Worlds Enough, and Time
Write down this date. The human adventure off the Earth has begun in earnest.
In a triumph of free enterprise, a private corporation has successfully sent a supply ship to the International Space Station.
We knew this day would come. In his 1968 motion picture, 2001: A Space Odyssey, visionary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick showed us a Pan-Am flight to an orbital space station. For those too young to remember, back in the 1960s, Pan American Airways was a major commercial air line. Pan-Am ceased operations in 1991. But before that, following the release of Kubrick’s movie, they had been accepting reservations for flights to the Moon.
The reality so far is much less grand, but the longest journeys begin with a single step. Since 2009, newly-appointed NASA director Charles F. Bolden Jr. has advocated encouraging commercial enterprise to replace the canceled U.S. space shuttle program. Without a shuttle, America and the world are dependent upon Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry personnel to the space station, and uncrewed Progress rockets for supplies. Russia had an exclusive lock on flights to ISS. No more. On May 25, 2012, at 12:02 p.m. Eastern Time, a private spacecraft funded by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk docked with the International Space Station, carrying a shipment of supplies. The new Dragon spaceship from SpaceX can now supplement Progress supply flights, and, within three or four years, is expected to carry up to seven crewmembers at a time.
This is not the first commercial spaceflight. On October 4, 2004, the 47th anniversary of the first Sputnik launch, the Ansari X Prize was won by a privately-designed and constructed manned spaceship. The X Prize offered ten million dollars to the first non-governmental organization that could send a manned reuseable craft to the edge of space, defined as an altitude of 100 kilometers or 60 miles — and then do it again, within the space of a few days. The winning craft, SpaceShipOne, was designed by legendary aircraft developer Burt Rutan, and funded by eccentric billionaire Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. Branson and Rutan have gone on to create Virgin Galactic, a company that will soon be providing joyrides into space for a mere $100,000 or so per ticket.
We are about to step off the shores of our little world into an enormous ocean. Are we ready for it?
This is just the tip of the rocket. Commercial space flight is about to become an everyday reality. Bigelow Aerospace and Virgin Galactic are separately planning a series of private space stations, including orbital hotels. The X Prize Foundation has offered a number of contests, including awards for privately-funded lunar missions. There is even serious work being done on space elevators (you read that right) which could reduce the cost to reach orbit to a tiny fraction of what it is today.
There is precedent for the progression of a government-funded exploratory program that eventually morphs into a wildly successful commercial enterprise. In 1492, Queen Isabella of Spain provided underwriting and financing for the expedition of Italian entrepreneur Christopher Columbus, who wanted to find a sea route to the Indies, a group of islands off the coast of China. He failed in his endeavor; the American continents got in his way. Spain and other nations — primarily France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, and eventually England — saw opportunities in the New World. Over the next two centuries, they funded countless expeditions of discovery and conquest, to the Americas and elsewhere. Eventually, the matter was taken over by commercial interests, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The idea that government-funded research cannot lead to an economic bonanza is clear folly.
We can (and should) discuss what these governments and these explorers did right, and what they did wrong. The history of European conquest should be used as a cautionary tale, and we should learn what lessons from it we can. This situation is hardly the same — we are unlikely, for instance, to encounter natives we can dominate or subdue, at least not for a very long time (we’d most likely need interstellar capabilities for that). But we will soon be venturing onto pristine worlds to despoil for our convenience. Should we treat them with respect, or strip mine them for their platinum?
Should we even be doing this? What is there to gain? In an immediate practical sense, there are many thousands of high-paying jobs. Certainly companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and Bigelow (and there are many others) think this can be a profitable venture. Is “profit” motive enough to explore new worlds?
There is a poetry to it as well. The adventures of Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary, Lewis and Clark, and countless others, happened more for scientific knowledge and for the romance of it than for monetary gain. When George Mallory was asked why he would lead expeditions to climb Mount Everest, he famously replied, “Because it’s there.” What human being can honestly not be moved by a look back at the Earth as seen from lunar orbit in the iconic Apollo 8 photograph?
We hardly know enough to do this. When President John Kennedy set us on the course to the Moon back in 1962, we had no idea whether humans could survive in space. We had only the vaguest notion of how to accomplish the task. We didn’t even know if the Moon could support the weight of a human being. But a vibrant young president committed us to the course, and we did it. We did it for base purposes as well as noble ones — to show up the Soviets as much as to raise the human spirit. In the course of doing it, we developed new technologies, learned new things about the universe we lived in, and gained a better appreciation of the precious and special nature of life in a universe that had grown unimaginably vast.
We hardly have the morality or wisdom for it. We will make mistakes, sometimes horrendously tragic ones, as the sixteenth century Conquistadors did when encountering the civilizations that already inhabited the American continents. Is that reason enough to not reach for the stars?
We cannot know the consequences of exploring this enormous ocean around us. Nevertheless, we are on our way to doing so, and men like Branson and Musk and Rutan are not easily turned aside. It’s going to happen. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” the poet Robert Browning wrote, “or what’s a Heaven for?” Indeed: if we are not to explore the Heavens, why are they there? Why were we given the capacity to dream, and to accomplish what we dream? What are the Heavens for?
- Dragon capsule makes history with space station landing (vator.tv)
- SpaceX rocket launch marks the beginning of the private era in space (pri.org)
- International Space Station Successfully Snares SpaceX Dragon Capsule (PHOTO) (blippitt.com)
- Commercial space race gets crowded behind SpaceX (theneteconomy.wordpress.com)
- When a Dragon mated the space station (blogs.discovermagazine.com)
- Race for profit launched in space — Stuff.co.nz (stuff.co.nz)
About dcpetterson (187 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson