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Entering Space

I recently finished reading Entering Space by Robert Zubrin. It was published (by Tarcher-Putnam, ISBN 0-87477-975-8) in 1999, so it is already slightly out of date Ė which is a little funny because most of the book deals not in mere years but in centuries or millennia. I picked up the book at a clearance at a wholesale book clearinghouse, so I daresay the author wonít see much of the $1 or so I paid for the book. It was money well spent.

Zubrin, who is the president of the Mars Society, an organization dedicated to promoting the manned exploration and colonization of Mars, states that there are three types of civilizations in space. We are becoming a mature type 1 civilization, despite the terrorism and wars that have marred the beginning of our new millennia. A type one civilization realizes that, in our case, humans are a single species inhabiting a rather small and fragile planet. Thanks to the Internet and communication technology in general, we are slowly becoming a unified society. When that happens, we will have become a full type 1 civilization.

But type one civilizations are at high risk. One undetected (or unstoppable) asteroid could wipe us out in the blink of an eye. In addition, any civilization that stops growing; any civilization that supports the "status quo" is doomed to eventual death. As a species, we must continue to explore. It is simply what we do.

So, we must sooner rather than later, turn our eyes skyward. Not just to low-earth orbit (LEO) where our shuttles fly and the International Space Station resides, nor just to high-earth orbit (Geo-synchronous orbit) where our communication satellites are located; nor even just the moon. We must move outward throughout our solar system. A type 2 civilization has made its solar system its home. An asteroid might strike Earth, or Mars, but it would not wipe out human civilization. A terrible new disease might ravage a planet, but it would not be the end of our race or our civilization.

A type three civilization looks even farther afield, to our whole galaxy. Star Trek fans would therefore consider the society of James T. Kirk or Jonathon Archer to be class three. However, unless a Zefram Cochrane does, indeed, discover warp drive, we wonít become a class three society for several more hundred years.

Zubrin takes a critical look at all of the current and future technology that might make our journey to other planets and then other stars possible and practical. He minces no words in casting aside certain theories for spacecraft propulsion while explaining how other systems might prove practical. He offers no magic solution, no phenomenon imagined by Science Fiction writers to get the job done. (Only in the last chapter or so, does he stray from what can be accomplished through the use of the laws of physics as we presently know them to do a little speculation.) If a method of propulsion does not exist today, at least in theory, it is not considered in this book.

It was a little depressing to realize how much time will be necessary for any space journey, but then, think of the years it took for Magellanís expedition to circumnavigate our world, with little, if any, word of its progress reaching its home port before it returned. Long journeys are not inconsistent with human aspirations. True, a voyage to Alpha Centauri would be much more difficult: we canít just stop at a nearby island to replenish our water and food and enjoy a little relaxation and fraternization with the natives; but it can be done.

Zubrin is insistent that we must return to the moon, but that, in all likelihood, the jumping off point for voyages within and beyond our solar system will not be Earth, or the moon, or even a space station, but Mars. Mars is not only the most earth-like planet in our system, but it has all of the raw materials necessary to make colonization possible and to fuel space ships for other voyages.

So why havenít we journeyed to Mars, yet? When I was a young man watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, I was certain that we would have moon and Mars colonies well established by now. I even dared to hope that Star Trek had overstated the time required to develop its sophisticated technology. Of course, we now have many of the technological marvels of the original series: tiny solid-state devices capable of storing huge quantities of data, sophisticated computers capable of speech and speech recognition, if not quite yet up to Star Trek standards, and portable tablets for recording and reading data, to just touch the surface. But, if anything, we are less capable than we were in the 1960ís when it comes to propulsion systems. Again, I ask why?

One reason, of course, is that we have lacked a leader with the vision to make it happen. No Camelot. No Kennedy inspiring us and challenging us. No sense of national (or international) purpose. If someone would make returning to the moon a priority, or set a goal of a manned-mission to Mars, it could be done. We are much more capable of a manned-Mars mission today than we were of a manned-moon mission in 1961.

Cost is certainly a factor. A manned mission to Mars (or even the moon) would make a big dent in the budget of the U.S. government, though almost certainly a smaller dent than the current missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there is no reason why one government or country should bear the whole cost. For years, NASA has been half-heartedly looking for a less costly method of achieving LEO (low-earth orbit). It had not had much success. (On the other hand, a private space craft recently almost managed the task as it neared LEO in its test flight.) Why has NASA failed? Likely because it is in the interest of its major suppliers that economical LEO systems not be developed. Want to launch a satellite into orbit? Use off the shelf technology. It works. Itís cheap for big business because the technology has already been developed. But itís expensive.

Cheaper systems have been designed and in development. But it seems just when one project shows signs of promise, the company merges with another and the project is killed.

We live in a society that demands instant gratification, a society that requires new stimuli every few seconds. A society that wants to know what the benefits are before the money is spent. If I were to push for a manned mission to Mars, the first objection would be "why? What good will it do us?" The answer is a great deal of good. However, what is really being asked is "What benefits will it be to me, today!" People look back to the moon program and wonder how it has benefited their lives. I wonder too, although I am certain that even the knowledge gained, without any practical benefits, was worth the cost. But I know there must have been practical benefits, too. The computer Iím using at this moment probably wouldnít exist yet, or be as affordable, if it were not for the space program. My Atari 800 which I bought over twenty years ago is more powerful and capable than the computers used on the command module or LEM (lunar module). Until recently, the space shuttles used Ď386í compatible computers which were obsolete for home use more than ten years ago.

The problem is, I donít KNOW what benefits that we enjoy today are a direct or indirect result of the space program. Iíve never found a book, or even an article, that spelled out the benefits from our space endeavors. But even if there were no direct benefits, the space program inspired hundreds, no, thousands of young men and women to follow careers in technology. Careers that have, in turn, led to benefits in our lives that are beyond measure.

What needs to happen if we are to become a type 2 civilization? We need more innovation: a lower-cost method to LEO. We need a purpose: a goal that is both challenging and attainable, such as a manned Mars mission. We need public support that is world wide not just from one nation. How do we get that? By spreading the word. The space program is probably the most significant program supported by the U.S. government. But not enough people know that. They have not been given the facts. Some people feel we should solve our problems at home, first. There is no doubt that we should be doing more for the homeless and the hungry. There is no doubt that more money should be spent fighting AIDS. And, unfortunately, there is no doubt that money and resources must be spent fighting the evil of terrorism. But all of these expenses are just giving a man a fish to eat. It feeds him for a day. The space program will eventually teach a man how to fish. It will allow him to feed himself, every day.

[One thing you can do to support space exploration is to join the Mars Society (www.marssociety.org). Unfortunately, at $50 US per year, membership is a little expensive for me right now.]

Copyright © 2004 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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