Monday, July 20, 2009

Our Near Space Future

(Image courtesy NASA)

Many people today will be pontificating about the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, as is only right. But I'd like to take the opportunity not to talk about the last forty years of space travel, but the forty years that's immediately ahead of us.

In my last blog entry, I talked about how people have trouble intuitively grasping just how vast the scale of space is. Which is partly why I think that for the next few generations, despite the current push outward for exploration to the Moon and Mars, I think the aspect of space travel that will have the most impact on normal people will be the opening up and exploitation of so-called 'Near Space.' Near Space extends from the upper reaches of the atmosphere up to about 500 miles altitude, or the inner edge of the Van Allen radiation belts. That's a scale well within most peoples' understanding, and still is on the shore of this exciting new frontier.

We're already seeing a number of exciting developments along these lines recently. The successful SpaceX launch, the construction of the Virgin Galactic "spaceport", the US Military's tentative plan for a near space 'stratostation' that could permanently occupy suborbital space. Combined with the enlarging community of space-capable nations (particularly China) and renewed interest by private companies just chomping at the bit to market space, it seems that we're poised for a renewed flowering of space travel and exploration. But this time, instead of just being limited to two competing nations, it seems the whole of the industrialized world will take part.

After the world more fully recovers from the recent economic chaos--which admittedly might not be for a full decade yet--I think space tourism will begin to fully take off, with Virgin Galactic and its inevitable competitors offering first suborbital flights, then full orbital excursions. Bigelow Aerospace is already hard at work designing and constructing the first 'space hotels', which would be no more than small, modular, inflatable space stations in which tourists and small crews could stay for up to a few days. And in their footsteps will follow other companies eager to cash in.

Even now, many countries see the ability to at least launch their own satellites as a matter of pride, and a number of them are beginning to launch their own space exploration probes as well, as exemplified by the recent lunar probes launched by India and Japan. How long before they begin launching their own manned space craft, and building their own space stations?

So by 2050 or so, I'm hazarding an educated guess about what we'll see: many different nations and probably at least half a dozen private companies involved heavily in human space exploitation. Those that don't already have a manned presence there will be planning on it. There will be at least a dozen space hotels, most small, but perhaps a few as large as the old Mir station. Companies will start ofering point-to-point suborbital flights. Russia, always a major proponent of space stations, may have an ISS-like large station, and will probably have plans for something even larger, like a ring station. China may still be playing-catch up, hoping to industrialize Near Earth Orbit, and close on its heels will be alliances and nations like the ESA, Japan, India, Brazil, and others.

But where will the US space program fit into all of this?

For some reason, the slow but deliberate process of constructing orbital infrastructure does not seem to sit well with the American public. This seems to go beyond just its high price tag and the old manned vs robotic exploration debate. I think it goes back to why the Apollo program is such a jewel in the eye of the American public, and why space efforts since, despite their on-paper practicality, haven't been as popular.

I think there's a very deep need in the American psyche to explore. Most of the population in the US is descended from people who left their homelands and set off toward someplace unknown in the hopes of something better, and I think that tendency is pretty much embedded in our national DNA. We love building things and making money, but even more fundamental than all that is that we, as a people, want to go.

Apollo spoke to that very deeply. Man landing on the Moon was an amazing technical achievement, but I think to many around the world, especially Americans, it felt right. Like it was what we were destined to do all along.

But many at NASA, in that era and since, realized that sending humans beyond the Moon would need an extensive orbital infrastructure to be practical. You need someplace to construct the giant vehicles necessary, you need workhorse vehicles to haul all the material to orbit, as well as a place to test out long-term habitation and industrial techniques. Thus the need for a shuttle and the space station, and the other plans NASA had its old 'grand architecture.' This goes back to what I talked about last time--just how vast the scale of space is. We're microbes trying to cross an ocean on specks of dust. With our current level of technology, there really is no other way to go about sending humans out into the solar system without this infrastructure.

In the coming era, I think space agencies and companies may begin to specialize--instead of being a catch-all for all space efforts the way many agencies have been, they may begin specializing according to what they do best. For example, the private companies will be all about tourism, the fledgling countries will want to compete for launch services, Russia I'm sure would love to be at the forefront of space stations and colonies in orbit, Japan seems determined to create solar power satellites, and so on.

And Americans I think will work very hard, as they have historically, to be humanity's great explorers of space, to always push the envelope of where humanity goes and what we go out in the Great Dark. The next great age of American manned exploration may not start until the other countries catch up and build the infrastructure that the US needs to explore but still seems very reluctant to participate in. I'm sure that there will be American stations and moonbases and what not, but the US will not fully wake from its current ennui about space until we once again can finally start taking great leaps for all mankind.

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