When I said this on Twitter today, it struck up a lot of support. It actually came out as a throwaway comment in Wednesday’s Astroengine Live when I was having a rant about the misconception that space exploration is a luxury and not a necessity. If I was debating this now, I’d probably be somewhere between “necessity” and “luxury”. On the one hand it would be nice to have a very wealthy space agency, carrying out unimaginable science throughout the Solar System, colonies on the Moon and Mars, mining asteroids and setting up an interplanetary transportation system. On the other hand, none of these things will be possible unless there is huge (global) public support and political will…
But then I thought back to Robert Zubrin’s words about financing a huge manned Mars mission (Apollo 2.0 style) to save the economy. After all, investment in private space contractors, education and training would be the mother of all stimulus plans. Rather than throwing $nth billions into failing banking systems, sick economies and damaged infrastructure, do something new with this cash, create a utopian Mars effort, get man onto the Martian regolith within 8 years. Hell, we can do that!
Yes, we can do that, I’d even go so far as saying that if the cheque was big enough, we could mount a manned expedition to Mars in five years. Now that would be impressive.
But this won’t happen. Although the world’s space agencies are doing their thing in space, each one has their own agenda. Surely it would be advantageous to team up? Perhaps the International Space Station could serve as a blueprint for the future of mankind in space? Each member nation provides their best pieces of kit and most gifted individuals, pushing man deeper into space than previously imaginable. This sentiment was shared by Jeff Foust when he spoke to Astroengine contributor Nina Lincoff yesterday.
“There are these capabilities that exist around the world and if we partner with them than we can do more of these complex missions and experiments on top of what we already want do. By developing with a space program that is sophisticated enough and with enough potential helps to elevate you as a country. If you cooperate with NASA, you enhance your own prestige.” — Jeff Foust
Although there are plenty of collaborations going on around the world, there is little motivation to push for an “International Space Ship” any time soon. This is primarily due to funding and international politics. Some things just don’t change.
So what could motivate the world’s nations to unite in a massive space exploration collaboration? Why should the first man on Mars be American or Russian or Chinese or European? Why can’t it be all of the above? This will probably only happen if the NewSpace era is more than just a fad; perhaps companies like SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, XCOR, Orbital Sciences, Boeing, Lockheed Martin will be the trailblazers of a huge emerging industry. Space commercialization is happening now, perhaps it will bring together nations under one flag, the flag of profit. Perhaps this can be done with huge collaborative efforts by international space agencies, governments investing in science and technology, companies being subsidised to provide launch capabilities, orbital solar energy plants, transportation systems and refuelling depots at the Lagrangian points–
When I start talking like this, I have found that I draw huge criticism from an unlikely crowd of people. I receive emails and comments from space enthusiasts, not unlike myself, accusing me of being an “idiot”, “naive” or “British” (yep, somehow “British” was used as an insult because “you lot don’t have a space agency“, for some reason this gave me no right to comment on US efforts in space. Oh do calm down and get to the back of the queue). So this brings me to another point. Yes, there are many “dreamers” when it comes to space exploration, and I consider myself to be one of them. I don’t have all the answers to the current issues for NASA, ESA, Rocosmos or the British National Space Centre (take that Mr “You Don’t Have A Space Agency”! It may not be well known, but at least we’re doing something), but if we begin stifling people who have an enthusiasm for space exploration just because it doesn’t “fit” with popular opinion, the very people who might be space exploration visionaries will turn away from the thing they do best: communicate the excitement of scientific endeavour. Just because us “dreamers” may not be “right”, it doesn’t mean we’re wrong either.
I’m sure Elon Musk was accused of being a dreamer at some point when he said, ‘I know, I’m going to launch stuff into space and make it cheap!’
As for stimulating humanity to take that next leap of evolution into space, it needs to be a global effort and we need to see humanity spreading to other worlds as a necessity and not a luxury. I can guarantee that if the single biggest threat to mankind (apart from ourselves) is spotted through a telescope in the future, we’ll really wish we had a thriving space travel infrastructure so we can deal with the ever present threat of an asteroid impact. Therefore, who needs to stimulate the economy when you need to save a civilization? The truth is, there are far greater things at stake than the credit crunch, we need to be prepared to participate in this Solar System of ours to ensure the survival of our species.