Cop A Feelie

sensory fiction

In Brave New World, there’s all kinds of fun to be had. There’s Centrifugal Bumble Puppy, rudimentary sexual games for the young ones in school, and, of course, there’s the feelies.

The feelies aren’t exactly virtual reality—based on Huxley’s descriptions, moviegoers don’t step into the film and become the protagonist, but they experience what Lenina calls “feely effects” when they grab the metal knobs on the arms of their chair. The Savage freaks out when he feels a “sensation on his lips” when the two characters on screen start making out. And don’t get me started on the musk-breathing scent organ.

It would be nice for some sensory enhancement to accompany movies and books, wouldn’t it? Just think of how interesting the library would be, or class. In fact, a class at MIT inspired its students to create something they call “Sensory Fiction” (though not because the class was boring—a class called Science Fiction to Science Fabrication would pretty much be the most awesome class ever). Sensory Fiction isn’t exactly like the feelies—in its current incarnation, it only works for books. But books are more important It also requires more than a couple metal knobs—in effect, a reader wears this book and experiences the emotions felt by the characters.

Sensory Fiction is really a vest (can I suggest a Malthusian birth control model?) that contains a network of sensors and actuator that deliver sensations such as warmth, coldness, tightness, looseness, vibrations, and light. Since the vest has to be programmed specifically for a book, so far it only works for James Tiptree’s The Girl Who Was Plugged In. Appropriate, no? The creators of the technology also chose the story because of its variety of landscapes, from sunny to underground, and its variety of emotions, from love to despair. The experience of reading the book starts with an animated cover, and tumultuous passages cause vibrations, and tense ones cause the vest to constrict via air pressure bags.

Sensory Fiction is similar to the haptic jacket created by Philips Electronics that contains vibrating motors. The jacket is lined by a 16 by 4 grid of independent actuators and can run on two AA batteries at full throttle for an hour. Its designers say that wearers wouldn’t feel kicks and punches—not because the jacket couldn’t do it, of course, but because the point of the garment is to study emotional, not physical, immersion.

haptic jacket

The jacket has a bit more range than the vest—it can respond to signals encoded in a DVD, or it can be used with a program that allows it to work on the fly. The motors can evoke shivers, tension or a pulsing reminiscent of a thumping heart. The skin’s neural connections and our brains do the rest in terms of creating realistic sensations.

Like virtual reality, haptic technology is becoming more and more integrated into what used to be our fictional forays, but are now becoming our firsthand experiences. In fact, the IEEE has a Technical Committee on Haptics which, among other things, holds conferences at which researchers showcase these wearable technologies. I’m holding out for a crew from MIT to program Brave New World to work with their vest. The orgie porgies would be religious on a whole new level, and simulating soma seems like a good time. And the Assistant Predestinator, and later Lenina and the Savage, get to experience “every hair of the bear reproduced” when they watch a love scene on a bearskin rug at the feelies—don’t Sensory Fiction readers deserve the same?

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Hacking the Heart

Repent, Harlequin

Toward the end of season two of Homeland, kinda-sorta terrorist Nick Brody helps a bonafide terrorist hack the pacemaker of the U.S. vice president (who happens to be a pretty huge jerk). Brody breaks into the vice president’s place, finds the case that goes with the pacemaker and gives the bad guy the serial number. A few minutes later, Brody looks into the eyes of the vice president and, just for good measure, tells the VP that he’s killing him as the VP clutches his chest and projects hate at Brody with all the force his dilating pupils can muster.

That scene made me think of the Nebula award-winning short story by Harlan Ellison called “‘Repent, Harlequin,’ Said the Tick-Tock Man.” This is the story that the movie In Time was based on. In fact, Ellison sued for the likeness, but dropped the suit—maybe because he didn’t want his name associated with that waste of two hours. Anyway, in “Repent, Harlequin,” when someone’s time is up, the Tick-Tock man responsible for monitoring and tallying everyone’s comings and goings to shave time off the lives of those who aren’t punctual sends a signal that stops the person’s heart instantaneously. It’s almost like a pacemaker hack, except there’s no pacemaker.


I was surprised when some viewers found the Homeland scene ridiculous. I bought it without a second thought—not only could that happen, but I figured it probably already had. But being a cynic isn’t proof, so I decided to find out whether a remote pacemaker hack is possible.

The answer is yes, it’s possible, depending on the type of pacemaker, but pacemaker makers (it’s too good for a synonym) have been working to ensure that it’s pretty darn difficult.

First off, pacemakers monitor one’s heart rate and if it identifies any kind of arrhythmia, it will attempt to regulate the electrical rhythm of the heart by delivering a low voltage pulse. Such a pulse couldn’t kill someone, and pacemakers aren’t capable of sending high-voltage shocks.

But some implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs) are. ICDs are used for patients who suffer from ventricular fibrillation, which is the most dangerous kind of arrthymia—the associated cardiac muscle contractions are a common cause of sudden cardiac death. If an ICD detects such a contraction, it will counteract that with a shock.


The VP’s pacemaker in Homeland is, from the plastic box and its accessories, identifiable as an ICD. Such a box can facilitate remote monitoring so a doctor can view data. There’s also a wand in that box, which doctors use to program ICDs and pacemakers. Before FDA approval of wireless pacemakers back in 2006, the wand had to be in close contact with the device, but nowadays there’s something called the Medical Implant Communication Service that allows for remote programming. Now, ICD devices have a programmer or transmitter that can be accessed using a serial number. Generally, though, a doctor couldn’t just dial in and reprogram the ICD on the fly—the transmitter transmits information, rather than receives it.

While uncommon, there are some models of ICDs that have enabled remote shock delivery, primarily for testing purposes (testing what, I wonder?). Depending on the specific ICD, remote delivery of 800 volt shocks to an ICD is possible. Whether such a shock would kill someone or simply cause them a great deal of pain is unclear—probably the latter, but I guess the VP’s heart was particularly diseased. More problematic for the Homeland scenario is the location of the hacker. It’s never revealed—we just see the electrocardiogram readouts on his laptop and then through his super sneaky hacker software he gets the ICD to defibrillate. The hacker would have to be nearby, though (as in, in the same building), especially because the remote monitor wasn’t connected, which…oops. That hacker was good!

The Homeland writers apparently got their inspiration from a 2008 New York Times piece about a study in which computer security researchers wirelessly accessed a defibrillator-pacemaker. The study ultimately concluded that no incidents had ever occurred and that while the F.D.A. would be closely examining such technologies and promoting added security, people with pacemakers didn’t need to worry. But not all people agree. In this TEDx talk, Avi Rubin claims that any and all devices, including voting machines, can be hacked.

And professional hacker Barnaby Jack was found dead just before he was about to deliver a presentation about hacking pacemakers, insulin pumps, and other medical devices, and to offer suggestions for enhanced security and safety measures. Wow—do you think Abu Nazir’s hacker got to him, too?

One person who didn’t believe he was safe from pacemaker hacking is Dick Cheney. I’m not totally sure whether VP Walden was intended to resemble Cheney (he didn’t shoot any of his friends in the face, but he did enjoy some deadly Middle East drone strikes), but the former VP whose defibrillator helped regulate his heart after five heart attacks was worried that the device might make him vulnerable to attack. In 2007, his doctors turned off his pacemaker’s wireless functionality for fear that someone might try to kill him. Now, Cheney has a new heart, so I guess we’re back to throwing shoes, which to my knowledge, we still can’t do remotely.

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Robots Can Get Themselves Together


Replication, including molecular assemblers and nanofactories, while impressive in and of itself, is also the first step to self-replication, an often apocalyptic trope in science fiction. Grey goo is perhaps the most dramatic end-of-days self-replication scenario, involving robots that consume everything on Earth in their furious and unstoppable replication. Michael Crichton’s Prey and Greg Bear’s The Forge of God, in addition to Terminator II, Stargate and slew of others explore what could happen if artificial intelligence figures out how to reproduce without having to worry about the messy details of sex, pregnancy, and gestation. Or child rearing.

As of right now, it seems a few current problems have higher apocalyptic probability than grey goo, but scientists are making major strides in developing self-replicating robots. And, at least at the moment, those strides are nothing short of awesome.

Researchers at MIT have developed a new type of modular robot that can climb, move, roll, leap, and self-assemble. M-Blocks are deceptively simply little robot cubes that seem to be self-contained—they have no wheels, latches, or wings. What each M-Block does have is a flywheel that knows how to move, revolving up to 20,000 times per minute. It moves so quickly that when it brakes, the cube experiences angular momentum. And just when it seems the M-Blocks might fly out of control, the magnets on every cube face guide them into position and facilitate their assembly.

The major advancement demonstrated by the M-Block is a seemingly unlikely one—letting go of static stability, the prevailing conventional theory of existing self-assembly algorithms. Static stability means that as soon as a system stops moving, the parts will stay where they are, rather than experiencing inertia or angular momentum. It makes sense that this has been the governing principle of self-assembly algorithms, but watching the M-Blocks move, it makes sense that the MIT researchers abandoned it in favor of using the magnets to align the moving cubes.

Each cube edge has two rotating cylindrical magnets, kind of like rolling pins. Those magnets rotate to align north poles with south and south with north as the cubes draw near one another, so any cube face can attach to any other cube face. The beveled edges of the cubes create a gap when the cubes face one another, enabling the bevels and the magnets to touch when the cubes slide or flip on each other, strengthening the connection. This anchor, along with four additional pairs of smaller magnets, help the cubes snap in place against one another.

Ultimately, the researchers hope they can refine this model so at some point, the cubes can configure and reconfigure themselves into useful shapes, such as equipment or furniture. Armies of cubes could even repair structures or help in emergency situations. Eventually, researchers could miniaturize this model—you know, so they can create a hoard of tiny robots that can self-assemble into something terrifying, like the T-1000.

Other recent advances demonstrate that self-assembled robots don’t have to stay on the ground. Distributed Flight Array, a self-assembling modular robot developed by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, can drive and fly. The individual parts assemble on the ground at a dynamically-generated meeting point, and then via infrared light communication (or, in previous versions, magnets and pins), they latch together and take to the air. Each robot contains a rotor, so the placement of each robot affects how the assembled drone will fly. The take-off is an orchestrated feat—half the rotors turn clockwise while the other half turn counter-clockwise. The robots then adjust to counteract yaw and mid-air disturbances or to correct positioning and stability.

Right now, I have nothing but warm fuzzies for these awesome robots. But if they start to swarm, that feeling might change. Who knows—if science fiction is any indicator, we might have occasion to use that old warning system: one if by land, two if by sea.

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It Only Takes One Shot

walter bishop

On Fringe, Walter Bishop frequently saves the day and the victim of the genetic mutation of the week with a single dose of a furiously concocted formula. And while simply watching the show means I’ve long suspended my disbelief, every time it happens I can’t help but think, yeah right. A single injection is not going to turn that razor-toothed, spinal fluid-sucking lady into the respectable human being she used to be, but presto! Walter manages it every time.

We all know that doctors can cure or prevent certain illnesses with a single jab of a needle, but what about more pervasive conditions?

It can happen—if you’re a mouse.

Recently, scientists from Johns Hopkins and the National Institutes of Health were able to cure Down syndrome in newborn mice with a single injection.

Of course, as with other medical experiments, the scientists first had to genetically engineer the mice to have extra copies of some of the genes on chromosome 21 that cause Down syndrome in humans, thus causing the mice to exhibit symptoms similar to humans who have Down’s. This is pretty much what happens on Fringe, except the scientists are evil, and never anticipate the violence and drama their wacky experiments will cause.

SAG-injected mice (TsSAG) versus non-SAG-treated Down syndrome mice (TsVeh) versus normal mice (EuVeh)  Courtesy Science Translational Medicine/AAAS

SAG-injected mice (TsSAG) versus non-SAG-treated Down syndrome mice (TsVeh)
versus normal mice (EuVeh)
(Courtesy Science Translational Medicine/AAAS)

When the mice were born, they exhibited smaller brain volumes and cerebellums, consistent with characteristics of Down’s. But on that first day, scientists injected them with a drug called SAG, which stimulates something called the Sonic Hedgehog pathway. In flies, embryos that lacked the Hedgehog protein became prickly balls, and whoever first discovered that must have enjoyed playing Sega. After all, studies show that gamers would make particularly adroit surgeons.

Anyway, the dose of SAG stimulated the Hedgehog pathway by mimicking a signaling protein, which ultimately led to completely normal development of the cerebellums of the affected mice. Not only that, but the mice that received the injection completed memory and learning tests and scored just as well on the SATs as the normal mice, even though those functions are controlled by the hippocampus, a completely different part of the brain.

The breakthrough represents hope for the eventual development of a human treatment for the currently incurable condition. While the drug “worked beautifully” on the mice, messing with the Hedgehog is risky. The pathway is crucial to brain development, so stimulating it biochemically could have unintended consequences, such as cancerous growths in the brain. The mice didn’t show evidence of such side effects, but considerably more testing needs to take place before anyone tries the drug on humans. Although that’s never stopped Walter Bishop.

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The Hyperloop: Getting Citizens Out of Southern California at 700 mph

mind the gap follow up

Could This Happen doesn’t really try to predict the future–at this point, there isn’t much I think won’t happen if given enough time. Still, when one of my post on a particular invention or innovation is followed by a major leap in technology that brings that invention to pass, I get giddy. Even if it involves lab-produced meat.

While Elon Musk’s Hyperloop hasn’t been built yet, his proposal for its design and construction builds nicely on a post I wrote in April 2012 about Futurama‘s transport system becoming a reality. To read more about the Hyperloop, check out the post I wrote for Giant Freakin Robot and get ready to buy your ticket.

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I Think I’d Prefer My Beef Uncultured, Thanks

Could This Happen (who happens to be a vegetarian), has been following the possibilities of artificially created food, including 3-D printed pastries and burritos and lab-produced meat.

Now, the latter possibility has been officially taste-tested.

Food scientist Hanni Rutzler said the lab-grown meat that debuted in London earlier this week has “quite some flavor, quite some intense taste.” Notice she didn’t say that the flavor or taste are good. She did concede that it’s “close” to meat. Yay?

lab meat

The second official taster, author Josh Schonwald, confirmed that the texture “has a feel like meat,” and then he compared it to a McDonald’s Burger and a Boca Burger, neither of which are meat.

The lab-grown burger is less fatty than one would get from a cut of real beef, and the premier lab-grown meal took three months and about $325,000 to make. Does it at least come with a little toy?

The technology behind the synthetic meat was developed by Dr. Mark Post, head of physiology at Maastricht University, who made the burger by stringing together tens of thousands of protein strands grown in petri dishes from cattle stem cells.

lab meat production

Post’s concerns about the long-term future of meat production and consumption echo those of environmentalists and PETA activists, particularly when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, widespread agricultural effects, and the increasing appetite of carnivores. “Meat demand is going to double in the next 40 years and right now we are using 70% of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock,” Post said. Lab-grown meat could join the ranks of free range and organic meat in terms of its sustainability and desirability. And, of course, cost.

Post’s work was funded (anonymously, and then not-so-anonymously) by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who calls the process by which synthetic meat is made a technology with “the capability to transform how we view our world.” And how we eat it, apparently.

Now that the burger’s been tested, the project will focus on improving the taste and lowering the cost to the point that Whole Foods clamors to stock it on its shelves, right next to the $9 organic ketchup. Until then, I think I’ll limit my food adventures to 3-D printed cupcakes.

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Pacific Rim’s Jaegers Reflect a Departure from Hollywood Norms

slate pacific rim

In addition to the question of whether it’s possible to create mecha robots, my Slate piece addresses a cultural “could this happen?” question–namely, could we accept robots as companions rather than competitors?

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Wag the Dog, Sci-Fi Style

moon hoax

I recently read that 20% of Americans don’t believe we really landed on the moon in 1969. Apparently, the conspiracy theory has gained steam over time—why haven’t we returned since the Apollo missions? How can that American flag wave in a windless environment? And who believes anything Tricky Dick says, anyway?

Okay, sure. And Elvis is still alive and chowing down at a Burger King in my hometown of Kalamazoo, MI.


To avoid claims of conspiracy theories as government masterminded hoaxes, I prefer it when fake astronauts admit their mission is a fake one.

A six-person crew, chosen for their “astronaut like qualities” (ability to do push-ups in near zero gravity?) are undertaking a four-month mission in which they’re living in a dome on a Hawaiian volcano to simulate a Mars mission.

If this sounds like science fiction to you, you’re not wrong.

Capricorn One, released in 1978, combines elements of the Mars simulation mission and the moon landing conspiracy theories to tell the story of a Mars landing hoax. What’s even stranger is that one of the astronauts in the film is played by none other than O.J. Simpson, who apparently was getting some good practice at perpetrating falsehoods.

The film’s premise sounds fairly plausible: humans are finally on the way to Mars (perhaps using one of those Star Trek deflector shields to stave off the radiation) when, during the final launch paid preparations, NASA realizes that a defective life support system will kill the astronauts in flight. But, in a case of art imitating life, they know they need to continue—the manned space program needs it. So they fake the landing, spiriting the astronauts away to an army space as the spacecraft launches, empty unbeknownst to the public. The astronauts are ultimately compelled to go along with the hoax, buying into the patriotic duty argument. And, as you can imagine, the situation goes downhill from there. We’ve got blackmail and coercion, imprisonment, manipulation, mysterious disappearances, etc. And no, the astronauts never made it to the Kalamazoo Burger King.


But a fake mission that touts itself all along as fake is a totally different story. It might not be a sci-fi thriller, but it’s still got plenty of science. The Hawaiian space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission primarily exists to study astronaut food options for long missions, such as a mission to Mars.

Space food is nasty—it’s just true. While it might seem momentarily neat to try and reconstitute freeze dried food or squeeze it light toothpaste from a tube (space food from a tube has been abandoned, given its grossness and the weight of the tube), astronauts generally don’t love their cosmic culinary options, and on most space trips, astronauts lose weight. On a long-haul mission to Mars, the effects of such dietary restrictions aren’t healthy or sustainable.

In other words, if we’re going to put people on Mars, we need to be able to feed them something other than Tang. In addition to confining themselves in a dome (and wearing mock spacesuits if/when they leave), the HI-SEAS crew dines on various types of experimental space food and monitors the results.

Space food has improved for the better—the Japanese, for example, have produced space ramen and even sushi. Russian crews on the International Space Station have about 300 menu items available to them. Korean astronauts even sampled a space-version of kimchi, which took researchers many years and millions of dollars to figure out how to make.


The benefit of Mars is that because of its gravity (about 1/3rd of Earth’s), it’s possible to actually cook food there. The HI-SEAS astronauts are testing out some possible Mars voyage staples, such as dehydrated broccoli, rice, and Spam. They hope to figure out how to bake bread and “make crab cakes” on Mars. Whatever they bring, they’d better choose wisely—it costs about $10,000 per pound to bring food (or anything else) into space. And since a Mars trip could take 150-300 days each way, the food has to last.

Reports from HI-SEAS indicate that they’ve been eating “Russian cabbage pie, Puerto Rican arroz con pollo, Moroccan beef tagine, homemade vanilla ice cream, a Tibetan porridge made of milled, roasted barley, and cheese and broccoli omelets.” Tangfastic! When they’re not cooking, they’re devising new recipes.

The HI-SEAS mission is also training its crew for another crucial part of a space operation: blogging and facebooking. Because everything we read on the internets is real!

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Here to Serve

The Star Wars cantina scene demonstrates how awesome it would be to sidle up to a bar (preferably on some kind of bounty hunting mission) and order a drink from aliens. Attack of the Clones features a robot waitress, which was probably the best thing about that movie. While we know of no ETs willing to serve up nightcaps or flip burgers, robot waiters are no longer science fiction.

harbin robot waiter
In Harbin, China, robots that resemble Daleks wait tables, cook meals, and seat diners. At the Robot Restaurant, diners are greeted by a robot host who says, “Earth Person, Hello.” In the kitchen, robots whip up dumplings and noodles and then robot waiters bring them to the tables via conveyor belts in the floor. As if that’s not enough, robots entertain diners with songs.

In the Dalu Robot Restaurant in Jinan, China’s first robot eatery, the robots more closely resemble Star Wars droids. They circle the dining room on a conveyor belt with a cart loaded with food, serving up up dishes dim-sum style. They stop when their sensors detect someone reaching for food. These robots cost about $6,000 each, not including consistent operating and upkeep costs. Other robot waiters cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Similar robo-restaurants can be found in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand. Some of these robots can respond to basic voice commands (which is more than some human waiters do), but most take orders via touch screens.

While this technology may seem novel and impressive, it has its detractors. The head of Duke University’s Robotics Laboratory dismissed these robo-waiters, calling them “really just a conveyor belt, bringing food from the kitchen, with lots of bells and whistles.” But people love bells and whistles! And people love robots—especially when they’ve got food.

Now, the trend has caught on in the Western World. A sushi chain in London, which has already incorporated robot drink carts and conveyor belts, now uses drones to deliver food to tables. Unlike the Chinese restaurants, the iTray flies and is controlled by an iPad. The iTray can move at 25 miles an hour, though that seems a bit risky if it’s loaded with food and drinks. While this one isn’t a conveyor belt, it does require people to take their order off the tray. It doesn’t mind being ogled, though.

Scientists predict that as AI develops, robo-waiters will become more conversant, engaging diners in ways only the most adroit waitstaff can. What’s more, they’ll never complain if you return the food or decide to order an omelette with sixteen ingredients. Right now, these robots are pricier than their human counter-parts, even though they don’t expect tips. But as the production costs go down, they may end up saving restaurateurs money. They’ll never request vacations or holiday pay and they’ll never need health insurance or file a worker’s comp claim.
But before we get too comfortable with the notion of complaint and uncomplaining wait staff, we should consider that someday they could become aware enough to unionize or rebel for lack of tips. And who knows what they’ll do once they realize how crappy the gratuities are.

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Space For All

In 1945, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke published a paper suggesting that we put satellites in geostationary orbit. 18 years later, America launched Syncom 2. Soon, there will be one more satellite in the Clarke Belt, roughly 26,000 miles above Earth.

On Wednesday, Planetary Resources, otherwise known as the “asteroid mining company,” announced a project designed to “change the way humanity explores the cosmos.”

With NASA’s budgetary woes poised to get even worse if the sequester continues and the recent problems with the Kepler telescope, now seems like a good time to rejuvenate the public’s investment in space, which is the goal of this new project.

In the next couple of years, Planetary Resources will be putting into orbit a prospecting satellite/telescope called ARKYD. But this particular telescope isn’t going to be dedicated to finding gold in them asteroids. Anyone who wants to use the telescope can look for planets, stars, asteroids, or other celestial objects—in other words, people will get to point the thing and see what’s there. It’s not yet clear what else people might be able to use the satellite for, but given that the project is the first of its kind, Planetary Resources seems to be leaving room for it to evolve for, with, and by its users.

While particulars regarding who gets to use the telescope and when have yet to be ironed out, some type of time share between the public and educational institutions will likely be scheduled through Planetary Resources. Schools, students, and researchers working on space-related projects could use the telescope to help develop their own work—they’ll be able to determine, at least in part, what information it harvests. And even though I’m not entirely sure about all of the implications, the geek in me gets excited at the idea of being connected to a satellite. Just as long as there’s no spying….

But Planetary Resources isn’t going to pony up all the money for this. It’s also launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million for the satellite’s operation. While Zach Braff’s recent Kickstarter foray has raised questions about entities with deep pockets using the site, it makes sense that Planetary Resources would go this route—in fact, it’s been tossing around this idea for a while. Given the astronomic (literally) costs of developing, building, and operating a satellite (estimates are in the hundreds of millions), $1 million is a modest ask. Space is expensive. It costs $71 million each for NASA astronauts to tag along on Russian spacecraft. Virgin Galactic, part of the burgeoning space tourism industry, requires those who want to visit the cosmos to put down a deposit for the full fare—$200 million. This isn’t about us sitting back and watching Guy Laiberte or other wealthy, Earth-weary tourists experience space. This is about marshaling public involvement and ownership. If the public is going to use this satellite, why shouldn’t the public invest in it? Planetary Resources is asking for less than 1 percent of the operating cost, which seems about right. Donating means that we think space is worth not just federal monies, but a little bit of ours, too. Planetary Resources will launch the satellite regardless of what Kickstarter brings in, but why not get some headshots in front of Earth along the way? That’s one perk on offer for those who contribute to the fund.

Unlike any other satellite, ARKYD has the potential to pave the way for a new, revitalized relationship between humans and the cosmos. Clarke would approve.

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