An Orion III, Pan Am's first Space Clipper, fe...

An Orion III, Pan Am’s first Space Clip­per, fea­tured in the science-​​fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Because It’s There

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.

The Star-Child into which Dr. Bowman is transf...

He was mas­ter of the uni­verse and did not know what to do next; but he would think of some­thing.” — Arthur C. Clarke, 2001

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?