Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Worldcon Recaps- Space & Science Panels

There were a host of science-related panels at Worldcon, many focusing on spaceflight. Some notes from the few I attended. Misattributions and errors possible.

Earth. We're stuck here!

James Patrick Kelly, Jim Davidson, Henry Spencer, John Strickland, Jr, Alison Wilgus
  • Opening question: what's the biggest obstacle to a future in space? Turns out to be a divisive question, without about half the panel saying "the government", weirdly--blaming lack of funding, and restrictions on private ventures.
  • Wilgus has a very different take. Money, sure, but to be honest: mass. It's very expensive to even practice space stuff, much less get good at it and do it at scale, because it's just so hard to get mass into even low orbit.
  • Kelly says the biggest barrier to a future in space is us: the human body is not designed to go into space. Refers to radiation primarily, as well as known and unknown problems with long exposure to micro/zero-gravity.
  • That sets off a long debate on defining acceptable risk and what we know about radiation levels. When it's pointed out that non-immediately lethal radiation levels aren't a huge concern for older people (over 50, say), because the cancer won't have time to develop, gets a cheer from the crowd. (Graying of fandom is real).
  • Recurring comments from (Strickland) throughout this entire panel, and everywhere else I saw him at the con, that reusable rockets will nullify all these problems, by making it cheap to get lots of mass up--for shielding, centrifugal stations, whatever. Interesting point, and Space X is pretty cool, but after a certain point repeating "reusable rockets" stopped adding anything to the conversation.
  • Wilgus has some great (depressing, realistic) points on the rad environment of space--even ISS still within magnetosphere, keeping existing projects functional takes up almost the total of human space industry (making big plans like Mars colonization seem pretty farfetched). Asks everyone to stop hating on NASA, noting how all the private space companies are very much building on and with NASA, not really a competition.
  • Kelly says that Curiosity, en route to Mars, took 1 (one) sievert of radiation. Not milli. One sievert. From the folks in the audience who know what that means, variants of "damn" and soft whistles arise. Not good for hoo-mans.
  • Kelly also cites long-term studies on astronauts that are, admittedly, very small sample sizes, but show really strong correlation between time/distance away from earth and death from cardiovascular problems. Panelists spend some time listing some known microgravity health problems (eye degradation is apparently a big one), note that the centrifugal lab proposed to study long-term simulated gravity on animals in the ISS hasn't happened yet.
  • Points about economy of scale and frequency of flights--shuttle program didn't cut orbital lift costs nearly as much as hoped, need a system that flies frequently so it get cheap.
  • Question to audience: It'll make you go blind, give you cancer, kill you. Who here will go to Mars, given the possibility to sign up right now? (Vast majority of audience raises hands.) Okay, there you go.
  • Note that the Apollo crews were very lucky--coronal mass ejections would have killed them without warning.
  • Quote on Moravec, putting a robot on mars with a 50 year development time.
  • Final note: Wilgus encourages audience to call and physically write congresscritters to encourage more space exploration and development, best way to make an impact.

Where Science Fails

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, Bill Higgins, Anna Kashina, Dr. Helen Pennington, Donald Douglas Fratz

This was a fantastic panel, and I took terrible notes. Scientists talking frankly about when and where the scientific process can fail, how to fail better, learn better from mistakes. A lot of it was humorous, a lot of it was kind of practical bummers--funding-based inability to replicate experiments, etc. Kashina mentioned a few journal/website projects to help fix some of these blindspots: retraction watches, metastudies, venues for things to be published even if they have negative or inconclusive results.

I'm really kind of kicking myself for not going to more panels featuring these folks--a lot of really interesting thoughts and stories.

Exploring the Solar System

Ctein, David Dvorkin, G. David Nordley, Alison Wilgus

This was kind of like "Earth, we're stuck here, part two", except actually more optimistic in a way. Lots of folks sharing their favorite space projects. Lots of cool info on upcoming probe missions.

There were a ton of other cool-sounding science panels at the con, and I heard a lot of the purely educational ones--"The Year in Physics" and so on--were really quite good. Notes for next time.

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