ISDC 2007 - Day One
Well, I figure I should report my impressions of day one at the International Space Development Conference before I read any one else's , and while it's still somewhat fresh in my mind.
First of all, I have a little gripe. The traffic in and around Dallas is a nightmare. I don't know how it stacks up against other major metropolitan areas, but I've been stuck in Dallas traffic for a total of five hours now, and I've only been here two days. From what I'm beginning to learn from some locals is that the conference location at the Hotel Intercontinental could not be in a worse location as far as commuting goes. Hopefully the weekend traffic will be more merciful, although I'm skeptical since it is Memorial Day weekend.
I did get to see Shannon Lucid and Don Pettit give their presentation in the morning. During and after the lunch break I spent some time talking with folks in the halls and at the displays. This is the first ISDC I have attended, and really my first space related conference. So, it was fun talking to other people who are as passionate about space as I am.
The presentation by Drs. Lucid and Pettit was mostly about the mindset of living and working on the frontier. As both of them have been on long duration missions (six months on Mir for Dr. Lucid, and six months on ISS for Dr. Pettit), they have a unique perspective on life on the new frontier. Dr. Pettit has also recently taken part in a trek across Antarctica looking for meteorites; a journey which he paralleled with his stay on the ISS.
The pair discussed many different aspects of frontier life, but the one I was most interested in was the science of opportunity discussed by Dr. Pettit. He described the ISS and Antarctica as non-intuitive environments: places where everyday can bring new and unexpected experiences. In these environments, discoveries are just waiting to be made.
I wish he would have spent more time talking about those moments of discovery. In my opinion, this is one of the most important reasons why we are sending people into space. Most of the low-hanging fruit, in terms of scientific discovery, have been picked. To make new discoveries, someone has to study new phenomena, or possibly even well known phenomena in new environments. On Earth, this requires spending increasing large amounts to create these new environments in particle accelerators. However, their are many things about the universe that we take for granted just simply because we experience them every day. These things become part of our intuition and typically get pushed to the back of minds. By experiencing the non-intuitive environments, as Dr. Pettit describes, "...we can become children again, and experience the world with a child's curiosity". (quote paraphrased)
After lunch, I got to spend some time talking with James Bauer of Armadillo Aerospace. It is truly amazing what this small group has been able to accomplish. I can't help but think of Steve Wozniack hacking together the first Apple computers in his garage and the effect that effort had on the world of computing. I think that John Carmack and his team are poised to do the same thing for the world of rocketry.
Yes, Pixel was on display, and I got to tell you that this is an impressive machine. It's impressive mostly because it looks so simple. I've been to several Air & Space museums and have seen some of the rocket engines developed by and for NASA. Those things are a maze of wires and tubes and components. I think you really have to know what you are looking at to truly appreciate their design. However, Pixel is the very model of simplicity. I'm not trying to trivialize their work. I think the simplicity of their design is brilliant. Less parts means less things that could fail, which means (or could mean) greater reliability. It also means that they are cheaper and easier to build than your typical rocket engine; a feature the they intend to capitalize on as they move towards building their modular rocket design.
I also had the opportunity to talk with Tom Ligon of Energy Matter Conversion Corporation (EMC2). I've got to say that the system he is describing seems almost too good to be true. He claims that the power output of the fusor reactor scales with the seventh power of reactor radius. I asked him if there were any upper limits to this scaling. He replied that Dr. Bussard has thus far only considered reactor designs up to 6 meters in diameter. That is an enormous amount of energy. We're talking about 6 GW out of a roughly 6 meter diameter reactor (if I'm remembering correctly), and the output goes straight to DC; no more heat water turn turbine.
When someone makes that kind of prediction and only has preliminary experimental data to back it up, I can understand why it would meet with some skepticism. Still, if they are successful, this technology could literally change the world. Given that potential, I don't see why they would have any difficulty raising a couple of hundred million dollars they need to definitively establish its viability. But that's just it. I get the sense that the effort is strapped for cash. I have seen bigger grants awarded to academic institutions to conduct basic research. So, I can't help but think that there may be other factors at work behind the scenes.
Anyway, that's all for now. I try to post more in the next couple of days as I have time.