Friday, March 27, 2015

Historic ISS 1-Year Mission Begins Today


Expedition ISS 42S will launch Scott Kelly, Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko to the International Space Station today from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.

When: March 27, 2015, 
12:42 pm PDT 
3:42 pm EDT
20:42 CET

Live coverage is available on and Spaceflight Now, which is already blogging up-to-the-minute pre-launch coverage.

 Photo credit: NASA/ Bill Ingalls

Above: The veteran astronauts that will blast off to the ISS today. Scott Kelly (left) and Mikhail Kornienko (right) will remain on the orbital outpost for a whole year, while Gennady Padalka (middle) will stay on the ISS for the usual 160 days.

Fellow veteran astronaut Mark Kelly - Scott's twin brother - will remain on Earth as a control subject to compare the effects of long-term exposure to space experienced by his twin brother on-orbit. Mikahil Kornienko was chosen for the 1-year mission to match Mark Kelly on a number of variables, such as age, experience, number of missions, and number of hours spent in space. All of this makes scientific sense, especially since the purpose of the ISS 1-year study is to find out more about the health effects of long-term exposure to space, and how humans generally adapt to microgravity, with an eye towards medium- and long-term missions, such as journeys to Mars.

For the record, I absolutely think that one of the astronauts chosen for the 1-year mission should have been a woman. ISS astronauts corps have plenty of women to choose from. I completely understand why choosing one twin on-orbit while the other remains on Earth makes scientific sense, as does a matched control subject for Scott Kelly on the ISS. My question is: Why were women excluded entirely from a 1-year ISS study? What little we know about adaptation to space seems to indicate non-trivial gender differences. What if it turns out women are better suited to long-term missions than men? Why do we not even bother to ask or study that question, now that we have a 1-year mission in the works? Even if you think the current ISS 1-year mission is perfect as planned, why did it not include a woman as a second control subject on-board the ISS? Why not send a mixed-gender trio for one year? The data derived from cross-gender comparisons would be so much more valuable than comparing men only. That's not even mentioning the fact that the current mission to study long-term effects on humans in space excludes half the human race it claims to study. 

To my knowledge, NASA has no plans to conduct a similar 1-year study with women astronauts only (please, please tell me I'm wrong about this!). Plus, with the current ISS lifespan cycle funded for about another 9 years, and many other male astronauts on the manifest for 160-day stays on the ISS, how likely is it that a female-only 1-year study is going to happen?

From where I'm sitting, excluding women astronauts from the ISS 1-year study looks like nothing so much as stacking the deck in favor of choosing male astronauts (all astronauts corps on Earth are male-dominated) for future long-term mission, e.g., to Mars. The reasoning will go something like this: Well, we have limited slots to Mars, and we already know what happens to men during long-term exposure to space, but with women astronauts... you know, we just cannot risk it, because we don't know - and never bothered to find out.

Photo Credit: NASA Aubrey Gemignani 

The Soyuz rocket that will carry Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka to the ISS in less than two hours.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Failing The Heinlein Test

I've been trying, unsuccessfully, to find the exact chapters or book passages from Robert Heinlein's writings where I first came across the concept of The Heinlein Test. He didn't call it that. It's how I thought about his ideas.

Heinlein envisioned a universe that is pretty much the opposite of the "Where IS Everybody?" Fermi Paradox. In Robert Heinlein's universe, solar systems and galaxies are teeming with intelligent life forms that evolve to develop spaceflight and move on from there. He also theorized that in such a universe, the likelihood of evolving into a multi-planetary species could be predicted by how soon an intelligent species utilizes spaceflight to the fullest extent possible, after developing the capability. A species that embraces and relishes this evolutionary milestone would flourish. Those species approaching it with temerity, risk aversion, trepidation and disinterest would perish. The longer this hesitation goes on after developing the capability for creating a multi-planetary species without actually using it, the more likely the species is to become extinct in the long term.

This may well be bullshit, but it has a certain intuitive symmetry to it. A species that embraces multi-planetary life to the fullest extent possible has an excellent long-term survival outlook. Species that hesitate years before taking this step don't have such a rosy prognosis. It starts to look pretty grim for species that take a decade, or decades to get their asses to Mars, to quote Buzz Aldrin. It's not a new idea. Entire sci-fi universes have plot lines based on multiple species with more or less aggressive expansion and colonization tactics. The more hesitant and non-spacefaring species don't do too well in this scenario, in the long run.

If there is even a smidgen of truth to this idea, it's worth noting that homo sapiens is failing the Heinlein Test, badly.

"Yeah, it got us, too." - The Dinosaurs