The recovery of manned spaceflight from the vicissitudes of the Shuttle programme continued in 2008, though at a barely perceptible rate. Hopefully the pace will pick up in 2009 and beyond.
Total man-days in space in 2008 come to 1,581.77, if my figures are accurate. This continues the recovery of the last few years, from a low of 794 in 2004, but does not yet challenge the record peak of 1746 man-days in the year 1997.
If the ISS partners can up the baseline ISS crew size from 3 to 6 this year as planned, this of itself will generate 2200 man-days in space per year, to which can be added extra time logged by visitors and independent Chinese flights. But with people already talking in terms of the ISS having a lifetime of only about a decade in its completed form, despite the massive investment that has gone into it, there remains a question about whether even such a modest level of activity is sustainable beyond about the year 2020.
In terms of seats to orbit, 2008 saw 37 people carried on 4 Shuttles, 2 Soyuz and one Shenzhou craft. This is again a recovery from the low in 2004 but some way below historical peaks -- 11 launches in 1985 with 63 astronaut seats to orbit in 9 Shuttles and 2 Soyuz.
It is interesting to note that 15 Shuttle flights were planned for the year 1986, and approximately 19 (!) for the year after that (see John Geenty, "Flights of fancy", Spaceflight, January 2005, p.26-32). Over 100 people would have flown to orbit per year. But in the event the nine Shuttle launches in 1985 remain the record launch activity for this or any other manned space transport system, and neither Orion-Ares nor Shenzhou-Long March nor a manned ATV-Ariane seem likely to challenge this record.
Surely the biggest issue in spaceflight in 2009 and over the next few years will be whether entrepreneurial NewSpace companies can establish themselves. Only they have the business model that can support the "routine" access to orbit which the Shuttle was once supposed to offer. Only then will we see the charts of human activity in space embark on a sustainable upward trend.
It is reported that Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo made a first successful test flight on 21 December, reaching an altitude of about 5 km, and that SpaceShipTwo should be ready for captive flights late in 2009.
Meanwhile the prospect of privately owned vehicles resupplying the ISS continues to firm up -- see Paul Rincon of BBC News, 30 Dec. 2008, "Private firms to haul ISS cargo", discussing the work of SpaceX (Falcon 9 rocket / Dragon capsule -- first demo flight scheduled for 2009) and Orbital Sciences Corp (Taurus 2 rocket / Cygnus capsule -- first demo flight scheduled for fourth quarter of 2010).
A scenario seems to be developing in which the private supply of cargo to the ISS, suborbital space tourism and orbital space tourism (continuing Space Adventures' run of clients to the ISS) together constitute the foot in the door for regular access to space on reusable vehicles owned by companies interested in expanding their markets.
Possible near-future wild-cards include Bigelow Aerospace expanding the orbital accommodation available, and Space Adventures or another operator embarking on private lunar flyby flights in an uprated Soyuz or Dragon capsule.
With these activities beginning to slowly develop the space tourism and manufacturing markets, they in their turn should eventually stimulate development of more efficient vehicles based on spaceplane rather than ballistic missile architectures.
It is very much to be hoped that British spaceplane entrepreneurs will be in a position to benefit from such a positive feedback, and that ESA and the BNSC will have the sense to help to nurture them for this breakthrough.
It is this process of public/private collaboration and diversification of markets away from the exclusive focus on government prestige and science -- and not ambitious and vulnerable official programmes to explore the Moon and Mars -- that will consolidate human passenger access to space and make it an integral part of the economy, repeating and vastly extending the revolution that has already taken place in robotic satellites for telecoms, Earth observation and satnav.
This will in turn make eventual access to the Moon and Mars more affordable, more broad-based and itself permanently sustainable.
We can only watch and wait -- and encourage officialdom at every opportunity to include the NewSpace sector in their plans.
My brother sent me a copy of James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia for Xmas (Penguin Books, 2007).
Lovelock seems to have discarded his earlier career as a scientist, and found new employment as an Old Testament prophet of fire and brimstone.
Humanity has "ceased to be just another animal and begun the demolition of the Earth" (p.8). We are "unintentionally at war with Gaia" (p.196). One of her life forms, "disputatious tribal animals with dreams of conquest even of other planets, has tried to rule the Earth for their own benefit alone. With breathtaking insolence they have taken the stores of carbon that Gaia buried to keep oxygen at its proper level [I think he means CO2] and burnt them. In so doing they have usurped Gaia's authority and thwarted her obligation to keep the planet fit for life; they thought only of their own comfort and convenience." (p.187). Other animals and plants, no doubt, spend their lives thinking only of Gaia?
I find it astonishing that the creator of the Gaia concept should fail to see the logic of his own scientific metaphor.
Gaia theory regards the totality of Earth's biosphere as a single super-organism, capable of emergent behaviour such as regulating the surface temperature and chemistry within certain limits. One fundamental characteristic of living organisms is their propensity to reproduce. Given that Earth is only one planet among a very large number of lifeless worlds, the spreading of life from its world of origin to other planets must be regarded as a prediction of Gaia theory.
But other planets are not as easy to live on as is Earth due to their relatively hostile surface conditions and unsuitable make-up. In addition, the space between worlds is very hard to cross, though it is believed that bacteria may occasionally make the trip on meteoroids randomly ejected by major impacts, and that martian microorganisms may have arrived safely on Earth in this way. But for multicellular organisms, space is impossible to cross.
Therefore, almost all the potential ecological niches of the Galaxy are only accessible to a technological species capable of spaceflight and civil engineering in space. The evolution of such a species must therefore also be considered a prediction of Gaia theory -- or rather, since that species (ourselves) has in fact evolved, the prediction must be that Homo sapiens will attempt to spread from its world of origin to take root on others -- vastly multiplying its aggregate population in the process.
This is not a new idea -- I first encountered it in a book by Michael Allaby (a past collaborator with James Lovelock).
The theory cannot of course predict the odds on whether we will be successful. What it does is to draw attention to a potential future multiplication of ecosystems in the Galaxy, supporting intelligent as well as microbiological life, spreading through the vector of technological civilisations -- the process which I am calling Astronautical Evolution.
Clearly, a large number of artificial ecosystems may be originated from the same natural one as well as from each other. Their creation will necessarily be several orders of magnitude faster than that of their parent gaian natural system. Finally, a civilisation which produces one artificial ecosystem will have gained the capital and expertise to enable the creation of many more under similar conditions within its local planetary system.
These considerations lead us to speculate that, once this process has begun, the rate at which artificial ecosystems are constructed will be greater than both the rate at which natural ones evolve from scratch and the rate at which ecosystems (both natural and artificial) collapse or are destroyed. Under these conditions, the ecosystem population of the Galaxy will over time come to be dominated by artificial ones.
So, Professor Lovelock, where does this "at war with Gaia" idea come from? We are the planet's reproductive system! Isn't a little fever normal in pregnancy?
Happy New Year!
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