Issue 57, 1 May 2010 – 41st Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. The battle for the soul of space, by Stephen Ashworth

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(1) The battle for the soul of space

Stephen Ashworth

Despite all the hysterical cries that the Obama plan will “mark the end of the American human spaceflight program” (Robert Zubrin), and that the cancellation of Constellation is a “devastating” blow that will put America “on a long downhill slide to mediocrity” (Neil Armstrong, James Lovell and Eugene Cernan), the battle is not for or against manned spaceflight as such, but between OldSpace and NewSpace.

To OldSpace, the future must look like the past, and Apollo is the paradigm to copy. But to NewSpace, a revolution is brewing, based on commercial growth.

Listen to how Bob Werb of the Space Frontier Foundation is describing Obama’s plan:

The new vision for NASA is obviously and clearly a huge step forward for the agency and Americans who care about opening space in a real, sustainable and affordable manner. [...] If we follow and build on this plan the US will soon have a thriving commercial space industry with several new spaceships flying to and from space, multiple space stations both government and commercial and tens of thousands of new jobs all across the nation supporting this New Space economy.

This endorsement follows from the Foundation’s mission of “transforming space from a government-owned bureaucratic program into a dynamic and inclusive frontier open to people.” The Foundation adds: “We believe that free markets and free enterprise will become an unstoppable force in the irreversible settlement of this new frontier, and that our world is on the verge of a truly historic breakthrough: cheap access to space.”

What is certain is that if Zubrin, the Apollo veterans and their allies get their way and persuade Congress to force the reinstatement of Constellation, then, whatever brilliant successes the Orion and Altair capsules may yet win on the Moon and Mars, the programme will eventually be cancelled again, leaving little usable infrastructure behind. A war, financial crisis or simple change of president may be sufficient to kill the political support which is the programme’s lifeblood – no veteran of Apollo should be able to forget this lesson.

Read John Hare’s “Scenerio Seven” for a NewSpace view of our return to the Moon by the mid-2030s. After that:

By 2040 or so, there could be excess capacity in the LEO to Luna ships with prices dropping to a marginally profitable level. With the experience gained in Lunar living and frequent spaceflight, it seems likely that National Geographic or Elon Musk could afford to take a modified Lunar cycler to Mars because they wanted to. Lunar companies might well be in a position to sell them their consumables by this time. At this point, it seems likely that many groups could go to many places through the inner solar system for their own reasons, on their own dollar. Once they reach these places, a natural progression of build, prospect, and recycle could hold the permanent resident costs down to something they or their sponsoring groups could afford.

In an article “Losing the will to explore space” in the May 2010 issue of Spaceflight, another Apollo veteran, Walter Cunningham, thinks he is arguing for Constellation when he draws a telling historical analogy with the Ming Chinese, who abandoned maritime exploration and suffered over 500 years of stagnation as a result.

The Ming treasure fleets were marvels of their time, but they were government ships promoting Chinese imperial prestige and science. Sustainable globalisation did not begin until European fleets began to sail in the search of trade routes for a mass market, and new worlds to colonise. The intercontinental economic traffic which they pioneered have made our modern world.

(A more detailed exposition of these views has been published in the July 2010 issue of Spaceflight magazine, p.252-256.)

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