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Review: Crossing the Threshold

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Crossing the Threshold: Advancing into Space to Benefit the Earth
by Paul O. Wieland, P.E.
Threshold 2020 Press, 2010
softcover, 274 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-9825127-1-5

There is a gap—a yawning chasm, perhaps—between the resources of the solar system and our ability to make use of them. Few would argue that there are, at least in theory, tremendous energy and material resources available in the inner solar system alone, from ice at the lunar poles to metals in asteroids to bountiful solar energy. All of these can enable both the expansion of humanity beyond Earth as well as supporting civilization on Earth in a far more sustainable manner than using terrestrial resources. Yet, tapping these resources still seems like something out of science fiction, requiring either new technologies and/or at an expense that makes them uneconomical. How we can close that gap is at the heart of Paul Wieland’s book, Crossing the Threshold.

“Apollo succeeded because it addressed fundamental issues of the time,” Wieland writes. “A better approach would be to devise a vision (‘grand’ or not) that addresses the issues we are currently facing.”

Wieland, an engineer who worked for more than 20 years at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, starts the book slowly, mixing some history—not just of the Space Age but also of aviation and the settlement of the West in the 19th century—with some autobiography, describing his experiences working as a co-op student and, later, a fulltime engineer at Marshall on various life support system projects. Eventually, his central thesis emerges: despite the slow progress we’ve seen in the first half-century of the Space Age, we are on a threshold of a much faster expansion into and utilization of space, just as the transcontinental railroad accelerated the settlement of the West and jet airliners accelerated the growth of aviation.

The latter half of the book tackles the challenge of the book’s title: crossing the threshold that will enable enhanced utilization of space. Wieland offers a number of proposals that he believes would, in a decade, make that transition through technological development and enhanced cooperation (or “co-opetition”, borrowing a catchphrase from some business books). This includes development of technology demonstrators for space-based solar power and a space elevator, the latter of which he believes is essential to enabling low-cost and environmentally-friendly space access. Others are more vague, such as calling for an “International Space Decade” from 2011 to 2020 to coordinate missions in the inner solar system.

Many of these concepts sound familiar to long-time space enthusiasts, although there are some more novel and interesting—and potentially more feasible in the near term—concepts in the book. One example is a proposal to provide a government guarantee to buy at least 1,000 small satellites over a decade at a total cost (including launch) of no more than $15 million per satellite. The idea is that guaranteeing a high level of demand will support growth of the industrial base and enable innovations in satellite manufacturing and launch. Just what those spacecraft would be used for, though, isn’t specified, although Wieland suggests they could support space exploration efforts as part of his proposed International Space Decade.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to Wieland’s proposal is that it appears almost completely disconnected to current space endeavors. For example, NASA has proposed supporting the development of commercial crew transportation systems to service the ISS and other orbital destinations, perhaps enabling new markets (including, potentially, space manufacturing, another topics of discussion in the book.) Yet there is only a passing reference to the proposal in the book, and it is not integrated in his various proposals. What he is proposing is not so much crossing a threshold but instead vaulting a discontinuity in space utilization. Given the tremendous debate in the last nine months about the commercial crew proposal (a mere $6 billion over five years), getting support for the much grander—and presumably much more expensive, although Wieland doesn’t go into much detail about the costs of his proposals—visions in Crossing the Threshold seems virtually impossible in the current political climate.

Although the proposals outlined in the book may be difficult to implement, Crossing the Threshold does have some wisdom about what future programs should look like. Over the last few decades “people assumed that programs such as Apollo succeeded because of their grandness,” he writes (emphasis in original), and thus all you needed was to propose a similarly grand plan. That, of course, hasn’t worked, as proposals from the Space Exploration Initiative to the Vision for Space Exploration have demonstrated. “Apollo succeeded because it addressed fundamental issues of the time,” he continues. “A better approach would be to devise a vision (‘grand’ or not) that addresses the issues we are currently facing.” While the proposals Wieland offers in his book may not be implementable, that’s a good lesson to take forward in any future plan to better make use of the resources of space to benefit humans living on and off the planet.