We are an inquisitive species. We have the time and intellectual resources to generate and disseminate knowledge. Since antiquity, our ancestors have wondered about the heavens, and over the past few centuries we have developed the tools to help satisfy our curiosity. Space exploration teaches us about the universe. Over the years, space programs have sponsored far-ranging theoretical and applied research, and they have given us wonderful tools for engaging people's interests in science.5
Science and technology gain from the basic research that is a precondition for both robotic and crewed missions. Our movement into space has been accompanied by advances in the physical sciences and engineering. Our desire to send humans into space has forced us to improve our understanding of biology and medicine and to develop life support systems for air and water recycling, temperature and humidity control, food production and storage, and waste management. Spacecraft and satellites provide wonderful platforms for observing and learning about Earth and for unraveling the mysteries of the universe. Unlike their terrestrial counterparts, whose efficiency is undermined by atmospheric distortion, orbiting telescopes are remarkably effective for their size. Space telescopes such as the Hubbell permit observations that would otherwise be impossible. We learn also from robot probes that give us close views of neighboring planets, that sometimes land and analyze local conditions and even return samples to Earth. As R. C. Parkinson points out, space exploration allows us to address such big philosophical questions as "What is the origin of Earth and the solar system?" "What is the origin of the universe?" and "What is the role of consciousness in the universe?"6
Although people tend to focus on the adventurous aspects of the Apollo voyages to the Moon, Paul D. Lowman Jr. and David M. Har-land add that the voyages brought us excellent scientific returns. These expeditions were complex scientific affairs that involved remote sensing, geologic mapping, and placement of monitoring instruments that lasted for years, as well as collection of 384 kilograms of Moon rocks, which are still undergoing analysis.7 As a result of Apollo we know much more about the origin and nature of the Moon: despite its rough and unfriendly appearance, it could be a habitable and useful world.
Space offers us conditions that are valuable for certain kinds of experimental research. These include extreme cold, high vacuum, immense uncluttered areas, and a degree of remoteness that could insulate humanity from an experiment gone wrong. The biggest drawing card is microgravity (also known as 0-G, or weightlessness), which is useful for research in metallurgy, crystallography, and chemistry, including pharmaceuticals.
Space exploration fuels people's interest in science, technology, and nature. Space and space-related activities grab children's attention and are wonderful tools for education. Bruce Cordell and Joan Miller recommend developing space education programs to reinforce students' interest in space, help them separate fact from fiction, and encourage them to think analytically.8 They suggest beginning with children in the third grade, when they are able to begin grasping the necessary concepts. A good program requires continuing efforts on the part of the teachers, coupled with presentations by expert guests. Presentations should be relatively brief—twenty minutes for the younger children, one hour for high school students. Speakers can engage interest by stressing danger and the unknown, exploration and discovery, and faraway places. Slides or other visual materials are useful, and good humor is essential. Students' experience with science fiction such as Star Trek is a good point of departure for separating fact and fiction.
Strenuous educational efforts are undertaken by the not-for-profit Challenger Centers, established by K-12 teachers nationwide as a memorial to Sharon Christa McAuliffe, who, following a brief moment as the first teacher on a space flight, died in the 1986 Challenger explosion. Working in partnership with schools, universities, museums, and other institutions, Challenger Centers "use the theme of space exploration to create positive learning experiences, foster interest in science, math, and technology, and motivate young people to explore."9
Center staff give teachers on-line resources and conduct educator workshops, as well as work directly with children. Some regional centers have shuttle or other mock-ups that allow students to take part in simulated missions. Volunteers themselves assemble annually to hear guest speakers, engage in workshops, and increase their own command of the material.
NASA has always maintained education and information programs. These include programs that disseminate information to the press and the public, and workshops for teachers. Each year groups of teachers gather at NASA centers for a two-week program on science and science education.
NASA brings science education to the schools via the Aerospace Education Specialist Program contracted through Oklahoma State University. This involves a squad of thirty-six specialists, most of whom are assigned to states or urban communities and all of whom are supported by an enthusiastic and productive staff. These specialists work with state leaders in education as well as with teachers and students. You may encounter them on the road driving large white vans from school to school. Their otherwise nondescript vehicles are stuffed with items such as thin slivers of Moon rocks embedded in clear plastic disks, global positioning units, and imitation space suits. There are cartons containing various displays and brochures and the many personal effects required to sustain the vagabond teachers. These educa tors are skilled at engaging the interest of primary and middle school students, and they encourage give-and-take as students learn about nature. In a slow year, they visit one thousand teachers and twenty thousand students.
Programs such as these offer two benefits. First, they sensitize students to the importance and value of space exploration. Second, they encourage students to become trained in science and technology. Thus, as educational efforts help prime the next generation of citizens to support human activities in space, they help prepare the workforce necessary to bring these activities about.10
Centuries ago, people imagined fabulous wealth beyond the seas. Today, we envision fabulous wealth beyond our skies. Telescopes, spectrometers, interplanetary probes, and other tools confirm these resources' presence. Science and education are important in our culture, but we will require significant economic returns if we wish to justify the extremely high cost of establishing a growing and continuing human presence in space.
Some of the riches from activity in space are already in hand, and some should be attainable in the near future. Others, especially those that depend on crewed spaceflight, are beyond our reach and may remain so indefinitely. As we anticipate harvesting cheap electric power, mining valuable minerals, and establishing luxury resorts for tourists and similar ventures, we may overlook the fact that accessing these riches will be extremely difficult and expensive. In a sense, we are like a child with a tiny allowance daydreaming about expensive mountain bicycles in a store window. Under such conditions it can be very difficult to conduct an honest cost-benefit analysis or develop a realistic time line. Overpowered by the grandeur of the opportunities that glitter before us, we may lose sight of the fact that it may be quite some time before we are able to seize them.
All aspects of space exploration—whether it be constructing or operating telecommunications satellites, conducting cutting-edge astronomy with the Hubble space telescope, or establishing a strip-mining operation on the Moon—have immediate economic benefits. So far, not one dollar has been spent in space—all money spent on space exploration has been spent right here on Earth. According to some analyses, every dollar spent on the Apollo Moon Program translated into seven to eight dollars returned to the economy in new goods and services.11 Space-related activities create high-level jobs: for scientists, engineers, and technicians, for analysts and accountants—for the people who will fly in space and the people whose work on Earth supports them. Scott Sacknoff and Leonard David estimate that parts of the space industry are growing at rates surpassing 20 percent annually, thus creating forty thousand new jobs each year.12
Space exploration has encouraged the development of new technologies that have translated into industrial and consumer products that enrich our lives on Earth. These are the so-called spin-offs of the space program. According to Paul S. Hardesen, by the mid-1990s NASA claimed over thirty thousand of them.13
Some of the better-known products include Velcro; thin, lightweight blankets with amazing insulation properties; and a ballpoint pen that writes upside down, on grease, and irrespective of atmospheric pressure. Other spin-offs are "invisible" in that their origin is not widely known. For example, the requirement for onboard computers for navigation and automatic piloting moved us away from mainframe computers and helped make pocket calculators and personal computers available to us. The clunky but reliable onboard computers so essential to Apollo were the forerunners of the minicomputers that control automobile engines and serve as the nervous system for hundreds of products, including "smart" toys. Some already existing products such as Teflon and Tang (a powdered orange drink) became famous due to their association with the space program.
Lightweight, transportable medical packs developed in space are useful in other hard-to-reach locations, such as Antarctica. Other medical spin-offs include implantable medication systems and sensors; automatic defibrillators; intensive care telemetry; computer-enhanced angiography; and synthetic, portable speech prosthetics.14 Research intended to help spacefarers grow crops with minimal amounts of water could help us conserve water on Earth, and studies of waste management in space could help us clean up some of the world's greatest cities.15
Our activities in space help us take care of planet Earth. Salient here are satellite surveillance systems that allow people to monitor weather and other environmental changes. These generate knowledge useful for managing agricultural production as well as addressing environmental disasters.
Satellites play an essential role in navigation and communication. Formerly difficult problems of navigation are turned into child's play. On navy ships the compass and the sextant are supplemented, if not replaced, by global positioning units, or GPUs, with their liquid crystal displays. GPUs base their readings by locating themselves relative to the known positions of a carefully orchestrated fleet of satellites in 12hour circular orbits. If the GPU gets good radio reception from a minimum of three of these satellites, it can compute its precise geographic location and elevation. As with most electronic devices, the price has plummeted over the years, and now they are affordable by small-boat owners, motorists, and hikers, as well as owners of aircraft carriers. The most technologically advanced GPUs are so accurate that for some civil engineering purposes the GPU has replaced both the theodolite and the laser as the preferred tool for surveying.
Satellites enable near-instantaneous communication around the world. They are essential for news and entertainment, whether the program is directed through a commercial broadcasting station or beamed directly to individual consumers. They are a crucial link in person-to-person communication, allowing people to talk over vast distances at low cost. In the foreseeable future everyone who owns a cellular-type phone may be able to communicate with everyone else directly through a satellite. This means, for example, that a person in the Yukon may be able to call someone driving through the Sahara Desert.
Launching satellites for the $io-$i2 billion satellite communications industry is relatively inexpensive and borders on the routine. This is a useful lesson here for those of us who consider crewed spaceflight too expensive and difficult to become profitable. The original Sputnik was slightly larger than a basketball and smaller than many communications satellites. Yet, when Russia launched Sputnik more than forty years ago, it took the world by storm. Each early U.S. attempt to launch a small satellite was front-page news; now, unless you subscribe to a specialty publication you most likely won't even hear about a communications satellite launch. Sending people into space will never be as cheap or easy as launching a small communications satellite, but the point remains: what seems challenging if not impossible right now may seem not all that difficult later on.
Enthusiasts point out that space houses abundant resources that could help us overcome shortages here on Earth. Although the oil scares of the 1970s are behind us, Earth's population continues to grow at an alarming rate and our energy consumption keeps apace. According to an analysis by William H. Siegfried, between the beginning of our current century and 2050, the United States' demand for electrical energy will increase from 3 to 9 trillion kilowatt-hours, an increase by a factor of three!16 Even today, many less developed countries either cannot support their electrical power needs or do so by burning precious and highly polluting fossil fuels. The more developed countries have access to nuclear power, but it may be reaching a plateau. Further utilization of nuclear power is limited by its potentially hazardous nature, resistance on the part of environmental activists, and the risk that nuclear materials will fall into the hands of terrorists.
Sanders D. Rosenberg and John S. Lewis, among others, describe how we may be able to use the Moon or satellites to collect solar energy in space and then beam it back to Earth in the form of microwaves.17 In one scenario, the solar power would be collected on the Moon's surface and then beamed to Earth. In another, lunar resources would be used to construct a large number of satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbits. Power would be beamed from these satellites to Earth. An advantage of this strategy is that we could eliminate many of our largest power-distribution grids, recycling the metals and improving the appearance of our land. Instead of, say, running power lines from Niagara Falls to Boston, we could beam the microwaves to Boston, where the power is consumed.
Another technique for meeting Earth's future power needs begins with mining helium-3 on the Moon. This substance, which is rare on Earth, is abundant on the Moon. After it is mined and brought to Earth it can be fused with deuterium in a process that involves little radioactivity and waste. The Moon has enough helium-3 to accommodate today's energy requirements for another thousand years. When, several hundred years from now, the Moon's supply begins to run out, we may be able to obtain raw materials from the gas giants—Jupiter, Saturn,
Uranus, and Neptune. In effect, these planets have enough raw materials to meet our energy needs forever.
Lewis describes also the incredible mineral wealth embodied in as-teroids.18 By his estimate, there is enough iron in the asteroid belt to meet Earth's needs for 400 million years. The small asteroid Amun, with its two-kilometer diameter, would yield about $8,000 billion in iron and nickel; $6,000 billion in cobalt; and another $6,000 billion in platinum and related metals such as osmium, iridium, and palladium. Ignoring many other precious ingredients, Amun's current value on Earth would be about $20,000 billion. Of course, we cannot reach Amun right now, and in any case the sudden influx of a huge quantity of rare metals would cause their value to plummet. Still, it is nice to know that these resources may be available to our descendants.
Some asteroids, Lewis claims, are more accessible to us than the Moon. These include the most dangerous asteroids, those that are rapidly approaching and could collide with Earth. Rather than trying to destroy them with explosives, we should mine them. In the course of stripping them down, we would gain new resources as we eliminate the threat. Gregory Matloff points out that space station technology would allow us to visit asteroids that approach Earth. Because this would not require descending into and climbing out of another planet's gravity well, it might be easier for us to visit a near-Earth asteroid than to visit Mars.19
A very long time from now we may use space resources to support ourselves, if we develop new societies on huge orbiting platforms, on the Moon, or on Mars. Large-scale emigration into space could offer us two benefits. First, by dispersing ourselves throughout the solar system our species can survive meteor strikes or other major calamities that could eradicate life on Earth. If we disperse widely enough, we can even survive the eventual death of our Sun. Second, emigration will allow human population to grow beyond the size that can be accommodated on Earth.20 Our solar system can accommodate perhaps 10 quadrillion people. If and when we once again start rubbing elbows with one another, we may be able to migrate to other stars.
Tourism is one of the world's largest industries, and at some point we may expect to send tourists into space. Several companies already hope to vie for tourists' dollars, and some are even accepting reservations for suborbital flights. Later on, tourists may orbit Earth two or three times, spend a couple of days on an orbiting hotel, or even circle the Moon. Right now we have no civilian spaceplanes, no orbiting hotels, no beckoning oases on the Moon or Mars. Still, surveys suggest that people want to visit space, recognize that it will be expensive, and are willing to save for their trip.21
It might seem that space tourism would be one of the last industries to develop, long after we have established orbiting factories and strip-mining on the Moon. After all, tourists will not be attracted by the primitive conditions that scientists and explorers accept. However, space tourism advocates such as David Ashford and Patrick Collins believe that tourism may be one of the first space industries to emerge and that it will then pave the way for everything else.22 The key to all human endeavors in space is developing low-cost methods for getting there. The lure of big financial returns from the huge tourist market gives entrepreneurs incentive to do this. Ashford and Collins themselves developed phased plans for first bringing very wealthy tourists into space, then expanding the opportunity to a broader range of people, and finally bringing the cost down to approximately ten thousand dollars per person for orbital trips. In the course of developing ways to mass-market space vacations, they hope to bring down the costs for everyone—engineer, scientist, construction worker—and open the door for industrialization and settlement.
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Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.