So the space shuttle is headed for Social Security. In the archives. Out to pasture. Hitting the early-bird special at Denny’s. Several other cliches.
Heavy sigh. America’s space program is taking a step backwards, and I’m pretty bummed about it.
The reason I say so is that the shuttle was supposed to be the next step, man. We sent people into space, and we left footprints on the f*****g moon. The logical next step was to stay there. Gradually build up a presence. Make it better and more useful. Find ways to make it pay.
And for a while it looked like that was actually happening; we used the shuttle to build the International Space Station, and to conduct repairs on the Hubble Telescope. Robots went to other planets (as an exploratory vanguard, so we hoped). People kept making talk about asteroid mining and solar-panel energy transmission and space elevators. And so on.
But it wasn’t really happening, and the signs were there for a long time that it wasn’t. The shuttle, once in service, stayed pretty much the same over the years. The ISS is neat, but limited, and not getting less so. And the public’s appetite for more kind of ebbed over the years, both from complacency over past successes and fear of future costs.
So it’s not like we couldn’t see this coming. And we did see it coming, but now that it’s actually here and concrete, it sucks. No Buck Rogers. No boldly going. No first contact…
So what’s it going to take to get the ball rolling again? Well, I have a few thoughts.
Traveling beyond Earth orbit is very expensive these days. And, unfortunately, political concerns and bureaucratic pinballing are going to keep it that way. So while technical accomplishment, exploration, and scientific discovery are all great, they aren’t enough to keep us in space all by themselves. We can get that right here on the blue marble, after all. The way I see it, there are only three things with the potential to get us back out of the two dimensions of Earth’s surface.
One, overcrowding. The planet’s holding more than six billion unhairy bipeds, and there’s only going to be more. Eventually it’s going to get really crowded, and not just in the third-world shitholes. We could use an outlet planet to send some of our tired, our poor, our huddled masses yearning to breathe canned air in low gravity, some extra real estate to expand into.
[And in case you think I’m serious, no. This is an extremely unlikely scenario. Population control via extraterrestrial emigration requires a large infrastructure already in place, and any meaningful reductions in the Earthbound population would probably require transport for many thousands at a time. Periodic wars, famines, and disease are much more practical for this purpose.]
Two, resources. All those breathers are gonna need stuff. We need stuff to make that stuff. If we start running out of that stuff here, maybe we can get it somewhere else. So we’re gonna need to get there. And back, too.
Three, survival. You know as well as I do that somewhere out there is a big meteor with all our names on it. How our names got on it, I’ll never know. Some freak geological occurrence, I guess. A million space-monkeys with a million space-typewriters. That kind of thing. Still, it’s out there and it’s coming this way. It’s going to get here sooner or later, and it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if we weren’t all still here when it does. Same goes for supervirus outbreaks and nuclear war. A backup planet just seems prudent.
The problem is that none of these imperatives is any more likely to put the bug back up our collective asses, until its too late. Overcrowding and shortages are long off, and somewhere else too. Global catastrophe? Sounds far-fetched. And what good is it if I can’t be on the planet that doesn’t get smacked?
Still, once that meteor shows up, or the molybdenum runs out, or one of our population-reduction kinetic military actions gets a little out of hand, then we’re gonna be sorry.
Our only hope is that private space entrepreneurs like SpaceX or XCOR Aerospace will keep improving their expertise, and maybe even mount a venture or two of a non-terrestrial nature. That might be enough to spark the excitement over space travel that used to motivate us. And if not, when crunch time gets here just hope that they’ve got the know how and the tools to do something about it.
It still sucks, though. No getting past that.