Manifest Destiny in Space – July 17, 2011

With the last flight of the Space Shuttle program, everyone is giving the fleet a cheerful and tearful sendoff and wondering what comes next. For the moment, we’ll rely on the Russians to service the International Space Station and watch as the Chinese expand their presence in and above Earth orbit. No doubt the U.S. will continue to send un-manned missions to the inner and outer solar system. But what is the next big step for the U.S. space program?

With the current debate over our $14 trillion national debt and the spending cuts and tax increases needed to address it, clearly—at least to me—space exploration will take a back seat to mandated spending on entitlements and necessary spending on our military and infrastructure for the foreseeable future. The taxpayer-funded ride may be over.

I’m not exactly sad about that. Reflecting on NASA and its achievements, I harbor a dark thought: What if the U.S. computer industry had been dominated and directed by a similar large government organization over this same period? I think the IBM 360 mainframe, Fortran, and COBOL would have gathered the same loyal adherents and dedicated funding as the Atlas and Saturn rocket systems. They would have persisted as our main computing tools until a major change in policy brought out the VAX or PDP-11 minicomputer, which would be reaching its end of service in 2011. The average person would only interface with a computer in large organizations, such as banks, major companies, or government departments, and then only through a text-based terminal. Graphic user interfaces and personal access to the internet would be dreams of the future. Our cars would still be mechanically carbureted, and our cell phones would be the size of lunch boxes.

It was entrepreneurs like Hewlett and Packard, Wozniak and Jobs, and a thousand others that brought us the chip-based microcomputer. But they didn’t do it in response to a government mandate (“a computer in your palm by the end of the decade”) and didn’t ask for billions in funding to begin development. They took processors that were already being designed for machine actuators and put them in a box with a screen and keyboard. It was nerd candy: an unhandy, complicated appliance of limited usefulness that required the buyer to think in new ways and usually learn a new language.1 But thousands of people like me bought those first machines, the Apple II, Commodore 64, and the TRS-80. It wasn’t because we needed them so much as we were fascinated by the idea of owning a computer, a machine that did whatever you told it. And we sensed that it would someday be important and make a real change in our lives.2

The space program has proven that you can get to orbit and beyond on a large, expensive hydrogen-oxygen rocket, or an airplane-shaped hybrid riding on an external fuel tank that itself is boosted by solid-fuel rockets. Unlike the Saturn, which was fire-once-and-drop-in-the-ocean, the Shuttle was supposed to be reusable. But it wasn’t really reusable like a car or an airplane. To land the Shuttle and take it back into space took months of rebuilding, refinishing the ablative tile surfaces, re-assembling the orbiter with its fuel tank and boosters, and then prepping and training for a particular mission.3

If humankind is going to continue in space, we need a better reason than government mandate and a better approach than taxpayer funding. We need entrepreneurs like Burt Rutan and Richard Branson to find easy and sustainable ways to get us to orbit and then offer them at a reasonable price that will support our active presence and use of near space. But they won’t do it unless there’s some kind of demand. Putting communications, weather, and spy satellites in orbit is a meager market, easily served by NASA and the European Space Agency.

I know some people would pay a high ticket price—perhaps a year’s salary—for just one ride into space; the same way I once paid a lot more for an Apple II and its components than I ever would have paid for the most expensive typewriter. I suspect that bridging the gap between this early “enthusiast’s vote” and regular use of space travel will require a period of trial demonstration and public feedback, the same as it did for microcomputers. Space travel will have to demonstrate compelling features—like going from Los Angeles to London in two hours on a parabolic sub-orbital flight, or manufacturing pure crystals and high-strength alloys in zero-gee orbital factories—before the average person will pay for it out of pocket. In the same way, chip-based computers had to offer interactive games, information access, instant communications, and personal productivity before the average person would bother to own a computer.

Of course, the computer industry was helped along by Moore’s law: the truism that the capacity and capability of computer chips doubles about every two years. It has not yet been shown that any similar law will govern the chemistry of jet and rocket engines. This is why I can hold a powerful computer in my palm today, but the family car still doesn’t fly, and I don’t get to soar in the sky with a rocket-pack. But development of low-cost, personal alternatives to the billion-dollar Space Shuttle will take the effort of an entire industry of researchers and entrepreneurs and go through many cycles of trial and error. We’re only starting this process.

Still … I believe it’s our destiny to go into space, and not solely through huge government programs. There are obvious reasons to get off the planet: to control the local environment and protect ourselves from asteroid strikes and other hazards; to gain new real estate4 and resources; to have some forward base for meeting extraterrestrials, in case they turn out unfriendly. There is also the imperative of our genes.

Humanity is, by and large, a migratory species—not that we follow a north-south pattern like birds; we’re simply aggressive and restless. The majority of us walked out of Africa 50,000 years ago. Waves of immigrants washed into North and South America from Eurasia 12,000 years ago. Waves of invaders washed across Northern Europe from the Steppes during classical times, from the Dorians that flooded down into Greece to the Celts, Goths, and Vandals that plagued the ancient Romans. Waves of Europeans spread out across the Atlantic and around Africa to rediscover the lands and cultures of Asia and establish a new order in the Americas during the last millennium.5 Travel, exploration, the search for something new and better in the next valley are in our blood.6

Maybe not next year, maybe not in twenty years, but we will eventually stop paying government-funded visits to the edge of space and decide to make a permanent home there for humans. It’s what we do.

1. You didn’t exactly have to learn BASIC or some structured programming language to use most of the early microcomputers, but it certainly helped. But even to buy the machine in the first place you had to wade through features and capabilities measured in unfamiliar units like bytes and bits, ROM and RAM. To hook up a printer you had to learn the difference between serial and Centronics interfaces and learn to set a baud rate and a handshaking protocol. The first computers weren’t at all appliances on the level of a toaster or refrigerator.

2. Being a writer, I was already thinking of using a computer to enter and manipulate text. At that time industry was just starting to use word processors—text terminals hooked up to mainframes or massive, expensive machines harboring minicomputers inside bench-like consoles—and I suspected the little Apple II might be used in the same way. I was right.

3. Cost and environmental impact are also concerns. The Shuttle’s liquid hydrogen-oxygen main engines burn cleanly, emitting only steam. But stockpiling and handling these gases in liquid state are a major undertaking. And the solid boosters are fueled with ammonium perchlorate and aluminum powder, which don’t burn as cleanly and are difficult and dangerous to manufacture into motor cores.

4. Most of that real estate will be in tunnels and under domes. None of the local planets offers the possibility of ever walking on grass under an open sky. To understand why, see my blog The Myth of Terraforming.

5. Yes, and some of us also stayed in Africa. For every Marco Polo who went off to find China, there was a settled population of Chinese waiting to be found. But which of them captures our imagination? We read with interest the story of the Joads who packed up and went to California, not their neighbors who stayed and starved under a bridge.

6. It can easily be argued that these successive waves of exploration and invasion usually brought bad things for the indigenous peoples, whether early hominids outside Africa or native Americans in the 19th century. Some even compare humanity to a virus on this planet and fear that we should ever get off it and contaminate space. But we are what we are, however imperfect. For those humans who would wish to see us all removed from the ecological equation, I can only say it’s not a survival trait to vote with those who want to see you dead. I make it a practice never to vote that way myself.