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Is the Space Age Over?

A good futurist can come up with all kinds of outcomes for humanity, but for those of us consumed by space exploration, a recent article in The Economist sketches a particularly bleak possibility. Forget about the stars. For that matter, forget about Mars, even the Moon. The new reality is emerging in the symbolic end of the Space Shuttle program and the eventual de-orbiting of the International Space Station. It’s a reality based on a space program that fares no higher than geostationary orbit and the growing technosphere that encloses us like a planetary ring.

The End of the Space Age is a cautionary tale about an all too real possibility, one that dismisses those anxious to move into the Solar System as ‘space cadets,’ while invoking the space ideas of the 1950s and 60s as an almost surreal excursion that quickly gave way to the outright fantasy of ‘Star Trek.’ The Economist will have none of the old optimism, the vision of ever expanding humanity pushing out to build an infrastructure throughout the inner planets and beyond. The view is stark. Declaring that the Space Age is probably over, the article adds:

The future… looks bounded by that new outer limit of planet Earth, the geostationary orbit. Within it, the buzz of activity will continue to grow and fill the vacuum. This part of space will be tamed by humanity, as the species has tamed so many wildernesses in the past. Outside it, though, the vacuum will remain empty. There may be occasional forays, just as men sometimes leave their huddled research bases in Antarctica to scuttle briefly across the ice cap before returning, for warmth, food and company, to base. But humanity’s dreams of a future beyond that final frontier have, largely, faded.

I bring you this counterbalance to our usual explorations as a way of pointing out that missions to the stars — or even the outer planets — are by no means inevitable, even if people like myself operate with a conviction that they will happen. One of the things that confounds predictions about when and if a true interstellar mission will fly is that history does not always follow a straight path. Cultures can turn inward, technologies can be turned to frivolous ends or disappear altogether, learning can be all but lost as it was for a lengthy period in the European dark ages.

But what The Economist is talking about isn’t a new period of darkness as much as a coming era of content with our own planet. After all, what the Space Age has delivered so far is impressive, and not just in our far-flung robotic missions. Out there at 36,000 kilometers where the telecommunications satellites orbit and extending down to low Earth orbit, our satellites give us global positioning systems and finely tuned weather forecasts, not to mention spy capabilities that change the equations of war. What if the sheer cost of space and growing public indifference put an end to further explorations?

An exhausted world economy, thinks The Economist, will pull us back to Earth:

With luck, robotic exploration of the solar system will continue. But even there, the risk is of diminishing returns. Every planet has now been visited, and every planet with a solid surface bar Mercury has been landed on. Asteroids, moons and comets have all been added to the stamp album. Unless life turns up on Mars, or somewhere even more unexpected, public interest in the whole thing is likely to wane. And it is the public that pays for it all.

There are answers to all these ideas, but the point is that those of us who believe in a human future throughout the Solar System are going to find ourselves challenged at every turn to explain why such an outcome is even possible, much less desirable. We’re at that juncture where government space efforts are being supplanted by commercial ventures like those of Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, a time when we have to find something on which to hang the space program beyond expensive space tourism. Maybe Robert Zubrin has found one way forward through his suggestion of using a bevy of SpaceX heavy-lift vehicles to haul materials to Mars for an early human outpost there. But SpaceX has to succeed with that vehicle first.

As commercial space efforts move forward, a broader defense of a human future in space has to take the long-term view. Given the dangers that beset our planet, from ecological issues to economic turmoil and the potential for war, can we frame a solution that offers a rational backup plan for humanity? Planetary self-defense also involves the need for the tools to alter the trajectory of any object with the potential to strike the Earth with deadly force, and that means expanding, not contracting, our space-borne assets. Such work is not purely technical. It also teaches the invaluable lesson of multi-generational responsibility and holds out the promise of frontiers. Such challenges have enriched our early history and provide us a clear path off our planet.

We’re also a curious species, and it’s hard to see us pulling back from the challenge of answering the crucial question of whether we are alone in the galaxy. There is a huge gap, as The Economist points out, between where we stand with space technology today and where we fantasized being as we looked forward from the Apollo days. But a case can be made for steady and incremental research that gives us new propulsion options and broadens our knowledge of how life emerges even as it protects our future. A future that includes gradual expansion into space-based habitats and the exploitation of our system’s abundant resources is an alternative to The Economist’s vision, and it’s one the public needs to hear. The infrastructure that it would build will demand the tools and the skills to move ever deeper into our system and beyond.


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  • kzb July 7, 2011, 7:43

    Joy et al:
    We could add that The Economist worldview is one that is shortly to be consigned to the dustbin of history. The economics of the last few decades is being more and more exposed to be fundamentally broken. They are trying their very best to save face, loaning out more debt on top of already unpayable debt, to save face. The system is crumbling before our eyes and it won’t be long before the “reset button” is pressed.

    Economics is just an edifice to hide The Big Lie. Do you think money is EARNED? -think again. It is made up from nothing. It is only crystallised into reality when some sucker takes it on as a debt. These suckers are all of us outside the banking system.

  • Jded July 7, 2011, 12:52

    Being confined to geostationary sounds logical when you think of distance, but not if you thing of dV and thrust requirements. We have lots of effective (dV) but low-thrust propulsion systems ready, while getting out of the gravity well is still the same problem it was 50 years ago. When you already have an industry on Earth’s orbit, the rest of solar system is an open (well, rather slowly opening) oyster even with current technology. And there are valuables there, lots of them.

    Being confined to Earth’s orbit would be pretty much like European colonizers being confined to Newfoundland, travelling there easily, but somehow unable to colonize America proper. It might be like that for some time (Vikings), but is not a realistic long-term proposition.

  • Mark Wakely July 7, 2011, 13:12

    If you don’t mind me being a little facetious, space travel is a lot like romance. You’re attracted to someone and can’t stop thinking of all the possibilities, and before you know it, you’re obsessed. After some calculations and careful planning, you finally achieve some intimacy, like a sub-orbital flight- great progress, but not quite there yet. Finally you have the breakthrough you’ve been hoping for and achieve orbit, which is exhilarating, especially the first time. You continue to probe further but after awhile you fall into a routine and pretty soon just hanging out with the guys after work seems like a good idea again, and you have the sad realization that you’re practically right back where you started; the thrill- which just can’t be sustained- has gone away, as B.B. King once said.

    Like the old joke goes, a man will lie awake at night thinking about something his fiancé said; after he marries her, he’ll fall asleep while she’s still talking.

    As far as space travel goes, we’ve fallen asleep. Not only do we take space travel for granted, we’ll never recapture that initial sense of wonder we had when space was pristine and the possibilities seemed endless. When we discovered the true nature of hellish, cloud covered Venus and dusty, pockmarked Mars- both definitely not move-in ready as we had always dreamed- that cold reality put a damper on our desires. Add to that the severe limits of chemical rockets and the jaw dropping distances of interstellar space, and the last of our “Star Trek” hopes evaporate.

    What can be done to recapture the public’s interest in space and rekindle the love affair? Some things other nations are doing will help- when the Russians send space tourists around the moon in their modified Soyuz capsule, we’ll take notice. When India puts a man in space, we’ll take notice. When China lands a man on the moon, we’ll take notice. But those are other nations with their own space dreams and aspirations. Other than rekindle a cold-war era kind of competitive spirit, those achievements won’t necessarily kick start our own space adventures unless they’re viewed as a serious military threat, which is unlikely. (The forthcoming Chinese space station might be viewed that way, but even that can’t hold a candle to the satellite shoot-down capability the Chinese demonstrated a few years ago as far as military threats are concerned.) We need our own, homegrown initiatives and Kennedy-esque goals to inspire us, but so far, there’s been only silence.

    One thing I know that doesn’t inspire us is NASA’s Orion space capsule, or the Boeing capsule, or the Space X capsule. Those “man in a can” Apollo era (and earlier) designs may be a highly efficient and effective way to get men and women into space, but as far as causing an up swell of renewed support for the space program, they fall flat. It’s no longer about getting people into space- we know we can do that easily enough- it’s a question of what we do once we get there. Our goals need to shift to vehicles and missions that *do* inspire, ones that show not only our serious intent to explore, but the promise of a permanent space presence for decades to come.

    The closest I’ve seen to that vision recently is former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz’s VASIMR powered design for a reusable Mars vehicle. Just as the railroad opened the West for settlers in the 1800’s, a fast, robust vehicle that can speed us through the solar system would open a whole new era of exploration and provide the kind of inspiration now lacking under the present administration. Chang-Diaz’s design isn’t the only possibility, of course- if there were a competition for a reusable interplanetary vehicle that can be refueled and resupplied in Earth orbit, that would likely result in a number of interesting concepts from both large and small aerospace firms. (Pratt & Whitney had proposed just such a vehicle a few years ago, powered by their innovative TRITON engine.) And if we’re going to persist in letting private space firms do the “dirty work” of getting people and supplies into space, they could be charged with resupplying the interplanetary vehicles while in orbit, leaving NASA responsible for those vehicle’s missions.

    One way to tell how interested people are in a particular aerospace vehicle is how many collect models of those vehicles- while there are lots of owners of SR71 blackbird and Saturn rocket models in various sizes and levels of complexity, I really don’t think the Orion space capsule would be a sought after collectable in any shape or form. It just doesn’t inspire. A model of a proposed interplanetary vehicle, on the other hand, could rival Star Trek or Star War vehicles among collectors, and help revive the grass roots interest in space that has been lost.

  • spaceman July 7, 2011, 14:48

    Hi Paul,

    “…but the point is that those of us who believe in a human future throughout the Solar System are going to find ourselves challenged at every turn to explain why such an outcome is even possible, much less desirable.”

    Sadly, I agree with you that there seems to be no shortage of negative dead-end possibility-limiting thinking out there.

    However, there simply will be no human future if we confine ourselves to Earth– this borders on being axiomatic.

    Threats to our existence as a species include:

    1). Ecological collapse

    2). Nuclear warfare

    3). A genetically engineered plague of epic proportions

    4). Asteroidal impact

    5). Cometary impact

    6). A virus emerging out of nature. e.g. Where would we be today if HIV was airborne instead of blood borne? And who is to say that a similarly virulent pathogen may not present itself in our future—this time transmitted as easily as the common cold.

    7). The Sun evolves out of its relatively quiescent stage toward becoming a red giant. I know this is far off but it will happen.

    Although any one of these events is unlikely by itself– accept # 7– to wipe us out, a synergy or combination of them could suffice. Also, any one of them– short of wiping us out– could set us back to the Stone Age. Is either of the two aforementioned possibilities a desirable outcome for a species, such as our own, that has an understanding of engineering and physics sufficient to prevent our demise by settling space? We are so close to realizing the dream but more importantly the necessity of off-world settlement…it is as if we are hikers who just short of the summit of a mount decide to turn back.

    The only sure way to protect ourselves from extinction by these events (as well as other events I have not thought of) is to settle other cosmic islands.

    What could be more “desirable” than putting our eggs in more than one basket to ensure the continuation of culture itself? I would say that the burden of proof should be put on those who are skeptical of humanity morphing itself into a space-faring civilization with colonies on multiple solar system bodies.

    Those who believe that there are no good reasons for exploring and then setting up self-sufficient habits in deep space are short-sighted and ignorant. There is an irrefutable truth that these purveyors of negativism either are in denial about or are ignorant of: Earth is akin to an island in the ocean. Species that confine themselves geographically are much more vulnerable to being wiped out by calamities. Similarly, if our species confines itself to one planet, then we are much more vulnerable to being wiped out. If we do not spread out beyond Earth, then our species will go extinct! All cultural activities will cease, including the Economist magazine.

  • Dave Huntsman July 7, 2011, 15:11

    I agree with 95% of this writeup and its necessary reminders – and of course disagree strongly with The Economist. Let me pick on the one sentence that gives me pause:
    “But what The Economist is talking about isn’t a new period of darkness as much as a coming era of content with our own planet. ”

    I disagree with that. A pretty darn good analogy would be with the Ming Dynasty’s eunuchs taking control, canceling the Chinese Navy’s very extensive explorations, and pulling back to the borders of China. Doing so did, in fact, looking back, bring a new period of darkness to China; or at the very least, kept it from being anywhere near as dynamic and innovative over time as it could have been.

    If we do the same, as The Economist seems to believe we should, the very same thing would happen. Growing, improving society and civilization can indeed be lost; The Economist’s prescription being a perfect modern example.

  • Tarmen July 7, 2011, 15:22

    Don’t worry about the Economist. The Brits are just in a bad mood these days, or these decades. The Economist is the voice of British elite conventional wisdom. Really they’ve been pessimistic about everything since about 1948 when they lost India. But the rest of the world is marching ahead and out. France is much more optimistic. Also China and Korea. And Space X and Virgin Galactic. Rival militaries in China and America and others are also mindful of the “high ground”. Higher and higher ground. Get ready for the next space race.

  • Sean the Mystic July 7, 2011, 16:21

    @Anthony Mugan and others:

    You’ve put your finger on the key problem: our species seems to achieve its greatest progress in times of strife and struggle, not in times of peace. One only has to look at how the world was transformed by World War II or the Cold War space program to see that. Since the Cold War cooled off there has been stagnation and no grand threats that could motivate grand projects on the scale of the Manhattan or Apollo Projects. But this is likely to change fairly soon. The Chinese appear poised to begin challenging the West on a grand scale in space (and everywhere else). Personally I welcome this, and think a new Space Race would be the best thing to happen to space exploration since Apollo. I don’t find it sad; it’s just the nature of our species. Appeals to Saganesque high ideals simply don’t animate human beings like the desire for power.

    So my solution to the grand challenge of space exploration is for our civilization to become more like the Empire or the Star Trek Mirror Universe; we need to all grow goatees, as it were, and begin our campaign to conquer the Galaxy in the name of the Terran Empire!

  • Gregg July 7, 2011, 17:25

    When we rely on government funding we are subject to the political pressures governments feel. This is as it should be. Ever increasing burdens on taxpayers lead to prioritization of spending. And social security and medicare are going to be a higher priority for most people than space exploration. Look to privately organized and funded exploration for the future of space.

  • Greg July 7, 2011, 17:40

    I emphatically reiterate what I said, space travel is about the future, just as is any type of exploration is. We don’t concentrate on exploring where we have been but where we haven’t. Space travel represents the final exploration due to the fact there will almost be a limitless amount of stars/galaxies to explore, for countless years into the future.

  • Bounty July 7, 2011, 19:06

    Sure, metal may be cheap now, but it will not stay that way. Capitalism isn’t the only reason to do space, but within 100 years it will dominate the reasons.

  • Joy July 7, 2011, 19:39

    Re Mike’s comment,

    No question that the last 30+ years have seen an acceleration in the rise of global plutocracy and lowered quality of life for most people, plus vast environmental degradation. To add insult to injury, the triumphant banksters are not even space cadets. (Branson and Bigelow are very small fry compared to private banks who control tens of trillions). It doesn’t look good for going to the stars or even having a decent quality of life on a ravished Earth.

    As a thought experiment, one can imagine two ways forward:

    1) The current undemocratic elite controlled world system is retained, but wiser heads are installed at the top of the power pyramid. (Other than a humanitarian military intervention by friendly aliens, I can’t imagine how this could be accomplished, but it is a thought experiment). A wise and balanced council of elders (E.O Wilson, Sylvia Earle, Bob Zubrin, Jane Goodall, and the Dalai Lama would get my nominations) would keep humanity moving forward into space and protect the ecosystem by pushing humanistic values over materialism. Seven billion people could be materially poorer in consumer goods but still happier in spirit. (aka clean, green fascism, with a dash of space cadet spirit)

    2) A resurgence of freedom and general prosperity occurs and humanity enters a new Renaissance. The small minority of people who are space cadets obtain the resources and opportunity to develop space on their own … Again, hard to see how one gets from Foxconn factory techno-slavery to this blessed state. It is easier if one recalls how the original Renaissance happened, First, “The Disastrous 14th Century” (Barbara Tuchman) had to take place. This featured:
    A) climate catastrophe – The Little Ice Age
    B) pandemic depopulation – The Black Death
    C) armed conflict – The Hundred Years’ War
    D) collapsing respect for institutions – the corruption and moral laxity of the Catholic church reached all-time lows
    E) decline in world trade – contact with China cut off
    F) clash of civilizations – militant Islam advances
    G) Even after the worst had passed, witch hunts and pogroms remained

    Well, the 21st century could very well turn out to be the 14th century on steroids. Maybe freedom, general prosperity, and a flowering of genius will eventually prevail. Ad Astra! But only after 2100, and with a much smaller world population.

    Footnote: Even the utopian optimist Gene Roddenberry imagined an awful 21st century complete with a WWIII and a genocidal Colonel Phillip Green as prelude to his utopia.

  • Interstellar Bill July 7, 2011, 19:54


    After 80 yrs of dominating America, the Welfare State is now starting to finish off its victims, most notably the Space Program. From the scrapping of the Saturn V to the deorbiting of the Space Station, it has been a long but inevitable suicide, one that is but a miniature portrait of the ‘Suicide of the West’ (a classic book that is unfortunately more true than ever).

    Space fans had better start studying Mandarin.

  • Dave Moore July 8, 2011, 1:44

    Those of us from the Apollo era thought space was going to be a sprint. It is not. It is going to be a marathon.

    The thing about running a marathon well is to focus on the next step. Last year, an important step was made with the launch of the Falcon 9, which seriously reduced the cost to orbit. The next step will be cheaper satellites, space vehicles, and space stations by the use off-the-shelf parts as we will no longer need to shave every gram off what we launch.

    While public support in America may be fickle, the Europeans, Chinese and Indians all appear to have a long term commitment to space. I think the momentum is still there, just not at the pace we have come to expect.

  • Joy July 8, 2011, 3:22

    “A pretty darn good analogy would be with the Ming Dynasty’s eunuchs taking control, canceling the Chinese Navy’s very extensive explorations, and pulling back to the borders of China.” – Dave Huntsman
    (Historical aside):
    The legendary Ming Admiral, Zheng He, was a eunuch! He fought like a tiger against pirates and also waged a land war on Ceylon. The Ming sea expeditions were launched by the Yongle Emperor ended by his son the Hongxi Emperor and his grandson the Xuande Emperor (neither of whom were eunuchs). As Chinese emperors are divine and above historical review, Chinese historians have a tradition of blaming all unfortunate historical decisions on eunuchs.

    (Likewise the Japanese Emperor Hirohito was held blameless for WWII and General Hideki Tojo hanged as a scapegoat. Yet many historians have argued that Hirohito was in charge all along)

  • Anthony Mugan July 8, 2011, 5:16

    In short it needs a major ‘game changing’ event or sequence of events. Just considering this, as before, the gradual shift in global power balances could be one. Complexity theory suggests we may be in for an abrupt shock on the environment at some stage, and that could be a catalyst. Encountering unambiguous and unavoidale evidence of an advanced extraterrestrial civilisation could be another (this would need to be externally driven as for a variety of reasons mainstream opninion will avoid such a conclusion if it can, and so is somewhat unlikely in the medium term). An economic crisis combined with a politician with the vision of a Roosevelt re: New Deal stimulus (given the economic pay back that is clear from the space programme) might be possible. A major technological breakthrough could also alter the game totally – propulsion technology may well be the key longer term….But yes, perhaps learn Mandarin – particularly given the debate on the JWST!
    (ps as a Brit, didn’t entirely recognise the characterisation of us Brits…the view of the Economist is more that of a neo-liberal free market perspective which is pretty global. UK changed quite a bit since the 1970’s!).

  • Ronald July 8, 2011, 6:17

    Next Big Future has an interesting article and discussion thread on “True industries and reasons for Space” (exploration I would add). I find its content and conclusions rather along the same lines as I outlined in my comment above.

    There is also a link in it to another recent article making a case for moon mining.

    Summarizing, the main present and near-term rationales for space exploration are and will be:
    – Tourism and entertainment
    – Research
    – Information, satellites and the like
    – Colonization (also for the very survival of humankind)

    Actual mining for material resources is hardly feasible except maybe He3 at some point in the foreseeable future.

  • Johnhunt July 8, 2011, 10:58

    OK, here’s my two cents worth.

    Whereas NASA is struggling right now, all it will take is for the Senate’s HLV to run over budget and schedule or even be completed and cost too much to operate. Either could happen. Add to that a shrinking NASA budget. Then there will be much hand-wringing about America’s shrinking hopes for space.

    But at the same time the private space companies will be further demonstrating that America can achieve good things through public-private ventures at fractions of the cost. It will become increasingly obvious that, if America is to achieve her former glory, then the way forward is to do more COTS-like approaches for HSF. The first result (either private or COTS) will be to send people on a short sortie beyond LEO. Doing something not sone for 40+ years will keep the hope alive that America can achieve increasingly greater HSF achievement if even using an evolutionary approach. As SpaceX, et al successfully achieves capabilities, economically viable models for harvesting lunar ice (especially using a COTS model) will be explored. Developing this in-space infrastructure will be a game-changer because it will enable anyone (including NASA) to be able to economically do yet more. In-apace infrastructure also makes a variety of interstellar missions more plausible.

    So I understand why the Economist has this view. But they are wrong because they are not considering the impact that a Lunar COTS will have.

  • bigdan201 July 8, 2011, 15:13

    For those saying that asteroid mining isn’t viable, that’s because of the high cost of getting to orbit. If we had a launch loop that provided access to space at the fraction of the cost, it would be a different story. Other costs aside, I’m pretty sure that finding a large chunk of platinum or iridium would definitely be profitable. Space mining IS the future, it must be.

    I disagree with that. A pretty darn good analogy would be with the Ming Dynasty’s eunuchs taking control, canceling the Chinese Navy’s very extensive explorations, and pulling back to the borders of China. Doing so did, in fact, looking back, bring a new period of darkness to China; or at the very least, kept it from being anywhere near as dynamic and innovative over time as it could have been.

    Indeed. China’s ships explored as far as the east african coast. With their advanced civilization and high population, they could’ve easily colonized around the world. But they lost their initiative and turned inwards, becoming stagnant and isolationist. Inevitably they were overtaken, by the Europeans as it were, and had to go through bloody revolutions to finally modernize. In contrast, once Japan was opened by Commodore Perry, they put all their efforts into modernization and by 1900 were able to compete on the global stage. The direction a society takes is highly significant, and can work out for the better or worse.

  • Alex Tolley July 8, 2011, 17:45

    The future is unknowable. The Economist might be correct. Technological development of space might well stall and the result is just observation and some telecom satellites. Space flight is very expensive and unless there are commercial returns, may stagnate. The best hope for “space cadets” is that low cost access to space is achieved and that more potent engine technology is developed that allows fairly fast interplanetary travel, so that commercial opportunities can be exploited. The hardest problem seems to be low cost access to space. Once there, the options for relatively inexpensive hardware seem to be wider.

    While I appreciate the role governments have played in the past, they seem to be more the problem than the solution today. Agencies like Nasa should go back to being research operations only. We also need incentives to bootstrap commercial space until they become more self sustaining.

  • Astronist July 8, 2011, 18:12

    Joy, and Dave Huntsman, the eunuchs of Imperial China were close to the emperor, and therefore party to his grand schemes (global voyages, moving the capital north to Beijing, extending the Grand Canal, etc.). These ambitious projects were stopped by the mandarins, who were steeped in the philosophy of Confucianism, one of whose major values was social stability (sustainability, in modern terms). According to Gavin Menzies, there is evidence that the Chinese fleets reached America 70 years before Columbus, and circumnavigated the world a century before Magellan.

    Mark Wakely, I don’t usually buy models, but now I have a desktop model of Skylon. Will all interested readers please order their own Skylon from the British Interplanetary Society website? Thanks!

    Oxford, UK

  • mike July 8, 2011, 19:33

    years ago in the usa quality was king, at least in aerospace. now days, it’s get it out the door. also, dont solve problems, it takes too long. schedules and deadlines are more important than doing things right (I NEED IT NOW!) . i worked in many factories in the usa. profit trumps all. quality is a buzzword used to scam the customer. yeah, and wages are dropping while the elite capture the benefits.

    and so we want bean counters and lawyers to run space exploration? wont get very far.

    star trek and star wars is what killed the space age. one only has to buy a movie ticket and experience all the bad science. no need to actually do it.

    where’s my flying car? jet pack? ray gun?

    but…i have a 15 megapixel camera.

  • David S. F. Portree July 8, 2011, 20:44

    I see so much drama in these posts. Don’t be sold on the idea that space exploration 1) is the be all and end all and 2) is coming to an end. We can get along just fine without space exploration: the notions that it somehow is analogous to past exploration or is a sign of decaying societal health are mere cliche. I think that space fans get overwrought, and it harms their credibility.

    As for my second point, how can space exploration be coming to an end when the largest space vehicle ever built is orbiting the Earth with people on board continuously, satellites are binding the world together and monitoring the home planet continuously, and a couple of dozen science spacecraft are exploring the universe continuously? I agree with Larry (ljk): the media are just stirring things up to add spice to what should be a prosaic story, plus they don’t know enough about the subject to have a valuable opinion.

  • Charles Gray July 9, 2011, 0:56

    Likely– they’re right. At least so long as we are constrained to make use of chemically powered boosters– the expense of moving people up, even presuming improvements is vast and likely to not be profitable for any long range mission.
    Now, if Polywell fusion or some other method pans out, things could change.
    Fundamentally, space enthusiasts need to focus their efforts, all of them, on reducing surface/LEO transport costs– that’s the bottleneck in the system blocking everything else.

  • bill July 9, 2011, 4:02

    a few other thoughts:

    If the weather cooperates — and it’s looking like it won’t — NASA will launch a space shuttle for the 135th and final time at 10:26 (St. Louis time) this morning. Saturday and Sunday are fallback launch dates.

    Other than the fact that STS-135 is the last shuttle mission (and the fact that Belleville native Sandra Magnus is one of its four crew members), it could be said that there’s nothing special about this flight of shuttle Atlantis. On the other hand, that this brick can fly at all is pretty remarkable. And any time you light a fire under four people and 4.5 million pounds of fuel and cargo, it’s pretty special.

    Still, it’s apt that the final shuttle flight is scheduled as a supply-and-backhaul mission to the International Space Station, the sort of tedious errand that condemned the shuttle program to the backwaters of the national imagination. No “one giant leap for mankind” here.

    The space station itself is something of a lemon, its advantages apparent only to the “pure science” community. Other than five crucial missions to service the Hubble space telescope, most of the $180 billion shuttle program was devoted to building and servicing the space station — and we didn’t even get Tang or Velcro out of it.

    In 1981, when the first shuttle went into orbit, Bill Gates and Paul Allen were writing MS-DOS for IBM’s first PCs. America’s first cellular phone system — a seven-tower network in the Washington-Baltimore area — went into service. Technology has come a long way since then.

    The shuttles have been tweaked and improved, too, and many of their 2.5 million separate parts replaced and upgraded. But fundamentally, America’s space program is based on 30-year-old technology.

    You’d never design it that way now, strapping the orbiter below and to the side of its fuel tanks, exposing the fragile leading edges of the orbiter’s wings to launch debris. That design flaw — well known to NASA engineers — led to the deaths of the seven crew members when shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas in 2003.

    The investigation into that tragedy showed that NASA’s institutional culture hadn’t learned much from the Challenger disaster of 1986. Seven crew members died then, too, victims of bureaucratic pressures that allowed safety concerns to be overridden.

    NASA got better after the Columbia disaster. It had to; by then it was clearly an agency in search of a mission. President George W. Bush proposed a new generation of moon landings as a jumping-off point to Mars. Few people were excited about going back to the moon, and President Barack Obama scuttled those plans. But even fewer people are excited about his idea to send astronauts to an asteroid.

    When Atlantis completes its 12-day final mission, NASA will be left with unmanned scientific missions and the task of developing a new generation of rockets and spacecraft for ambiguous missions that are unlikely ever to be fully funded. Thousands of people in Houston and along Florida’s “Space Coast” will lose their jobs. Many in the astronaut corps are expected to leave, all of them bright, brave and bold. But how many shuttle astronauts can you name?

    For the time being, America will outsource its manned space program, buying seats on Russian flights to the space station. Private enterprise may pick up some of NASA’s satellite-launching business and maybe launch tourists into low-Earth orbit. China and India are building space programs.

    But it may be that with the end of the shuttle program will come the end — at least for the foreseeable future — of the dream of inter-planetary spaceflight. The costs simply are staggering, particularly when measured against fuzzy benefits and desperate needs on Earth.

    Yes, man is a dreamer and an explorer. Yes, President John F. Kennedy said, “Space is there and we’re going to climb it.” Yes, it may be that new technologies will permit, and new imperatives will demand, that we boldly go forth again.

    But for now, at least, the final frontier is closing.



  • ljk July 9, 2011, 12:48

    bill said:

    “But for now, at least, the final frontier is closing.”

    For the United States, maybe. But other nations and private industries are going right along. They know where the future really is.

  • Gregory Benford July 9, 2011, 14:18

    Bill’s comment: “The costs simply are staggering, particularly when measured against fuzzy benefits and desperate needs on Earth.” isn’t quite true.
    Last year a former NASA head pointed out that we could’ve had a Mars exploration program for the cost of the shuttle & station. Indeed, a steady 5 billion bucks/year at NASA starting in 2000 could’ve funded a smart Mars expedition.
    We need to be innovative in space–nuclear rockets are essential to large scale exploration, for example. Dr. Stanley K. Borowski at the Space Transportation Office, NASA Glenn Research Center, has shown in detail systems that are safe, yield little radioactivity, and far more efficient and versatile. They can even be spun head over tail for centrifugal grav.
    With these capabilities, and cheaper costs to LEO, asteroid mining begins to look like a idea with a reasonable return on a decade timescale.

  • Astronist July 9, 2011, 19:14

    Bill said: “But for now, at least, the final frontier is closing.”

    No way. There are half a dozen private companies racing to get ships into orbit. The success of at least a few of these is the precondition for going further afield sustainably. The Shuttle was a block to progress. Now it’s on its final mission, the final frontier is opening up again, and anything’s possible.


  • John Freeman July 9, 2011, 19:49

    Um. The shuttle was a ground to LEO freight vehicle. It never carried anything to orbit directly connected to a manned BEO mission. It shutting down isn’t the death knel of BEO exploration. BEO manned exploration hasn’t been on the cards since long before I was born. Hope of a new space age lies in greater (IMHO commercial, but we’ll see) development of near Earth space and what may spring from it. The final frontier has been closed to humans for a while now. Since apollo was never sustainable it may in some respects be true to say it never opened to us at all.

  • Mark July 9, 2011, 21:29

    “A new life awaits you in the Off-world colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure…” – The Advertising Blimp from the movie Blade Runner

    I grew up before and during the Apollo era, and it’s a shame to see our manned space capability go away. I think we’ll see manned spaceflight in the US again when we discover something out there “off-world” that’s well worth mining, and a commercial interest designs a cheap way to get boatloads of miners there. Of course the miners will be genetically engineered replicants, not technically humans.

  • spaceman July 10, 2011, 0:24

    Yes, the true establishment of a spacefaring civilization may take some time to play out and, sure, I agree with the cyclical view of history that things go in and out of fashion across the centuries. A smaller world population that has solved many of the current problems facing us today may indeed be in a better position to implement grand endeavors such as settling the solar system.

    What bothers me is how people in positions of power seem so cavalier when it comes to cutting funding for the space program when the stakes are so high. Again, this is not mere opinion; it is an indisputable fact that if humanity remains bound to Earth we will surely go extinct due to one or more causes. If only more people made the connection between space travel and human species survival, then perhaps the will of the people would be enough to force those in power into action much in the same way that protests against the cancellation of the servicing missions to the HST are the reason the observatory is still up there today taking beautiful pictures and doing great science.

  • tesh July 10, 2011, 4:10

    The final frontier has never really been open. All this pessimistic talk of it closing is just weak sentimental wallowing in the mire of self pitying. Boohooo, look how bad I feel and oh, the shuttle era is ending, I can make myself feel even more sorry for myself.
    50 years, even 250 years, is not really a long time in terms of assessing progress toward a perceived goal – colonising space in this case. My own take on this is that in my life time, I’m 37, we may yet set foot on the moon again. Maybe, we may even have a permanent base there and the beginnings of forming an industrial base there. That, I would chart as staggering progress. Even if we just get back and stay for prolonged periods there, then that would be progress. If I don’t get to see that, then future generation certainly will.
    Alas, this wallowing in self pity is childish to say the least and symptomatic of the instant gratification generation (IGG) that seems to be so prevalent these days.
    Dynamics of Cats (Steinn Sigurðsson) blog has an interesting recent entry about what passes for inspiration these days and he has hit the nail on the head.

  • andy July 10, 2011, 10:00

    In any case even if the manned exploration program does come to a close, it is not as if the space age has not been phenomenally successful. Space technology is now ubiquitous and seamlessly integrated into everyday life, from weather forecasts on-demand to communications, mapping software (anyone here who hasn’t used Google Maps?) and suchlike. We are now at the stage where we have reliable and commercially viable space technology. Turns out that from the commercial side that orbital canned monkey is not such a good business strategy, oh well.

    And those who are saying that because we haven’t sent canned monkey beyond low Earth orbit for a while means that the progress of humanity has stalled, give me a break. Just because the space technology field isn’t doing what you want it to be doing, doesn’t mean that various other fields of human endeavour have ground to a halt also.

  • bigdan201 July 10, 2011, 18:05

    It should also be noted that the Orion spacecraft by Lockheed Martin is being tested as a next generation spaceship. The space age is not over, it’s just undergoing a shift.

  • Rob Henry July 10, 2011, 20:23

    Mark, I’m a little younger than you, Apollo 17 happening when I was 8. It was one of the seminal moments of my life. Before that mission everyone seemed to be claiming how lucky I was to be born into the space age, and after no one could explain to me how the later missions could be cancelled, while still conceding that the entire future of humanity was somehow tied up in the earlier ones. Adults seemed to think they knew the answer, yet not a single one could explain it, and I never stoped asking.

    Economic reasoning makes certain assumptions that we must always be mindful of if it is used as a tool for analysis, the prime two are
    1) the cost and benefits must not have a temporal separation greater that a few years.
    2) the externalities cannot be major.

    Space exploration fails as a candidate on both counts. The first is obvious, but with the second just think of how economies go into hyper-drive during war as all pull together. With space we have a feel good factor that encourages individuals to feel part of humanity as a whole. I posit that this leads to cooperation as an inspiration to our own future, the usually reasoning for it being more as a grudging necessity.

  • Anthony Mugan July 11, 2011, 5:09

    On a slightly more optimistic note…
    Thinking about this over the weekend I suspect that space development will continue where there is a clear rationale for doing so from the perspective of the funding organisation(s).
    I can see four broad categories of development:
    a) Pure science missions – these are ongoing currently and more are in development. A clear rationale can be seen for these missions from the perspective of science research funding bodies and so this aspect of work will continue, including missions beyond earth orbit. They will be almost always unamanned and their continuing development creates opportunities to use these missions for making greater use / gaining experience of new technolgies such as solar sails etc.
    b) Military – clearly will continue but restricted to earth orbit in the forseeable future as there is no threat / advantage to going beyond it. There is considerable opportunity and interest in testing / developing new technologies which would eventually filter through to civilian use. Again mainly unmanned.
    c) Geo-policitical. This is the area which is in a hiatus period as there is no real geo-policitical rivalry on the scale of the cold war to drive it at this time. Overall that is probably a good thing! This is were high profile manned missions may get their rationale from. Not much is likely to happen on this front for the forseeable future, but this may change in the longer term.
    d) Economic. Much will continue to happen in earth orbit. private sector involvement is likely to provide a downward pressure on launch costs but is unlikley to fund development of fundamentally new technology without government subsidy. To go beyond earth orbit would require a clear rationale / return on capital. Eventually asteroid mining or mining of the atmospheres of the giant planets etc may provide a return if transport costs can be significantly reduced and as the earth itself becomes more problematic in this regard in the long term. The longer term key to this is technology. This would include nano-tech to reduce weight; making use of moon mining and concepts such as electromagentic catapults to move material off the moon (I am not an expert on this, so forgive the simplistic perspective in all of this); construction in space; non-chemical propulsion in space (e.g. solar sails, ion rockets etc) and smart systems that could manage the process without human intervention. In essence minimise the weight to be launched off earth and maximise the use of ‘free’ energy sources once there. This is a long way off…

    A strategy may be need to be opportunistic. Funding from the scientific and military communities may well provide tactical opportunities to develop the neccessary elements of the technological jigsaw that could alter the economic balance for deep space operations in the long term. We probably know what the pieces of the jigsaw need to be…A role for Tau Zero Foundation, the 100 year starship study and others…

  • Ronald July 11, 2011, 6:20

    With regard to my previous post, stating that “Actual mining for material resources is hardly feasible except maybe He3 at some point in the foreseeable future”;

    He3 can be made from Tritium which can be made from lithium (lithium deuteride). And it also seems to be present in very low concentrations in natural gas.

    So making or getting He3 here on earth may actually appear to be more cost effective than getting it from the outer planets. In other words, even He3 may not be a commercial justification for mining in space (and forget about the often mentioned platinum group metals, much too heavy and too cheap for present launch cost to mine them on asteroids).

  • Eniac July 11, 2011, 23:28

    If platinum is truly available in easily accessible form on asteroids as some claim, it may provide a near-term economic incentive. Once the mining machinery has been brought into position, the product could be launched by solar-electric sling into an Earth atmospheric reentry trajectory with relatively little energy or fuel expenditure. Reentry is a well-understood, efficient, and routine method to get things from space to the ground, and a lump of metal may not even require a heat shield.

    Platinum is expensive and would provide guaranteed revenue, so I think it is conceivable that the economics for such a program could work out, provided that easily accessible platinum is really there. Gold could work, too.

  • bigdan201 July 12, 2011, 2:36

    (and forget about the often mentioned platinum group metals, much too heavy and too cheap for present launch cost to mine them on asteroids).

    key words: present launch cost. That’s why I’ve been emphasizing economic means of getting to orbit in order to open up space.

  • Tobias Holbrook July 12, 2011, 10:32

    You don’t have to mine PGM’s on asteroids. Luna has quite a high concentration of valuable metals, I hear, and they’re in the Lunar polar craters – mixed in with all the water.

  • coolstar July 12, 2011, 14:42

    I’m impressed: an important comment from Greg Benford and Geoff Marcy joining the “team” not long ago. Important and smart people are paying attention, which has to be a good thing.

  • andy July 13, 2011, 15:51

    Incidentally in terms of “what might have been”, it’s quite interesting to read this interview with Oleg Kotov in New Scientist. It’s mainly about Buran (Russia’s equivalent to the space shuttle which only ever saw one unmanned flight) but also raises some interesting points about the different philosophies behind the US and Russian space programmes.

  • ljk April 24, 2012, 13:16

    The coming golden age

    by Eric R. Hedman

    Monday, April 23, 2012

    It is not uncommon to read articles and blogs from space advocates lamenting that we as a country don’t prioritize space exploration the way America did during the Apollo era. Others complain that we have retreated back to low Earth orbit ever since abandoning the toehold we had for six short missions on the Moon. Some of the writers worry that the Chinese, Russians, or even others will get out to deep space before we return. To them, the Apollo era is the long past golden age of space exploration.

    Exploration has long been, in one form or another, a way of generating national prestige and being taken seriously by the rest of the world.
    When arguments are made for expanding and accelerating space exploration, historical analogies of Columbus’ voyages, Lewis and Clark’s expedition, and the Railway Act of 1862 that led to a transportation system across the continent as are used as examples of why we should push into the final frontier.

    There is one more obscure historical analogy to the Apollo program that is probably more fitting. It is the US Exploring Expedition of 1838 to 1842, at the time referred to as the “Ex. Ex.” I was only vaguely aware of the Ex. Ex. until I read Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick. The Ex. Ex. is a grossly neglected chapter of American history that has many lessons for us about exploring a new frontier.

    Full article here: