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Can the ISS survive this uncertain future for humanity in space? (credit: NASA)

On survival, goals, and human space flight


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We are in the last few days of the last Space Shuttle mission and many, both inside and outside NASA, wonder where we will go from here. In that light, I have been considering the question as to why humans are so attracted or attached, emotionally or spiritually, to something as inanimate as a vehicle or structure. What is it that draws us to feel a loss when we lose objects such as these that have been a part of our lives? What is it that has been endowed in something we have created with our hands that so attaches us to it? Even with my background in psychology, I stretch to find a simple and elegant answer to this question, and so I continue to ponder.

I suggest that we stop being reactionists and rather be activists with regards to the future of human space colonization.

Yet, we must now, with the retirement of the shuttle, accept our loss and begin to consider what goals, architectures, structures, vehicles, or missions, will take its place. Otherwise, I fear that if the government procrastinates too long, that NASA, as an agency it will slip into some form of nostalgic quiescence, and evolve into an obsolete jobs program devoid of inspiration and utility. The phrase of the day is fast becoming, “analyze our goals in space,” especially with regards to human space flight. Everyone has a different opinion: yes, let’s go; no, let’s spend our money to fix the problems here. But in truth and in the long run, the only way the human race will survive in any semblance of this modern world is to leap forward, while efficiently opening space and beginning to colonize it. Someday, something is going happen to adversely impact our planet and species, as has happened before. Whether self-inflicted or by natural disaster, it is simply a statistical fact. Now that we have the technology to actually branch out, whether to remove some of the eggs from this fragile basket is our decision. Should we let this opportunity slip past, it would be a just another sad epitaph on the headstone of our species. I suggest that we stop being reactionists and rather be activists with regards to the future of human space colonization.

The ISS, now completed, stands as our preeminent bastion in space. Its construction carries on with none of the longevity, unfortunately, but all the frailties of the milecastles dispersed along Hadrian’s Wall; and yet the ISS will never see spolia of its pieces as did that great wall. Now our nation’s upmass capability will soon be extinguished, and with less than a handful of human-rated vehicles in the midst of development, we are in the first of many waning years of seeing any actualized or realized space architectures to come into play. We have lost much with the retirement of the shuttle and it will not be easily replaced. NASA’s development history, unlike its counterpart in aviation or especially the automotive industry, is unfortunately not as flexible or in the business of making second, third, or fourth generation vehicles. How many generations of the Chevrolet Corvette have been fielded in the past 50 years, six? NASA does learn from previous vehicles, but does not evolve the standing vehicle into a new and improved version. Such one-off achievements make such products very expensive and inefficient, and that assumes they ever even made it into actual use.

So where are we now, and what about the future of human space architectures? By all accounts, the word architecture itself was first accounted for in written text in the year 1555. A word defined in modern dictionaries to address the conscious act of construction or the art or science of building habitable spaces and structures. The year is now 2011 and one wonders what has transpired in over 450 years with our word, architecture. In the year 1555, the world was ruled by empires and kingdoms, and besieged by religious upheaval and reinvention (e.g., Lutheran Revolution). Technological advances began to influence even the common person, and a new and progressive alteration of the common understanding of our worlds place in the universe was at hand (e.g., Copernican Revolution). That year straddled a period of architectural blossoming and aggressiveness that survives unto this day.

During this hiatus in American human launch capability the space community needs to come together, to take the lead, and begin the forging of the best of our abilities to advance the most efficient, sustainable, and lasting designs that will allow humans to truly expand beyond Earth and become permanent inhabitants of space.

We ask ourselves, will today’s most advanced form of architecture, space architecture, be in any way heralded in another 450 years? With ongoing advances in technology we might expect developments in space architecture during 2011 to be substantial and on par with the passage of time. Yet, as with all endeavors which do not overtly show dividends or do not directly favor a specific group or individual, the space program is heading into a void of darkness that does not have an inspired or motivating destination or goal. It has been 50 years since a goal of first placing a human in space, 40 years since the nation first sent humans to the Moon, 30 years of operating a “marvelous flying machine”—the Space Shuttle—and now 12 years of building and tending the ISS. Now and for the foreseeable future, a continuing reduction and dilution of funding will combine to limit present and future programs alike. As a result, our definition of building habitable structures has been diminished and left to arena of reinvention instead of invention. I routinely wonder how we will maintain leadership and inspire future generations, and have no clear answer.

The United States will not be building anything in space for a long time, it seems. Even the unmanned side of the house, the James Webb Space Telescope, seems to be in jeopardy these days. That being said, the potential demise of our human space program is not for a lack of passion, intellect, or ideas, nor does there seem to be a lack in public enthusiasm. Instead, our problems can be traced to inconsistency and the lack of any true visionary patronage. Architectures being developed for use in space this year within our country include NASA’s newly titled Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), one of the several Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative vehicles, Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable habitats and even Virgin Galactic’s suborbital thrill ride. All of these, though, have yet to be realized and flown reliably, and alone really only provide an ongoing capability that has existed ever since Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight in 1961. And, unfortunately, very few will be truly commercial as significant funding is still being provided for many of these vehicles from the federal government. Novel, momentous, and inspiring designs and mission studies for sending humans to Mars, the Moon, and even near Earth objects abound. Having been a fervent Mars enthusiast and activist, I still hold fast to the belief that there is no magical technology that will vastly enable human planetary exploration out at that magical 30-year mark that so many others keep deferring. Ideally, what is really needed is a true and unalterable commitment (i.e., money is what makes us go-round and off the world) to see such endeavors through to fruition.

Therefore, during this hiatus in American human launch capability the space community needs to come together, to take the lead, and begin the forging of the best of our abilities to advance the most efficient, sustainable, and lasting designs that will allow humans to truly expand beyond Earth and become permanent inhabitants of space. Much as Columbus did at the end of the 15th century in securing the patronage of the Spanish monarchy, we need to invigorate and induce the patronage of those within our government or private communities who are immune to the short-sighted and short-term diseases and will work to implement such exploration to fulfillment. Again, the question as to why we should be doing this needs to be asserted, and ultimately the answer is for the survival of our species; all else is frosting. Whatever the realized architecture, it has no need to await radically new technologies or knowledge to bolster the transcendence of humanity to a multi-world species should we really choose that goal. We need to get off the couch and take risks: cold, hard, calculated risks. Only thorough such fulfillments, combined with a healthy understanding of history, will humanity’s chances of survival be affirmed. It is time to seed a new global age of inspiration, understanding, innovation, migration, and discovery.


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