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Space Exploration Discussed at Dinner

By Chun Hua Zheng
Staff Reporter

Professor of Physics Walter H.G. Lewin spoke at Tau Beta Pi's Leonardo da Vinci dinner series on Thursday evening. The half-hour lecture, titled "The Moon, Planets, Stars, Blackholes, and Beyond," took place in the West Lounge of Ashdown House.

Lewin, known for teaching Physics I (8.01) material through daily appearances on MIT Cable, discussed "a few of the many startling results and consequences of space research and exploration," he said. Having worked closely with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's unmanned space research program, Lewin offered insights into the expensive politics which dictate space policy.

The lecture broached the topics of manned and unmanned research, the search for planets, the existence of extraterrestrial life forms and the possibility for mankind's colonization of space.

"The question is always, What's out there?,'" Lewin said.

The topic of extraterrestrial life is "loaded with strong emotions and religious feelings. Now I don't think that any scientist in his right mind would doubt the existence of zillions of forms of life in our universe," Lewin said. Fueling the audience with some last figures for thought, Lewin began by mentioning a picture taken by the Hubble space telescope fondly called the "Deep Field" picture.

The 10-day exposure revealed to the eye 33,000 galaxies, he said. Being able to locate so many galaxies in an area that covers only one-thirty millionths of the sky means that the total number of galaxies must be much higher - the estimated total is around 100 billion. Looking from the earth, the moon itself blocks the view of some 500,000 galaxies at any moment in time.

Each galaxy has approximately 100 billion stars, and approximately one-third of those stars exist by themselves in solar systems, Lewin said. If surrounding each of these lone stars are at least three planets, the number of planets would be of the magnitude 1022.

"Clearly our universe is buzzing with life. And the idea that life can only exist on earth is naive and absurd at best," Lewin said before his prediction that the evening's cook could easily to prepare the 500 million meals needed to feed 100 astronauts on a futuristic journey to a nearby star.

Manned space research discussed

"Manned space research: Is it useful? Is it meaningful? Is it wise?" Lewin said. "Costs are horrendous. Human errors are common and accidents are not uncommon." In the ultimate goal of harvesting science in space, robots would do a much better job, Lewin said.

The space race began as a political race for prestige between Russia and the United States. Lewin stated that the success of landing a man on the moon was a priceless, momentous achievement.

However, NASA's actions still continue to be dominated by politics and are influenced less by issues of practicality. The famous footprint on the moon had cost $100 billion in 1997 dollars and the lives of three astronauts. The Challenger disaster had cost tens of billions of dollars, seven lives, and halted the shuttle program for two-and-a-half years.

Just as how "NASA invented the shuttle program for reasons of survival," NASA now has its eyes set on the creation of a space station. "It was a matter of politics and perhaps not necessarily wrong," Lewin said.

Such a project would take at least $40 billion to realize, Lewin said. With that amount of money, 100 space telescopes could be launched into space where they will collect valuable data for years and years, he said.