Humanity Needs to Be in Space
Even though Mir will crash to earth later this week, humanity needs to build a permanent human presence in space, return to the moon, and reach for the solar system.
by Jerome F. Winzig
Sometime later this week, Russia will fire rockets that will bring Mir, its 15-year-old decaying space station, down from orbit. Fortunately, however, its fiery demise in the Pacific Ocean will not mean the end of a human presence in space. The international space station, a cooperative effort among 16 nations, including Russia and the United States, is up and running. The first expedition crew has just finished four months in space and the space shuttle Discovery has just dropped off the second crew.
The space station represents the possible beginning of a permanent human presence in space -- the first step in extending the human race's reach beyond a single planet. In spite of its potential significance, however, it gets remarkably little publicity. Manned spaceflight no longer captures people's imagination the way it did when the Apollo program was reaching for the moon in the 1960s. NASA enjoys less support than in the past, and has recently cancelled three prototype programs: the X-33, a single-state-to-orbit spacecraft (SSTO), the X-34- a winged, reusable SSTO, and the X-38, a crew rescue vehicle for the international space station.
Yet the importance of manned space flight is still enormously important. Homer Hickham, the retired NASA engineer and coal miner's son who is the hero of "October Sky," says, "We're not going to stop human spaceflight and we're not going to stop trying to find new and better ways to get into space. There are enormous commercial, scientific, and industrial possibilities out there. If we don't develop them, somebody else will and our country will fall by the wayside, a once-great nation that lost its will to explore and exploit the last frontier."
There are many, of course, who think such ideas are nonsense. They believe we no longer need to send human beings into space and regard NASA's efforts as a colossal waste of money. The truth of the matter, however, is that NASA's dreams and plans are far too small.
We should be reaching for space in a big way. We need a human spaceflight infrastructure that can carry astronauts into orbit cheaply and safely. We should be planning to return to the moon. We need to build a permanent, human-tended lunar laboratory where we can prepare for the future conquest of the entire solar system. We should be preparing for that conquest with a robotic investigation of the entire solar system.
There are three simple reasons for doing so: resources, protection, and survival.
First, while the doomsday predictions that we would already have exhausted the earth's natural resources by now have not come true, it is clear that in the coming millennia the human race will need more resources than this planet can provide. Further, we have just begun to explore the possibilities that space-based weightless industries might offer.
Second, in the long run it is quite likely that the earth will be threatened by an asteroid collision similar to those that have caused great devastation in this planet's past. Object 2000 SC344 is circling the sun in an orbit that will intersect the earth's in 2030. Paul Chodras, the project engineer for NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office, said last year, "This is the highest probability of impact we have ever calculated for an object." That object is no bigger than an office building. But if it's a rocky asteroid and it hits the earth, the impact could be equivalent to 100 Hiroshima-sized explosions.
Of course, the object could also be an old Apollo rocket booster, in which case it would burn up entirely on reentry. Eventually, however, we are likely to be threatened with a real asteroid collision. If that happens, we'll need information like that obtained in last month's Near-Shoemaker probe, which landed on the 20-mile-wide asteroid Eros. Helen Worth of Johns Hopkins University's applied physics lab, which ran the Near-Shoemaker project, says, "We will have a much better idea of what not to do the next time we want to put something on an asteroid -- like a bomb. And that could prove to be awfully important."
The third reason is assisting the long-term survival of the human race in another way. We have within our grasp today the ability to enable human beings to begin living on other worlds, to enable us to be more than a one-world species. It's a pretty incredible opportunity to ignore.