January 3rd, 2010

forums, me, non blog

[FORUM] What do you think about manned space travel?

Long-time readers of this blog know that I'm quite interested in space. I actively use the "space science" tag, among others, and I've created a space category for my Twitter account (@rfmcdpei) to keep me up to date on what the probes are doing (three hours ago Voyager 2 was "12 hrs 44 mins 07 secs of light-travel time from Earth").

Once upon a time I was upeset that humanity didn't have a bigger manned space presence than it did: I wanted the Mars colony and the Venus orbital laboratory that a 1960s-vintage space travel book promised we'd have. I don't mind this at all now. The great moon race of the 1960s, along with the vast investment in everything from space stations to the Space Shuttles that followed, was rather premature. The technology necessary to support manned space travel, everything from life-support systems to computers, barely existed and was available to only two countries, the United States which could easily afford it and the totalitarian Soviet Union that didn't care about the cost. Once the Americans landed their astronauts on the Moon, the rationale behind big showy manned space travel vanished and for the next thirty years astronauts have been limited to Earth orbit while the big discoveries have been made by the robot probes. There just wasn't the ability to do anything more, the O'Neill cylindrical habitats being far more advanced than anything the technology of the time (or of our time) could handle, while the economic rationale of the space-based solar power satellites that would have been the habitats' reasons for existing was and is dim, very dim. I'd like constellations of O'Neill habitats and space-based solar power satellites, don't get me wrong, but we just can't build them and won't be able to build them for some time.

I hold France and China responsible for the new, viable era of manned space travel. These two countries, for their own oddly convergent reasons, opted to become militarily self-sufficient from their former superpower partners, this self-sufficiency leading them to develop indigenous missile technologies which could be, and were, upgraded to commercially viablle space launchers. This desire, the BBC notes, served the future ESA nicely.

Ariane grew out of the failed Europa rocket programme of the late 1960s.

Europa, you will recall, was a UK-initiated project for which the British, the French and the Germans would each provide a stage.

Only the British contribution - derived from its Blue Streak missile - worked on each of the four launches.

When the Brits walked away, the French and the Germans decided to stick with it.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Franco-German alliance had a strong incentive to succeed.

They'd developed a couple of telecommunications satellites called Symphonie; and when it became clear Europa could not launch them, the two nations approached the US to get a ride on one of its Delta rockets.

The then US President, Richard Nixon, agreed but, keen to protect the market monopoly enjoyed at the time by the Intelsat organisation, told the Europeans that Symphonie could not be used commercially. They could use them only as technology demonstrators.

"Guaranteed independent access to space" is now one of the core missions of the European Space Agency, which has led much of the Ariane development down the years. And you can understand why.

The European Space Agency's Ariane series of rockets after 1979 quickly went on to become commercially quite viable, in much the same way that China, after its brief flirtation with manned space travel under Mao in the 1970s, ended up producing its own commercially viable Long March series of rockets. Neither program, it should be noted, bothered with manned spaceflight for a generation. By the time that these actors proved the space industry to be economically viable, post-Soviet Russia went on to follow suit, while among other state actors Japan, India and (soon) Brazil and South Korea went on to develop their own more-or-less indigenous space technologies. These states and state-like entities, notably, didn't go into space with the intent of immediately putting people into space. They went into space with the intent of making money and developing the viable industry models that saved space from the power posturing of the Cold War. Space is just a business now.

Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, after unmanned space travel has proven itself profitable, manned space travel may finally become economically viable thanks to the development of the space tourism industry, which seems to be capitalizing on the interest of any number of people in experiencing spaceflight, even if only for brief periods of time. I'd go. Established spacefaring countries like Russia with sufficient interest in capitalizing on this market have already demonstrated their interest, and I can imagine other spacefaring powers following Russia if space tourism does work out. Eventually, space tourism will progress from brief hourly-long suborbital flights to extended residences in hotels, and the sphere of the human presence in space will slowly expand as the economics and technology permits.

There is going to be a second Moon Race, this one probably Sino-American, but I'm willing to bet, oh, $C20, that a permanent manned presence will lag long behind the second round of manned landings. (Any takers?) In the meantime, I expect manned missions to Mars and perhaps some nearish asteroids in my my lifetime, but nothing more than that. Going to Mars or Ceres is cool, at least. What is there to attract significant non-scientific interest to Mercury, significant enough to bring humans? Robots are just so much more survivable: no human can hear the keening of Titan's winds, after all.

(No, I don't think that mining of anything is going to be relevant, mainly since the value of the materials that can be transported to Earth is risible and there's no way short of a space elevator or a dinosaur-killer impact to bring the masses of potentially useful metals in the asteroid belt down to Earth. Yes, maybe emergent space colonies might make things easier, but don't count on them to mature into usefulness for a while.)

What do you think about manned space travel? Is it doomed to be far more restricted in scope and space than robotic space travel? Or am I being pessimistic? Am I missing something?