“Because I don’t want to go to Space.” That’s how my wife answered the question. Of course getting her on a plane would prove a challenge, so there you go.
I cut my teeth on Star Trek – an optimistic view of the future where the military undergoes a conversion to a diplomatic corps. Sort of like how we’ve stalled on the Global War on Terror. (Getting rid of the term ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ would be a good start if we want to regain our momentum).
Visions of the future…
Gene Roddenberry tapped into some of the components of theoretical physics of the time and presented us with a feasible thread running from the Wright Brothers first flight to faster-than-light travel. The Trek Universe also featured things like Matter Teleportation (transporters), Phased-array Weapons (phasers), Sonic Sanitation, and of course mankind colonizing hundreds of star systems across the galaxy.
So why haven’t we made more progress?
In a word, money. No one is getting paid.
An unfortunate but apt allegory.
Michael Wolf, my XO in Afghanistan, was a detective in South Jersey. Years of engaging with the very worst of humanity gave Mike an understandably cynical view of the world.
Our discussions often focused on the various projects and contracts executed by the Afghan Security Forces. Inevitably we would conduct a review with respect to performance. Somewhere along the way, Mike would make one of two assertions depending on performance, or lack thereof. Either someone was getting paid, or no one was getting paid.
If a job was completed, that meant someone got paid. If a job was left undone, well then obviously it was because nobody was getting paid. This binary paradigm allowed us to make sense of the absence of progress within the Afghan mission. The great part about this is that it applies it to nearly everything.
We’re still trying though…
The United States still has a Space Program of sorts. So does Europe, so does Russia, and the Chinese government informs us that they will land on the Moon in 2020 thanks to the technology sold to them by the Clinton Administration in the 90s.
Currently, the Earth has about 3,000 intact satellites in orbit. These includes one research dock (the International “Space Station”) and hundreds of automated platforms geared to Astronomy, Communications, EMP Weapons (yes, since the 90s), Global Positioning, Imaging, Research, Intelligence Gathering, and Weather.
What do all these satellites have in common? Somebody was willing to pay for them, and therefore… somebody got paid.
There’s a reason for all this…
Let’s follow the thread. Why was someone willing to pay? Because the benefit exceeded the cost. Billions of telecom subscribers, billions of cable subscribers and billions for DSL and fiber-optic network subscribers underwrite the cost of launching additional satellites, correcting their orbits, and the cost of launching maintenance crews. In one of the finest examples of the market at work, these platforms provide a service for which people are willing to pay.
Are some satellites orbiting the Earth yet providing no direct monetary payoff? Of course there are. There are plenty of satellites devoted to national security or pure research and thus included in national budgets and funded by the taxpayers the world over.
Since the 1950s, dozens of programs under the umbrella of NASA and fueled by the Cold War have launched hundreds of unmanned probes. Many of these launches resulted in numerous visits to the inner and outer planets. Some unmanned vehicles, most notably Pioneer X, Pioneer XI, and Voyager I, have left our solar system entirely.
Not every vehicle launched into orbit has to have a commercial application but the overwhelming majority of them do, otherwise they would not exist.
Let’s not fool ourselves, though.
Discussions of a Mars mission have been going on for decades. Proposals for colonizing the Moon and visiting the asteroid belt started before the first Moon landing. We’re not on Mars of course, and even when we do get there, we’re not staying for the same reason we didn’t stay on the Moon: there’s no way to make it pay for itself. Not yet.
Mining the Asteroid Belt will remain the stuff of science fiction for this very reason. Extracting 600 ounces of gold from the Talkeetna Mountains in Alaska may end up costing between five hundred thousand and nine hundred thousand dollars. Taking the same volume of gold from an asteroid 204,000,000 miles from Earth would cost billions. We’re not mining the Asteroid Belt because we don’t need to. The mineral resources here on Earth are centuries from depletion, and they cost a lot less to obtain.
Hey, it’s cold there in Space. Like, really cold.
George Mallory may have urged us on simply because “it’s there,” but no one lives on the summit of Mount Everest an no one mines what must be its considerable resources from its slopes because it’s hostile climate makes it far too costly. Same goes for constructing colonies off planet.
Establishing a colony on the moon, while an enormous public relations premium for any nation would simply be a drain on the taxpayers, perpetuating a cycle of unrelenting Keynesian misery. I wish the Chinese all the luck in the world with that.
Space exploration will ramp up naturally when there is proper economic incentive and not before. Recall that European explorers expanded into the American continents because the incentives outweighed the considerable risks of an Atlantic crossing.
Money is not the only problem.
In the meantime, there are a few peripheral problems that will need to be overcome. After economics, there is the issue of sheer distance. The biggest part of Space is well, empty space. Conventional propulsion requires reaching escape velocity from the planetary body from which one is launching. In the case of Earth, that is 7 miles per second. This has worked for the last 60+ years but the vehicle is limited by the speed by which it escapes.
The developments of Ion propulsion systems which have been carried on spacecraft since the 90s enable course corrections, but generally, once the vehicle is outside the planet’s gravity well, it becomes a ballistic missile and inertia takes over. In other words, we’re going in the direction in which we’re pointed until we come up on another planetary body.
This why many launch vehicles heading for the outer planets will make a flyby at Jupiter first. Jupiter’s mass and gravity makes it an ideal booster. Vehicles can skim its’ outer atmosphere using it’s gravity to speed up and “sling shot” off to it’s next destination, be it Uranus, Neptune, or the Kuiper Belt.
This is our current speed limit for space travel, but other means of propulsion that don’t require pushing against a planetary body are in development.
Stepping back to have a look at the drawing board.
We mentioned Ion Propulsion. Ion drive add and remove electrons from particles to propel a vehicle in a given direction. Recently, NASA has reported some success experimenting with using Ion Propulsion as a booster. Satellites sporting ion engines enabling adjustments in their orbits – and keep them from falling out of the sky – are nothing new.
Pure ion propulsion is a recent development. Boeing’s ABS communication satellite launched in March 2015 is the first.
In 2013, NASA’s reported that the success with the Xenon Ion Thruster potentially allows vehicles to reach speeds of 90,000 mile per hour because it can burn for far longer than previous ion drives.
This is impressive. But it’s not enough. Even at this tremendous speed, it would take 30,000 years to reach the nearest star. It will on the other hand, make travelling around our solar system feasible.
Well, that’s something at least.
Could production costs be brought down to the point where shipping and mining companies can conduct business? Perhaps. After all, in 1940, a ball-point pen cost $20, and in 1965 the first electronic calculator cost $1,000.
Crossing the void between the stars is another matter. Earlier this year, NASA leaked a paper touting success with the experimental EM drive. A lengthy peer-review process has verified the finding as genuine. Briefly, the EM drive works by having a magnetron push microwaves into a closed truncated cone, which propels the craft forward.
Journalist are already naming this the “Warp Drive” but that is a misnomer. This is still occurring in normal space, so we’re talking more of an “Impulse Drive.” While this still means centuries of travel between stars, it is admittedly a vast improvement over the tens of thousands of years it would take a current speeds.
Two other problems comes to mind and I rarely see them written about. Inertial dampening and shielding. Acceleration creates both a benefit (creating artificial gravity) and a problem. Let’s talk about the problem. First, let’s presume the possibility of traveling at near-light speeds in normal space due to a super-ion drive.
Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping…
It would take 85 years (that’s earth time; only 5 years would pass on board the space ship) to accelerate to .99c or 99% of the speed of light. This gradual acceleration is necessary so as not to kill the crew. If you were a member of the crew, you would probably want your family to still be alive back on Earth at the end of your mission. This will require a faster rate of acceleration which in turn will require an inertial dampening field.
This presents yet another hazard. An asteroid the size of a pebble hitting the ship at .99c would punch though the hull, killing the crew (sigh). So now you need some sort of static shielding. That’s the subject for another article.
I do see a day when getting into space will be the equivalent of getting onto a passenger airline. But only after the free-market has a bigger say. Politicians, unfortunately, enjoy picking winners and losers, which inevitably obstructs the process. While there is some role for government participation, they will by and large need to get out of the way.