The Spaceleap

Eric Horvitz

March 1986

A decade-old foray into the promise of unifying computer science, medicine, molecular biology, and aerospace to support a long-range human challenge.

It seemed that a sense of equilibrium had been finally reached. This time, every aspect of the research center seemed to boast "stability." Humanity had taken its first step to being truly independent of the Earth. The Spaceleap concept had become central in aerospace, unifying diverse endeavors, and changing forever the way people viewed manned missions. The Moon center demonstrated that the concept could work extremely well. Indeed, this was a relatively small experiment compared to future plans.

Soon, the whole approach would be tested on a grander scale. Mason felt his heart pounding as he pondered the future Mars mission. If all went smoothly, the precisely staggered launches of the initial portion of the Mars Spaceleap protocol would begin in seven years.

It was he who had popularized the concept of autonomous habitats during his tenure as the director of NASA's Pathfinder project [EH, 9/95: I had used the name"Pathfinder" in the spirit of the fast-paced Pathfinder computer-based pathology diagnosis project at Stanford which we had been working on in the mid-eighties. The name was coincidentally used by NASA later on for a Mars probe mission.]. The Pathfinder project, which was initiated in 1988, focused on studying advanced concepts for humans in space. Mason began to develop Spaceleap engineering techniques in the mid-nineties as a young Pathfinder scientist. His subgroup, the Mars Mission Task Force (MMTF), had been charged with doing a thorough analysis of alternative approaches to a manned mission to Mars. The MMTF was created in 1995 in response to the President's 1994 State of the Union address where he announced the initiation of a U.S.-Soviet collaborative study on the feasibility of a possible future joint manned mission to Mars.

During the MMTF study, it had struck Mason and other members of the subgroup that the prevailing conception of manned space missions was based on ideas developed for visiting the close-circling Moon. The concept was dated, having roots in the mid-1950s. The "Spaceleap" concept evolved directly from the perception that the standard view of manned space missions was inadequate for long space voyages.

One of the main obstacles that the MMTF saw in studying a Mars mission was the massive quantity of energy and life support resources that had to be transported to sustain the long journey to and from Mars. There was also a need to reduce potentially catastrophic uncertainties associated with a one-shot mission. Finally, a shared sense of dismay had evolved among MMTF members at the lopsided ratio of travel time to exploration time that most plans dictated; even with the latest thrusters, it would take over 4 months just to traverse the distance to and from Mars. Questions about the purpose of sending men to Mars when planetary telemetry was so advanced kept surfacing in the group.

Mason's group spent weeks rethinking the whole mission. Perhaps manned missions to distant planets might, from the outset, be considered something more than mere "visits." Viewing the problem this way, the Spaceleap idea crystallized. Why not attempt to build a self-sufficient center for habitation and research from the start? Such an autonomous center might be designed so that its capacity could be expanded through the use of resources indigenous to the target planet. At the time, plans for the forthcoming Moon research capsule already dictated the production of oxygen from silicon oxides in the sand of the Moon. Additionally, water and electricity was to be created in fuel cells through combining portions of the oxygen with hydrogen acquired from sulfide compounds.

Surely, advanced telemetry enabled Earth-based scientists to know almost as much about the meteorology, geology, and chemistry of distant bodies as they knew about the Earth. Fast-paced developments in automated assembly, computer simulation, robotic ore extraction, chemical catalysis, and molecular biology made possible thedevelopment of optimal strategies for engineering environments that could sustain men and women indefinitely and comfortably in formerly uninhabitable places. Mason's enthusiasm surged when he heard about recent successes within the NASA-Ames exobiology group in engineering simple closed ecosystems. The MMTF analysis soon became devoted to the construction, equilibration, and testing of autonomous environments before a majority of the astronauts arrived to occupy them.

Research had uncovered previous discussion of such autonomous extraterrestrial centers. However, skills in computational and biological sciences needed for the task had not been available until the mid-1990s. It was now clear to the MMTF researchers that the technological advances made the custom-engineering of autonomous facilities the best way to explore the solar system. The final MMTF Presidential report crisply laid out a unified package of pragmatic engineering steps that was clearly feasible.

The provocative report received wide attention. At the outset, a number of senior scientists at NASA questioned the Spaceleap concept. The most common complaint centered on the sophisticated automation required by the project. While there had been continuing enthusiasm about autonomous robotic construction systems, such units were still only available in computer science research laboratories. Mason had answered this criticism and demonstrated the power of the ideas with a convincing prototype.

Within four years, the protoytpe, a spacious greenhouse assembly, was functioning on the Martian surface. The relatively simple system was sent to Mars as two separate modules which meshed shortly after arrival. The prototype demonstrated that constructing autonomous centers did not require overly-sophisticated automation. It also affirmed the ability of atmospheric concentrators and geologic-chemistry units to supply abundant quantities of air, water and electricity. Mason chuckled to himself as he thought back upon his attempts to excite the U.S. public about the realistic nature of the autonomous habitat idea; he had made use of the datalink experiments of the prototype to boast about the comforts possible on the surface of Mars; the headlines had read "Network Television On Mars".

Soon, the technique of preparing permanent habitable environments in uninhabitable places through study of distant conditions and resources followed by the design of a set of techniques and modules (termed a "conversion package" by NASA engineers) to be sent to a target destination in a precise sequence, became known as Spaceleap. Plans for the Moon research capsule that had been conceived in the early 1990's were modified to make the Moon base a test of crucial Spaceleap engineering concepts.

By the time the International Space Consortium was formed, the Spaceleap concept was widely known. There was much enthusiasm about it in the academic community. Engineering departments at leading universities began to offer special programs in the engineering of autonomous habitats, attracting many budding biologists, computer scientists, and mechanical engineers. Unfortunately, the popularity of the idea seemed to grow more slowly with the public. However, several promotional films and news conferences seemed to stimulate interest.

When in Washington, Mason would often repeatedly immerse himself in the crowd in the theater at the Air and Space Museum. He carefully observed the wide-eyed expressions on the flickering faces in the audience as the story about his Spaceleap Mars prototype and about the planned Spaceleap research centers on the Moon and Mars was told. The last scene, depicting a young researcher calling home on his mother's birthday was particularly touching. Many people in the audience often sat motionless after the movie ended and had to be told to leave to make room for the next crowd. Mason never tired of seeing the movie.

At the turn of the century several large international promotions helped catalyze a skyrocketing of the popularity of the Spaceleap concept. Soon toy companies had even produced characters and sets of vehicles centered around the Spaceleap theme; it seemed to Mason as if his daughter had ended up with all of them. Mason remembered being taken aback by some of the commercialization. Nonetheless, he was thankful for the enthusiasm from all sectors.

Research on the Spaceleap Moon facility had stimulated quite a bit of technological and social change on the Earth. In particular, Spaceleap research led to some unexpected spinoffs in computer science and agriculture. Although, early machine intelligence developments had been necessary for the conceptual development of the upcoming Mars project, the actual planning and engineering of the Spaceleap tests generated revolutionary demands for innovation in automated design and fabrication of building structures. The space agency funded research projects that led to astounding advances in machine vision and computer-assisted planning.

Earth transportation technology benefited greatly from research on multiple intelligent agents that Spaceleap coordination needs had stimulated. By 2010, all new cars sold in the United States were required to have communicating collision-avoidance systems that served to warn drivers of dangerous situations. Soon after, people could optionally purchase systems that would assist drivers in steering and braking cars headed for collision. Aircraft had already been fitted with similar systems in the late-1990's. Analysts attributed the collision-avoidance systems with saving thousands of lives each year.

Quite unexpectedly, research on engineering closed ecosystems had a profound effect on the refinement of agricultural techniques. Genetic cloning and cataloguing techniques, in part funded by the participating space agencies, led to extremely high-protein versions of the staple crops. A particularly important advance, with great significance to the Spaceleap program, was the development of Wheat/C, the first widely available staple crop to contain the ten essential amino acids that cannot be synthesized by humans. The impressive Wheat/C development was directly attributable to the Spaceleap project, as it was engineered as a collaborative effort by teams at NASA-Ames and the University of Wisconsin.

Many people found the most striking result of Spaceleap research to be the development of crops that would flourish in adverse climates on the Earth. The diligent closed ecosystem research resulted in the extension of productive agriculture to the arid deserts as well as to increasingly colder regions of the far north and south. Vast areas at the periphery of the Sahara and Gobi deserts were now blossoming, providing an abundance of food. Many had been quite impressed to see comparisons of satellite photos of the Sahara with images taken in the early-1990's.

Beyond technological advances, the Moon and Mars Spaceleap projects had a powerful unifying effect on the world's nations. For many people in the participating nations, the Spaceleap project had become a twenty-first century "Manhattan Project," catalyzing unprecedented international cooperation. Spaceleap also had subtle but powerful effects on humanity's self-conception. As attention was focused on the delicate construction of the first self-sufficient human environments to exist beyond the Earth, people began to view the Earth as a more fragile, precious system.

A modern-day sense of manifest destiny and eternal resilience for humanity began to surface. Although research and development on the first prototypes focused on designing centers on the Moon and Mars, investigators showed that many techniques were generalizable. Mechanisms for sustaining people in one environment would be useful in others, with slight modifications. Aerospace enthusiasts joined science fiction writers in speculating that these first small projects were perhaps precursors to grand leaps throughout the universe.

In 2008, a test of the automated construction of a small autonomous environment was undertaken on the moon. The components interacted beautifully, increasing the political and scientific backing for the full 2012 Spaceleap moon project. The moon center now dwarfed the miniscule international research base.

Dr. Mason was standing motionless for several moments now, engrossed in thought. A distant dream had become real. He was awed by the power of the human spirit to imagine and create. Nothing could capture the essence of humanity more deeply than seeing people work diligently over many years to make a dream about a seemingly remote future blossom into reality.

Reality struck. At once, the bustle of the present moment broke through his reflection. Mason continued down the ramp, hoping his pause was not noticeably long--all the while reviewing to himself the planned agenda. He turned to greet the director of the moon center, but his conversation was cut short by a familiar face. His daughter peeked shyly through the crowd encircling the main lock. Mason jumped through the inlet gate, and warmly embraced his favorite Spaceleap pioneer.

Copyright © 1986 Eric Horvitz

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