Falmouth MA Community Network RFP

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Isenberg.  DLH]

From: “David S. Isenberg” <isen@isen.com>
Subject: Falmouth MA Community Network RFP
Date: July 15, 2019 at 8:09:49 AM EDT
To: Dewayne Hendricks <dewayne@warpspeed.com>

Dewayne,

This is for DewayneNet if you find it appropriate.

The Economic Development and Industrial Board of
Falmouth, Massachusetts has just released a request
for proposals for a feasibility study for a community
Internet access network. 

The place I live, Woods Hole, is part of Falmouth and
I’m excited that we’re taking the first steps towards
a network since the Recovery Act of the Obama Administration
spawned OpenCape, a middle-mile network that serves
Cape Cod and nearby southeastern New England. A Falmouth
network would take advantage of – and expand – OpenCape’s
potential.

The RFP “solicits bids for a feasibility study, which will
make recommendations to the EDIC and the town [regarding]: 
o level of community support and estimated take rate. 
o funding options for construction and operation. 
o a physical network plan and technical options. 
o competition from other providers and technologies.”

The full RFP is here: http://tinyurl.com/falmouthnet-rfp

We hope to attract qualified bidders ASAP – we’d like to
present the study’s results at spring Town Meeting.

Thanks!
David I

The Internet and My 53 Years Online

[Note:  This item comes from friend Bob Frankston.  DLH]

The Internet and My 53 Years Online
By Bob Frankston
Jul 15 2019
https://medium.com/@bobfrankston/the-internet-and-my-53-years-online-427267e34f34

With the upcoming celebration of the 50 years of the Internet, I’m trying to figure out how the traditional story misses the powerful idea that has made the Internet what it is — the ability to focus on solutions without having to think about the network or providers. It’s not the web — thought that is one way to use the opportunity. The danger is in a web-centric view is that it leads one to make the Internet better for the web while closing the frontier of innovation. I see a different Internet from what many others see. Today I am working with peer devices with my home network as a test lab for peer connectivity rather than an Internet you access from afar. It’s not home automation as much as trying to understand peer connectivity rather than the web.

When working on home control at Microsoft in the 1990s, I realized that today’s Internet protocols didn’t allow me to do something so simple as turn on a light. More to the point, it didn’t give me a way to define a stable relationship between a light switch and a bulb or a fixture. The DNS doesn’t provide me stable names nor do IP addresses. If we can’t do something as simple as that then something is very wrong. Those of us who can program around these issues encounter these problems long before others do. What others view as network services we see as meddling we must get past. Thus the telecom best practice of buffering broke TCP giving us buffer bloat.

This isn’t new. In 1994 I was commuting to Microsoft from my office at home in Boston and learned how to make my home network interconnect with Microsoft’s, so I figured how using techniques like NATs (Network Address Translation) and dynamic address assignment. This meant that instead of paying a monthly fee for each IP address as my provider required, I could use that single connection and connect as many devices as I wanted.

The reason that seems the norm today is that I used my position at Microsoft to make it happen. Otherwise, the norm would have you still paying a monthly fee for each device, as you do with the cellular network. If the phone companies have their way with 5G as they plan, you’ll again be paying a monthly fee for each device.

When Dan Bricklin was faced with the need to do repeated calculations while in business school, he came up with the idea of the electronic spreadsheet. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to do the bulk of the programming. It was another powerful lesson in using software to reduce an idea to practice and share it with the world.

I grew up riding the crest of using software. Networking, as with the Internet, is just part of this larger story.

To understand my perspective, we need to go back to the start of my career. In 1963 I took my first programming class.

In 1966, while still in High School, I was fortunate to get a job working for White-Weld, an investment banking company that was offering the first financial information workbench for its clients. By that summer, I took a terminal home and was able to do what I wanted with the computer as long as I was making progress on my projects. That worked out well because developing software for others to use was what I enjoyed doing — both for the technical challenge for the satisfaction of empowering others.

Though my focus was and continues to be on the software, I also worked with the hardware as needed. I’d run my own wires to connect devices and modify the circuits on my teletype as needed. A key innovation was the modem — the modulator/demodulator — that enabled me to repurpose the entire phone network as a long wire. If the dialup numbers in New York were busy, I could dial into a port in another state. It didn’t matter (other than the cost).

In the Spring of 1973 at MIT, I took a class in which we studied computer networking, and one network caught my attention — the ALOHAnet in Hawaii which was nothing more than a bunch of computers and radios. There was no network as such. It also caught the attention of my classmate, Bob Metcalfe who used a coaxial cable as the ether — hence the term Ethernet.

While Bob Metcalfe had to convince his thesis advisors that the Ethernet would work, I needed no such convincing. The stated speed was 3Mbps (OK, 2.994) but I didn’t care because it was so much faster than the 9600bps (.01 Mbps). It didn’t matter if was running at a few percent of the stated capacity. It was so much faster than the existing networks, and I could explore the possibilities. I even thought of putting it on the campus cable TV network as a broadband network (the Ethernet itself was baseband in that it used the whole capacity, not an allocated band).

Even before my 1966 job, I had tried building a computer circuit in Junior High though I didn’t worry about getting it to really work because I soon had access to abundant opportunities for writing software and learning in High School. At MIT the then-experimental Computer Engineering program was in the Electrical Engineering department. Thus I learned about the underlying hardware as well as the software. In today’s parlance, it was a full stack education along with my experience in the business world.

[snip]

India’s Terrifying Water Crisis

India’s Terrifying Water Crisis
To survive the climate emergency, India needs the collective power of small-scale, nature-based efforts.
By Meera Subramanian
Jul 15 2019
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/15/opinion/india-water-crisis.html

India’s water crisis offers a striking reminder of how climate change is rapidly morphing into a climate emergency. Piped water has run dry in Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and 21 other Indian cities are also facing the specter of “Day Zero,” when municipal water sources are unable to meet demand.

Chennai, a city of eight million on the Bay of Bengal, depends on the fall monsoon to provide half of the city’s annual rainfall. Last year, the city had 55 percent less rainfall than normal. When the monsoon ended early, in December, the skies dried up and stayed that way. Chennai went without rain for 200 days.As winter passed into spring and the temperature rose to 108 degrees Fahrenheit, its four water reservoirs turned into puddles of cracked mud.

Some parts of the city have been without piped water for five months now. Weary women with brightly colored plastic jugs now await water tankers, sometimes in the middle of the night. On June 20, the delayed summer monsoon arrived as a disappointing light shower.

These water crises are now global and perennial. Day Zero plagues cities from Cape Town to Mexico City to São Paulo, Brazil. Nearly half of the human population is living with water scarcity, inhabiting places unable to fully meet their drinking, cooking and sanitation needs.

Middle- and upper-middle-class people in Chennai are paying twice as much as before the crisis for water from tankers, and they can afford to drill new wells twice as deep as would have been needed 15 years ago. “We are on war footing,” one of my cousins, who lives there, remarked. As with most environmental crises, the poor are affected disproportionately. Around the world, inadequate water and sanitation kills 780,000 people each year.

The story of water is global, but the impact of too little (or too much) water is intimately local. Solutions need to be local, too. Instead, governments in Chennai and elsewhere keep turning unilaterally to major infrastructure projects such as desalination plants and other large-scale projects involving linking distant rivers and constructing mega-dams.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised piped water for all Indians by 2024. Indian government could meet that goal by looking beyond the gray confines of concrete to the green of powerful natural water systems that worked in the past and could work again. Mr. Modi’s government’s focus on huge projects is flawed because moving water works only if there is water to move.

South Asia has always been vulnerable to the vagaries of the monsoons that provide 70 percent of its water in a few months, feeding its rivers, recharging its groundwater and topping off the Himalayan peaks whose glacial meltwater sustains 1.65 billion people.

But to even consider surviving the climate emergency underway, India needs more than megaprojects. It needs the collective power of abundant, small-scale, nature-based efforts to seize the seasonal bounty across the diverse landscape of South Asia.

About half of the 6,000 water bodies that once defined Chennai and its two neighboring districts are gone. Rampant development  has destroyed the spaces that were natural sponges for monsoon rains.

But while reporting on environmental crises across India, I have witnessed effective efforts to renew natural capital through green infrastructure. In the Alwar District of the northern state of Rajasthan I stood on a hillside looking down on a once-barren but now verdant valley that had been brought back to life by villagers who built small-scale earthen dams known as “johads.”

Thousands had been constructed across the district, strategically placed to capture fleeting monsoon rains in a cascade before the water “ran away,” as a local told me. Aquifers — layers of water-permeable rock — were recharged, and wells that had been dry for a generation bubbled back into existence.

Similar efforts are scattered across India. In the Kumbharwadi watershed of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, a program engaged locals in tree-planting and land-sculpting to capture water across the landscape. Groundwater levels rose, soil fertility improved, and agricultural income increased tenfold. In four years, the water tankers that citizens had depended upon in the dry season became obsolete.

Admittedly, these techniques of maintaining natural resources locally require more labor, but with unemployment higher than it has been since the 1970s, that translates to jobs.

With 90 percent of the country’s precious freshwater going to agriculture, India could also support established conservation practices and reconsider exporting such water-intensive crops as rice and cotton.

[snip]

How White Nationalists See What They Want to See in DNA Tests

How White Nationalists See What They Want to See in DNA Tests
What happens when white supremacists on the hate site Stormfront learn that they’re not as white as they thought? Two researchers investigated.
By Heather Murphy
Jul 12 2019
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/12/us/white-nationalists-dna-tests.html

On the hate site Stormfront, one of the largest online discussion forums dedicated to “white pride,” sharing DNA results with fellow members has become a rite of passage for some members.

But what happens when users’ results show that they fail to meet their own genetic criteria for whiteness? Are they still willing to post them? And if so, how do other users respond? 

Such questions have long intrigued the sociologists Aaron Panofsky, who studies the social implications of genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Joan Donovan, whose research at Harvard University focuses on how information is manipulated on the internet.

“We had a puzzle,” Dr. Panofsky said in an interview this week. “If Stormfront says, ‘You’ve got to be all white or we’ll kick you out,’ how do they deal with these anomalies?”

Their findings, outlined this month in a study in the journal Social Studies of Science, show that yes, even members who fail to meet their own genetic standards will sometimes share the results. 

In response, their fellow white nationalists tend to console them by offering potential reasons the results can’t be trusted. Among them: skepticism about the tests’ interpretations of the science or statistics, conspiracy theories about Jewish-owned genetic testing companies’ multicultural agendas, and reminders about alternative ways of measuring whiteness.

To Dr. Panofsky and Dr. Donovan, that meant trying to counter hate by getting white nationalists to consider that they actually are the people they hate was not going to work: Members of such groups are too determined to help each other see what they want to see.

The findings add to an already robust body of scholarship that shows how difficult it is to get people to alter pre-existing views, said Jonathan Baron, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study. “People go to extraordinary lengths to maintain beliefs to which they are committed,” he said.

He pointed to a classic 1979 study that asked subjects to evaluate summaries of studies about whether the death penalty deters crime. In general, the subjects found flaws only in studies that contradicted their beliefs.

Hugo Mercier, a cognitive scientist and the author of the book “The Enigma of Reason,” said in an email that the new study reminded him of another example of so-called dissonance reduction involving people who planned their lives around the arrival of a flying saucer, which would save them from the coming apocalypse. 

“When the aliens didn’t show up (surprise), some group members left, but most stayed and found reasons to explain away their failed prophecy,” he wrote.

To construct the white nationalist study, the authors searched the Stormfront website using an array of keywords for every posting about a genetic test from 2004 to 2016. Amid requests for dating advice and proposals to start new political parties, they found around 650 items that qualified. 

Next, they coded the postings according to whether they challenged or confirmed the desired white identity, then did the same for the community responses. In about 100 out of 1,500 responses, users shamed the posters for failing to be white enough.

But Dr. Panofsky said he was struck by how many more responses focused on what he called “repairing conversation,” as in “Don’t worry about it; this is how you should think about it.”

In more than 1,200 responses, users suggested that there were other, more scientific ways to interpret the results. Part of what helped facilitate this argument is that genetic data about ancestry can often be interpreted in many conflicting ways. And plenty of white nationalists are well versed in the scientific research. But as in the death penalty study, the results were far more likely to be questionable when they didn’t tell the story that users wanted them to tell. 

In hundreds of other responses, users delegitimized the testing company and genetic tests generally or suggested the possibilities of statistical or technical errors.

“Science cannot save us,” Dr. Panofsky said, noting that in the years since he first began working on this study, genetic tests have increasingly been used to encourage the “mainstreamification” of white nationalism. “The political problem of white nationalism needs to be confronted on the level of values and law enforcement,” he said.

[snip]

‘Whitey’s on the moon’: why Apollo 11 looked so different to black America

[Note:  This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis.  DLH]

‘Whitey’s on the moon’: why Apollo 11 looked so different to black America
The civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy called Nasa’s moonshot ‘an inhuman priority’ while poor children went hungry
By David Smith in Atlanta
Jul 14 2019
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jul/14/apollo-11-civil-rights-black-america-moon

The date was 15 July 1969. As the Saturn V rocket towered over the launchpad, about to send the first men to the moon, two dozen black families from poor parts of the south, accompanied by mules and wagons emblematic of the civil rights movement, marched to the fence of Cape Kennedy in Florida. From a bird’s eye view, they would have resembled dwarves in the wake of a colossus.

They were led by Ralph Abernathy, successor to the slain Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He carried a sign that said bluntly: “$12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8.” He told a rally at the site: “We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth, we as a civilised nation have failed.”

The Apollo 11 mission has been hailed as humankind’s greatest technological achievement and, after the turmoil of the 1960s, a redemptive moment of national and international unity. Speaking to astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface in what he described as “the most historic telephone call ever made”, President Richard Nixon declared: “For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.”

Yet it was myth making then and will be again as America commemorates this month’s 50th anniversary with events, exhibitions and TV specials. The Apollo programme, motivated by the space race against the Soviet Union, cost $25.4bn, the equivalent of $180bn today; only the Vietnam war hit taxpayers harder. While Nasa warned Congress “No bucks, no Buck Rogers”, polls showed a majority of Americans opposed the “moondoggle”.

The black press questioned how the price tag could be justified when millions of African Americans were still mired in poverty. Testifying to the US Senate on race and urban poverty in 1966, King had observed “in a few years we can be assured that we will set a man on the moon and with an adequate telescope he will be able to see the slums on Earth with their intensified congestion, decay and turbulence”.

‘An inhuman priority’

The protest march on the eve of Apollo 11’s launch opened a new chapter in the poor people’s campaign, which had built a makeshift city at the National Mall in Washington a year earlier.

Tom Paine, the administrator of Nasa, walked out to meet the demonstrators. An official Nasa history recalls: “Paine stood coatless under a cloudy sky, accompanied only by Nasa’s press officer, as Abernathy approached with his party, marching slowly and singing We Shall Overcome.

“Several mules were in the lead, as symbols of rural poverty. Abernathy then gave a short speech. He deplored the condition of the nation’s poor, declaring that one-fifth of the nation lacked adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care. In the face of such suffering, he asserted that space flight represented an inhuman priority. He urged that its funds be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick and house the homeless.

“Paine replied that ‘if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button’. He added that Nasa’s technical advances were ‘child’s play’ compared to ‘the tremendously difficult human problems’ that concerned the SCLC. He offered the hope that Nasa indeed might contribute to addressing these problems, and then asked Abernathy, a minister, to pray for the safety of the astronauts. Abernathy answered with emotion that he would certainly do this, and they ended this impromptu meeting by shaking hands all around.”

Among the protesters at Cape Kennedy (now know as Cape Canaveral) that day was JT Johnson, a civil rights activist who had been with King in Memphis shortly before he died and became a close aide to Abernathy. “They didn’t want you too close to where it was launching, so we just picked us a spot and decided to have us a rally and started talking and singing – the songs brought us through these difficult times – and we just did what we do,” Johnson recalled in an interview at his home in a suburb of Atlanta.

“At that time, the whole movement was around poverty and poor people so that’s all we talked about: how poor we are and how is this thing going to the moon and spending millions when we don’t have any and some people don’t have a place to live or food to eat, but we still allow all of these things to happen. That was the real protest: billions for the moon and pennies for the poor.”

A project of white America

Johnson is now an 81-year-old grandfather. He’s still politically active and hopes to tell more about the story of the civil rights movement. Wearing a blue T-shirt in his red dining room, he recalled growing up during the era of Jim Crow segregation in Montezuma, Georgia.

“It had a big water fountain downtown with a ‘colored’ sign and a ‘white’ sign when all the water was coming from the same place,” he said. “As a child I couldn’t understand because most of these things didn’t seem fair to me. So the Lord knew that I was going to be in the movement before I did, because I didn’t know it and some of the things I just didn’t like. It wasn’t fair.”

As for so many, King became his lodestar. “When I met Dr King, I thought that was the man I’d been waiting to see for all of my life and I dedicated myself to the civil rights movement.”

In one protest in the 1960s, Johnson and others jumped into a whites-only swimming pool in St Augustine, Florida, only for the hotel owner to pour acid into the pool. After trying to integrate another swimming pool in Albany, Georgia, he was imprisoned for six days and went on hunger strike. In this context, President John F Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade seemed a luxury that America could not afford.

“I think it was all about PR really for the United States and Russia,” he said. “I think this country has never really taken care of people here … African Americans never got their share; they spread it around everybody else.”

Indeed, the Apollo programme gave every impression of being a project of white America. As footage of the era is replayed to mark the semicentennial, it is striking that all 12 people who walked on the moon were white men, and so too the overwhelming majority of officials, engineers and scientists at mission control. The musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon summed up: “A rat done bit my sister Nell / With Whitey on the moon / Her face and arms began to swell / And Whitey’s on the moon.”

Johnson said: “We didn’t hear an invitation; we didn’t get anything. So we thought that was a disgrace and a disrespect to all of us … It was white people that was privileged in this country and they’d made it like that for themselves.”

[snip]

The Metamorphosis

The Metamorphosis
AI will bring many wonders. It may also destabilize everything from nuclear détente to human friendships. We need to think much harder about how to adapt.
By HENRY A. KISSINGER, ERIC SCHMIDT and DANIEL HUTTENLOCHER
Aug 2019 Issue
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/08/henry-kissinger-the-metamorphosis-ai/592771/

Humanity is at the edge of a revolution driven by artificial intelligence. It has the potential to be one of the most significant and far-reaching revolutions in history, yet it has developed out of disparate efforts to solve specific practical problems rather than a comprehensive plan. Ironically, the ultimate effect of this case-by-case problem solving may be the transformation of human reasoning and decision making.

This revolution is unstoppable. Attempts to halt it would cede the future to that element of humanity more courageous in facing the implications of its own inventiveness. Instead, we should accept that AI is bound to become increasingly sophisticated and ubiquitous, and ask ourselves: How will its evolution affect human perception, cognition, and interaction? What will be its impact on our culture and, in the end, our history?

Such questions brought together the three authors of this article: a historian and sometime policy maker; a former chief executive of a major technology company; and the dean of a principal technology-oriented academic institution. We have been meeting for three years to try to understand these issues and their associated riddles. Each of us is convinced of our inability, within the confines of our respective fields of expertise, to fully analyze a future in which machines help guide their own evolution, improving themselves to better solve the problems for which they were designed. So as a starting point—and, we hope, a springboard for wider discussion—we are engaged in framing a more detailed set of questions about the significance of AI’s development for human civilization.

The AlphaZero Paradox

Last December, the developers of AlphaZero published their explanation of the process by which the program mastered chess—a process, it turns out, that ignored human chess strategies developed over centuries and classic games from the past. Having been taught the rules of the game, AlphaZero trained itself entirely by self-play and, in less than 24 hours, became the best chess player in the world—better than grand masters and, until then, the most sophisticated chess-playing computer program in the world. It did so by playing like neither a grand master nor a preexisting program. It conceived and executed moves that both humans and human-trained machines found counterintuitive, if not simply wrong. The founder of the company that created AlphaZero called its performance “chess from another dimension” and proof that sophisticated AI “is no longer constrained by the limits of human knowledge.”

Now established chess experts are studying AlphaZero’s moves, hoping to incorporate its knowledge into their own play. These studies are practical, but larger philosophical questions also emerge. Among those that are currently unanswerable: How can we explain AlphaZero’s capacity to invent a new approach to chess on the basis of a very brief learning period? What was the reality it explored? Will AI lead to an as-yet-unimaginable expansion of familiar reality?

We can expect comparable discoveries by AI in other fields. Some will upend conventional wisdom and standard practices; others will merely tweak them. Nearly all will leave us struggling to understand. Consider the conduct of driverless cars stopped at a traffic light. When cars driven by people inch forward to try to beat the traffic, some driverless cars occasionally join them, though nothing in the rules of driving given to them suggests that they should do so. If this inching-forward has been learned, how and for what purpose? How is it different from what people are taught and learn about waiting at traffic lights? What else might AI learn that it is not “telling” us (because AI does not or cannot explain)? By enabling a process of self-learning for inanimate objects, we do not yet know what we are starting, but we need to find out.

The Nature of the Revolution

Heretofore, digital evolution has relied on human beings to create the software and analyze the data that are so profoundly affecting our lives. Recent advances have recast this process. AI has made it possible to automate an extraordinary range of tasks, and has done so by enabling machines to play a role—an increasingly decisive role—in drawing conclusions from data and then taking action. AI draws lessons from its own experience, unlike traditional software, which can only support human reasoning. The growing transfer of judgment from human beings to machines denotes the revolutionary aspect of AI, as described last year in these pages (“How the Enlightenment Ends,” June 2018).

That said, the word intelligence does not adequately explain what is occurring, and ascribing anthropomorphic qualities to AI is out of order. AI is neither malicious nor kind; it does not have independently developed intent or goals; it does not engage in self-reflection. What AI can do is to perform well-specified tasks to help discover associations between data and actions, providing solutions for quandaries people find difficult and perhaps impossible. This process creates new forms of automation and in time might yield entirely new ways of thinking.

Yet AI systems today, and perhaps inherently, struggle to teach or to explain how they arrive at their solutions or why those solutions are superior. It is up to human beings to decipher the significance of what AI systems are doing and to develop interpretations. In some ways, AI is comparable to the classical oracle of Delphi, which left to human beings the interpretation of its cryptic messages about human destiny.

If AI improves constantly—and there is no reason to think it will not—the changes it will impose on human life will be transformative. Here are but two illustrations: a macro-example from the field of global and national security, and a micro-example dealing with the potential role of AI in human relationships.

[snip]

Interstellar Probe, a mission concept for NASA, aims to travel 93 billion miles past the sun

Interstellar Probe, a mission concept for NASA, aims to travel 93 billion miles past the sun
By Sarah Kaplan
Jul 12 2019
https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/interstellar-probe-a-mission-concept-for-nasa-aims-to-travel-93-billion-miles-past-the-sun/2019/07/11/e9b92f5c-92a8-11e9-aadb-74e6b2b46f6a_story.html

LAUREL, Md. — One of the top prizes in the March 1970 Fort Worth Regional Science Fair — a slide rule and a free dinner in Dallas — went to a high school junior named Ralph McNutt, who had written 30 pages on the question “Interstellar travel: Is it feasible?” and built a cardboard scale model of the spacecraft he said could be the first to visit another sun. 

Humans had landed on the moon the previous summer, the 16-year-old noted in the treatise his mother transcribed for him on her Royal No. 10 typewriter. Soon, he was sure, we would venture to all the other planets of the solar system. Then it would be time for the next step: “Going to the stars.”

On a sweaty summer afternoon, McNutt sits in his office at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, a 65-year-old with a Mickey Mouse wristwatch and thinning hair. On his computer screen is the latest draft of his boyhood dream: a plan for a probe that would travel 1,000 times farther than Earth is from the sun, leaving behind the safety of our solar system to explore the wilds of interstellar space.

From that far-flung vantage point, Interstellar Probe will help humans finally see ourselves for what we truly are, McNutt says: citizens of a galaxy. Our home planet will be just one world among many, and the sun that gives us life just another pinprick of light in the endless dark.

It’s an audacious proposal, even by space travel standards. The probe would take 50 years to reach its destination, by which time nearly everyone currently involved in the project will be dead.

Nevertheless, McNutt and a cadre of fellow dreamers hope to get an important endorsement in a few years, when the nation’s space scientists release a list of their top research priorities. To get Interstellar Probe on the agenda, its supporters must convince their colleagues that its goal is scientifically valuable, not to mention politically viable, when there are so many questions inside the solar system still unanswered and so many Earthly squabbles still unsolved.

What makes McNutt believe it’s possible?

The scientist leans back in his chair and crosses his arms. When he answers, it’s in the form of poetry.

“I think man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” he says, paraphrasing Robert Browning. “Otherwise, what is a heaven for?”

93 billion miles from the sun

Our sun sits on a minor arm of the spinning, star-strewn pinwheel of the Milky Way, about 25,000 light-years from the galactic core. Zooming through the cosmos at roughly half a million miles per hour, the solar system is buffeted by gusts of gas and dust and bombarded by energetic particles whose origins are a mystery.

But we on Earth are partly shielded from this chaos by the heliosphere, a balloon-like structure inflated by the solar wind. Charged particles flowing from the sun stream out to the edge of the solar system — past the planets, beyond Pluto, through the frozen halo of the Kuiper belt, to a place called the heliopause.

This is the liminal zone between the river of solar particles and the ocean of interstellar space; the boundary between our celestial neighborhood and the wider universe.

Only two spacecraft have reached that zone and lived to tell the tale: the twin Voyager probes, which launched in 1977 and took more than 35 years to reach the heliopause. (The Pioneer probes left the solar system but were defunct by that time.) Now their radio communications are increasingly feeble, and several instruments have failed.

Voyager 1, the most distant human-built object in the universe, is now 145 astronomical units from Earth (an astronomical unit is equal to the distance between Earth and the sun). At that pace, it would take 283 years to reach 1,000 AU — 93 billion miles from the sun — the place McNutt hopes to reach.

“To really explore what’s out there . . . you want to get out of the solar system as quickly as possible,” he said.

And for that, you need a really big rocket.

NASA might soon have one. The ultrapowerful (but long-delayed) Space Launch System, which is capable of nearly twice as much thrust as the biggest rocket in operation, is expected to make its first flight sometime in 2020 or 2021.

[snip]