Space Is Our Home, Not A Program
Los Angeles - Jul 08, 2004
When I walk with my head held high, I can see great distances and imagine great things. When I walk with eyes cast down, I see only my feet and the sidewalk below them. When it comes to America's vision for space, most of the commentary on President Bush's recently announced initiative is sadly sidewalk-bound.
Many who are against sending humans to the moon and Mars argue that robots can do the job more effectively. How ironic that shortly after the President's announcement, the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit spent two weeks mentally hiccupping and twiddling its mechanical thumbs. The resuscitation of Spirit by humans demonstrated that robots aren't entirely self-sufficient. In fact, far too many robotic missions have failed because these splendid machines couldn't overcome surprises, some of them created by human design and construction flaws.
For decades the space debate has focused too much on exploration. The exploration of space is valuable in and of itself, but the most important reason for exploring space—the reason that robots alone simply don't count—can be summed up in one word: settlement. This time, we go to stay. Even if science was the only reason to go, the best science is performed by onsite scientists with their instruments, not by onsite instruments without their scientists. But science isn't the only, or even the best, reason to go. Survival and prosperity are the fundamental reasons, and these are worth any price.
A place of abundant resources
A mere 62 miles above us, and thus a continuation of our environment. An extension of the economy, and thus part of our lives. A place of abundant resources, and thus crucial to our survival and prosperity.
Many believe we shouldn't spend money on space until we solve all our problems here. Sounds reasonable, but this offers little more than false hope. Just when will all our problems be solved? How can this be measured, and who declares this accomplished? How many nations, governments, companies, organizations or people do you know that have solved all of their problems? Humanity isn't going to solve all its problems, ever. We are too dynamic, always solving problems and creating more at the same time, and forever continuing this cycle as we endlessly evolve. We go into space for reasons that humans have historically gone elsewhere; to find resources and freedom, to create better lives. If humans didn't leave home until all was well, all six billion of us would still be in Mesopotamia, crowded and miserable.
Lunar visionary Kraft Ehricke said it best in 1970: "While civilization is more than a high material living standard it is nevertheless based on material abundance. It does not thrive on abject poverty or in an atmosphere of resignation and hopelessness. Therefore, the end objectives of solar system exploration are social objectives, in the sense that they relate to or are dictated by present and future human needs." With a ceaselessly growing global population requiring ever more resources, human survival and prosperity require not just the exploration of space, but also its settlement and development. It's really that simple. The only question is how long we wait to begin in earnest. We can begin now, in partnership with other nations, or wait until we endure a few more wars over diminishing resources.
Consider China and India, the two most populous nations in the world, with a combined total of 2.3 billion people. Their economies are growing into 21st Century powerhouses that will require vast resources. How will the governments of these nations provide for their citizens? In 1941, the Empire of Japan used its military to expand throughout the Pacific and create the Southeast Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Why? Japan needed resources, such as rubber, tin and oil. It attacked Pearl Harbor to keep the US at bay.
Now imagine the year is 2031, and China's energy consumption is the same as the entire world's consumption today. Will China deploy its navy to seize the Spratley Islands and other resource-rich parts of Southeast Asia? Will Pearl Harbor be attacked again, only this time with a Chinese nuclear strike? And what will India do, situated between the oil wealth of the Middle East and Southeast Asia? As is China, India is enhancing its military capabilities. Is conflict the only answer? Must Earth be the sole source of energy and other resources?
Towards a permanent presence
If you're thinking conservation is the only answer, it isn't a realistic alternative by itself on a global basis. Besides, conservation too often reflects an attitude of scarcity. Where's the hopeful future in that? Instead, combine conservation with vision, and you can see orbiting solar arrays beaming power to Earth and helium-3 extracted from the moon for use here in future fusion reactors. Do you think it can't be done? Countless experts are always talking about what can't be done, and then a novice goes and does it. The Wright brothers weren't aerospace experts, and look what they accomplished despite being told it couldn't be done.
If you're an election year cynic, or you just don't like President Bush, I suspect you don't care for his Moon-Mars initiative. If such feelings are the basis of your views, put them aside temporarily and see the initiative for what it is at its core: A wondrous vision of permanent human presence in space. It's far too important to be sidetracked by mere presidential politics, and both Democrats and Republicans who support this vision must unite to prevent its demise. The temptation to make it an election year ping-pong ball with no more substance than that must be resisted. Survival must not be turned into a lowest common denominator argument, as inevitably happens when candidates pander to the electorate.
The ultimate economic growth engine
The biggest obstacle to the exploration, settlement and development of space has been the high cost of getting to orbit. NASA has proven time and again that it cannot decrease this cost, despite numerous launch vehicle programs. This shouldn't be surprising, for while our government provides many valuable services, it isn't designed to lower the cost of products and services. This is the forte of the private sector, which until very recently has been hindered in its efforts to create a commercial space launch industry. Fortunately this is changing, as entrepreneurs have formed companies such as SpaceX and XCOR Aerospace with the goal of creating inexpensive launch services. And Scaled Composites has scheduled the first private manned space flight for this June 21. Congress is supporting such efforts, as seen with the March passage of an amendment to the Commercial Space Launch Act
The cost barrier is about to be assaulted by those most likely to succeed: New companies with out-of-the-box ideas. This means space need not be just a tax-funded expense. Instead, it can become an extension of the American economy, a creator of new industries and jobs, and a generator of tax revenues. And while all this is happening, NASA can concentrate on what it does best: Developing new technologies for use in space, and pushing deeper into space as a true pioneer that paves the way for the rest of us.
Jeff Krukin is an international speaker, writer and analyst concerned with The Human-Space Connection and commercial space development.
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