“Welcome to the panel for the real geeks,” announced David Brin, award-winning author of The Postman, who also happens to be an astrophysicist sitting on the advisory board of NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group. Brin was at the October 11 session of 2014’s New York Comic Con to host a panel titled “From Dreams to Reality – Science Fiction as an Inspiration for NASA and Private Sector Development.”
Or, to put it in Brin’s own words, a discussion on “the weirdest things bureaucrats can be forced to pay attention to.”
A.C. Charania, the business development manager of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic commercial spaceflight company, was the first to speak to the crowded room. Charania recounted the media that led him to his career, such as the British science-fiction film Thunderbirds Are Go, which showed him how technology could be used to help mankind. He also cited the anime series Robotech and Ray Bradbury’s classic Martian Chronicles as sagas that encouraged humanity’s expansion into the solar system.
“We’re on the cusp of opening up space to the rest of us,” Charania said. Up until October, only 546 people had ever been to outer space. “We have more than 700 customers signed up currently, Charania said.”
Virgin plans its first commercial spaceflight for 2015, although it won’t be much more than looking out windows and floating around for a few minutes. Passengers will have to undergo medical checks and three days of preparation for the harsh g-forces, although Brin is confident it’ll be worth it.
“I think even if you puke, you’ll have the time of your life,” Brin said.
Insurance costs for such a flight would be more astronomical than the view, so instead each customer will have to sign a waiver. Still, Charania insists on the safety of future flights.
“Everyone’s paying for a round trip, and we’re going to make sure that happens,” Charania said. Those words may be less comforting after the fiery crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle on October 31, an incident that killed one pilot and left the other seriously injured.
Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship 2
Mike Gold of Las Vegas, Nevada’s Bigelow Aerospace took the podium next. Bigelow, with the $250 million funding from its benefactor, hotel mogul Robert T. Bigelow, aims to launch what they call “expandable habitats” into space using decommissioned ballistic missiles from the former USSR. Trekkers might remember that’s how the Phoenix craft was launched in the film Star Trek: First Contact.
A side benefit of this launch approach, put into slogan form by Gold, might be, “Reducing the world’s nuclear arsenal one rocket at a time!”
The inflatable habitat modules are meant to increase real estate on the International Space Station and elsewhere at a fraction of the current costs. Jumping around in a giant balloon in space might not seem like the best idea, but Gold says the leak rates on test runs have actually been less in orbit than on the ground.
“You will die from natural causes before you have to worry about the structure of our expandable habitats,” Gold said.
NASA photo of an expandable habitat mockup’s inside
The afternoon session concluded with NASA’s Jason Crusan, who says they now want to change our opinion on what we should be doing in space, beyond just “flags and footprints.” Crusan pointed out that, according to NASA’s 2014 Strategic Plan (PDF link), one of the organization’s primary goals is now to “expand human presence into the solar system.”
It’ll be hard to do that without the proper sci-fi accoutrements, like the Robonaut, a dexterous humanoind robot designed to work alongside astronauts and also to go places where they cannot. Or what were once known simply as “free flying robots,” but were recently rechristened “astrobees” as part of public contest. The astrobees will be used to log inventory and perform inspections with built in cameras, and will be controllable by ground support to perform other activities. But don’t they look like they should be teaching Luke Skywalker to see with the force?
NASA photo from 2008, showing off SPHERES, an astrobee prototype.