July 20, 2009
Firing up your plasma cutting system might be a fitting tribute to the momentous event that happened 40 years ago today. Here's why.
When Neil Armstrong planted the first lunar footprint, the world was watching with an excitement most famously seen in our recently departed Walter Cronkite, who removed his glasses, shook his head, and chuckled in amazement. He could hardly contain his excitement. The country's most trusted newsman was speechless.
That amazement has waned over the decades, as stated in the numerous opinion columns that dot mainstream media today. Back then we had a wide-eyed optimism of what humans could accomplish, and, of course, we had a "bad guy"—the Soviet Union—to beat. After we spent billions and found that astronauts walking on the moon did not make for exciting television, Americans tuned out. While TV science fiction took us at warp speed to a new adventure every week, real space travel seemed slow, laborious, tedious, and expensive. Space travel lost its romance.
The New York Times spoke to NASA veteran Wayne Hale, who blames series like "Star Trek" for setting the public's expectations too high. "That's more glamour and excitement than real space travel can provide," the newspaper said, "unless, as Mr. Hale observes, we learn to travel at 'warp speed' as the Trekkers did."
Such speeds may not be so far out of reach, and your plasma nozzle uses technology that may lay the groundwork. Houston-based Ad Astra Rocket Co. is developing its variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket, or VASIMR®. As described in Scientific American, the rocket engine would use a plasma fuel—superheated ionized gas (we're talking millions of degrees here)—to propel a space ship 300 kilometers a second. A trip to Mars using current technology would take about 10 months; using a 200-megawatt VASIMR engine would slash that time to 39 days.
OK, so that's not warp speed, but it's fast enough to make space exploration more practical, and it just may bring back a little romance and wide-eyed optimism. So as your plasma cuts today, just think: The ionized gas shooting out of the nozzle one day may help propel the next generation's space explorers to boldly go where &well, you know the rest.
It might even make for good television.