Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Meet Ralph Buttigieg

Ralph Buttigieg is Quantum Limit’s chief back-up blogger from Australia. Ralph is one of those “behind-the-scenes” explorers that keeps things moving by his intellect and keen capacity of persuasion. If you have cruised the various space and exploration discussion groups, you’ve doubtless read his material before. Just so that you regular readers can get to know him better, we interviewed him here for your satisfaction.

QL: Ralph, tell us a little about your interest in space exploration and what activities you've been involved in over the years.

RB: I have been interested in exploration. space and elsewhere, ever since I can remember. My mother tells me that as a young kid I used to cry at the end of every Sea Hunt episode.

QL: I sincerely apologize for breaking into this interview at this point – but – holy cow, Ralph! Holy Cow! You actually cried at the end of every Sea Hunt episode? I can’t believe it – so did I! But that sentiment was only eclipsed by my weeping at the end of each and every Star Trek episode. I confessed that to Gene Roddenberry’s son Rod on the telephone the other day and I think he considered me off-scale nuts. But – I digress- go on, by all means!

RB: I clearly remember the excitement of the Apollo years. Have you seen the Australian movie the Dish? I was like one of those school kids absolutely glued to the TV set, watching the adventure.

As an adult I became heavily involved in astronomy especially after Comet Halley.I joined a local astronomy club, acquired various telescopes , and had a program of regular backyard observations such as sunspot counting and lunar ocultations Around the same time I joined a National Space Society of Australia and became involved in their activities. I was able to help organise a couple of space conferences.

In the 90's I joined Dennis’ League of The New Worlds , I was excited to learn about the Astronaut course so decided to do it. I had read many books on space exploration and thought I was pretty knowledgeable on the topic, but the League's course was very different. It’s a "how to" course on the practicalities of living and exploring the space frontier. I had not done any formal study for years so it was a challenge but managed to finish it.

QL: I understand you made the transition to the early days of computer bulletin boards to blogging. How do you compare the good old days with today?

RB: Goodness me. What a difference! It must have been 20 years ago when I first joined the online community. Back then I didn't even have a computer. A friend gave me an old bank terminal which he managed to connect to his BBS with a 300 baud modem. That was way before web was developed, instead there was lots of hobbyist with stand alone computers who shared e-mail and files through store and forward systems like Fidonet. Eventually I brought my first computer, an IBM XT clone with 640kb memory and a huge 20 megabyte hard drive. I think my mobile phone would have more power now. A few years latter I had my own BBS, called Vulcan's World, which specialised in astronomy, space exploration and science fiction. For a while there I had sponsorship from the British Astronomical Association (Sydney Branch), the National Space Society of Australia and a Star Trek club. But the growth of the Internet made what I was doing obsolete .

Back in the BBS days we had to have a reasonable technical knowledge. We called ourselves sysops, system operators. Blogs are designed to be as simple as possible so a much wider range of people can use them. But I miss the sysop camaraderie, those Fidonet BBQs were great fun!

I became interested in blogs after 9/11. They gave me access to a far wider range of analysis then the traditional media. I thought about starting my own blog but I doubted I could consistently write original or interesting material. The good thing about posting on Quantum Limits is that I get to post on topics I'm interested in without having any pressure to produce material. I expect a lot of popular blogs will become group blogs over the years, to prevent blogger burn out.

QL: You have also integrated underwater exploration into your activities. What made you get started in that venture?

RB: You did Dennis! When I joined the League I became determined to do two things. To complete the Astronaut course and to become an aquanaut. I decided I would get off my butt, become a SCUBA diver and become an aquanaut in the Jules Underwater Lodge. But the first problem was - I couldn't swim. Being able to swim is helpful if you want to be a diver (lol). So I signed up at the local swimming classes and spent most afternoons training. When I was able to swim 100 meters I signed up for the PADI open water course. It took me two attempts but I finally received my certification. Becoming a SCUBA diver opened a whole new world to me. I have dived throughout the Sydney area, dived the Barrier Reef and Vanuatu. In 1998 I went to the USA and spent a day in the amazing Jules Underwater Lodge and achieved my PADI aquanaut certificate. It was a great adventure.

QL: How would you feel abut leaving the earth behind today and living in space?

RB: Would love to. We only make progress as individuals or a society if we do something that has not been tried before. If we stick to the safe and known there is only stagnation. Opening up a frontier beyond our planet would be the ultimate adventure.

QL: On that note, where would you prefer to live - in earth orbit, in solar orbit, on the Moon, Mars or somewhere else? Why?

RB: Well, I think a interplanetary village would be great. Think of a space colony with a few thousand people. Attach a rocket motor, it doesn't have to be very fast, a nuclear rocket would be fine. After 5-10 years it could reach one of the outer planets, maybe Saturn. Orbit one of the ice moons and use its resources to refuel and restock the habitat. Spend a few years there exploring, no rush. Maybe leave behind a small colony or base. Then off to the next target, perhaps one of the Kupier belt planets. Over a period of centuries you could hop from one object to another until another star is reached. There’s supposed to be lots of minor planets in the Oort Cloud . Residents may reach 4-5 major targets in their lifetimes. You get to explore the galaxy and stay at home at the same time.

QL: How did you meet up with Dennis Chamberland?

RB: Through the Internet. Dennis posted a message in one of the newsgroup and I replied. Through that I joined the League of New Worlds and completed the Astronaut course. Later I visited the USA and meet Dennis and his family.

QL: Have you any plans to live in an undersea colony one day?

RB: If Dennis or someone else gets one going - you betcha!

QL: Dennis has invited you to be an Aquanaut Crew member on the Atlantica I Expeditions in 2009 - have you agreed to spend five days down under with him in Florida?

RB: Crikey! Sure do! I told my wife Tessy about it and although she can't swim she wants to come along too. She wants to go to Disney World!

QL: Tell us about your other exploration interests. What are you interested in besides space and ocean exploration?

RB: I'm interested in all exploration at some level. I often blog on Antarctica because it still has unexplored regions and major discoveries waiting to be made in places like Lake Vostok. Near Space is the invisible frontier, its above our heads but most people don't realise how little we know about the upper atmosphere.

QL: What are your thoughts about space exploration? If you were the Grand Overlord of the Universe, could you make things better in this area?

RB: Properly to abolish the position of Grand Overlord! I'm not sure they way we have been conducting space exploration for the last 50 years has really been the best way. When you look at the exploration of the Polar Regions or Australia, you will see a far more decentralized history. It was a mixture of government and private ventures. Sometimes governments sent military expeditions, sometimes they awarded cash prizes, other times explorers raised money anyway they could and just went. Some of those expeditions failed other succeeded but explorers generally learn t from previous mistakes. I don't think that ”failure is not an option" is really a good idea. If you are too cautious then nothing will be ventured. Now governments have to be cautious, they only risk people lives in rare situations such as war. But to the adventure-explorer risk is a different matter, they will access the risk, take counter measures and bring it down to a level which they, not some government official, find acceptable. I doubt any government would have sponsored the Kon-tiki expedition or one of Andrew McAuleys adventures.

If I could do anything it would to bring down the cost of access to space. I'm convinced that if we can reduce cost we will see adventurer-astronauts undertake amazing missions.

QL: One last question Ralph, where do you think mankind is headed?

RB: To the stars or to oblivion. I don't think this century is going to be very pleasant. Much of Europe seems to have forgotten how to have babies and their population is in decline. I expect Islamic cultures to replace the aging Western European civilizations. I doubt the resettlement will be peaceful. The Chinese are having 118 baby boys for every 100 girls. So you are going to have a communist dictatorship trying to control lots of single men.

There’s nothing like a good war to get rid of lots of men. In previous times the human race has had new territories, a physical frontier where people could escape too. Those frontiers expired last century. Travel in any direction and sooner or latter you will need a passport. No frontier means someone owns the land, which means they can control you and me, those who live on the land. The last thing the establishment wants is change so we see attempts made to bring progress under control such a Kyoto and "sustainable development". Others don't like progress at all and have another system of control, Sharia law.

The only way out of this that I can see is to find a new frontier and quickly. If we don't get off the land into Ocean and Space we face war and the civilization's new long night.