Spacing out

What SF author or fan isn’t interested in human space travel? I’ve yet to meet one.
And so we wonder: will humans ever again travel beyond low Earth orbit?

Forty years ago Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took his small step for [a] man. Three years later, Eugene Cernan was the last man on the moon. Since then, crewed spaceflight, by any and all countries, has been nothing but endless circling of the Earth.

NASA’s current plans call for the space shuttle to be retired next year, after which the U.S. crewed space program becomes—paying for a ride like space tourists. (In theory, NASA will have a new human-rated launch system, Constellation, in 2017.)

And why will NASA continue to send people into orbit? To go to the International Space Station (despite its name, mostly funded by NASA), the orbital facility whose mission all too often appears to be getting itself completed. The ISS, whose on-orbit assembly began in 1998, with construction expected to extend until 2011—may not be operated beyond 2015.

So how many of us believe NASA’s official forecasts of a crewed moon landing in 2019? What about a crewed Mars mission … ever?

Many experts are skeptical.

Consider the July 19th Washington Post opinion piece by Michael Griffin, former NASA Administrator. It begins:

What is most striking about this 40th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon is that we can no longer do what we’re celebrating. Not “do not choose to,” but “can’t.”

And goes on to observe:

The United States spent eight years and $21 billion—around $150 billion today—to develop a transportation system to take people to the moon. We then spent less than four years and $4 billion using it, after which we threw it away. Not mothballed, or assigned to caretaker status for possible later use. Destroyed. Just as the Chinese, having explored the world in the early 15th century and found nothing better than what they had at home, burned their fleet of ships.

Only last September, the United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee (aka, the Augustine Committee, after its chairman, retired CEO of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin), expressed its own skepticism. The Washington Post article is headlined:

Mars and Moon Are Out of NASA’s Reach for Now, Review Panel Says

The Washington Post headlines the committee’s final conclusion, released October 22nd, as

Manned NASA efforts are at a “tipping point” on funds

Tipping point as in “put up more money, or forget about human spaceflight.”

Conventional wisdom has it that the U.S. went to the moon in Cold War competition with the Soviets. We won. Game over. Which begs the question: will new competition—with, say, the Chinese, Japanese, or Indians—remotivate the U.S.? I see no evidence of that (but then again, a case can be made those other programs are less than serious).

Larry Niven famously observed,

The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!

Will the threat of big rocks from the sky motivate us? Not based on the evidence. NASA’s budget for tracking Near Earth Objects seems flat-lined around $4M per year. That’s million, with an m.

How about private enterprise? Things like the Google Lunar X Prize and space tourism? I’m slightly optimistic that these will help humanity reclaim much of what we threw away. But can private enterprise make investments beyond what national governments can (choose to) afford? Can private enterprise take on projects of many years’ duration? Can private enterprise take us, say, to Mars? In a century, perhaps, when corporate budgets grow to exceed today’s national GDPs. But within my lifetime? I don’t see that happening.

I want to be wrong—about everything I’ve just written.

I want to believe humanity has not forgotten how to explore. I want to believe humanity still knows how to take risks when the reward—there’s a whole freaking universe out there!—is so big. I have to believe SF writers will continue to inspire the public to have faith in—to demand!—a future that is at least as big and bold as the past.

Come on, NASA/ESA/JAXA/Roscosmos/CNSA/ISRO: prove me wrong.


Edward M. Lerner worked in high tech for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president. He writes near-future techno-thrillers, most recently Fools’ Experiments and Small Miracles, and far-future space epics like the Fleet of Worlds series with colleague Larry Niven. Ed blogs regularly at SF and Nonsense.

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