TCS Daily

Choices in Space

By Kenneth Silber - February 4, 2003 12:00 AM

The immediate focus in the aftermath of the destruction of the shuttle Columbia is on mourning the lost astronauts, determining what went wrong, and figuring out near-term questions of manned space exploration: When will the shuttles fly again? Should the astronauts on the International Space Station come home on a Russian Soyuz capsule instead of a shuttle?

However, the tragedy also has helped shift public attention to broader questions about space: What are the proper goals of the space program? Who should go to space? How should they get there and where should they go? Should humans be in space at all?

Space experts and enthusiasts have debated such questions - often intensely - all along, but public and political attention has been sporadic. As a result, it is not widely recognized that there exists a remarkably broad range of options and ideas for the future of space exploration.

Below, I will sketch out a number of schools of thought about how, where and whether space exploration should proceed. These prospective paths are matters of emphasis and are not entirely mutually exclusive; nonetheless, choices and tradeoffs among them must be made. I will attempt to describe the schools of thought in a reasonably objective way while noting my own (not set-in-concrete) preferences at the end.

Astronauts to Orbit. Under this approach, the top priority is maintaining and enhancing the capability to place astronauts into Earth orbit. Other objectives, such as robotic exploration of the solar system, are performed simultaneously, and some preparations are made for longer-term objectives such as human exploration of Mars. Government development of next-generation manned orbital vehicles is seen as vital. This approach, in short, is what NASA has been doing, focusing much of its funding and attention on the space shuttles and the International Space Station.

Send Robots. This is the path favored by a substantial portion of the scientific community. Human space exploration would be downgraded in importance, and the deployment of scientific space probes throughout the solar system would take top priority. Advocates emphasize the practical advantages that remote-controlled robots have over humans in space exploration (such as not needing food). Physicist Robert Park, a proponent of the robotic approach, has argued that sending astronauts into low Earth orbit is not even worthy of being called space exploration.

Send Tourists. A number of analysts of a libertarian bent, such as engineer-blogger and TCS contributor Rand Simberg, express a degree of skepticism toward government space efforts generally, and particularly toward NASA's manned space projects such as the shuttles and the space station. Instead, emphasis is placed on the prospects for orbital tourism and other space industries. Government is pressed to cease obstructing or competing with private space projects. Establishing property rights on extraterrestrial bodies, for some proponents of private space exploration, is high on the list of priorities.

Humans to Mars. Sending humans to Mars in the near future should be the overriding goal of the space program, according to proponents such as Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin. Private-sector missions to accomplish the same goal also are welcomed. Under this approach, emphasis is placed on the red planet's potential for permanent human settlement. Sending humans to Earth orbit or the moon is considered secondary or even diversionary. Robotic missions to Mars receive considerable priority, but should be focused on preparing for human missions and certainly are no substitute for them.

Back to the Moon. Planetary scientist Paul Spudis and others have called for a strong resumption of lunar exploration, including the development of permanent human bases on the moon. This approach is advocated as more practical than near-term manned Mars missions, and is seen as a vital intermediate step in preparation for any human activity on the red planet. The moon's economic and scientific potential is emphasized, with possible uses including tourism, energy development, and placement of astronomical observatories.

Harness the Sun. This approach would develop space solar power, whereby solar energy is collected in space and transmitted for use on Earth. This would mean a sweeping reorientation of the space program to address environmental problems. The solar arrays would be placed in Earth orbit or on the moon, and proposals for such systems have been presented by experts such as aerospace consultant Peter Glaser and physicist David Criswell. Space solar power would involve sending humans to space, though automation would be used insofar as possible. The systems might have relevance to development of solar-powered spacecraft for human exploration of the moon or Mars.

Go Nowhere. There are always political pressures to scale back expensive space projects in order to address any number of pressing needs on Earth. Opposition to space projects on environmental grounds has emerged as well in recent years. A general scaling back of both robotic and manned space exploration has little organized constituency, but it is in a sense the default option. It could occur in a gradual way if efforts to develop and maintain space technology fail.

As for my own leanings: Go Nowhere, I think, would be a disastrous setback for humanity, and Astronauts to Orbit has turned out to be a recipe for stagnation. Send Robots and Send Tourists hold considerable attraction, but in anything like their pure form would shut down much of space exploration's potential. Back to the Moon and Harness the Sun have received less attention than they deserve. Humans to Mars would be my first choice. Putting human exploration of Mars at the center, but including elements of the other approaches, could make for a highly dynamic space program.

In any event, now is a good time to think about these things.

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