Saturday, January 21, 2006

NASA's dancing space penis

I'd just like to say that I am proud to be an American tax payer.

Bush and his Texas buddies keep coming up with the most interesting ways to spend my money. I was mildly amused when I heard of his Alaskan ‘bridges to nowhere.’ One connects to a village of 50 Eskimos, and costs $230 million (that's a bit over $2.1 million per Eskimo) and the second connects to a completely uninhabited island and costs $220 million (that's a bit over "does not compute" per Eskimo).

But, then, you've just gotta love NASA! Space travel++. They invented a skin that helps robots stay out of the way of humans (click here to see the QuickTime movie). Good. So they show it off by playing music from Behind the Green Door and having some woman dance around it in tights. Oh, and the robot they used looks like a penis. So we’re on the Moon and we have a dancing space penis. Super. Here's the scenario:

'The Earth has depleted all its natural resources. Life has become grim and hopeless. The only viable option for mankind is to colonize the Moon, mine its surface for minerals and provide a limitless source of clean energy for the home planet.’

Isn’t this the plotline of the 1975 television series "Space: 1999"? Nope this is the White House's long-term strategy for dealing with the global energy crisis: to turn the moon into a huge mining colony.

Here is what the president said: "The moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air."

Here is what the president meant: "My friends at Halliburton are very eager to strip-mine the moon and since most of my policies seem to come from outer space anyway, I said, 'What the hell?'"

But just to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, it turns out that Earth is actually running out of a substance called helium-3 and there is, indeed, an abundant quantity of helium-3 just under the surface of the moon. Forget for a second that we still lack the technology to use helium-3 for anything except making your voice sound really high and squeaky. But the moon has so much helium-3 that it practically floats. Scientists estimate that the million tons of helium-3 on the moon could provide enough energy to power the Earth for thousands of years.

Of course, these estimates depend on which scientists are making the estimates—the same ones who predicted we'd all be living in a utopia of perfectly fitting unitards; or the ones who've crashed two space shuttles in 17 years and who were scrambling to figure out why the International Space Station—sort of the linchpin of all future space exploration—was leaking air (a substance considered extremely important to astronauts)

I read up on this. Say you want a ton of helium-3 from the Moon. You've only got to do two things:

Step one, heat up 1,000,000,000 / 30 = 33,333,333 tons of lunar soil. That's a lot of dirt and a lot of heat. All of the hydrogen and helium gas in the soil is baked off and captured. You get 2001 tons of hydrogen and helium - 1000 tons of hydrogen gas, 1000 tons of helium gas, and one ton of helium-3 gas

Step two, you've got to separate the ton of helium-3 you want to ship back to Earth from the 2000 tons of normal helium and hydrogen you don't. Getting the hydrogen out is relatively easy; just combine it with lunar oxygen to make water. Try to avoid a titanic explosion in the process. Separating that one-in-a-thousand helium atom you want from the helium that's left, though, is hard. It's the same problem faced with the Manhattan Project people trying to separate the U-235 uranium atoms that could make a bomb from the U-238 uranium atoms that couldn't. You'd have to recreate wartime Oak Ridge isotope separation plants on the moon - and those aren't going to be built from lunar material, I assure you.

As a point of interest, coal strip mines in the West get out 25 tons of coal for ever manhour of labor used. By this criteria digging up 33 million tons of moondirt per year would take 1.32 million manhours of labor. At 2000 manhours per year, that's a required crew of 660 miners for one ton of helium-3 per year.

You say we need 30 tons of helium-3 per year - that's the equivalent of 20,000 miners moving as much moondust around as the entire U.S. coal mining industry mines in coal in a year. I know, I know - the situation isn't comparable, NASA would create a super-automated unmanned bulldozer fleet, etc. etc. Running on what? Costing what? Getting to the moon how?

All things considered, I'm pretty impressed with NASA's dancing space penis.

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