"Nobody knows what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow" Robert Goddard
The space effort consumes vast quantities of money and human resources. The eternal question, is whether we can justify such an effort and using our energy for that purpose when we face such serious problems on Earth.
Man is witness to his own paradox at the end of the 20th Century. He has penetrated matter and discovered its most hidden secrets. He has explored and ventured into outer space. However, at the same time., he is incapable of solving completely the same problems that have plagued him throughout all his existence, like hunger, wars and poverty.
"Anyone who has been in space knows that the impatiently awaited unearthliness quickly loses its charm. It is not the uniform blackness of the cosmic abyss that engages your attention, but the spectacle of our small planet haloed in blue. Suddenly, you get a feeling that you've never had before, the feeling that you are an inhabitant of Earth"
Oleg Makharov, Russian Astronaut
With so many unsolved problems in our own planet, the Earth, why should humans commit themselves to space exploration? Why should time, money and efforts be dedicated to designing spacecraft and technological solutions to explore outer space when they could be used to provide for the urgent necessities that we are facing here on Earth?
This unsolved dilemma was arduously discussed in the golden years of the Space Age, the late sixties, when the two most powerful nations in the world were racing to be first in arriving at the Moon and were thus assigning bottomless budgets to space travel.
In December 1968, the Apollo 8 mission laid out a milestone in the conquer of space by actually going to the Moon and circumnavigating it for the first time. Being so far away from Earth, it also produced the first complete picture of our planet. Some time after this mission, Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, one of the members of the German Rocket team stationed in Huntsville, Alabama, that engineered the rockets that powered the American space program, wrote the following letter to sister Mary Juanda, who was at that time in a mission in Africa :
"I believe, like many of my friends, that traveling to the Moon and eventually to Mars and to other planets is a venture which we should undertake now. I even believe that this project, in the long run, will contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on Earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results...
Although our space program seems to lead us away from our Earth and out toward the Moon, the sun, the planets and the stars, I believe that none of the celestial objects will find as much attention and study by space scientists as our Earth.
It will become a better Earth, not only because of all the new technological and scientific knowledge which we will apply to the betterment of life, but also because we are developing a far deeper appreciation of our Earth, of life and man.
The photograph that I enclose with this letter shows a view of our Earth as seen from Apollo 8 when it orbited the Moon at Christmas, 1968. Of all the many wonderful results of the space program so far, this picture may be the most important one.
It opened our eyes to the fact that the Earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void and that there is no other place to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the black nothingness of space.
Never before did so many people recognize how limited our Earth really is, and how perilous it would be to tamper with its ecological balance.
Ever since the picture was first published, voices have become louder and louder warning of the grave problems that confront man in our times : pollution, hunger, poverty, urban living, food production, water control, overpopulation.
It is certainly not by accident that we begin to see the tremendous tasks waiting for us at a time when the young space age has provided us with the first good look at our own planet.
Very fortunately, though, the space age not only holds out a mirror in which we can see ourselves, it also provides us with the technologies, the knowledge, the challenge, the motivation and even the optimism to attack these tasks with confidence."
Many other reasons could help to justify space exploration. Numerous spin-offs (that is, unforeseen benefits to technology that arise from the development of solutions for the space program) have more than saved the money invested in years of research.
However, no single reason can justify by itself a return to the Moon or any further exploration. We shall return to the Moon, build colonies in space and, some day, travel to the stars because it is in our nature to explore, to seek new challenges and adventures. It has been said that space is the last frontier, and we shall endeavor to push that frontier even further.
Conquering space is such an overwhelming task that no nation would be able to accomplish it alone. The expansion into the Universe makes us realize that we are all citizens of the world, that the Earth as seen from space shows none of Man's made borders between countries, and that only through international cooperation we will achieve our exploration goals and at the same time became conscious of our own environment.
In the early Space era, the critical technology had to do with propulsion. The main effort was obviously directed to the formidable task of developing mammoth rockets capable of escaping the Earth's gravity and transporting a manned spacecraft to the Moon.
Rocket technology has been successfully engineered and demonstrated. Although new methods of propulsion would eventually reduce transit time and make missions easier, powerful boosters could be rapidly developed to place as many as 10000 people in a space colony.
Nowadays the critical issue in long range missions has more to do with the human body itself. The problem now is not so much how to get an astronaut into deep space but rather how to keep him alive, feed him, dispose of generated waste and maintain him healthy for a considerable period of time.
"Of all the technologies involved in a Mars spacecraft", says Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, "the biological life support system is the long pole in the tent -the one that NASA is farthest behind on- and it may very well slow the project down in the end. To get all the horrible products that our bodies get rid of and recycle them into a pure and palatable form is a horrendous task that NASA is slow to approach. It is not in NASA's normal line of work - rather than shiny sliding metal parts, it's slimy goo and horrible odors, not the sort of thing that lends itself to keen engineering analysis"
In the last forty years, the human race achieved a long sought goal : the exploration of near Earth Space and the Solar System. Men have set foot on the Moon and unmanned probes have visited every planet in the Solar System with the exception of Pluto.
The next logical step is no longer to explore, but to conquer and colonize. We have but tapped a vast ocean of unlimited resources. The evolution of space travel leads us to permanent settlements in outer space, where we can establish communities in which pioneers will live in the New Frontier.
Although the idea for colonizing space is appealing in itself, the main reason that could justify venturing into outer space to establish a colony has to do with energy.
Our atmosphere protects us from the harmful effects of the Sun and provides a thermal blanket that provides us with the relatively mild climate of our planet. But, at the same time, it prevents us from drawing fully from that same boundless source of energy : the Sun.
We don't know when, but we are inevitably headed for a severe energy crisis Overpopulation, pollution , lack of sources of alternative energy make the mentioned crisis practically inevitable.
According to experts, if the world's population continues to grow at the present rate, the year 2050 will find the planet crowded with 10 billion people. They will face a global environmental catastrophe and an energy crisis of staggering proportions if the current dependence on fossil fuels goes unchecked.
"Fossil fuels are finite. The bounty of hydrocarbon fuels -coal, oil, and gas, which biology and geology conspired to trap underground millions of years ago- is limited, and it is not being replaced. Many analysts believe that, despite the current frenzied search for new deposits, the dwindling of our proved reserves of oil and gas can only be slowed, not halted."
(NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, A special report in the public interest "ENERGY". Facing up to the problem, getting down to solutions. February 1981)
Physicist David Criswell, from the University of Houston, says "We are already well beyond what the biosphere can provide. We have to go outside to get something else"
That something is solar energy. And we have to go to space to get it.
The only logical way to do it is by establishing a space colony.
One is naturally inclined to think of a planetary surface as the first candidate for a place to establish a permanent space settlement. After all, the planets are there, ready to be colonized.
Most of the planets offer conditions that are far from ideal in establishing a space colony. So then, why not in real space, that is, in orbit?
The following is a comprehensive list of relative advantages and disadvantages of both options :
|Terraforming. If conditions are not acceptable, planetary engineers can study how plants and other living organisms could be used to change the climate and thus create a suitable atmosphere and climate to sustain life.||Days and nights. By being on a planetary surface, the length of day and night will be fixed according to its own self rotation, and this may limit the amount of time of sunlight exposure (the main source of energy) for which the settlement is intended.|
|Individually bigger: Any celestial body within the solar system in which the settlement could be placed would definitely be bigger than any settlement in orbit.||Hostile climate: Although the vacuum of space is hardly appealing, it may be easier to control than some of the extreme weather conditions of some of the planets.|
|Gravity : Although planets have varying levels of gravity and the effects on the human body of gravity other than 1 g are unknown, it will still be better than living in microgravity||Base concept confined: Even though available planetary surface could be very vast, the colony itself will have to be shielded against radiation and provide a breathable atmosphere and survivable climate. This can only be engineered in reduced volumes until terraforming processes become effective. The colony itself would thus be quite confined.|
|Availability of Materials. By being on planetary surface, there is no need to transport materials (for construction) since they are there. Most solid planets, although they don't harbor life, offer suitable material for construction and radiation shielding. Availability of materials||Composition of soil. It may provide resources for construction and shielding but perhaps some vital elements (nitrogen, for example) could be absent|
|Size leads to smoother natural processes. Any terraforming process or bioregenerative life support system has better chances of being efficient if the system is big enough to provide natural buffers for unexpected problems.||Proximity. Many of the possible places for establishing the colony are too far away making transportation and communications a big problem.|
|Sources of energy. Depending on the site, energy could be obtained from indigenous materials. The moon, for example, is rich in Helium 3, a rare isotope of Helium that enables a clean fusion reaction.||Gravity well : The existence of gravity implies a consumption of energy.|
|Man designed. The fact that the colony would be entirely man designed also means that it can be tailor made to comply with necessary requirements efficiently.||Has to be built. The space settlement in orbit has to be designed and built. This proves to be an unequaled engineering challenge, for it would not only be massive but it would have to be built and assembled in outer space.|
|The location can be chosen : Not being limited to a specific point in space makes possible the choice of a more favorable place.||Materials have to be obtained. All construction materials have to be obtained and transported to the selected site.|
|Overall surface infinite. Even though the colony itself may not be very big, once a configuration is established it can be replicated indefinitely, thus making the overall surface infinite.||Confinement due to reduced size Even though the colony will be a massive structure, it will not in variety and diversity compare to our Earth environment. The sensation of confinement will be inevitable.|
|Microgravity potential.. A differentiated microgravity
area in the colony would enable potential utilization of
microgravity conditions for research, material s processing,
||Natural processes in doubt : The natural bioregenerative processes that will have to take place to maintain equilibrium in the man generated atmosphere have never been tried out. Many of the solutions will have to be demonstrated with the first settlement. Research would be extremely difficult in some cases.|
|Unlimited energy.: If the colony is located in a place where there is permanent sunshine, solar energy access would be unlimited.||Pseudogravity generated : In order to counteract the negative effects of long exposure to microgravity conditions, artificial gravity would have to be generated. This, in turn, leads to other unpleasant sensations : living in a rotating world causes equilibrium problems.|
|Starship concept : Eventually,. a willing group of
people could populate a starship colony directed to another star.
Although this is somewhat sci fi, it could prove to be the only way
for the human race to outlive the Sun.
|Moon and asteroids good sources : Nearby moon and asteroids could prove to be very good sources for construction materials.|
Although an analysis of the relative merits of both options doesn't yield a clear winner, if we remember that the main justification for colonizing space was the quest for cheap unlimited sources of energy the fact that an orbital colony situated in permanent sunshine guarantees a constant flow of solar energy calls clearly for this last option.
A purely rational scientific approach to the problem shows that the fate of the human race is bound to the Sun's energy. And even if we want to outlive our friendly star, the only way to do so is still by engineering a space colony.
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