The Space Review

 
Mars base illustration
The concept of government-led exploration of the solar system requires a determined commitment by space agencies that could be “very much a hostage to fortune”. (credit: NASA)

The mission, the business, and the tandem (part 1)

Governments in America and Europe are contemplating ambitious new programs of exploration by astronauts, to the Moon in the 2020s, then onward to Mars. However, are they offering us a genuine revolution in human affairs? One truly commensurate with the awe-inspiring prospect of flying to and working on new worlds? Or do all their mission architectures add up to no more than the brief triumphs and hasty retreat of another Apollo? Or—even worse—to the collapsing expectations and exploding costs of another shuttle or International Space Station?

Public officials recognize that a brief series of expensive “flags and footprints” visits, followed by program cancellation, is less than desirable. In order to sell such missions of exploration to a skeptical public and to governments with competing budgetary priorities, those flights must be seen as being affordable and sustainable. These virtues, though, have different meanings to two different groups of people.

For those who advocate the space agency model of exploration, humans in space will for the foreseeable future continue to be government employees flying in government spacecraft. Their missions will continue to be justified primarily as scientific field trips, with collateral benefits on Earth in education, inspiration, and technology development. They will be paid for out of a roughly constant world space budget, which individual nations may opt into and out of every few years, as they see fit, but which is expected to be led always by the US.

If governments are to deliver sustainable progress in space, then at the very least the goal of interplanetary civilization will have to be deeply embedded in their institutional psyches.

If this constant effort is extended over several decades, a gradually increasing permanent space infrastructure is seen as the inevitable result, extending to the Moon and later to Mars. Such is the model upon which ESA’s Aurora program is founded, while optimistically avoiding the question of whether Europe can muster the political will to spread its wings and fly independently of the NASA nest. It is the implicit basis of NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration. It is the paradigm promoted by the detailed report on the future of space, led by Wesley T. Huntress, president of The Planetary Society, and published in July 2004 by the International Academy of Astronautics.

How realistic is this model? If governments are to deliver sustainable progress in space, then at the very least the goal of interplanetary civilization will have to be deeply embedded in their institutional psyches—as deeply as, say, such goals as creating the welfare state, or defeating Hitler, or demonstrating falling unemployment and rising prosperity. At present, there is no sign of this happening. The intellectual ideal of civilization in space remains the special preserve of a minority of visionaries, rather than the popular passion of society as a whole. To politicians, manned spaceflight remains a hobby for rich countries, not part of their core business: pure exploration, not economic growth. Meanwhile, the space agencies are offering to spend large amounts of other people’s money without submitting their work to the disciplines of either international competition or the commercial market.

Under these circumstances, the hope that the continuous application of sizeable government space budgets will lead incrementally and inevitably to permanent extraterrestrial settlements is very much a hostage to fortune. This hope is vulnerable to the kind of changing circumstances that closed off the potential of the Apollo-Saturn system for evolutionary growth and doomed it to cancellation (a winged flyback version of the Saturn first stage was designed, and lunar bases sketched out). It is vulnerable to the kind of bureaucratic inefficiency which wasted many tens of billions of dollars, rubles, and euros on the International Space Station, while gaining us no progress whatsoever towards making spaceflight more affordable or sustainable, whether through opening up the key extraterrestrial resources of asteroidal ice and solar power, or through making spaceflight accessible to the public at an economical price, or even through demonstrating artificial gravity or medical methods of adaptation to weightlessness.

What is the political environment for this advance into space likely to contain? Let us be realistic. From the perspective of 2005, the coming century has little reason to be kinder to us than to the people of 1905. We must expect many stresses and strains, plausibly including one or more of the following:

  • further terrorist attacks, fueled by continued conflict between traditionalist and progressive ideologies;
  • the first attack using a nuclear weapon since 1945, by a rogue state or terror gang;
  • continued climate and resources panics, as global population continues to rise;
  • conflict within the European Union as it tries to assimilate Russia and Turkey;
  • an uncontrollable global outbreak of pandemic disease;
  • a pensions crisis, as technologies for keeping people alive run ahead of those for keeping them fit enough to work;
  • a crisis of adjustment to a society in which machine intelligence challenges the supremacy of the human brain;
  • a crisis as unpredictable to us now as were, in 1905, the Great War, the Great Depression, or the nuclear arms race.

Any of these factors can and would distract political will away from space. Hand-waving arguments about the benefits of scientific exploration will never carry the same immediacy as the latest terror outrage or Middle East crisis. Vague appeals to the human urge to explore will cement no extraterrestrial bricks!

The private enterprise model

Political will, however, is not the only relevant factor. For those who advocate the business or private enterprise model of spaceflight, the future of humans in space does not belong to official astronauts, wearing national flags on their shoulders and flying special government missions for science and technology. Rather it is one whose spacecraft simply carry crew and passengers on scheduled services, open to all who can pay, flying into and through space in pursuit of goals defined by those passengers.

The current official attitude to exploration of the Moon and Mars clearly leans towards space as holy ground, not to be defiled by the masses or debased by an activity as mundane as making money.

On the space agency model, a mission is affordable if its costs are covered by the budget of a program acceptable to politician and taxpayer. But on the business model, affordability is sought in terms of matching the revenue from passengers and cargo to the costs of operating a spacecraft plus a reasonable profit margin, in the same way as for any other commercial transport system—airliner, business jet, ship, railway, coach, bus, rental car, hot-air balloon.

Again, on the space agency model, space infrastructure remains a government monopoly for the foreseeable future, to be used only by a handful of space agency employees and occasional special guests, after years of training. But on the business model, the ownership of space infrastructure should be as diverse as the ownership of ships and aircraft, ports and harbors, on, say, the transatlantic route, and used by increasing numbers of private citizens. Space agency employees queue up along with everyone else when they want to purchase a ticket.

What, after all, are humans doing in space? There is an ideological question here: should one accept the views of those who believe that the human race is “destroying” Earth and must not be allowed to damage other planets? Their view is summed up in the motto: “Take only photos, leave only footprints.” They are appalled by the mindset that would bulldoze the Moon’s craters flat, crash comets onto its surface to provide volatiles, build a flashy visitor center and attract uncomprehending visitors by the millions, to use our natural satellite as a playground and drop litter on its ancient plains.

The hope that the continuous application of sizeable government space budgets will lead incrementally and inevitably to permanent extraterrestrial settlements is very much a hostage to fortune.

The goal of making it possible for adventurous spirits to live permanently away from Earth, exploiting the vast untapped resources of space, is therefore at cross-purposes with another goal: that of keeping such people out of space, and allowing only scientific explorers access to the rest of the solar system. Those who would use the asteroids, moons and planets to mine raw materials and build a hotel, a frontier settlement, a thriving city, have first to run the gauntlet of those who demand that the extraterrestrial universe must be kept in pristine condition: uncontaminated, unpolluted, undeveloped, and uninhabited by anyone but the purest-minded of scientific hermits.

The current official attitude to exploration of the Moon and Mars clearly leans towards space as holy ground, not to be defiled by the masses or debased by an activity as mundane as making money. They do not often say this explicitly, but it is implicit in every effort they make to drive up the cost of access and discourage entrepreneurs.

However, the desire to preserve the solar system in its primordial condition is not only anti-human, but anti-life as well. Living creatures inevitably shape their environment to the greatest extent of which they are capable, as they have been doing on Earth for the past 3.8 billion years. For creatures powered by technology, that environment naturally expands to include the astronomical universe.

The history of terrestrial exploration suggests that the most profound—and most beneficial—impact of spaceflight on human society will come not through space as a laboratory for scientific study, a parade-ground for national posturing, a classroom in technologies for use on Earth, or even a quixotic epic showcasing the human urge to explore—though it has been and will continue to be these things. Rather it will be space as a goldmine for new material resources and an ever-expanding frontier territory for economic and all other kinds of growth that will advance human progress. This has the clear potential to transform our civilization as profoundly as the past 500 years of terrestrial expansion have done.


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