In the early morning hours of January 15th, a capsule from the Stardust space probe smashed into the atmosphere and fell to Earth on a tail of fire. It descended by parachute, delivering a precious cargo of interstellar and comet dust to the high desert of Utah, having journeyed for seven years and over two billion miles. A few days later, the New Horizons space probe departed for an even greater voyage, to Pluto and the Kneiper Belt beyond. Meanwhile, two robotic rovers continue to roam the surface of Mars and Cassini continues to unlock the secrets of the Saturn system.
Forty or so years ago, astronauts had all the glory of the exploration of space. Now, robots are exploring places that currently no astronaut can go. For the past twenty five years, no human being has journeyed beyond low Earth orbit. There are some for whom this situation suits just fine.
The arguments are familiar. Robots are cheaper than humans. Using robots mean that human beings will not have to risk dying on space missions, as have the crews of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles. The macabre confluence of the three anniversaries of space tragedies-Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia-drive the price of human space exploration home.
The final argument is the claim that robots can do all that humans can do. Indeed robotic space probes are very useful for tasks like remote observation and for measuring certain physical phenomenon.
The first two suppositions are true. The second is demonstrably false. That seems to be the growing consensus among scientists, engineers, and space policy experts.
Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society commissioned a study of human space flight. The commission, led by Oxford physicist Frank Close, came to a startling conclusion. Despite the fact that the members of the commission had started their study being skeptical of humans in space, the report concluded, “profound scientific questions relating to the history of the solar system and the existence of life beyond Earth can best – perhaps only – be achieved by human exploration on the Moon or Mars, supported by appropriate automated systems.”
Robots, for all of their technological sophistication, can only do what they are programmed to do. Tele-operation of robotic probes over vast distances, where commands take minutes or hours to be executed, is not a good solution to the problem. Human beings have a unique ability to observe and evaluate new phenomenon almost instantaneously, as well as to adapt quickly to the unknown and unexpected, to understand what questions to ask on the spot.
Sending human explorers on voyages of discovery to the Moon, Mars, and beyond is not a fantasy, as some have claimed. Nor, properly done, with private sector participation, is it even extravagant. Entrepreneurs such as Burt Rutan and Elon Musk are proving that the cost of space travel can come down considerably.
NASA has become more commercial friendly than it has been in decades. The Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program proposes to allow private companies such as Rutan’s and Musk’s to sell resupply and crew transfer services to the International Space Station. NASA wins by lowering the cost of maintaining ISS. The private sector wins by acquiring a core market for the emerging space launch industry.
The Centennial Challenges program awards prizes to private groups that can develop high risk/high reward technology innovations.
It would seem that NASA’s desire to explore the Moon and Mars and the private sector’s desire to make money from space travel is a marriage that could be made literally in heaven. So far NASA’s plans for exploring space-Apollo on steroids-is a government funded, government operated program. But with a little outside the box thinking, it could become so much more.
Private launch firms could deploy fuel depots in space for NASA space craft to refuel at, increasing the payloads that can be sent to the Moon and Mars. Private firms can develop the technologies and run the equipment to extract needed resources on other worlds to help maintain human explorers. Oxygen can be extracted from lunar soil. Water can be mined from the lunar poles. Food could be grown in lunar green houses. Energy can be generated from lunar power plants.
It could be another win/win situation. NASA could sustain more infrastructure and more explorers on the Moon for less cost. The private sector could gain experience in operating in cislunar space and on the Moon itself. In that way, the commercial exploitation of the Moon could commence. Goods and services from such enterprises could include space and lunar based solar energy, beamed to the Earth by microwaves. Helium 3 could be mined as clean, limitless fuel for future fusion power plants. The Moon could, in effect, become the Persian Gulf of this century, feeding the world’s burgeoning energy needs.
All it takes is imagination and will.