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It’s the centennial year of the Titanic disaster, and that tragedy remains a touchstone.

The lifeboat angle is obvious. So is the ice hazard: then it was icebergs, now it’s comets.

But 100 years of expanding awareness has revealed the other threats we’re now aware of. We have to think about asteroids, nano- and genotech accidents, ill-considered high-energy experiments, economic and social collapse into oligarchy and debt peonage, and all the many others.

What a great subject for a Movie Night! Here are some great old movies about lifeboats and their discontents.

Lifeboat Triple Feature:

They’re full of situations about existential risks, risk assessment, prudential behavior, and getting along in lifeboats if we absolutely have to. The lesson is: make sure there are enough lifeboats and make darn sure you never need to use them.

Anyway, I finally got my review of the show done, and I hope it’s enjoyable and maybe teachable. I’d welcome additional movie candidates.

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Party LIke It’s 1912… by Clark Matthews is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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The unknown troubles and attracts us. We long to discover a reason for our existence. We look out to the stars through the darkness of space to observe phenomena incredibly far distances away. Many of us are curious about the things we see, these unknowns.

Yet, many of us look skyward and are uninspired, believing that our time and resources best be kept grounded. Despite our human-centered ideologies, our self-assured prophecies, our religious and philosophical beliefs, no existential rationale seems apparent.

We as people welcome technology into our lives and use it constantly to communicate and function. Scientific discoveries pique the interest of every citizen in every country, and technological revolutions have always preceded social and political revolutions from the creation of the internet back to man’s first use of simple tools. Leaders of nations proclaim the importance of science and discovery to our welfare to be utmost.

But what we have seen done recently contradicts these proclamations: space programs are closed; science funding for schools always falls short; and we see no emphasis of the significance of science in our modern culture. Our governments call for the best but provide capital for only the satisfactory, if even. We no longer succumb to the allure of learning simply for the sake of knowing what we once did not know. We have stopped dreaming.

The exploration of space is as related to earthly affairs as any trek, perhaps even more so, because what we learn along the way directly affects the knowledge we apply to our politics, our religions, societies, and sciences. We learn about ourselves, our dreams, our fears. We learn about our strengths and our weaknesses as nations and as a species. In searching the void all around us we learn how to interact with each other and bridge differences between races, religions, genders, and ideologies. The societies of Earth need to emphasize the importance of discovery and innovation to the longevity of mankind, as well as the very human need for the pursuit of challenge.

We are and always have been an adaptable species capable of creating dreams and accomplishing them. We should seek to explore our new frontier and chase ideas yet to even be conceived. The exploration of space has lifted our human spirit, enlightened us, and has made lucid and close our fragility and responsibilities. Perhaps our inhibitions and worries, and our craving to overcome them fuels our explorative ambitions.

If we desire greater purpose then let us earn it; through hardship to the stars! The sky is no longer a limit, but a starting point. We can define our lives, and our existence, by how we accept and handle the unknown; our significance as humans set forth by our bravery and intelligence. Regardless of our qualms and fears, exploration of the unknown is an intrinsic passion of mankind. Why not remind ourselves of what has advanced us thus far?

As the astrophysicist and activist Carl Sagan said, “We were hunters and foragers. The frontier was everywhere. We were bounded only by the earth and the ocean and the sky.” Let us now explore the boundless, and go forth into the starry-night, fresh and inspired, ready to accept any challenge, just as those before us did, when they first set sail for the unknown.

Read the original post at

It’s been a while since anyone contributed a post on space exploration here on the Lifeboat blogs, so I thought I’d contribute a few thoughts on the subject of potential hazards to interstellar travel in the future — if indeed humanity ever attempts to explore that far in space.

It is only recently that the Voyager probes provided us with some idea of the nature of the boundary of our solar system with what is commonly referred to as the local fluff, The Local Interstellar Cloud, through which we have been travelling for the past 100,000 years or so, and which we will continue to travel through for another 10,000 or 20,000 years yet. The cloud has a temperate of about 6000°C — albeit very tenuous.

We are protected by the effects of the local fluff by the solar wind and the sun’s magnetic field, the front between the two just beyond the termination shock where the solar wind slows to subsonic velocities. Here, in the heliosheath, the solar wind becomes turbulent by its interaction with the interstellar medium, and keeping the interstellar medium at bay from the inners of the solar system, the region currently under study by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes. It has been hypothesised that there may be a hydrogen wall further out between the bow shock and the heliopause composed of ISM interacting with the edge of the heliosphere, another obstacle to consider with interstellar travel.

The short end of the stick is that what many consider ‘open space’ to traverse once we get beyond the Kuiper belt may in fact be many more mission-threatening obstacles to traverse to reach beyond our solar system. Opinions welcome. I am not an expert on this.

Wednesday on the Opinion Pages of the NY Times the renowned Vinton Cerf “father of the internet” published an article titles Internet Access Is Not A Human Right. It could be argued that the key word here is “access”, but before I address access again, I should start with the definition of the internet. I had this debate while at Michigan State in October of 2010 with the philosopher Andrew Feenberg. I’ll do my best not to be redundant while everything is still live via the links in this article.

Perhaps the internet requires much more definition, as the roots of the word can be confusing. Inter: situated within – Net: any network or reticulated system of filaments or the like. Its terminology is synonymous with the “web” or a web, which requires multiple linkages to points of initiation in order to exist well. If this is the internet that Feenberg is referring to then I’d think it accurate. However, the internet is not actually a web of ever connected points. Information destinations are not required.

The internet is analogous to space. Regardless of whether or not we access space, its potential exists – we can access or insert entities of sorts into the space regardless of, if another user were present to receive information of sorts from the distributed. Space is a dynamic system of expanding material potential as is the internet’s material potential. The potential of the internet expands as users (or rather, potential users) access to the internet expands – access could come in many forms including, user population(s) growth or by computing speed or by computing power… The internet, regardless of the constraints of the word, it cannot be identified as a specific technology.

While visiting MSU, Feenberg uses a “ramp” as analogous with the internet, which was at the center of his mistake. I don’t mean to read gerontophobic, but based on the pervasive analysis that I’ve witnessed from Feenberg and Cerf’s generation; I’d have to accredit their perspective to the relatively similar changes in technology that they’ve seen during the 20th century. The difference in composition and utility of a technology (hardware, software, methodology) and that of the internet are synonymous with that of an air-craft and the expanding celestial matter beyond earth’s ionosphere (that’s a sufficient analogy).

Cerf wrote “technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right.

He is correct! The problem exists when he identifies the internet as a technology, which it cannot be (to be redundant). This is in fact a human rights issue. It is perhaps the most significant human rights issue of our time, because of the internet role in providing the potential for transparencies in the public and private sectors. The deterministic nature of our technologies is bridging the cultural, political, legal, and economic GAPS of all our societies today, and if we as individuals allow a few mistaken “leaders” or the interests of institutions to control our ability to access a space, because of their resume, then we are all doomed. The implications of the masses adopting Cerf and Feenberg’s view on space are tremendous in building an ethically sound environment for human development.

Regarding Cerf’s word “access”, it may provide him an out from his varied rhetoric in the article. Near the end he transitions to civil rights where he writes “the responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights” suggesting the internet hold egalitarian virtues. I’m no egalitarian, as it just doesn’t prove feasible in a world of, even, hyper-connected individuals.

While the ability to access an open space should not be prohibited, the technologies of certain kinds could be. Reference weapons of sorts. I’m no advocate for government supplying all of their citizens with camera phone (although it would be great idea for the individual and institution), but I am against governmental and other agents making efforts to restrict the individual’s ability to populate space with their entities aside from the technologies that one would hold on his/her person.

When the United Nations declared the Internet as a Human Right (PDF), they weren’t necessarily evaluating its full potential, but they were stressing that individuals should have the ability to be transparent and review information of all kinds as they so pleased, catering to the collective knowledge of the species and everything it supports. The problem with this article are the future implications of its rhetoric, even as he means well.

Tangent: Cerf having studied math, computer science, and IS for decades; knows as well as anyone that it is virtually (pun intended) impossible to prohibit internet expansion as small pockets of those educated in the knowledge community of development can find a way. Any computer (which would the blockage point) can be hacked its just a matter of time and will. I spent the last year consulting with Hewlett-Packard Global Info Security on multiple acquisitions of competitive companies and security tool providers, and as anyone in the IS/IT security industry can tell you, there are no solutions, only active management of incidents and problems. This is why methodologies are as (if not more) value than hard/software in modern business transactions. So then why wouldn’t Cerf think more thoroughly about this before publishing in the NY Times? Could it be because he has an equity stake (as an employee of multiple firms) in a less open space (internet). Speculation aside, I’m in the business services industry, I studied “control” specifically. Business is about control, which is the value proposition in establishing institutions virtues as separate from those of the individual. We can only forecast and manage risks well in areas that we can define and control. Business itself doesn’t require an suppressive type of control to make good calls on risks. A more transparent world could tell us all (individuals and institutions alike) more about the types of decisions that benefit the most in a society.

In the future let’s all make a conscious effort to keep spaces open and hope that the benefits incentivize philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and governments to provide technology to the masses at a rate that enhances the human condition.

–Originally at Integrationalism

A little more than 40 years ago – 42 years in July, to be exact – men walked on the moon for the first time. This achievement was a landmark for humanity – not only in that it demonstrated a vast technological ability but also because it was that “giant leap for mankind” – as Neil Armstrong so eloquently put it – in an eternal quest for the stars.

Most of us grew up watching the space program – the first orbiting satellites, the Apollo program, the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. We became accustomed to constant “leaps for mankind” in technological achievement. We shared in the sorrows – the Challenger explosion, the loss of Columbia high over Texas – and we shared in the numerous heroic successes of our astronauts and the scientists and engineers who formed NASA.

With the ending of the Shuttle program, many Americans are now beginning to feel that all those glory days are behind us. I’ve heard people lament the changes in direction of our policy of space exploration as though the adventure of discovery beyond the pull of Earth’s gravity is all but over.

I would like to remind you that we are not at the END of the Space Age. We are still merely at the beginning. Current circumstances – mainly economic ones – might make it seem that we are unable to advance – or that major advancements might not come in our lifetime. But there are still a lot of things going on that make me believe we are rapidly entering a new age of civilization that ultimately will take us beyond Earth and to the stars. All things considered, this new age is likely to be the kind of pivotal movement in history that occurred as Western civilization emerged from a state of decline through what became known as the Renaissance – literally the REBIRTH of civilization.

This new age we can call the Space Renaissance, because it comes at a time when humanity faces dire predicaments on Earth while possessing the technology to approach solutions through advancing into extraterrestrial space. And it will bring about vast changes in the way we think about ourselves – our science, our politics, our economics, even the social contracts that bind us together as human beings. It will alter, in fact, the way we regard mankind’s position in the universe, in much the same way as the notion of Renaissance astronomer Copernicus more than 500 years ago that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

The Space Renaissance will both create such changes and be forged by them. As ideas advance into new technology and new endeavours, those developments will spawn new ideas. This is the way humans have always advanced – and are advancing even today.

There is no question – in my mind – that we are progressing rapidly toward a time that human beings will routinely travel through extraterrestrial space – tapping resources such as energy, minerals and even water – not as an Earth civilization but as a Solar Civilization. Not everyone might agree with that assessment. Some are simply too pessimistic to believe that mankind will be able to work together long enough to make it happen before destroying our planet. Others think it is too futuristic to contemplate – especially during a time when we are faced with widespread joblessness, rising debt and mortgage foreclosures at home, along with wars and revolutions in the Middle East and Wall Street protests.

I have to remind my friends that although many of the ideas of space exploration and development seem spun from science fiction, in many respects they are not of the future but of the present. Consider this:

• Hundreds of people have already traveled in space.
• The International Space Station continues to operate, conducting experiments and research that have widespread implications not just for future space missions but also for developments here on Earth.
• Daily, we send and receive communications transmissions that are bounced off of manmade satellites.
• We have robots exploring other parts of our Solar System, including the surface of Mars, and devices such as the Hubble Space Telescope transmit images that provide ever increasing insights into the expanse of the Universe.

In short, we are already THERE – in space. And this is happening just 50 years after the first space missions that sent men into orbit. In many ways, it is akin to the explorations of the New World that occurred in the decades after Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic during the age of the first Renaissance centuries ago.

Now, in the decades ahead many more changes are sure to follow. I see it as a natural progression of human civilization, just as the exploration and development of the New World led to new nations built on new ideas of human freedom and democracy that were unprecedented in human history.

And just as developments then called for new ideas – new ways of looking at mankind and our relationship to the planet – there will be new ways of considering our relationship with other human beings today. There will be a need for unprecedented international cooperation as we advance not just on the basis of national interests but of the interests of all humanity coexisting on one planet. The old economic models that competed during the last century as Capitalism and Communism will give way to new models that rely on extensive cooperation between governments and private enterprise. In many ways, this is already happening. Consider the recent trends in the U.S. Space Program, in which greater reliance is placed on other governments and private companies to propel our astronauts to new discoveries.

And it in this latest development there are many opportunities opening up already to pave the way for the future of commercial space. This is certain to accelerate as systems that have failed in their missions to achieve human success are replaced by new efforts based on the long-term goal of protecting planet Earth while reaching beyond the confines of its gravitational pull toward other worlds. Space-based solar power is a prime example, with the potential to provide energy to Earth and habitats beyond.

So, the message I would like to share is that we are still heading out there, toward the stars. The same ambitions that drove Europeans to discover and explore new worlds, and inspired inventors like the Wright brothers to keep pressing forward until man could take flight, and pushed the United States into the space race that landed men on the moon are still with us, driving us ever onward and outward.

We are now, and will continue to be propelled by a new energy and new ideas into a new age for civilization. Another Renaissance – SPACE RENAISSANCE.

Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess will share the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2011 has been awarded “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae” acknowledging the amazing discovery announced in 1998 that — based on the measured velocities of Type 1a supernovae — the rate of the universe’s expansion is increasing over time. The prize will be shared by three astronomers, now officially ‘outstanding in their field’, Saul Perlmutter of UC Berkeley, Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University and Adam G. Riess of Johns Hopkins University. Continue reading “Astronomers Win 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics” | >

An obvious next step in the effort to dramatically lower the cost of access to low Earth orbit is to explore non-rocket options. A wide variety of ideas have been proposed, but it’s difficult to meaningfully compare them and to get a sense of what’s actually on the technology horizon. The best way to quantitatively assess these technologies is by using Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs). TRLs are used by NASA, the United States military, and many other agencies and companies worldwide. Typically there are nine levels, ranging from speculations on basic principles to full flight-tested status.

The system NASA uses can be summed up as follows:

TRL 1 Basic principles observed and reported
TRL 2 Technology concept and/or application formulated
TRL 3 Analytical and experimental critical function and/or characteristic proof-of concept
TRL 4 Component and/or breadboard validation in laboratory environment
TRL 5 Component and/or breadboard validation in relevant environment
TRL 6 System/subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment (ground or space)
TRL 7 System prototype demonstration in a space environment
TRL 8 Actual system completed and “flight qualified” through test and demonstration (ground or space)
TRL 9 Actual system “flight proven” through successful mission operations.

Progress towards achieving a non-rocket space launch will be facilitated by popular understanding of each of these proposed technologies and their readiness level. This can serve to coordinate more work into those methods that are the most promising. I think it is important to distinguish between options with acceleration levels within the range human safety and those that would be useful only for cargo. Below I have listed some non-rocket space launch methods and my assessment of their technology readiness levels.

Spacegun: 6. The US Navy’s HARP Project launched a projectile to 180 km. With some level of rocket-powered assistance in reaching stable orbit, this method may be feasible for shipments of certain forms of freight.

Spaceplane: 6. Though a spaceplane prototype has been flown, this is not equivalent to an orbital flight. A spaceplane will need significantly more delta-v to reach orbit than a suborbital trajectory requires.

Orbital airship: 2. Though many subsystems have been flown, the problem of atmospheric drag on a full scale orbital airship appears to prevent this kind of architecture from reaching space.

Space Elevator: 3. The concept may be possible, albeit with major technological hurdles at the present time. A counterweight, such as an asteroid, needs to be positioned above geostationary orbit. The material of the elevator cable needs to have a very high tensile strength/mass ratio; no satisfactory material currently exists for this application. The problem of orbital collisions with the elevator has also not been resolved.

Electromagnetic catapult: 4. This structure could be built up the slope of a tall mountain to avoid much of the Earth’s atmosphere. Assuming a small amount of rocket power would be used after a vehicle exits the catapult, no insurmountable technological obstacles stand in the way of this method. The sheer scale of the project makes it difficult to develop the technology past level 4.

Are there any ideas we’re missing here?