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Printed 2014/08/01 12:02AM

OT: Space Exploration and the Future of Humanity

2012/12/03

I am old enough to remember watching the Apollo 11 landing in 1969 as a young child. Before and after that, I can remember drawing pictures of Saturn V rockets blasting off, with smoke billowing on either side. It is hard to describe how much so many people were inspired by the race to the Moon, watching every launch and mission with great interest.

The race to the Moon, from 1961 to 1969, motivated many young people to go into science, engineering and mathematics. It was strongly reinforced with President Kennedy’s “Moon speech” on September 12, 1962 at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Here is an excerpt of the speech, with the most famous paragraph:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, and the race was over. Even though the primary motivation was really a Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, there were many technological spinoffs and other benefits for the rest of the world. Many people assumed that we would keep on going, with Mars being the next logical destination. There were existing plans to do just that, including one from Werner von Braun. Unfortunately, NASA was not able to move forward with implementing any plans to continue to do any manned exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Now, over forty years later, we still have not had any manned missions beyond low Earth orbit after Apollo 17.

There has been a lot of good work done since then, both with manned missions to low Earth orbit and with unmanned missions to Mars and other parts of the Solar system. Still, I feel we have lost so much time compared to where we could have been. Of course the question is, why does this matter?

In the words of Carl Sagan:

“Since, in the long run, every planetary civilization will be endangered by impacts from space, every surviving civilization is obliged to become spacefaring–not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive… If our long-term survival is at stake, we have a basic responsibility to our species to venture to other worlds.”

In the words of Stephen Hawking:

“I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.”

In the words of Isaac Asimov:

“There are so many benefits to be derived from space exploration and exploitation; why not take what seems to me the only chance of escaping what is otherwise the sure destruction of all that humanity has struggled to achieve for 50,000 years?”

Neil deGrasse Tyson has a good explanation of the importance of space exploration here.

Personally, I have believed for a long time that mankind has a limited window of opportunity to expand into space. This window first opened when we initially developed the technology and engineering prowess (along with the necessary economic resources) to actually launch missions outside of Earth’s atmosphere in the late 1950’s.  The window will close when we no longer have the desire or ability to to expand into space. The likelihood of this happening increases as time goes by, as world population increases and we eventually begin to exhaust the finite resources on the planet.

People can argue about whether or when that will ever happen. I for one hope that it does not happen, and we actually start moving out of low Earth orbit while we still can. I am a lot more optimistic about than I used to be, due to a number of emerging private efforts that seem to have a lot of promise.

The first is SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk. He is also in charge of Tesla Motors and SolarCity. The three of these companies are sort of designed to work synergistically together to help advance Elon Musk’s vision for the future. He is quite serious about establishing a permanent colony on Mars in the relatively near future, hopefully in the next 12-15 years. SpaceX has shown real results with their successful cargo deliveries to the International Space Station (ISS).

The second effort is Planetary Resources, whose goal is to bring the solar system within humanity’s sphere of influence by exploiting near-Earth asteroids (NEAs). The idea is to mine these asteroids both for their high platinum content and for water (which can be converted to high-energy rocket propellant: hydrogen and oxygen) that is outside the gravity well of a planet. This would dramatically reduce the cost and complexity of later flights to the Moon, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt. Planetary Resources has a number of billionaires from the high technology industry as investors, and they seem quite serious about what they are doing.

Space Advocacy Resources

The National Space Society

The Planetary Society

The Mars Society

The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must

Martian Outpost: The Challenges of Establishing a Human Settlement on Mars

Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization

Mining The Sky: Untold Riches From The Asteroids, Comets, And Planets

The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space 

Hopefully you found this topic interesting, as a short break from all SQL Server, all the time.


Filed under: Space Exploration Tagged: Mars, Space Exploration
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