Saturday, July 2, 2011

The end of the Space Age?

Wandering through airports this last week, I keep being confronted by the cover of the July 2 Economist magazine, which proclaims “The end of the Space Age.”

Even for the iconoclastic editors of the Economist, that’s a pretty jarring statement. I was born after the first satellite was launched into space and grew up watching first unmanned missions to the moon, and then Apollo 11 and the other five manned missions to the moon. After the American West was conquered, space (as William Shatner proclaimed every week) was the final frontier.

Tied to the last Shuttle launch on July 8, the Economist cover story is pretty unequivocal, suggesting that at most geosynchronous orbit (22,000 miles up) is as far as man will go from now on:
It is quite conceivable that 36,000km will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.
The sidebar notes that in dollar terms, NASA’s budget has been flat for 20 years, but as a % of Federal spending, it’s fallen from 4.4% in 1965 to 0.5% today. (Update, Sunday 1pm: Gary Robbins of the San Diego Union has an excellent story on the false promises and design tradeoffs of the shuttle concept, based heavily on interviews with former astronauts.)

Privatization has been the hope of American space fans, but the unnamed authors point to the Achilles heel of these plans: dependence on government contracts to bootstrap their businesses. As the lead article continues:
Today’s space cadets will … point to the private ventures of people like Elon Musk in America and Sir Richard Branson in Britain, who hope to make human space flight commercially viable. Indeed, the enterprise of such people might do just that. But the market seems small and vulnerable. One part, space tourism, is a luxury service that is, in any case, unlikely to go beyond low-Earth orbit at best (the cost of getting even as far as the moon would reduce the number of potential clients to a handful). The other source of revenue is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science.

The reason for that second objective is also the reason for thinking 2011 might, in the history books of the future, be seen as the year when the space cadets’ dream finally died. It marks the end of America’s space-shuttle programme, whose last mission is planned to launch on July 8th (see article). The shuttle was supposed to be a reusable truck that would make the business of putting people into orbit quotidian. Instead, it has been nothing but trouble. Twice, it has killed its crew. If it had been seen as the experimental vehicle it actually is, that would not have been a particular cause for concern; test pilots are killed all the time. But the pretence was maintained that the shuttle was a workaday craft. The technical term used by NASA, “Space Transportation System”, says it all.

But the shuttle is now over. The ISS is due to be de-orbited, in the inelegant jargon of the field, in 2020. Once that happens, the game will be up. There is no appetite to return to the moon, let alone push on to Mars, El Dorado of space exploration. The technology could be there, but the passion has gone—at least in the traditional spacefaring powers, America and Russia.
Poster for Vienna art exhibit
Photo by Joel West, 3 July 2011
As the other sidebar notes, military forces (now including China) are actively investing and monitoring developments, but again for communications and observation satellites (or destroying same) in earth orbit.

Given the broad shape of history and economic realities, I think the Economist is more likely to be right than wrong, at least in my lifetime. I doubt I’ll see human beings again leave earth orbit. And with the Shuttle, a certain boyhood hope will die: of understanding God’s universe beyond this little speck where 6.8 billion of us live today.

I guess there’s always retreating to the imaginary worlds of exotic space travel — of Clarke and Heinlein, or Roddenberry and Lucas. Ironically, the science fiction of the 1900s and 1950s seemed impossible — travel to the moon — but the technical problems could be solved. The science fiction of today has the same technical optimism, but hasn’t figured out how to solve the business model issues. (No, Total Recall doesn’t count).

One of my favorite childhood stories was Clarke’s classic, The City and the Stars. In that world, people no longer explored but just lived in their cities and visited imaginary worlds through interactive holo-dramas. The book was set in a world millions of years in the future, but that scenario could be less than a century off: Clarke was pessimistic about the technology, but (alas) optimistic about society’s willingness to maintain its frontier spirit.

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