A New Decade and Infinite Possibilities
The outset of the last decade was met by a mixed sense of hope and dread. Some of us were convinced that the world as we knew it, our transportation, our communication, our energy, the bulk of our infrastructure then (as it is now) controlled by computers, would fall victim to the ever-publicized Y2K bug and come crashing down around our ears. The Dot-Com bubble was at its peak as venture capital continued to pour into and feed an explosion of commercial growth in the Internet. That bubble would burst by March, however, with an estimated loss of $5 Trillion in market value. Still, things stabilized after a time of adjustments.
Before the close of 2000, the Human Genome Project produces the first available assembly of the genome, promising quantum leaps in medicine; Expedition 1 moves in as the first resident crew of the International Space Station, a US-lead, international effort in new space-based research and promising advances in medical and materials technology and serving as a beach head for all other points in the solar system; And as California suffers the first of two years of rolling blackouts and the notorious ILOVEYOU computer worm tears its way through millions of computers worldwide, NASA prepares for another series of Mars launches including Mars Odyssey, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Phoenix Mars Lander. Clearly, the emphasis at this point is Mars. Among the policy makers at the agency, it’s taken for granted that our nearest neighbor in space, the moon, is nothing more than a celestial backwater, a dead end not worthy of any serious consideration or funding for human exploration, and lunar robotic space flight is all but completely stymied by a mars-centric culture. In the decade of the aughts, missions to the moon flown by non-US entities outnumber NASA’s by 2 to 1. Within NASA, missions to Mars outnumber those to the moon by 3 to 1. During that entire ten-year period, NASA sent only 2 spacecraft – arguably but a single mission since they flew literally on the same rocket and shared many objectives.
But oh what a difference a single decade makes. The day we entered Y2K America’s only space transportation system was a space shuttle that had proven itself far less capable and safe than the capsule-based system it replaced, leaving humans stranded in the purgatory of low earth orbit; the idea of commercial human spaceflight – the vehicle through which we would finally realize the painfully elusive goal of affordable access to orbit – was barely a dream; and we still operated under the delusive notion that water – critical for making any manned, off-earth venture affordable – found in the lunar rock samples gathered by Apollo astronauts was mere contamination from earth. On that day the machines, infrastructure and vision for establishing a permanent human presence on another world were no nearer our grasp than they were at the outset of the space age four decades earlier. The wheels of progress in space had gotten hopelessly bogged down. But today? Today is a very different day.
We enter this new decade vastly better equipped than the last. The dust of ignorance has been wiped from our eyes, and we can clearly see a fact that, in one fell swoop, brings within our reach the permanent human settlement in space that once evaded us: the moon is not the barren wasteland it was once believed to be. We can indeed live off the land, as it were, because we now know it to harbor the raw materials we need. The lunar surface contains ample amounts of water for drinking and for conversion into air for breathing. This singular and very recent discovery was a game-changing event! It meant that the round-trip travel time between earth and our first outpost could be placed at 6 days rather than the year it would be for Mars; a fact that, in turn, enabled the commercial sector to participate. And it is the commercial sector that is key to sustaining human space flight, because it reduces the cost so dramatically.
Space travel is no longer the one-dimensional construct it was. The emergence of commercial human space flight brings with it the financial and technological agility so desperately needed for the advancement of human exploration as a whole. The civil and commercial human space flight sectors work increasingly in concert to achieve, together, our new goals in space.
And with new goals have come a change in the technology we’ll use to carry them out. In an ironic turn of events, the space shuttle is being supplanted by a much-advanced version of its predecessor, the capsule. Even neglecting the glaring deficiencies in safety suffered by the shuttle, it’s a change that had to occur since the shuttle is unable to travel to the moon or any place else in the solar system. It was never designed for such a flight.
Both NASA and the private sector now have their own designs for a capsule. And despite what you may have read, they are not mutually exclusive nor will they compete with one another. Each has a distinct and important mission.
NASA is building the Orion and Altair spacecraft. Similar in concept to the Apollo Command Module but with greatly advanced systems and double the crew capacity, Orion is designed as an interplanetary transport. It will carry astronauts from earth orbit to the moon and beyond. Once it reaches its destination, the crew will transfer to and descend to the lunar surface via Altair, itself conceptually similar to the Apollo Lunar Module but also with pronounced advancements over its predecessor. Together these vehicles comprise the next-generation deep space exploration system. Their point of departure is earth orbit, but how do they get from the surface to orbit? That’s where the commercial sector comes in.
A company based in Hawthorne, California named SpaceX is taking up the task of producing the vehicle that can carry both cargo and crew to orbit. Its Founder and CEO Elon Musk, who also co-founded Paypal, has long carried a deep passion for human space flight and realized the importance of reducing its cost. Using his own money, he began developing the Falcon series of rockets as well as a companion spacecraft called Dragon. After several successful flights of the smaller Falcon 1 rocket, SpaceX is now preparing for the maiden launch of its Falcon 9, which will go on to regularly deliver cargo to the International Space Station and has the ability to carry crew as well when NASA gives its approval to begin development of the additional systems for Dragon necessary to support humans, such as the crew escape system.
Here for the first time we see civil and commercial space working together, providing different but complimentary systems that support the overarching goal of putting people on another world. The private sector provides transport to earth orbit and the logistical support surrounding that leg, and the civil sector provides the advanced systems needed for crew transport to the final planetary destination. It’s a beautiful symmetry.
So now that we’ve turned our sights to the moon, now what? Exactly what regions of the moon are we to explore first? And what will be the basic needs to be met for such an outpost?
Recent discoveries have uncovered water in prodigious amounts both in and around the Cabeus crater at the lunar south pole. Extraction of that water from within the interior of Cabeus and surrounding craters presents technological challenges we’ve not yet faced. First is the simple matter of descending into a crater. It’s never been done, so it will be necessary to develop new — or modify currently-existing, earth-based — technology to perform that task. Second is the extremely cold temperatures to be found inside the craters. At approximately -370 degrees fahrenheit (-223 degrees Celsius), they are the coldest regions we have yet to encounter in the solar system. Fortunately, however, we can get our feet wet (pun intended) on the simpler task of extracting water from the much more accessible and warmer areas near the crater rims.
But there may be an alternative — or additional, depending on how you look at it — source of lunar water. Less than three months ago, the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft took the first picture of what’s been termed a “skylight.” Having long been suspected by lunar scientists as a fairly common structure on the moon, a skylight is an opening to a lava tube. Vulcanism on the moon died out billions of years ago, so these tubes have spent the intervening eons vacant and hollow. In places, their roofs have collapsed, exposing the interior, and it may be possible that the same mechanism that deposits water into the cold traps within craters in the lunar polar regions has also left water here. Possible advantages provided by skylights are that they can be found at much lower latitudes, lending to better line-of-sight communications with earth, and that they could serve as natural shelters against solar storms, which can deliver intense doses of radiation.
As important as water and oxygen to the outpost will be power. Given that a single lunar night lasts for two weeks, solar cells are clearly not a viable source of energy; therefore, nuclear power is a must. Already NASA is working on the development of such a system, along with new building construction techniques, lunar surface vehicles for transporting astronauts between them, and many other technologies that will be necessary for sustaining a lunar outpost leading to a settlement. And here again, the commercial sector will be capable of providing logistical support, thereby reducing cost in much the same way it does with arctic bases on earth. As that commercial presence in space increases, so does the demand for jobs. Speaking in relative terms, we’re headed for a population explosion in space, made possible by a hand full of dreamers, of bold entrepreneurs willing to put their hard-earned fortunes at risk to realize the dream of a multi-world civilization all of us have imagined for so many decades.
As with previous decades, we enter this one with the same mixture of hope and dread. We’ll have our times of difficulties and adjustments, but we also have one thing that previous times failed to produce: a real shot at the final frontier — not just for an elite few, but for the common man. Recent discoveries, unparalleled relationships forming between public and private sectors and a change of destinations would all seem to signal the next chapter in history. We’ve opened a new decade, plotted a new course, and the possibilities are infinite.