“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Those words are now etched in our memory, a symbol of the determination and ability of our race. The recent 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing has brought back many memories of America’s great exploits in space. The problem is that these exploits seem like they are from a different galaxy. The Moon represents the high-water mark of America’s space program; the last time it was visited was in 1972. In the years since, the tide has receded so far that returning to the Moon will only be possible with untold billions of dollars and years of development.
NASA has been stuck in a rut, using a vehicle that is overdue to retire and unable to further our knowledge or colonization of space. The majority of missions service the International Space Station, a station that could become nothing more than the largest piece of space trash as soon as 2015. While there are some interesting experiments taking place, mainly on how human bodies react to the microgravity environment of space, many are little more than filler material. A space station should be a leap-off point for exploration of the solar system—a permanent way station on the way to more useful destinations. Instead, the ISS has become the only destination. The great opportunities in space are not middle school science experiments; they are ideas such as space solar power, colonization of moons and planets, and mining of asteroids.
The main limitation on the exploration and exploitation of the solar system is the prohibitive cost of getting material into orbit. Using conventional rockets, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram of material. The engineers at my summer internship, who work on space re-entry vehicles, all agreed that a major technological advance needs to take place for space to be truly opened up.
One of the most innovative and interesting alternatives is called a space elevator. The premise is that if one can make a sufficiently long and strong enough cable, one end can be flown out to space and anchored there with a counter-weight. The effect would be similar to swinging a string with a weight on the end around in a circle – the cable would stay taut, allowing a climber (or elevator) to go up and down, transporting cargo into space. While at first glance the idea borders on the ridiculous, materials such as carbon nanotubes have the right physical properties to make it work. However, they are still difficult to work with and produce in large quantities. The 5th Space Elevator Conference was recently held at Microsoft, showcasing the best efforts to date.
To be able to make any meaningful advances in space, the cost of transportation needs to be drastically lowered. Either rockets need to be cheaper and easier to launch quickly, or a new technology like space elevators must emerge. While the International Space Station is NASA’s most visible symbol, it has become a drain on vital resources. NASA needs to take a step back and refocus their mission. In the short term, continuing and publicizing their many successful unmanned missions will lead to many interesting discoveries. In the long term, it needs to support innovation in manned spaceflight as well as work on concepts like space solar power, asteroid detection and deflection from Earth, and other prospects, both scientific and commercial.
Earth, as we now know all too well, has only a finite amount of resources. We will need to look to the skies eventually; why not start now?