Human spaceflight is one of mankind’s noblest efforts. Despite this, it’s also the most difficult human endeavor to justify. This apparent contradiction is something that plagues each baby-step we make beyond the safety of our atmosphere.
With all the problems in the world considered “more worthy” of the billions of dollars spent on sending a few astronauts and cosmonauts (and taikonauts, sporadically) into space, where’s the incentive to “boldly go”?
50 years ago, when Yuri Gagarin blasted into the unknown, space was considered essential to the future of mankind. Indeed, inside the Cold War pressure cooker, the Space Race was a matter of life and death.
Soviet Russia had beaten the USA into space; a horrendous political predicament for the US government and a massive strategic advantage for the Soviets.
Three weeks after Gagarin successfully orbited Earth, the US responded by putting Alan Shepard into space. Gagarin and Shepard spearheaded a Cold War tit-for-tat culminating in NASA’s Apollo moon landings from 1969 to 1972.
The Cold War clamor for the stars was going on despite rising fears of a nuclear Armageddon, in fact, it was the threat of World War 3 that fueled the Space Race.
50 years on, why are we still restricted to sending humans into low-Earth orbit (LEO)? Why are space programs being cut? Why is there no replacement for the Shuttle Program? Why has mankind become so… introverted?
To cut a long story short: There’s no incentive.
Two things motivate mankind to do great things in space: power and money. During the Cold War, the world’s two superpowers were at loggerheads and one way to beat the opposition was to find the highest ground. This was all about power.
Through incredible ingenuity and bravery, scientists and engineers built rockets to launch men into the ultimate “high ground”: space. Granted, the rocket technology was stimulated by the want to hurl nuclear warheads to the other side of the planet, but to control LEO was to win the hearts and minds of entire nations.
Today, although there has been much hype about the supposed “Space Race 2″ between the US and China, there is little incentive to send humans beyond Earth orbit. Actually, if it wasn’t for the International Space Station, there would be few human spaceflight programs.
Although the motivation for strategic control for space has diminished, that’s not to say space technology has remained stagnant. Satellite technology and robotics have become mankind’s “eyes and ears” in space. Our robotic explorers are “low-risk” in that they can prevent humans coming into harm’s way. Why send a man to Mars when an expendable robot can do it on the cheap?
Stymied by the global financial meltdown and political mismanagement, expensive manned space programs (even expensive robotic missions) are becoming difficult for governments to justify. Despite all the positive government spin on “streamlining” space agencies, the fact remains that the world’s premier government-run space agency, NASA, is suffering.
In Russia, the birthplace of the first man in space, the financial situation isn’t much better. That said, the dependable Russian Soyuz space vehicle will soon be the only ride for NASA astronauts to the space station — with a per seat round-trip ticket price of $55.8 million — an uneasy situation where US politicians have accused policy makers of keeping Russian space workers in jobs while sacrificing thousands of jobs at home.
Other nations and space agencies have human spaceflight desires, such as the European Space Agency, China, Japan, and India, but more time is needed to see if any mature and all suffer from the inevitable changing tides of political ideals.
And yet, tonight is a night of celebration. Yuri’s Night is in full swing and there are over 500 events being held around the planet. There appears to be a genuine global excitement about the exploration of space, but enthusiasm alone can’t push us to the stars.
So, as the Cold War is long gone, and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a Space Race with China, what could possibly incentivize the exploration of space with robots or humans? If knowledge and curiosity were the only driving factors, we would have pushed well beyond LEO years ago.
If power isn’t in the driving seat, then perhaps the burgeoning private spaceflight industry will be able to turn a profit. Money — not power — could be the new motivation for manned spaceflight, but could it be enough to expand the reach of mankind? Will it go beyond space tourism and NASA-funded contracts to resupply the space station? Will orbital space hotels/private microgravity laboratories really “take off”?
The commercial interests in space are far-ranging, but it’s too early to tell if commercialized spaceflight is the answer to pushing us beyond LEO.
So far you may have noticed that I haven’t discussed the benefits of human spaceflight, I’ve only briefly mentioned a few of the factors preventing us from getting off the ground. There are many advantages to human spaceflight that can be measured immediately, others are more long term. But for me personally, I have a similar philosophy to Stephen Hawking (no, not the philosophy that we are going to get slaughtered by aliens): we shouldn’t keep all our eggs in one basket.
All we need is one asteroid to be spotted in the not-so-distant future, and suddenly Planet Earth will be in the cross-hairs. Should this asteroid be big enough — not necessarily an “extinction level” event, just something that could cripple a continent — we’re going to wish we had an in-space infrastructure to deal with the threat before the threat was detected!
Additionally, it would be prudent to have self-sufficient colonies elsewhere in the solar system, just in case the worst happens and Earth bumps into some cosmic buckshot.
We live in a violent universe, and although the inner solar system is enjoying a long period of quiescence, there’s a lot of space rocks out there.
We are a technologically advanced civilization, we’ve sent man to the moon and fired probes into deep space; we’ve collected samples from asteroids and comets, sent satellites to orbit Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and now Mercury; we’ve sent landers and rovers on planetary excursions and now we have a near-complete space station. Isn’t it about time we push deeper into space, not only to address potential asteroid deflection techniques, but send man to the next great destination?
As Yuri Gagarin proved 50 years ago, humans have evolved with a desire to explore. We are an inquisitive race and we have the technology to live in space. The only things stopping us are politics and myopic goals.
In 50 years time, when we look back on the early 21st century, will we remember a crossroads in human history when a surge of commercial spaceflight interests stimulated a new era for human spaceflight?
Or will we see a time when we were too busy with politics, conflict and greed to be bothered to invest in the “luxury” of space exploration?
I’m hoping it’s not the latter.
Image credit: Corbis