NASA , SpaceX and the Future of Space
by Todd Jackson
While SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and other private space companies soar, NASA Human Spaceflight flounders. The agency we grew up with as the home of the astronaut has seemed lost to space enthusiasts for years. Now a blue-ribbon panel makes it official in its report, “NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for National Consensus.”
“Other than the long-range goal of sending humans to Mars, there is no strong, compelling national vision for the human spaceflight program,” reads the report. “The Committee has seen little evidence that a current stated goal of NASA’s human spaceflight program – namely, to visit an asteroid by 2025 – has been widely accepted as a compelling goal by NASA’s own workforce, the nation as a whole, or by the international community.”
The asteroid goal was proposed by President Obama as his replacement for President Bush’s plan to return to the Moon. Despite President Obama’s frequent campaign references to watching Apollo launches as a boy, the report is highly critical of his, and Congress’, “benign neglect” over the years. No appropriate asteroid has even been located. If it had been, scientists aren’t sure a manned landing is feasible. Nor, as the report makes clear, is NASA confident that the funding will be there.
Meanwhile, things could hardly be better for the private space industry, beginning with SpaceX, whose Dragon spacecraft recently returned from its resupply mission to the International Space Station. Companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Bigelow Aerospace have notched success after success, and one could be forgiven for assuming NASA’s time launching manned missions is done; that we ought to pass the torch to private space, and leave NASA to build upon the great success it has had with robotic space exploration. However, this would be premature. There is still plenty of room for NASA to perform basic research that might be useful to private space down the road.
To accomplish this, it will be necessary to focus our thinking about human spaceflight. The deep problem, which lies at the root of the lack of any “strong, compelling national vision for the human spaceflight program,” is that we have been thinking in terms of “space exploration” while the future demands that we think in terms of “space colonization.”
SPACE EXPLORATION VS. SPACE COLONIZATION
Space exploration can be defined as the process of learning “what’s out there.” Inevitably, it is a branch of the sciences, and its value is measured accordingly. There is a definite value to learning that there is, was, or never was life on Mars. Learning this will contribute to our knowledge about life generally, including life on Earth.
The problem is that, with human spaceflight a multibillion dollar effort, justifying its expense is a constant struggle. For instance, the most commonly-deployed rationale for space exploration is the “spin-offs” argument: NASA’s disinterested exploration leads to the development of technologies which end up generating vastly more revenue in our economy than the outlay that exploration required. The argument is sound, but it must be judged that if it were successful, NASA wouldn’t be fighting for every nickel, as it has been for decades.
Questions arise, the most prominent of which is, “Why send humans when we can send robots more cheaply?” Indeed there are advantages to having human eyes onsite, but those advantages are difficult to convey to a non-scientist public. It’s very difficult to get past the impression that human spaceflight is largely fueled by an intangible sense of glory that assumes that all this will somehow lead to the colonization of space.
Space exploration calls for humans to make enormous sacrifices for a larger effort. We expect astronauts to suffer great discomfort, and to dedicate their lives to their missions. Space colonization is about civilians, and more than that, if it is to be successful, it must be about civilians who aren’t particularly enthralled by the romance of spaceflight. This last factor, rarely if ever considered, needs to enter our thinking as we go forward, because so far the discussion about space has been conducted entirely among space enthusiasts – and, therefore, has been a severely limited discussion.
PRIVATE SPACE TOURISM – A PROMISING AMPHIBIAN
It is gratifying to know that so many are willing to pony up six figure sums for the prospect of experiencing space for themselves, and it’s easy to see why such an experience is justified. That much said, it must be added that these people are trading on the glory of NASA’s history of human space exploration. Space tourists will get their chance to play John Glenn – no small thing, especially when measured against any other possible vacation experience. These tourists are analogous to the first automobile owners, who, over a century ago, in a world almost entirely without paved roads, entertained themselves with fantasies of being race car drivers.
However, the future of human spaceflight cannot be built upon such things. A great variety of tourist experiences are possible, but not only is the tourism model limited, it itself needs a “compelling vision” of where it is headed. To be truly successful, space tourism will need to cultivate not just a sense of the past that’s being glorified, but the future that is being worked toward. As the panel report states, human spaceflight suffers from the lack of such a future vision.
SPACE COLONIZATION – ITS RATIONALE AND PREREQUISITES
The biggest conceptual problem facing human spaceflight is the confusion between the prerequisites of space exploration and the prerequisites of space colonization. Once that confusion is cleared, we will have disentangled many of obstacles besetting NASA today.
1) Space exploration is inevitably concerned with distance from Earth. The more distant the destination, the better. Space enthusiasts are positively hungry for Mars. The Return to the Moon movement has always suffered the scorn of space enthusiasts, largely because we’ve already been there. This attitude reflects the best of the impulse underlying science generally: a desire for the new. Business, however, is more typically concerned with marrying the new, the familiar, and the practical.
Space tourism, but beyond that space colonization – at least in the near term – requires a reasonable proximity to Earth. Both are Earth-centered enterprises which must exist in an economic relationship with the American, and global, economy. The three-to-six month travel distance to Mars makes such economic contiguity impossible. Only two kinds of people who will go to Mars. One is the professional astronaut, who can be expected to take two or three years out of his or her life on Earth. The other kind of person is the sort who is on a one-way trip, the sort committed, in Robert Zubrin’s terms, to construction of a “new branch of human civilization.” Of this sort, it can be said that we wish them well, but must have considerable doubt about whether it is in the American interest to spend scores or hundreds of billions of dollars out of our civilization’s treasury to help construct someone else’s civilization – a civilization whose economy will not be part of our economy simply by virtue of being so far away.
2) Eventually, contiguity with Earth is going to demand one Earth gravity as well as an Earth-like atmosphere. Only professional astronauts and space tourists – the latter feeding off the glory of the former – are going to tolerate the ravages of microgravity. Only they will be satisfied to exist for any length of time at Mars’ 0.6 g, breathing pumped air, protected from the Martian cocktail of gases.
Space tourists will want to live the John Glenn dream once, maybe twice. Then they might want a longer stay, or a trip to the Moon. Eventually, though, space tourism is going to want to offer more. Like any industry, it will have to grow.
Space colonization was never the inevitable future of space exploration. However, space colonization is the inevitable future of space tourism. It is the natural result of an industry trying to expand its market, and of the introduction of new industries – mining, construction, energy, etc. – into an already-profitable new place of business. It doesn’t have to be exciting to space enthusiasts, most of whom will always find Mars sexier. This is for everyone else.
THE BIGELOW DIFFERENCE
Bigelow Aerospace doesn’t build rockets. It builds destinations for rockets. Its core insight is that a space habitation can be manufactured so that it is inflatable (the current preferred term is “expandable”) in order to fit into the small confines of a launched rocket, then expanded to full size once in space. Beyond expandability, the Bigelow craft have the further advantage of enhanced resistance to radiation in space, well beyond the capabilities of conventional metal-shell spacecraft.
The company’s track record is impressive. Its Genesis I and II craft have been operating successfully in Earth orbit since 2006 and 2007, respectively. Its BA 330 craft is designed to able to link together in modular fashion, creating a space station to rival or even exceed the ISS.
Among Bigelow’s successes is a deal with SpaceX, announced in May 2012, to work cooperatively, with SpaceX Falcon rockets launching its Dragon to Bigelow habitats.
While NASA human spaceflight battles existential anxieties, looking to start doing something in 2017, or 2025, or 2030, private space is now announcing new breakthroughs every few months.
ONE EARTH GRAVITY
Spaceflight has become nearly synonymous with the zero-g “floating” effect. Experiencing this is much of the motivation for those signing up to be the first generation of space tourists. It’s almost coarse to see to the end of this fascination, which will only grow as space tourism becomes cheaper and more accessible. But the dangers of microgravity are considerable, making it a short-term experience and a condition to be endured. For any truly extended habitation of space, for the full expansion of economic activity, and for the inclusion of those masses not already inclined to be space enthusiasts, the gravity in the space destination will have to be exactly that of Earth.
This can be achieved, as the problem has been studied for years. Unfortunately, funding experiments in space has proved difficult to attain; even the first version of the ISS was to contain a centrifuge for artificial gravity, but plans were scrapped. The difficulty involved in obtaining funding for rotational artificial gravity is among the most obvious casualties of the confusion between space exploration and space colonization. The thinking has always been, Let’s exploit microgravity as a unique environment for materials and pharmaceutical development, and use the Space Shuttle to deliver these academic and corporate customers to ISS. Meanwhile, our professional astronauts are perfectly willing to spend any number of months losing the minerals in their bones.
The idea worked, and still works. But, again, if it had been very successful, NASA would not now be struggling for the Government’s loose change.
If NASA is looking for a mission which is compelling, and, necessarily, inexpensive, it could not do better than to attach a Bigelow habitat to a tether and rotate it about an axis, with cameras inside to record the astronauts, not floating about but experiencing the same gravity as viewers on Earth.
THE HIGH FRONTIER
Once that mission is accomplished, the future is obvious: add scale.
Adding scale will involve the development of activities in which NASA would certainly play a crucial role. NASA has a mandate to land on an asteroid. Let it do so, not to prepare for Mars, but to mine that asteroid for its mineral and metal resources. Let NASA glean water from the Moon dust. Let NASA mine the ice at the poles of Mercury. The agency can do all the initial research necessary to form the basis of the industries of the future.
The father of that future is Gerard K. O’Neill, author of the 1977 classic, The High Frontier, the “bible” of space colonization. O’Neill advocated human settlement in space, which has numerous advantages over settlement of any planetary surface such as that of Mars.
O’Neill was far ahead of his time; in particular, he was far ahead of the existence of the private space industry, so that in the late ’70s his only option was to propose to that recession-weary public that Federal funding be allotted for projects such as these:
Funding was not forthcoming.
Today, we would understand such massive objects as being the action of numerous industries rather than products of the NASA budget.
Even in the ’70s, based upon that time’s technology and knowledge of the solar system, O’Neill forecast that the resources available off-Earth would allow 26,000 years of human population growth, or a population 20,000 times that the Earth carried at that time.
This was well before we knew just how abundant water was in space. It was also before the development of technologies such as Bigelow’s expandability, or Robert Winglee’s mini-magnetosphere plasma shielding, both of which promise to dramatically reduce the need for tons of slag from the lunar soil O’Neill’s designs call for – the latter of which being yet another inexpensive project whose space testing fell victim to the budget ax.
This would be an effort not unlike the American settlement of the West, but without any native peoples to displace. Like that settlement, it would involve the coordinated, and at times conflicting efforts of businesses, individuals, and Governments. Unlike that effort, in time it indeed could become a means for the development of new communities of peoples. For while space colonies can be near Earth, ultimately they can be anywhere and everywhere.
In all this, NASA’s role could be fundamental; in this, NASA would regain its lost luster.