Roadways:

Everyone naturally pictures sliding out of control on a smooth piece of wet glass! Actually, one of our many technical specs is that it be textured to the point that it provides at least the traction that current asphalt roads offer – even in the rain. We hesitate to even call it glass, as it is far from a traditional window pane, but glass is what it is, so glass is what we must call it.

We sent samples of textured glass to a university civil engineering lab for traction testing. We started off being able to stop a car going 40 mph on a wet surface in the required distance. We designed a more and more aggressive surface pattern until we got a call form the lab one day: we’d torn the boot off of the British Pendulum Testing apparatus! We backed off a little and ended up with a texture that can stop a vehicle going 80 mph in the required distance.

I’m calling sacks of bullshit on this. If the material was so great, Solar Roadways should be trying to sell the road surface on it’s own merits without solar. Road construction is a complicated engineering effort and a few lab tests does not warrant the replacement of the entire roadway system. The US roadway system cost $425 billion (2006 dollars) and you can bet Solar Roadways will cost a lot more than asphalt.

For that kind of money, why don’t we build an orbital elevator, fusion power plant or travel to another star. Or, why not spend billions of dollars and build solar farms to make electricity?

And that brings me to the second point, We are putting solar panels in the road, at a 0 degree tilt, under dirt, grime and vehicles that block the sun. I can’t think of a worst place to put them. Before we start that, why don’t we put solar power on every roof? For panels to be effective they need to be angled at the sun, clean and have an unobstructed view of the sun. For best results they should track the sun. None of these things are possible if they are flat on the ground with things on top of them. The idea sounds cool, but the benefits of the Solar Roadway can all be met cheaper and better by just building solar power plants where they can be at their most efficient.

Science Fiction

When I talk to people about going to Mars and space travel, their eye’s tend to glaze over a bit. I can almost hear their inner monologue “He’s talking about science fiction” Yes, yes I am. Science fiction is the herald of science fact. Just like you make a shopping list before you can cook a meal or look at a map before a road trip society must try out ideas in fiction before we do it in real life. We’ve gotten use to blockbuster movies showing fantastic aliens and forget that fiction does become fact.

In 1959, the first episode of The Twilight Zone aired about a man training to go to the moon. This was two years almost to the day since Sputnik, and another 10 years before the US landed on the moon. It was still 2 years until Apollo was even announced. The episode seems out dated now, not because of production value but because of what we now know.

The main character is in solitary confinement for 20 days in preparation for the flight to the moon. Apollo 11 lasted 8 days with a crew of 3, and they were in constant communication with Earth. (mostly) We’ve had test crews in solitary for 500 days to study the effects of isolation. In 1959, it was guess work, now we know. 

It’s the same reason the original Star Trek looks campy; we have technology that’s better than what they are using. We have computers that are more advanced than what we could have imagined back then. But we had to imagine it first.

Without the images of Frau Im Mond we would not have the rockets we have today. It’s been said that the 10 second countdown was first used in this movie to launch a rocket. (why not 5 seconds?) It was the first time an audience had seen a multistage rocket, now we have private companies building them and a space station.

Science fiction to engineered reality.

Yes, a Martian colony is currently science fiction, but that’s encouraging, not a limiting factor. Humans are amazing, if we can imagine it, we can do it. We will put people on Mars and the science fiction will seem just as silly as Star Trek communicators do to us today.

Copenhagen Suborbitals

Late this month, Mars One announced that Kristian von Bengtson has joined the company to help build hardware for the mission. This is fantastic news, I can’t think of anyone better for the job. He’s an ISU alumni, spent time in a Mars Analogue and makes rockets in his garage. I’m not talking about model rockets, I’m talking about “get you to space” rockets.

 

Copenhagen Suborbitals is one of those companies that you can’t ignore once you hear about them. They embody everything about the pioneering and adventurous spirit. Their goal is a familiar one, to put people into space. The thing is they are amateurs doing it in their spare time. During the height of the Apollo missions, NASA spent about 5% of the US budget. These guys are doing the same research on donations and they are just as successful. That’s a hard fact to wrap your mind around; with hard work, smart people and determination anyone can get into space.

Amateur rocket engineers at work.

I can’t find the words to properly explain how awesome this is. Not only to they make their own rockets to carry humans, but they have their own submarine and ocean launch faculty. All this hardware was build on volunteer time by enthusiasts who don’t listen when people say it’s impossible.

The folks at Copenhagen Suborbitals are space travel pioneers. It common for people to think that anything that happens in space is because of NASA. That may have been true in the 60’s, but no longer. The work these guys are doing is creating a future where anyone can buy a rocket to space as easily as we buy cars today. That’s a future I want to live in. Now that Kristian is working with Mars One, I’m ever more confidant the project is attracting the right people.

 

 

Grade 6 Science fail

I’ve been going into classrooms talking to elementary students about Mars One, space and engineering. Grade 6 classes in Alberta study Sky Science, so my talk fits well with their curriculum. I thought it would be a good idea to read up on the curriculum so I could better tailor my talk. When I printed off a study guide, I found it was riddled with errors.

Science!Why are we lacking STEM talent in Canada? Could be that the facts we teach our children aren’t correct. The document was written in 1996, but even then we knew about more than 1011 stars, and where we parked the Hubble. Click the picture for full resolution and read it for yourself. It’s embarrassing at best.

There is one very troubling sentence that appears in the official curriculum. I don’t know what to make of it.

Describe the location and movement of individual stars and groups of stars(constellations) as they move through the night sky

This seems to say that individual stars and the constellations move at different rates. Technically, that’s true, but for a 11 year old observer, all the stars in the sky keep the same orientation. The constellations are not grouped by nature, they are grouped by our imagination. That’s how we discovered the planets, they moved and the stars didn’t. It’s this sort of ambiguous teaching that will confuse students and turn them away from STEM.

Remember the taste map we learned in school? There are places on the tongue for sweet, sour, bitter and salt? That’s not true either. Turns out that hypothesis from 1901 was disproved in 1974 when someone checked the data. No one updated the teaching material; thanks for nothing.

How can we avoid teaching myths as facts?

We have a whole body of academics and professionals in this country. They oversee all sorts of regulatory issues across Canada. Why don’t we get the experts in their respected fields to proof read the material we are teaching children? It’s just so simple, it might work.

Mars One in the eyes of Islam

Obviously, I pay attention to news about Mars. It’s usually about missions, funding cuts and new discoveries. This past week I learned that the UAE Islamic watchdog has declared that Muslims must not take part in Mars One, as it is against Islam. According to their site, they issues 337,000 Fatwas last year, so it’s a very common practice. At more than 100 a day, it seems they are a very busy agency. According to Wikipedia, a Fatwa is a legal judgment or learned interpretation based on the the teachings of Islam. As I understand it, when something new in the world shows up, it is judged against Islamic Law and then decided upon if it is a sin or not. Traveling to Mars is apparently a sin in Islamic Law.

That doesn’t make me happy. I’m not a Muslim or a member of any organised religion. I do strongly believe that space exploration is very important, so a decry by anyone that it’s morally wrong doesn’t sit right with me. In this case, the voyage has been likened to suicide, and suicide is a Sin, therefore the voyage is against Islam.

I’m not going to argue against Islam, but exploration is not suicide. Suicide is intentionally killing oneself; there argument is that the trip is so dangerous that death is a certain outcome. Two things about that:

  1. Death is a certain outcome of life
  2. The trip does not mean certain death

Life and death are part of the package. Every living thing will die. The risks we take in life can increase the likelihood of dying sooner, but risks also let us live more richly. Everything we do has a risk. Life itself is a risk. So how do we die on Earth? A good portion of it is from cancer, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases. Suicide and accidents are higher in the USA, but cancer and heart are still fantastic killers. Motor vehicle accidents are up there as well, 1 in 84 chance in 2006, but driving isn’t a sin.

The NASA study on radiation says there is about a 5% increase in fatal cancers for every three years you are on Mars. On the flip-side there is no risk of a traffic accident or accidental firearm discharge on Mars. You will be on a strict diet so your chances of heart disease goes down. You can’t drown in the bathtub either on Mars. (1 in 818,015, about the same risk as electrocution.) People die all the time. It’s cliché but not everyone lives a full life. Exploring, pushing boundaries, growing and making new frontiers is how we live our lives to the fullest.

Lets get back to what was said:

Professor Dr. Farooq Hamada, who presides over the fatwa committee, shared the motivation for issuing the fatwa: “Protecting life against all possible dangers and keeping it safe is an issue agreed upon by all religions and is clearly stipulated in verse 4/29 of the Holy Quran: Do not kill yourselves or one another. Indeed, Allah is to you ever merciful.”

Do not kill yourself or one another, that’s the verse. This year, the UAE is creating a law for mandatory military service. The UAE has a standing military force of 70,000 souls; over 5% of it’s GDP used for it’s upkeep. That’s the 5th highest in the world for 2011. If you have control over a standing army, you are preparing to take lives. FULL STOP. Any one of those 70,000 people can be called in to combat and is expected to fight another human to the death. That’s what war is, that’s what armies do.

Mars One is sending 4 people on a settlement mission. Permanent settlement requires people to be alive. No one on the mission is intentionally dying, therefor no one is committing suicide. The fact that you could die an accidental death during the trip is no more suicide than dying accidentally on Earth. Taking risks to live a better life is how we make tomorrow better.

A peaceful path to a brighter future is not a sin.