Friday, July 22, 2011

What is the future of manned space exploration?

With the end of the Space Shuttle program and no new generation of manned space vehicle on the horizon for the United States, those of us who care about the future are naturally concerned. Sure, the Russians have their Soyuz program and the Chinese seem to have every intention of being the second country to put a man on the Moon, but without the Americans in the game, it seems the exploration and eventual colonization of the Solar System is becoming ever more the realm of science fiction. I have heard some suggest the future of American manned space exploration is actually better off without NASA. They believe private companies like SpaceX can do it for less money. I don't doubt that private enterprise can handle routine low Earth orbit operations such as launching satellites or shuttling personnel to the International Space Station, but are we ever going to see a manned mission to Mars, for example, from a private company? I seriously doubt it. Where is the profit in it? There's little evidence to suggest there are any resources of value to us on Mars, at least in the short term. No question, the resources of the Solar System are vast. One can imagine limitless solar energy or asteroid mining for all the raw materials the human race would need for the next ten thousand years, but these are extremely long-term efforts. Most financiers don't want to invest in projects that won't see a return for centuries. So what is the future of manned space exploration? I see three scenarios.

One, we let the Chinese do the heavy lifting for awhile. In other words, we do nothing. It's definitely the path of least resistance and there is no law of the universe that says the future belongs to English-speaking peoples. Maybe the first space colonists will speak Mandarin.

Two, we get NASA back in the game. This is certainly a possibility, especially if the Americans get shocked by the successful launch of a manned Chinese lunar mission. It seems to be a question of timing and the current American debt crisis. Will the Americans pull themselves out of their malaise in time to get their space program back on track before the Chinese get too far ahead? It's hard to say, but in my experience, it's never a good idea to bet against the Americans.

Three, turn space exploration into a non-profit, charitable endeavor. Wait...what? Admittedly, this is an unconventional idea, but I think there are a lot of people who would like to contribute to space exploration. First, there are private individuals. Millions of Americans (and Canadians) who dream about our future in space might be willing to make small tax-deductible donations to a manned space program. Even more importantly, big investors could benefit from tax incentives as well in order to get access to the billions of dollars required for manned space flight. I envision a manned mission to Mars involving some input from NASA, private companies like SpaceX and non-profit space exploration organizations working together. If we don't want to see the future of the human race shaped by the regressive, totalitarian regime in Beijing, this may be the only way.




EdwyrdX said...

Except in the most limited sense, there probably is NO future of manned space exploration. I would love to imagine a world where such was still possible, but as our race is running up against some very serious resource constraints, as well as an amazing lack of political will, it is simply not likely.

In addition, we have learned that humans are not particularly suited for space travel. Poor at adapting to long-term no/low gravity, and that whole radiation thing.

Quite sad, really.

Rognar said...

My outlook is not quite so pessimistic. The only potential gamebreaker for the future of manned space exploration is energy, particularly energy density. We need a lot of energy to realize a permanent human presence in the rest of the solar system. Fossil fuels will run out long before we reach the technology levels needed to colonize Mars, for instance. Solar power is abundant, but low density. You need enormous collectors to produce enough power to run a city-sized space station. Nuclear fission is limited to the supply of fissionable material and transporting radioactive fuel from the Earth to space is an extreme environmental hazard. I think the only realistic option is nuclear fusion, a technology which may be 20 years away or impossible, depending on who you ask.