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The Space Age is not over
July 22, 2011 - Stephen Browne
Well the space shuttle landed for the last time Thursday, and the atmosphere among space buffs is like a funeral.
Not so fast. The Space Age is not over, not by a long shot.
Yes, the phase out was badly planned. There is no successor to the shuttle and our astronauts will have to hitch rides with the Russians for a while if they want to go to the International Space Station. But the point is, they can hitch a ride. Other nations are in the game.
The end of the shuttle era is cause for nostalgia, but not for mourning. The shuttle was always a compromise design and carried an awful lot of archaic technology that couldn't be upgraded without scrapping the whole thing and starting over. There is already a next-generation shuttle, the unmanned X-37, and it's operational. You just don't hear about it much because it's being used for some... discrete purposes.
Now men like Burt Rutan and Richard Branson are taking the first steps in privately-funded space exploration. It's a rich man's toy for now, but then so were the airplane and the automobile.
We aren't about to abandon space, because too much of the world economy depends on satellites in near-earth orbit for communications, navigation, weather forecasting, resource monitoring, and yes military purposes. Mentioning that last may be distasteful to some, but satellite observation has a huge role in keeping the peace in the nuclear age by insuring nobody can launch a surprise attack.
It's also true there haven't been any manned expeditions to the moon in decades. Nor are expeditions beyond the moon in anything beyond the brainstorming stage at present. That's OK, the moon and the planets are still there, and we've got lots of robots roaming the solar system.
I grew up reading science fiction stories set in 2011 - oh who am I kidding? I grew up reading science fiction stories set in 1970! Weren't we supposed to be way beyond where we are by now?
There's a couple of reasons for that. One is the economic lead time. We had a good idea when this would all become possible from a technological and engineering standpoint, we just hadn't considered how much it was going to cost.
For another, back before the first manned space flights, science fiction authors and early space advocates always assumed we'd build space stations in orbit first, then go to the moon from an orbital base.
In retrospect, I think the SF authors were right. President Kennedy's bold challenge, "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth" was an audacious response to the political embarrassments of early Soviet achievements in space, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
And what a bold move it was! The goal was achieved, within the decade limit Kennedy set, but nonetheless too late for him to see the triumph he'd envisaged.
But the fact is, to date all the economic return from our presence in space if from earth orbit. That's where the return on the investment is so far, and that's where the next wave of exploration will set off from.
Yes government investment got us there, prompted by concrete military reasons and abstract motives of national prestige. But now space is generating huge returns on the original investment and I'm betting a new age of space exploration is dawning, the age of the merchant adventurer.
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