The Washington Post has an interesting summary of the state of the space industry, contrasting the “New Space”, private companies, with “Old Space”, Nasa. The article is interlaced with interesting photos and is well worth the time investment. Another article on NBC talks about the White House’s new space transportation policy.
I’m a space enthusiast. I think it grows out of me being a science fiction fan for as long as I can remember. The space opera consensus on humanity’s future is that we would first spend the 21st century exploring the solar system, and then after a century or so, go on to explore the stars, perhaps at first with slower than light travel, then eventually with some form of faster than light travel. I suspect, for your average space enthusiast, this future is what we have in mind when we think of space exploration. And it’s why so many of us have become impatient with what is essentially the stalled space age.
However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also tried to become a realist. And this leads me to the realization that me and my fellow space enthusiasts have a problem. Space exploration, particularly manned space exploration, is ridiculously expensive. At $5000 per pound to get anything in orbit, plus the cost of life support and logistical support, nothing much gets done in the space industry without the price tag climbing into the billions.
With these outrageous costs, there is a requirement to identify an economic rationale for it. It’s one thing to say that we as a species need to colonize space to insure the survival of the human race, but quite another to convince taxpayers or investors to shell out money for benefits they themselves will never see. While scientific interest has been enough to finance robotic probes, sadly, it probably won’t be enough to finance the much more expensive and risky manned missions. (This might change if life is ever discovered anywhere else in the solar system.)
When they hear this, many people like to bring up the Age of Exploration, when Europeans explored the world. What is often forgotten about the Age of Exploration is that it had a strong economic motivation. Initially, Portugal was interested in finding an alternate trading route, primarily for spices, to the far east to go around the middlemen in the middle east. These economic interests, which are barely remembered today, financed the Age of Exploration, at least until other economic interests kicked in with the discovery of new continents.
Space exploration needs its own version of the spice trade. I fear that, until it finds it, it will continue to struggle. Neil deGrasse Tyson has proposed that we consider the space program an economic, scientific, and technological stimulus, but it’s not clear how well that sells. There’s also some hope in the interest of some investors in mining asteroids, but we’ll have to see if that ends up being enough.
- Ethiopia Officially Launched a Space Exploration Program (saddylivepress.wordpress.com)
- Asteroids should be colonized or used as transport to Planets. (intrepidcoveguardianmanineptune.wordpress.com)
- Space industry faces choice for next direction (stltoday.com)
- “Space-Age Google” Joins with NASA to Crowdsource Asteroid Detection (dailygalaxy.com)
- “Man in Space” response (reflectionsonscienceandpopculture.wordpress.com)
- New US Space Transportation Policy Stresses Private Spacecraft, Heavy-Lift Rocket (space.com)
- Is Warp Drive Possible? (33rdsquare.com)
- Farther space exploration (suarezalexis.wordpress.com)