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Beyond Columbia: is there a future for humanity in space?

On the first day of February 2003, the space shuttle Columbia started its return to Earth at the end of a sixteen-day mission. While the mission had apparently performed "without a hitch," the shuttle suffered a series of failures in the last minutes of reentry, followed by a cutoff of communications with Mission Control around 10:00 AM (CST). Forty miles above Texas, the shuttle exploded and killed its crew of seven astronauts almost seventeen years to the day after the Challenger disaster, an incident high in the minds of those looking on.

In the wake of the Columbia crash, observers asked whether human space flight was worth the risk. While this wasn't a surprising opinion in light of the tragedy, the weakness of the voices replying in the affirmative did. It wasn't only the experience of watching the tragedy unfold on television that left those voices so weak. The truth was that in the eyes of pundits and the public alike, human space travel had become a luxury, a stunt, a boondoggle rather than a legitimate field of endeavor, let alone the door to the future.

Of course, technologies are typically oversold at the beginning of their careers, commonly leading to much disenchantment before they go on to redeem their promise. Space travel, like so many of the technologies that preceded it, will also go on to redeem itself. There will be a future in space--one for human beings rather than just their machines, which is contrary to what scientists, futurists, and pundits since J. D. Bernal have suggested. However, few seem to agree at present. The reasons why the appeal of space has palled are well worth exploring in any serious consideration of the future of space activity, if only to avoid repeating past errors.

One reason may be the all-too-fashionable perception that human beings must endlessly adapt to the technology that others have created--as though technology is some force of nature, external and alien to them and entirely beyond their comprehension or control. The widespread logic today is that if something can be done, then it must be done, leaving one to either embrace the tidal wave of technological change outright or brood about how things have become out of control. There is no middle ground--no sense that choices can be made and that human beings need not be the tools of their tools.

Such a position is fundamentally disingenuous and, over the longer haul, dangerous in that it denies a capacity for coping with technology's challenges. The belief in such an inability, a condition of permanent and irremediable future shock, has created a breakneck pace of change. This short-term outlook is inherently at odds with the extreme long-term perspective in which progress in space must be considered given the environment's extraordinary technical demands and the sheer largeness of the task. The conquest of space could never have proceeded so quickly as some of its enthusiasts once imagined, but the approach to space has also not been as sensible as it should have been. For all its possibilities, the space program began as a stunt, and the high points in the history of space flight look like little more than a succession of stunts. Sputnik's launch on the fortieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution was an attention-grabbing commemoration intended to give the Soviet Union a propaganda victory by technologically upstaging the United States. It succeeded only too well, and a stunned United States replied with a stunt of its own, firing Explorer-1 into orbit and beginning the space race in earnest.

The Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin into space, but American astronauts Alan Shephard, Virgil Grissom, and John Glenn shortly followed him. President John F. Kennedy announced that by the end of the decade the United States would put a man on the moon. The Soyuz capsule, expected to carry cosmonauts to the moon, never did so. And after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon first, there hardly seemed to be any point in continuing such efforts. No manned craft returned to the moon after Apollo 17 in 1972. The program having come to an end, and the moon apparently unoccupied, the Soviets--who had just launched the world's first space station, Solyut-1--seemed on the verge of making a real effort to establish a lunar colony by the end of the decade. However, the United States' development of a space shuttle placed political pressure on the Soviet program to produce the equivalent, forcing it to abandon the lunar mission. The International Space Station (ISS), today built by the United States with Russian help, had initially been presented as a free world counter to the Soviet lead in space stations. As Karl A. Leib wrote in his essay, "Entering the Space Station Era" (which appeared in the 2002 collection of Space Policy in the Twenty-First Century), the ISS "even had a good Cold War name, Freedom."

The United States and Soviet Union were by no means the world's sole spacefaring states, but the efforts of other countries were comparatively minor and their manned efforts nonexistent. China, which could easily be the next country to put a human into space, promises to be no different; its plan to put a human in space by 2005 and travel to Mars simply screams of another stunt. Overall, the tendency has been to develop highly visible projects that cost too much and perform too little with no follow-up. In the case of the Apollo missions, one of the last complete sets of plans for the Saturn V rocket were said to have been given to a Boy Scout recycling drive. And while this may be just an urban legend, the fact that it even circulates at all is telling. The space shuttle, far from taking humans to the moon again, is restricted to an orbit of no more than a few hundred miles above the Earth. In the course of a mere 113 missions, two orbiters have been lost, which is a disastrous performance overall and far short of its initial promises, The costs of the ISS have been legendary, compelling continual cutbacks in the station's mission and capabilities as the price tag rises, while the U.S. shuttle program jeopardizes the future of the ISS. The Columbia disaster represents an enormous setback for both programs, but it wasn't by any means the first setback.

However, it must be remembered that the stunts produced their share of useful spin-offs and held out the promise of something more to be accomplished, and space programs have had some meaningful and lasting successes. The Hubble Telescope captured incredible images of the heavens, shed light on the birth of the universe, and helped discover the hundred-odd planets beyond the Earth's star system. One would suppose that such sights and discoveries would have increased the enthusiasm for space projects, but to date this hasn't been the case in any measurable wag (Indeed, the probes dispatched to Venus and Mars may have actually dampened enthusiasm by showing that Earth's nearest neighbors aren't about to become Earth-like anytime soon, and that they weren't home to exotic, extraterrestrial life.)

In addition, space has become an area of practical activity. Certainly, visions of asteroid mining and space industry haven't come to pass, and even space tourism, excepting the occasional tours of Dennis Tito, hasn't been a serious proposition. Yet the communications, navigation, and Earth-monitoring satellites girdling the globe are a major part of the modern world's infrastructure, and the commercial space sector is large and growing. While it has been frequently oversold, the Satellite Industry Association nonetheless reported over $86 billion in satellite industry revenues for 2002 alone.

However, this doesn't change the fact that the original promise has failed to materialize. The space activity that thrives today is an annex of the super-information highway. Today's pertinent space efforts look in at the Earth rather than out to the rest of the solar system, let alone beyond it. At some point, the Space Age simply gave way to the Information Age, and it has seemed in recent years that the final frontier wasn't outerspace but the virtual terrain of the Internet--a change visible even in fiction. In the pilot to the Star Trek series, the heroes keep the ship's log on a yellow note pad as they careen about the universe at warp speed. Even James Blish's novel, They Shall Have Stars, which is astonishingly prescient in its depiction of a future where the U.S. space program has withered, describes humankind's establishment of posts all over the solar system by the early twenty-first century. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence is a thousand years away.

Today, by contrast, a new car contains seventy computers or more, and information technology experts like Ray Kurzweil claim that computers with human intelligence will appear in a generation's time. These advances hardly raise an eyebrow, while talk of a piloted mission to Mars in the next twenty years may as well be science fiction, for better or worse. Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is often credited with capturing the spirit of the space program in the 1960s. However, Tom Pynchon's 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow, with its demonization of all things rocketlike, seems to represent better what has happened since. Taking their cue from him, the cyberpunk novelists of the 1980s may not have had anything like the same level of antipathy, but it was cyberspace, not outerspace, they looked to for the most part.

The path to the future was once lit by the tail fire of a rocket streaking to heaven and beyond, but the rocket-ship has been forsaken for the microchip. Indeed, future generations may well laugh at the degree to which the displacement occurred--the promises pinned on networks of computers, and the expectations not of what space exploration might help to accomplish in a century or a millennium but of what their mere existence would bring about now. Certainly, other enthusiasms are waiting in the wings--nanotechnology to name one--but the lull makes it all the more imperative to think seriously about the future of space flight.

To some extent, such a debate has already begun. As a conduit of information, space has become a cornerstone of U.S. military superiority, and defense ministries around the world are in serious discussion about going beyond this to the weaponization of space. Space-based weapons can play a role in ballistic missile defense schemes, assist militaries in pursuing "information dominance" by controlling the enemy's ability to use satellites for gathering communications and intelligence, and even transport troops or attack targets on Earth from orbit. Planetary defense against asteroids, meteors, and comets is gaining the recognition it is due. The requisite technologies aren't so exotic or farfetched as they may seem, a fact obscured by the extreme difficulty of the ballistic missile defense mission offered today as the principal justification for the weaponization of space. As science fiction author Larry Niven observes, anything worth doing in space could be a weapon. Designs for armed satellites, spacecraft, and space stations date back to the earliest years of the Space Age. Both the United States and Soviet Union developed a range of antisatellite missiles during the Cold War. Progress in this area would have likely gone further than it did had the competition between the two countries not led them to agree to hold back on militarizing Earth's orbit.

Consequently, the militarization of space is only in its beginnings and its long-term course is still very much in question given the real technical and political problems it raises. Having a life of its own, weaponization has been accepted by many as inevitable, but whether it should be is another matter, as it is potentially expensive, destabilizing, and likely to offer fewer returns than its proponents suggest. However, the debate is ongoing, which is more than can be said for civilian ventures in space, even though this could prove to be the key to making space a zone of peace. The dangerous tendency today is that security is becoming the sole consideration of national policies on space, and the sky is viewed as little more than military high ground. This tendency may be more powerful in the wake of the Columbia disaster. There are calls to scale back or dismantle programs and expenditures on civilian space activities, squandering opportunities too long ignored, as investments in military space efforts expand apace. Civilian space activity, aside from providing its own benefits, can help to counterbalance such tendencies by compelling governments to adopt more balanced policies in regards to space and by helping to create a more robust, extensive, and hopefully survivable infrastructure in space.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Part of the problem is that modern societies may have already reached and passed a point where, however worthy a project may be, they are so taxed by their own complexity that they can scarcely bear any additional costs, as Joseph Tainter suggests in The Collapse of Complex Societies. With every step more costly, and individual and institutional patience diminished by the compression of time, it becomes infinitely easier to find reasons not to do something than the reverse--to pursue what the sociologist Zaki Laldi termed avoidance strategies in his book, A World without Meaning. Nondefense-oriented space ventures are particularly vulnerable to such avoidance strategies, given their big-ticket cost, lack of a strong supporting lobby, and principally long-term justification. After all, many of the activities imagined by futurists are a long way from being economically viable and providing the kinds of rewards that may make them appealing to governments or businesses that are seriously attempting to solve a problem or turn a profit. The natural resource shortages most severely affecting the world (like fossil fuels, water, farmland, and biodiversity) won't be alleviated by the ores of the asteroid belts. The baroque quality of many proposed schemes--like building massive solar collectors in orbit that would beam the energy generated back to Earth in the form of microwaves--has only meant setbacks. The advantages of low-gravity environments for delicate separation processes or the growth of better crystals haven't sufficed to attract industry into orbit.

The solutions to Earth's problems will need to be found on Earth, but this isn't to say that a significant expansion in the quality and quantity of civilian ventures in space will never be viable within our lifetimes. At the very least, reducing the cost of space flight is a logical course of action. The construction of an affordable and reliable space plane would be a good first step. And given the rising demand for satellite launches to support tasks ranging from environmental research to guiding lost drivers to carrying an expanding volume of digital communications, this would be an eminently practical, even profitable, activity. Space elevators, or skyhooks, present another option, which also help ameliorate a growing problem with space garbage, especially if the skyhooks can be used to replace satellites in some functions, such as communications or Earth observation. An elevator capable of lifting payloads to geosynchronous orbit may also be surprisingly affordable. One estimate suggests a $10 billion price tag, well within the limits of what the private sector could afford, for a system that could cut space launch costs by a factor of a hundred dollars or more per pound. (Of course, it is necessary to be wary of the spectacular claims of unproven technology.)

With launch costs down, scientific research could widen. It may also be possible to construct platforms capable of servicing satellites in orbit or assembling space systems shipped up in parts while developing the core of an industrial base around which more ambitious efforts could grow. It may become practical, even advantageous, to manufacture some products in orbital conditions, then ship the product back down to Earth (especially if nanotechnology comes into its own), or to assemble, in orbit, systems shipped up in pieces. Over the long haul, if the human species is to grow and expand, it can't ignore the energy, resources and space of the rest of the solar system; and, indeed, the rest of the universe is too vast to ignore, as Koustantin Tsiolkovsky well knew. While settling people on other worlds to alleviate population pressures on Earth, scattering the human seed as an insurance policy against disaster or simply seeing the greater universe may not be a sound proposition today, although the economics of such an endeavor could fundamentally change.

Of course, predicting major technological change is always chancy, and technological developments in space have in particular defied the efforts of futurists. It is reasonable to think that launch costs could be cut by 2020, opening the door to scientific and commercial activity in orbit, but it is also reasonable to think that, despite the commercial rewards of such an endeavor, the effort will simply not be made. The performance of a technology is as important as how it is used, and alternative scenarios are equally plausible. Yet whatever course is actually pursued, simple survival will require that humanity stop asking what it can do for technology rather than what technology can do for it, while reaffirming the primacy of reasonable human ends over the outer limits of technological possibility.

Nader Elhefnawy is a graduate of Florida International University and a doctoral student at the University of Miami. He has written on the uses of space, and his most recent piece was published in the spring 2003 issue of Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College.
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Author:Elhefnawy, Nader
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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