Space Kidd

The importance of humanity becoming space fairing, methods to achieve this, and the hurdles humanity will face pursuing this goal.

October 22, 2011 6:06 am

Space Exploration: A Justification

For eons man’s imagination has been held captive by the celestial bodies overhead.  They have played the part of central figures in our religions, both mainstream and fringe, as well as been the canvas that man has painted his myths on in the form of the constellations.  When Columbus sailed across the Atlantic on his voyage to the Americas, it was by use of these constellations that he was able to record the location of the New World so that others could follow in his footsteps.  It is then no mystery why today we look up at the night sky and wonder what fantastic mysteries await us.  This has been the providence of humanity for as long as we have existed.

It is common to ask why we need to go into space.  To the everyday man there’s nothing we need there; it’s expensive, and we have our own problems here  at home we should be concentrating on.  This is what people told Columbus in the 1400’s as well as the other explorers who followed him and set up colonies in the Americas.  But imagine if no one had returned to America after Columbus came back to Spain.  America was considered that great new frontier that a brave group of individuals were willing to risk everything on to explore and settle, to strike out a new life for themselves.  These individual colonies weren’t originally sustainable, of course, and required the support of entire empires back home in Europe. Ultimately this arrangement was not a drain on the homeland, but rather it was mutually beneficial.  The colonies provided new raw materials to their homelands in return for necessities, and the homelands were, in turn, able to expand their own growth and vitality to the benefit of all.  These three issues; natural resources, costs, social distinction, need to be addressed again but with an eye towards the heavens.

It is important to realize that space is not a vast nothingness.  Space consists of entire bodies of resources lying just outside of our reach, and the only thing limiting our reach is our technological progress.  According to the International Iron and Steel Institute, in 2004, the global iron consumption by mass for the year was approximately equal to the mass of an average asteroid.  By the latest official count from the International Astronomy Union’s Minor Planet Center (IAU MPC), there exist 83,708,445 “minor” planets across our solar system.  These objects range in size from that of a baseball up to the largest asteroid, 1 Ceres, which is approximately 540 miles across.  Although most of them exist in the main belt between 2 and 4 AU, (two to four times farther from the sun than Earth) a significant number of them are classified as Near Earth Objects (NEO’s).  The MPC has tabulated a list of 8,228 NEO’s, 1,246 of which are larger than one kilometer across, or approximately a half mile.  These NEO’s are defined as being an object which has a closest approach to the Sun at less than 1.3 AU’s making them much easier to reach than an asteroid in the main belt.  While we do not currently have the technology to actually mine an asteroid, we can access an asteroid with a robotic vehicle, demonstrated by the Japanese Hayabusa mission or the NASA OSIRIS-REx mission slated for launch in 2016.  Developing the technology to mine material in orbit (In-Situ Resource Utilization, ISRU) is something that has cyclically made an appearance in research abstracts, but has yet to receive the push required to bring this technology to reality.

Space does not need to be expensive.  Over a hundred years ago, the Wright Brothers made their famous first flight in Kittyhawk.  Sometime later, civilians began to utilize planes to get from one place to another.  Unfortunately, the cost of these trips was initially restrictive, but became more affordable as the years progressed.  Some aspects of space travel can be thought of as being analogous to the early days of aviation, and although space travel has some challenges to overcome before it can reach the cost-effectiveness of aircraft travel, there is reason for optimism.  Currently, an airplane is built and subsequently flown thousands of times in a year, with constant, regulated maintenance and frequent refueling.  Compare that to the robotic space industry, where every launch requires an entirely new rocket to be constructed, fueled and then launched.  On September 29, 2011 one company set out to change this system architecture.  Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, CEO Elon Musk held a press conference in which he presented the “Grasshopper” system.  While most of the technical details are proprietary, Musk was able to provide the media with a video to overview a typical mission plan utilizing this system.  The system launches normally and delivers the payload to the desired orbit, but then each stage de-orbits itself and returns to the Earth in a controlled manner such that it lands upright in a designated landing site.  While such a system is comparatively complicated and requires multiple lines of redundancy to ensure safe operation, the end result is a fully recovered rocket ready to be used again.  Through this design, SpaceX has been able to greatly lower the cost of launching a satellite into space while only slightly lowering the amount of mass the system can deliver.  It is this sort of innovation which is necessary to decrease the astronomical prices of launching a mission.  While many other groups have proposed ideas ranging from rocket planes to rail guns, nearly all of these other concepts remain in the “research” stage whereas SpaceX has a system in the “development” stage, with plans to launch a test flight by the end of the decade.  With such a system available in the market, it is possible that space missions could become more commonplace and less cost restrictive, paving the way for more and more technologies to be developed to further lower the price of space flight.  For the past couple of decades, there has not been much progress in the rocket industry, as corporations were content to rebuild the same rockets with newer electronic packages and lighter materials.  With their innovative designs, SpaceX will hopefully usher in a new age of rocket development in the United States.

It would be foolish to say that humanity does not have its fair share of problems here on Earth.  However, it should be remembered that we have always faced a multitude of problems which seriously affect large portions of the population.  It was because of these social problems that a group of Englishmen left the United Kingdom and established a colony on Plymouth Rock in an effort to escape religious persecution at home.  While the social experiment which is the United States of America initially only affected those directly involved, it is clear that this brave adventure has profoundly changed the world. Out of the necessity of living with supplies coming from a month’s trip away and being surrounded by constant dangers in an strange and wild environment, these colonists were able to innovate their old ways of life and figured out how to survive in their new home.  The technologies developed by the pilgrims made their way back across the ocean to Europe, indirectly creating revenue and a better way of life.  Today we live in a world faced with severe hunger issues as well as potential climate issues.  It does not take a very large stretch of imagination for one to see that a colony on Mars will face these problems to an extreme.  A colony would need to be as close to 100% self-supportive as possible, recycling all air, waste, and water in the most efficient ways possible as well as growing food on-site to completely support a team of astronauts who will be exerting themselves daily.  By sending back the data necessary to build such a system on Mars, these pioneers can provide an immediate benefit to Earth giving companies the tools to begin working on scaling up these technologies for the benefit of entire societies rather than a small group of colonists.  The necessity of the situation that these colonists will find themselves in will drive innovation that may not be able to be imagined today, and without a doubt this innovation will go on to benefit the entirety of the human race. 

The greatest innovation occurs on the borders between nations and on the border between civilization and the wilderness.  With the majority of the wilderness tamed on Earth, the remaining wilderness can be found by simply looking up.  The next closest and easiest frontier for man is Mars, a wilderness the likes of which we’ve never before seen,  just waiting for us to explore it.

By these three arguments, space is an accessible frontier to humanity.  It may seem risky and foolish to most of us today, but it is the next logical step to human expansion, the driving force of both technological and social innovation.  While the majority may not feel the inclination to strike out into this new frontier, there is always a fraction of the population that is looking for a place to prove that they have the “right stuff”. To prove that humanity is capable of surviving anywhere we set our minds and hearts to, and that we are worthy of, one day, taking our place as a interplanetary race.

  1. jkidd08 posted this