It has often struck me that the astronautical vision of humankind reaching for the stars should rightly be seen as one of our species' most significant -- and potentially most successful -- attempts to define what we are and what our place is in the universe.
It is an idea competitive with any of the great religious or political systems of the past -- what modern commentators call a "grand narrative". Perhaps it most closely resembles the ferment of the 18th-century Enlightenment, with its mix of reason, liberation, spatial and intellectual expansion, and optimism. In fact, I suggest that the expanded horizons due to spaceflight will precipitate a 21st-century Enlightenment, with effects running through all aspects of thought and society.
Yet, to the majority of people, manned and planetary spaceflight (as opposed to utilitarian observation and comms satellites in Earth orbit) are still seen as very much a peripheral concern, a rich country's hobby, whose benefits, if any, are only of concern to science. Even the positive discovery of native life on Mars would only confirm what many people already believe.
During the coming year I want to focus on the idea of spaceflight as a successor to the religious and political ideologies of the past, by virtue of the fact that it provides the essential context for our mundane human problems.
Obviously, this has already been attempted a number of times. Marshall Savage offered an inspirational modern reinterpretation of old mythologies in his book The Millennial Project. But perhaps what is needed is something that makes sense to the wider public which is not already enthused by astronomy and space.
Any comment on this subject from yourselves would be welcome.
-- Stephen Ashworth
"The market for space tourism dwarfs any other potential space demand", declared Steven Fawkes in his introductory lecture to a packed meeting at the British Interplanetary Society's Space Tourism Symposium on 10 November 2005. And he concluded: "Space tourism is the key to low-cost access to space."
Other speakers agreed. "SpaceShipOne is the most important thing in space since Apollo 11", was the view of Patrick Collins, an expatriate professor at a Japanese university and long-time advocate of commercial activity in space. To him, SpaceShipOne was "a hammer blow against the false picture maintained by space agencies over the last 50 years".
There was a real sense throughout the day that the long-awaited revolution in spaceflight is now at last under way -- thanks not to George W. Bush or to the billion-dollar budgets lavished on NASA and the other space agencies, but to a handful of guys out in the Mojave Desert who grew tired of waiting for the big bureaucracies to take them to the stars, and to another handful who had the inspiration to sell a spare seat on the Soyuz to some of the world's wealthiest men.
A full report on the day has been submitted to the Editor of Spaceflight magazine.
By now we have all had time to digest NASA's latest proposals, released in September, for an "Apollo mk 2" or "Apollo on steroids", to return astronauts to the lunar surface around 2018.
There are many specific quibbles any of us could make. For example, it is not clear how the two-stage lunar module will take advantage of lunar oxygen -- surely a one-stage LM capable of multiple trips between the lunar surface and orbit would be a better way to achieve this?
But, technical nit-picking aside, I would say that anyone who wanted to comment publicly on the new Moon programme should focus on its goals.
The world is suffering from a pressing practical need for the serious development of space. This, and not pure science, is the reason why we should return to the Moon.
That development has two aspects: commercial passenger spaceflight, and solar power harvested in space. The first is needed in order to continue the growth in new high-tech industries that will compensate the developed world for the flow of lower-tech jobs to developing countries like India and China (as Patrick Collins has often argued). The second is needed, obviously, as a source of large-scale industrial power which is minimally polluting, has almost infinite growth potential, and is not hostage to the sort of political manipulation we are now seeing with the supply of Russian gas to Ukraine and Western Europe.
An "Apollo mk 2" will therefore only justify its cost if it makes a serious effort to develop lunar resources and offer commercial opportunities to entrepreneurs.
This means mining lunar oxygen for breathing and rocket fuel, possibly mining lunar water, if that exists, mastering the use of local materials for construction, and developing lunar solar power. The mission architecture must have a clear development path leading to a system whose elements are reusable and which is capable of carrying passengers between Earth and Moon at a traffic level up in the thousands per month.
Obviously this will not happen in 2018, or even 2028. But we need to see a definite vision of continual progress in which a programme which absorbs billions of dollars annually will eventually spawn a diverse economy which generates more wealth than it consumes.
There must be a clear financial trend line which shows an operating break-even point at some definite time in the future. Otherwise we are left with a repeat of the original Apollo, but without even the cold-war justification for urgency.
When political conditions change, such a purely "science, exploration and inspiration" Apollo will certainly be cancelled as abruptly and as shortsightedly as was the original.
My promised Spaceflight article on ESA's Mars design study has been held up. I suspect pressure from ESA to suppress it. We shall see ...
I wrote another, similar, account of the design study at the same time as the Spaceflight article, and used it as the launch pad for some general considerations about the way in which Europe ought to go in space. This is available as a neatly printed 40-page booklet, entitled Europe's Footprint on Mars: Brief Encounter, or a Match Made in Heaven? On the back cover I wrote:
"Will Europe ever be able to send astronauts to Mars? Is ESA's 2004 design study for a manned Mars mission a realistic piece of planning, or is it a false start? Has ESA focused its ambitious Aurora programme on the right goals, or does Aurora take the hard road into space? The answers to these questions will determine whether Europe's official manned space programme acts as a stimulant to growth and progress. Or whether it threatens to become a dead weight holding Europe back."
Anyone who would like a copy, please contact me. A cheque for 5 pounds sterling made payable to "Stephen Ashworth" would be a welcome contribution to printing and postage costs.
Some months ago I circulated copies to all the members of the UK Aurora Advisory Committee (Aurac) and the Royal Astronomical Society's "three wise men", as well as one or two names within ESA itself.
With best wishes to all our associates and supporters for the New Year 2006, the 37th anniversary year of the first footprints on the Moon, marking also the 40th anniversary of the first successful robotic landing on another world, that of Luna 9, on the western shore of the Oceanus Procellarum, about 50 km north-east of the crater Cavalerius, on 3 February 1966.
Astronautical Evolution is an e-mail newsletter devoted to news and comment from an astronautical evolutionist perspective. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa(at)astronist.demon.co.uk.
To Space Age home page