Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.
It’ll be an occasion to look back, but also forward to the future of manned spaceflight.
There’ll be talk of a new dawn for space exploration. Expect particular reference to private companies, such as Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and XCOR, competing to pioneer space tourism.
There’ll also be some wild speculation about the race to get to Mars.
In a sobering essay for Quillette, Philip Backman exposes the whole enterprise to the hard vacuum of reality.
Let’s start with this space tourism business, where almost all of the progress made so far has been in regard to sub-orbital as opposed to orbital flight:
“Many may not be aware of the mighty gulf that exists between sub-orbital and orbital flight. To the uninitiated they seem very similar; a suborbital ride is over quickly but both make it to space. A closer look, however, reveals the shocking difference. Suborbital vehicles reach a speed near one kilometers per second at the time of rocket engine shut down, and because of this, they remain in space for only minutes. For low altitude orbital flight, at that same point, speed is only slightly shy of eight kilometers per second.”
And that’s not all – Backman explains that because the ‘energy of motion’ is proportional to the square of velocity, “suborbital spacecrafts can only achieve a paltry one to three percent of the kinetic energy acquired by other similar sized vehicles propelled into a continuous circular orbit”.
It’ll certainly take a ‘giant leap’ before we commercialise proper manned spaceflight.
But what about Elon Musk and his SpaceX initiative? The Falcon Heavy rocket – a partially reusable orbital launch system – had a very successful maiden flight only last month. As pictured on every front page in the world, its payload was a Tesla Roadster (another one of Elon Musk’s groundbreaking products) – with a dummy astronaut as its ‘driver’. All brilliant stuff – and brilliant PR – but, as the cynics point out, NASA put a car on the moon in 1971 together with some real astronauts to drive it.
The Roadster is on a trajectory to Mars, symbolising Musk’s ultimate ambition to colonise the red planet. But what would be the point of that? Contrary to what you may have heard, our own planet has plenty of uninhabited space – vast swathes of territory with no permanent residents. Here, I don’t even mean Antarctica, but countries such as Australia and Canada – or even Spain (Monday’s UnPacked features research showing that only 13% of the square kilometres that comprise Spanish territory are inhabited).
One might object that these places are just too cold or hot or arid or or remote for anyone to want to live there. But compared with Mars or anywhere else off-planet they’re paradise – and, furthermore, infinitely easier to get too. Even if we screwed up our planet through climate change, it’d still be preferable to the rest of the solar system, which is a dump quite frankly.
There’s a lot of space-based science to be done of course; but very little of it requires scientists in situ. The big exception is the study of the effect of space travel on the human body – a wonderfully circular justification for manned space flight.
It’s already the case that machines – i.e. satellites – are doing most of the science that can be done in space (and also making all of the money to made there). With ongoing advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, it should be obvious that unmanned systems are the only rational way to explore and develop the ‘high frontier.’
Unfortunately, reason doesn’t always come to the fore in these matters. Referring to dead-end programs such as the Space Shuttle, Backman exposes the weird effect that manned spaceflight has on the political mind:
“I can’t help but get the impression – I’m sure others have – that these post Apollo programs have survived, not on their own merits, but as enterprises carried forth by the momentum of Apollo and an overwhelming nostalgia for the greatness that once was. Apollo was such a striking visual symbol of American greatness that to completely end human spaceflight would be tantamount to declaring a deliberate retreat from greatness to the world. Enough people advocate for the illusion, and so it continues.”
Could the same zombie momentum propel us to Mars (or at least cause us to waste billions of dollars in the attempt)? There’s a real danger it might – especially if it turns into a race between nations to get there first.
Only last week Donald Trump said the US would be going to Mars “very soon”.
Here’s a different idea: the nations of the world should sit down and agree an indefinite moratorium on manned spaceflight – and let their robots scramble for the stars instead.