Monday, January 31, 2011

Innovation for FTL Space Travel

One of the most exciting possibilities for the future of humankind is that eventually we will be able to escape to the stars. Reams of science fiction have been written over the centuries, not merely decades, on this topic.

Will such a thing be possible? If so, how many years into the future will it take to develop the faster-than-light drive technology and supporting components?

Many years ago Albert Einstein postulated that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, ever. Mathematical proofs and physics experiments conducted over the years seem to bear this out. During the 20th and 21st centuries we have learned a great deal since Einstein's day, however.

Some scientific outliers believe that even if we can never go faster than the speed of light, we can achieve the same end result by other means, such as jumping through a black hole (far fetched, to be sure) or "folding" space-time and creating a shortcut from point A to point B.

What sort of project or methodology could bring us to a workable faster-than-light craft? The research journey would undoubtedly begin with the Relativists, physicists who study relativity. This discipline deals with such concepts as how the universe could be finite, yet unbounded due to the curvature of space itself.

Where scientists go, engineers are sure to follow. A solution far into the future will undoubtedly take bits and pieces from the various disciplines such as relativistic physics, aerospace engineering, mathematics and computer science. Applying a structured design process type of methodology with something like DELPHI to most efficiently utilize the talents of a diverse group of Albert Einsteins will eventually be the ticket to the stars.

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Delphi Method and Nominal Group Technique

Alexander N. Christakis in his book "How People Harness Their Collective Wisdom and Power" discusses the Delphi and the Nominal Group Technique (NGT) consensus methods.

Delbecq in 1975 invented the NGT method. This method requires participants to put their responses in writing to what is termed a triggering question. These responses are then shared with the group at hand. There is similarity to traditional brainstorming techniques with an important difference.

By requiring the participants to write down their thoughts, this gives them more of a chance to better organize their responses when compared to brainstorming. NGT is used during the Structured Design Process (SDP) to slow down the speed at which ideas are generated, and it allows everyone, not just the dominate personalities, to present their ideas.

The Delphi method was invented in the 1960's by the nonprofit RAND Corporation.. This technique works well over globally dispersed teams of participants. During the SDP, Delphi is used during the design phase. Like NGT, it removes the effects of dominant personalities, and also allows anonymity. Due to the dispersed aspect, Delphi works well in the modern environment of global commerce.

Christakis Case Study

Alexander N. Christakis in his book "How People Harness Their Collective Wisdom and Power" presents a case study in chapter 16 entitled "Wisdom of the People Forum". In this scenario, leaders of indigenous peoples of various ethnicities from countries and regions around the world met to devise a way to remove barriers to globalization within the context of their cultures.

During the first day of a conference held to discuss the barriers, participants used a Structured Design Process (SDP) dialogue to generate a list of 79 barriers. and create an Influence Tree. This tree consisted of four levels in its final form, among which the 79 barriers were categorized.

The second day consisted of a discussion of ways to remove the barriers thus allowing interactions between indigenous cultures. At day's end, 49 action options had been created to address the barriers.

On the third day of the conference, they met to create a list of action scenarios from the various action options. Small groups were formed and each of the small groups created action scenarios by selecting various action options and devising explanations for each.

The final product was a list of eight action options incorporated into a Consensus Action Scenario. These eight options consisted of identifying generic core values, the need to understand one's own culture before attempting to learn others, the need for strategic alliances and how to create them, the need to research and develop a diagram of indigenous organizations, the need to build a network of contacts to include indigenous and non-indigenous persons, the analysis of impacts, the identification of stakeholders, and the creation of an exchange program.

SDP enabled the group to complete their task in only three days.


Published in 1998, "The Fortune Sellers" examines predictions and the business of predicting the future. In chapter seven, entitled "The Futurists", author William A. Sherden examines both successful and unsuccessful predictions that relate to societal change. Among the few successful predictions which the author discusses are those made by what he terms"the trend spotters".

John Naisbitt is one of the trend spotters the author discusses. In 1982 Naisbitt published the book "Megatrends 2000" which examined ten trends that he believed would shape the future world. Seven of his trends did not pan out at all. The remaining three successful trends were those of (1) the growth of an information society, (2) increasing globalization, and (3) north to south migration.

As the Sherden states, all three trends already had the groundwork laid for success when Naisbitt wrote about them in 1982. Regarding the growth of an information society in particular, the use of mainframe and mini computers had already exploded commercially. And just a year before, in 1981, IBM brought out the IBM PC which was to revolutionize computing and information technology.

Sherden criticizes Naisbitt's prediction for the growth of an information society saying that Naisbitt "greatly overstated the impact of information technology." However, Sherden's criticism proves to shortsighted in 2011, as the advance of technology in the years since 1998 have brought forth a tidal wave of smart cell phones and other smart devices, as well as an explosion in the scope and capability of The Internet and World Wide Web.

Sherden also did not take into account the pace at which globalization would speed the offshoring of traditional manufacturing industries, thus moving the world ever faster into a post-industrial, information society. Technological advancement and economic considerations, i.e. globalization, have combined to bring us further into Naisbitt's true information society.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Ted Talks" Video Review

Historian George Dyson's talk on Project Orion details the thinking that went into the planning of one of America's most ambitious space projects ever. The project was initiated in 1957 and was finally shelved in 1965. Dyson's father, physicist Freeman Dyson (of Dyson Sphere fame) was a member of the team.

The overall concept was that of a giant spacecraft capable of being launched to the outer planets, namely Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in this case, which was to use fission explosions to propel it through space. More ambitious plans which essentially turned the spacecraft into a starship, mandated the use of hydrogen fusion bombs, rather than fission bombs for propulsion. A number of events which came together in a sort of "perfect storm" led to the eventual termination of the project before any ships could be constructed.

Bombs were to be exploded at the rear of the spacecraft essentially pushing it along. Successful flight would have required the serial explosions of perhaps thousands of nuclear bombs, one at a time. Needless to say the ride would have been rather bumpy! And the spacecraft itself would have to be extremely massive in order to survive the explosions

Unlike the Saturn IB and V rockets which were being developed at roughly the same time by NASA, Orion was being supported by ARPA and the US Air Force. Military projects such as this are often cloaked by many levels of security and secrecy, in contrast to more open civilian-owned projects.

Economic, technological, and political forces worked against this concept, however. From an economic perspective, the cost would have been enormous, dwarfing that of the expensive Apollo moon shots.

The technological hurdles were equally insurmountable; after all this design was being designed to use hundreds, if not thousands of Hiroshima-type bombs. The rear of the craft had to be engineered in such a way as to take these explosions in stride, harnessing them for forward momentum, while protecting the crew from radiation. That required tremendous advances in metallurgy, thermodynamics and related fields, and computing power far in excess of that required for a moon flight accomplished with chemical rockets.

On the political front, the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 also helped bring an end to the project. This treaty banned nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in space, and under water.

Project Orion is being studied today as a possible "off the shelf" component of a solution to the problem of asteroids and other large space bodies that may eventually be found to be on a collision course with Earth.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Technology's Promise

William Halal in "Technology's Promise" makes several predictions regarding the future of space exploration. Halal offers opinions on manned lunar bases, the manned exploration of Mars, interstellar travel, and even alien contact.

Technology's Promise was published in 2008 and is already dated in at least one key area. Halal discusses then-President George W. Bush's plan for an American manned lunar colony as a milestone in the conquest of space. In the two years since publication, economic and political realities have come home to roost, and it now seems certain that there will be no manned lunar colony in the near future, at least not a solely American one. Other nations and alliances have been just as negatively impacted by the worldwide financial crisis, and it is doubtful that any will rise to fill American shoes in this endeavor.

This will of course delay the manned exploration of Mars. In addition, several associated projects, such as the construction of new heavy lift rockets have also been canceled. The cancellation of these adjunct programs will of course delay any attempt to have mankind walk on Mars.

This shows the unpredictability associated with any attempt to forecast the future. No one could have foreseen the depth of the economic crisis which has gripped the world since the publication of Technology's Promise.