Sunday, November 13, 2011

Space: Research and Tourism (TEDxDelft)

I originally live-blogged this post from TEDxDelft

The first Dutch-born astronaut ever, Lodewijk van den Berg, gave an inspiring talk about research in space, and how he went from being a crystal growth scientist to becoming an astronaut.



From scientist to astronaut

The dilemma was: "Should we train a scientist specialized in crystal growth to become an astronaut, or should we make an astronaut study crystal growth?"

From thinking he would never have a chance to be selected because of his age and bad eyesight, Lodewijk van den Berg ended up becoming the prime crew member for the experiments on crystal growth in zero gravity. During his talk, he made the critical remark that for space travel and research, emotions override the rational considerations. The wish to participate in such research become stronger than the rational notion of the risks involved.

Being able to carry out research in zero gravity requires us to understand the effect of gravity on our lives and society. With some movies shot in space (showing a crew member in continuous rotation around his axis, and a bubble of grape juice, and the remark you need perfect table manners in space), Lodewijk van den Berg moved to the motion of fully living three-dimensional in space.

Satellites can be considered as the most basic device for the exploration of space, or wifi over very large distances. These devices allow us to make observations, but they are limited: they cannot carry out experiments. Humans in space, on the other, can both carry out experiments and serve as experimental animals, influencing the practice of medicine on Earth.

The necessary requirements for space research

Three elements are required for research in space:

1. A scientific base:

Obviously, you need to design experiments, understand the scientific issues involved and carefully prepare for an experiment.

2. Coordination:

One of the challenges is to make different groups, of different disciplines and different backgrounds and nationalities work together. A free flow of information is required.

3. Budget:

An adequate budget, sometimes providing research funding for several decades, is necessary to go from an "idea" to a "finished experiment".

Current problems and solutions

Nowadays, three regional groups dominate space research and exploration: US, Russia and the EU. Together, and with the help of Japan, Australia and Canada, they have contributed to the ISS, thus fulfilling the second criterion on coordination.

However, three problems are putting borders to the progress of space research:

1. Space shuttle:

The termination of the space shuttle program by the US cuts away one of the ways of transportation between Earth and the ISS.

2. Malfunction of the Russian spacecrafts:

Recently, mechanical problems with the Russian spacecrafts, has taken away the redundancy to get people up and down to the space station.

3. Decentralization of the European space program:

Instead of bringing the European researchers and scientists working on the space program together (and thus fulfilling the second criterion), the institutions are more and more being distributed over the different regions, and thus taking away the daily interaction between the major players in this field.

4. The crisis, always the crisis:

No money, no budget. Research, science and education are among the first victims of the crisis.

However, Lodewijk van den Berg had a positive message and solutions to these problems as well, and gave us an outlook on the future of the space program:

1. Commercial space travel

Soon, when commercial space travel will be available, a new stream of revenue will be created and this will create an additional source of funding for space research.

2. A real global view

We should think as a planet, not as rivaling nations anymore. The major players should open up and work together with China. A real global program, in which all research findings are shared is necessary. He suggest the creation of a UN space office, that really operates on a global scale. (This did remind me of when I watched the debate for the Republican nomination two weeks ago, in which all candidates were defending the idea of the US cutting back on its support to the UN). The only way to move forward is to create a planet-wide space program.

A personal note

As you might have noticed from my emphasis on this talk, I love everything related to space exploration. In fact, at the age of 18 , I was doubting between studying engineering in Belgium, or coming to Delft to study aerospace engineering.

Here's a few places where I've been, and which I highly recommend to everyone interested in rockets and space exploration:

1. Space Camp and the Euro Space Center

As a 10-year-old kid, I had a blast at the camp - and I would encourage all parents to send curious kids to this camp.

2. International Space Camp and the US Space and Rocket Center

My first trip to the US (I was 16 then) took me to Huntsville, AL, where I spent a week with students from all over the world, learning about space research, space missions and the work of astronauts. I went back to the US Space and Rocket Center when I was living in Atlanta, GA and I felt the same excitement I had felt 8 years before. I think every scientist, every engineer and every dreamer can't dislike a wonderful place like that.

3. Cape Canaveral

Bad planning and a lack of time resulted in me only seeing the outside of this holy place for space exploration, but passing by was still an inspiring moment.

4. Noordwijk

The closest to Delft, is the Space Expo in Noordwijk. If you haven't been there, and liked today's talk, you might like to go and visit. I remember enjoying it very much.

5. National Air and Space museum, DC

This museum is the most recent addition to my space-related trips and visits. I spent more than 4 hours there, reading and taking in sights of the rockets. If you're in DC, it's worth t stop by and learn.

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