TCS Daily


The Stronger Horse

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 28, 2003 12:00 AM

The weather in Knoxville wasn't very good on Memorial Day weekend, which means that I spent part of it cleaning house. Most of what we threw away was just junk (unless you're a big fan of Barbie paraphernalia that's seen hard use). But two items hit home.

One was my "International Space Year 1992" t-shirt, with its "bridges between worlds" faux-Socialist Realism logo. The shirt didn't wear well (I have t-shirts twice as old that still look good), but then neither did the International Space Year. At one point, space supporters had high hopes. Surely, we thought, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage - and the twentieth anniversary of the last time human beings walked on another world - would rekindle enthusiasm for space exploration. But it didn't happen. As one wag observed, the main product of the International Space Year consisted of frequent-flyer miles for space bureaucrats.

That, sadly, is a good description of the following decade in space exploration, at least where humans are concerned. The International Space Station doesn't go anywhere, even though it flies a lot of miles. And since the Columbia disaster, its future is cloudy, at best.

The other item I threw away was a laminated poster of Ron Jones' roadmap to space settlement from 1988. It's a flow-chart of the sort that big construction projects use to plan their progress, and it represented the best optimistic estimate, in the late 1980s, of how things could go in the future. By about now, we were supposed to be bringing a new generation of reusable spacecraft online, and beginning a permanent base on the Moon. I hated to throw it away - it'll probably be valuable some day - but it was too painful to look at, and too big to store. Especially the painful part.

To read the poster, and follow the intersecting lines connecting various goals - extracting hydrogen and oxygen from lunar ice, developing long-term closed-loop life support systems, testing orbital solar power plants that could beam power back to earth - is to realize how logical it all seemed, and how little progress we've made in the intervening years. There isn't any followup reusable spacecraft to the Shuttle. An optimist might say that there are several on the drawing board. A pessimist might note that that's where all of them are likely to stay. As for the rest, well, those are even farther from reality.

On the other hand, there is some good news. Gregg Easterbrook's article on Sea Launch in this month's Atlantic Monthly may be a bit on the optimistic side, but Sea Launch is, in fact, doing pretty well at launching commercial payloads in an innovative way for less money. And while we may not be anywhere near a permanent base on the moon, a commercial space company called LunaCorp is planning a mission, and I think they're likely to pull it off. Meanwhile, both Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites have credible programs aimed at taking people to low-earth orbit on a commercial basis. In fact, space tourism, which still had a high "giggle factor" back in 1992, much less 1988, now has real credibility with a lot of people.

Old-fashioned science fiction stories from the 1940s and early 1950s - Robert Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo is a good example - saw commercial space activity taking place in low earth orbit before anyone bothered to go to the moon. This seemed silly when I read it as a kid in the 1970s. But it may be an accurate view of how things will go if the main drivers are commercial, rather than governmental. As Leonard David notes, the Moon is making a comeback.

On the other hand, governmental space activity isn't dead yet, even if it is a diminishing share of overall space spending. Bruce Sterling wonders if India and China will spark a new space race. (I've previously noted one possible surprise in that department). As he says, "India and China are comers with a lot to prove to the world, and especially to each other." Better that they should do it via space competition - which the United States would feel compelled to match, I suspect - than via a shooting war, something they've already tried to no one's delight.

Nor is the United States out of the game where government space programs are concerned. Since the end of the Cold War, the space program has floundered. In part that's because its original purpose, to establish U.S. ascendancy (literally!) during a period of global ideological war, became obsolete. But now we're in another ideological war. While nothing we do will win over the fanatical Islamists who hate us, most of the Islamic world, and even most of the Arab world, is profoundly ambivalent. As Osama bin Laden himself noted, it's human nature to back the stronger horse. So who's the stronger horse? A nation that can settle outer space? Or an ideology that wants a return to the twelfth century? Perhaps President Bush will decide that this is a question that he wants to see asked.
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