RocketDoc Notes - Week of July 26, 2020

Finding Life on Mars Efforts – Part 3

All of the three Mars Explorer missions for 2021 have now been launched.

The last spacecraft was “Mars 2020” and it went up on time on July 30th at 7:50 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral. The plan is to put the Perseverance Rover on the Martian surface in February 2021. Mars 2020 is seeking signs of past life in Jezero crater, the site of an ancient delta and crater lake. The Mars 2020 rover will also collect a diverse and compelling set of rock and soil samples for potential return to Earth for detailed analysis. The sample return mission will be a joint ESA/NASA mission scheduled to launch in 2026.

Why the big interest in Mars and past life forms this year? The answer might surprise you. Both of the rovers in-route to Mars were designed to gather and catche samples of current or previous lifeforms. I think the chances of finding current lifeforms approaches zero (water on Mars is frozen down to a depth of approximately one kilometer), and the chances of finding previous lifeforms is very low (Mars hasn’t had liquid water on the surface for over a billion years), but if they can recover a fossil lifeform on Mars, it will likely change the way we view ourselves and life in the universe in general.

Why is this so significant? It is because all living things on Earth share the same carbon-based chemistry, so it appears that “life” appeared only once about 3.5 billion years ago. In all of these 3.5 billion years we find no fossils of a competing chemistry. This tells us that “life” only works for one pattern of RNA and DNA, or that the conditions where “life” can form is extremely rare and has only been met once in 3.5 billion years.

If we find signs that “life” formed on Mars and it has the same carbon-based chemistry we do, then there are two possible conclusions we can draw. First, is that possibly our form of life is ubiquitous and single cell life will eventually form anywhere in the universe where the conditions are favorable. The second is that our form of life formed first on Mars and was carried to earth via an asteroid impact on Mars 3.5 billion years ago. This means we are all Martians. While this is physically possible, I would treat it as low probability. How do we resolve this issue? We go and find other life in the solar system (Jupiter’s moons Io and Europa are good candidates). If we find life on one of Jupiter’s moons and it matches life on Earth, then our form of life is ubiquitous, and we should find it across the universe. Pretty heavy, right.

If we find signs of life on Mars and it has a different chemistry from ours, then we need to wonder why this other form of life never developed in competition to the existing life on Earth?

Especially worrying would be finding a history of multiple forms of life on Mars with our carbon-based lifeform being in a minority of the samples. This would mean that our space program needs to be super cautious in exploring the solar system and that our days as a species could be numbered. That issue could kill space exploration for decades until we thoroughly understand the alternative forms of life.

Finally, there is the obvious result. We find no sign of previous life on Mars or on the moons of Jupiter. This could be because the conditions were never correct for life to form, or that life is exceedingly rare, and we could be alone in the universe. Our religious institution would have lots of fun with that conclusion.

I expect Mars to be very much in the news early in 2021. That is good for our space program and good for humanity in general after the terrible year we are having caused by COVID-19.

Return to the Moon Efforts

The effort to return to the moon in 2024 has taken a hit when the House NASA budget bill for next year kept NASA funding at $22.629 billion instead of the $25.246 billion the White House requested. With other changes in the earmarks for various NASA programs there will be insufficient funds to build both a gateway and lander in time for a NASA-led 2024 early return to the moon scenario. An alternate approach, which I support, is to use the existing funding as seed money to help fund a commercial moon landing using existing launch vehicles, upper stages, and crewed vehicles. This could be done with the funding available. This assumes that enough commercial interest exists to put an international base on the moon and that various nations would pay to station astronauts there. More importantly, it assumes NASA will outsource the lion’ share of the exploration budget. Not likely but it can’t hurt to try.

Income Inequality in the United States

This is not a space related topic, but is of vital importance to us all, so I am going to assault you with data and my opinions. Figure 1 below shows the income share of the richest 10% of Americans. What you see is that prior to WWII this 10% (known as the Robber Barons) were capturing roughly 45% of the income generated. WWII brought huge increases in productivity and wage controls and the Robber Barron’s take dropped to under 35%.

Figure 1 Income Inequality over Time

Productivity continued to increase during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s but business increased wages in synch with productivity so the poorer 90% kept just under 35% of total income.

Then in the late 1970s business schools begun teaching future CEOs that shareholder value was much more important to a well-run business than employee satisfaction. I witnessed this myself as a first-level supervisor at the Boeing Company. Suddenly executive bonuses were not determined by the results of the twice a year employee satisfaction survey, but by the increase in Boeing Stock value. The employee satisfaction surveys went away, and the yearly employee raises were essentially cut in half. This phenomenon explains the curve in figure 1 and the trend continues to this day.

I included this piece in my blog because I think the current income situation is helping to drive much of the current societal unrest and it needs to be addressed, soon. How do we fix the situation? The easiest and smartest thing to do would be to pass laws requiring corporations to share increases in productivity equitably with both shareholders and employees, but I can’t see that happening (too much government interference in big business). What I think is going to happen is that the 10% at the top are going to be heavily taxed and the monies distributed to the remaining 90%. Will it be equitable? I doubt it, but I can always hope.

I think this is the number one issue the country is facing right now, and I am surprised, and disappointed, that only the Democrats are talking about it. If the Republicans don’t catch on to this problem soon, it will almost guarantee a Democratic sweep in November. I, myself, am an independent and right now I would like the option “none of the above” on every ballot, and if “none of the above” wins the election we have a new election with new candidate required.

I am not a fan of either Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden.

Next week I’m planning to address the “Green Revolution” and show a relatively painless approach to solving Global Warming.

Thanks for your attention.

Dana Andrews

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