Friday, August 07, 2009

Now What?

December 17, 1903: First powered, controlled heavier-than-air flight.

October 4, 1957: Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite.

April 12, 1961: Vostok 1, flown by Yuri Gagarin, carries the first human into Earth orbit.

July 20, 1969: Eagle, flown by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, land the first human beings on the Moon.

August 7, 2009: Now what?

It's a fair question. In the forty years since the days of Apollo, we've done a lot of things, some of them pretty great. For all its problems, the Space Shuttle has carried more humans into space than any other vehicle in history. We've explored our solar system with increasing sophistication and confidence. But where do we go from here? What should we be doing? At the end of the day, what's it all for?

In my opinion, any discussion of human spaceflight must begin with this realization:

Human spaceflight is entirely pointless unless we, as a people, intend to expand into the Universe and make it our home.

Let me spend a few minutes talking about the benefits of such expansion. I'm not going to pretend that it'll solve all of our problems, but there are two or three in particular that it can solve. Three of the major problems that we face as a civilization are a shortage of clean, sustainable energy, a shortage of material resources of all kinds, and the lingering problems associated with large-scale industrialization. Each of those can be addressed, if we're established Up There.

First, energy. One of the problems associated with making solar power practical is the fact that it's so dependent on the availability of sunlight. Clouds interfere with it. Shorter days in winter do, also. But I know of a place where the Sun shines almost all the time, save only a few hours twice a year. It's also a place where there are no clouds, ever. This place can be found 23,000 miles above the Earth's equator. Solar arrays can be built there, and power can be beamed back down to Earth via microwaves. The capital start-up costs are significant, but once built the energy itself is almost free. Relatively cheap, clean energy in a sufficiently abundant supply will change things. Imagine energy universally available, with blackouts being a thing of the past. It could happen...

Second, resources. Name the metal, and it's available in million-ton quantities in the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. And available without destroying a biosphere, without any environmental consequences whatsoever. (When the environment consists of hard vacuum, there's not a whole lot you can do to it...) Wars have started, and still start, over scarcity of resources. Why fight, though, when you can just wander over and grab some? An end to scarcity will change things. Gold may never be as cheap as tin, but neither will it be worth fighting over.

Third, manufacturing. Most of the expense of space travel is involved with clawing our way out of Earth's gravity well, and getting back down again. Given that most of the resources available in the solar system aren't on Earth, there's no reason our factories should be here, either. The factories will naturally migrate to where the energy and resources are. That's always been true, and it'll still be true in the future. Once our energy and resources are coming from space, it will make sense for the factories to be there, too. Essentially, this could mean the end of pollution. Imagine clean air and clean water for everyone, everywhere. It could happen...

Now the question is, how do we get from here to there?

The first priority has to be building an affordable, economically sustainable infrastructure for spaceflight. Apollo is a bad model for this. As great an achievement as it was, it was still a one-off surge effort. We don't need any more of those surges. Simply put: NASA's job shouldn't be to put a man on Mars. NASA's job should be to develop the technology that will allow the National Geographic Society to send people to Mars. We need to develop the technology to allow the Carnival Cruise Line to sell excursion packages to see Halley's Comet close up, the next time it comes through. This sort of thing is happening. It's happening in NASA, to be sure; but it's also happening at Scaled Composites, at SpaceX, at Virgin Galactic, and a dozen other companies looking to cash in on a new and lucrative market. This part, I don't worry about as much as I used to. I'm pretty sure we'll make the tools in time.

The other problem is legal. I've talked about this before, a couple of years ago, and much of this will be a repeat. The basic problem is that, as the laws stand, there's no real way for an individual to assert property rights. Given that, risking money on an extraterrestrial resource venture is a really, really bad bet. I don't really care how we clear that particular hurdle. But one way or another, we have to establish some legal framework for guaranteeing the legal rights of companies to own factories, mines, and the like out there away from Earth. The only way we've been able to do that to date is by asserting national sovereignty over the land in question. Possibly we can work out some other kind of deal. Again, like I said, I don't care how we settle that, so long as we get it settled. It's an impediment to our progress as a civilization.

We have a choice between two futures: one where everyone in the world can enjoy our standard of living, where the poorest of us will be richer than the kings of antiquity ever dreamed; and one where declining resources doom us all to equality in poverty. I know which one I'd rather live in, and which one I'd rather bequeath to my daughter, and to her children. As Jerry Pournelle often says, it's raining soup Out There, and it's about damn time we started making some bowls.

We can do this.

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