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Saturday, 17 April 2010

Whatever happened to space travel?

Space, the final frontier …

Imagine you were transported by a time machine back to 1966, the year Star Trek first appeared on television. One of the things people might ask you about, after you told them when you came from, is the extent to which space exploration had progressed after nearly half a century.

Well, you’d say, we’ve got loads of satellites revolving the earth, and there’s the ISS space-station which is nearly finished …

One space station?

Yeah, well, everyone is cooperating on that because the US Space Shuttle won’t be flying anymore after this year, but luckily the Russian rockets can keep supplying it …

What about moon bases?

We don’t have moon bases. Neil Armstrong did land there in 1969, but nobody’s been back since 1972.

Mars? Venus?

Well, unmanned little probes have landed on Mars a couple of times. There are little toy robots driving around, filming things, analysing a few rocks … I think some of them are still sending information back …

Chances are, the people would just stop believing your claims that you came from 2010. After all, Sputnik was less than ten years before and the Apollo programme was going to put a man on the moon in the next couple of years. Satellites for chrissakes, we can do that! You mean more than forty years have gone by and, basically, nothing has happened?

So, what has happened to space travel?

There are many complex answers to this and one very simple one; economics. The space race of the 60s was driven far more by political and ideological exigencies than economic ones. In one way, the spirit of it all is captured in a speech by John F. Kennedy about the US space effort in September 1962 “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And then the US went on to show the superiority of their efforts and technology while the Soviets got bogged down in engineering difficulties. The moon was reached, there was nothing immediately useful to be discovered there, détente broke out, the two superpowers cooperated on the Skylab project and suddenly the steam went out of the whole enterprise. Space exploration cost money and the payoff was meagre and, without issues of national pride and ideological competition to factor into the equation, the accountants were gaining more influence.

The space-shuttle was swallowing more and more money, was badly designed and over-engineered and then some modules started to blow up. NASA had become an inefficient bureaucratic monster and there were other uses for the money.

Ironically, the plodding Soviet project was more successful. They got Mir up there and kept it up there for a long time, often held together with little more than wire and spit and positive thinking and today, when the space-shuttle is being retired, it’s good old dependable Soviet-designed rockets that will keep its international successor going. But, while there is renewed talk about missions to the moon and Mars and the Europeans and, increasingly, the Chinese have got into the satellite business, nothing is going to happen very fast in the next few years in the area of space exploration.

So what? Don’t we have enough to worry about and spend money on, given that it still costs around $ 10.000 to lift one kilo of payload into orbit? Our contemporary knowledge of applied physics suggests that we are limited to our solar-system anyway, given that everything else is so far away that faster-than-light travel would be practically necessary to send manned missions to other stars and all models of FTL propulsion remain firmly in the domain of science-fiction. And our solar system is an environment which is not exactly friendly to humans – basically, when we go out there, we have to take everything we need to live with us and protect us and it all from an environment which is continually and indifferently trying to kill us in all sorts of interesting and effective ways. What’s the point?

In fact, there are a number of points. There are resources out there; abundant resources of many of things which are going to become scarcer on earth. Only this week, I saw a report about some studies currently being made about mining dumps and land-refills for metals thrown away in the past century, which are becoming rarer; even copper for wiring. Once you get out of earth’s gravity well, movement in space – even over large distances – becomes relatively cheap because, once you give something a push in a zero-gravity environment, it will keep going indefinitely until you just give it an equal pull to stop it. Asteroid mining is a staple in science-fiction and, even if you just follow economic laws, it will, at some time in the future, become economically feasible and sensible to go there to get the stuff we need. The fuel of the future, even – increasingly – of the present, is hydrogen, and there are the gas-giants, like Jupiter and Saturn, which are basically made of hydrogen. So, increasingly, space-based human endeavours or settlements would become more independent of earth.

But the more important points go deeper. Economics are important considerations but raise a number of questions. Economic viewpoints, particularly those put into practice, are generally limited and short-term because long-term profits, far down-line, are not interesting because, in the long-term, we’re all dead and what did posterity ever do for me? The fact that politicians, who are always involved in the planning of really large economic matters because these things always have a large public dimension and involve public funding, subsidies, capitalisation or taxation issues, have to ensure that they get re-elected gives their vision a very short-term perspective too. As a result, if we simply follow the economic indicators then nothing is going to happen in space until it has to happen because everything else has become more expensive. And there are two big problems with that; firstly, because it means that we are reacting rather than acting and that isn’t usually a good way to deal with major questions, and secondly, because we’ve had enough painful experience, in recent years alone, to teach us that economic experts often don’t know what they’re talking about it.

But the deepest of all reasons for looking to space is, perhaps, the most nebulous, but the most important. For all the dangers they may pose, like fanaticism, intolerance, and senseless competitions, people need visions and ideals. I think this was the insight Kennedy, all those years ago, had with his image of “the new frontieah”, a meme which also served to strike to the heart of the American Dream.

As Gene Rodenberry put it in the intro to Star Trek, space is the final frontier, and an endless one at that, one which calls to the adventurer, the wanderer in all of us; the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road, which is the same road that Bilbo warned Frodo of, because you would never know where it would take you or what would happen to you when you put your foot on it. And speaking of Heinlein, he was the one who gave another cogent reason for space exploration with his famous comment about planet Earth being much too fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.

In the end, we have to go to space simply because we can and, as the mountain climber explained his passion, because it’s there. It is a magnificent, powerful ideal; one which can bring us to cooperate with each other, to push at the limits of what we think we can do in order to discover how much more we can actually do. Something which can inspire us to go on widening our horizons even if (or, perhaps, especially if) it occasionally means us telling the economists to f*** off.

Or maybe, just maybe, the SETI people (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) will finally pick up a signal from some of the other intelligent beings out there trying to find out whether they are not alone in the universe on the radio-telescope in Arecibo. And then we’ll have yet another good reason “to boldly go where no man has gone before …”

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