Achievements like the successful first launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket are signs of a “renaissance” that could open space up to more people, and change our perceptions of both space and the Earth. (credit: SpaceX)
We are entering a renaissance era in human spaceflight. Just as the European masters brought forth a magical period of learning, discovery, invention, fine arts, and music five hundred years ago, with the advances in the science and technologies proliferating today we can expect a rejuvenation in human space activity in this dawn of the 21st century.
The new US administration has moved swiftly to reinstate a newly constituted National Space Council and in its first meeting on October 5, 2017, directed NASA to conduct a 45-day study with the express aim of returning astronauts to our Moon. On December 11, the president signed Space Policy Directive 1 to set us on this course. It is not by accident that the president had Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Harrison Schmitt by his side when he signed the directive. If we are able to hold to this plan, we could have the new generation of 21st century astronauts step on our Moon on July 20, 2022, to celebrate both the 50th anniversary of the last Apollo 17 of December 1972 as well as remind us all when Apollo 11 landed and humans took the first step on an extraterrestrial body on July 20, 1969.
This policy is not founded on exploration, science, and technology prowess alone. It is the consensus and culmination of thought leaders that the free world must lead such an effort. And since our Moon is the next logical platform after the International Space Station to fly the “e pluribus unum” banner high, the most suited and capable nations who cherish free speech as well as freedom of thought and movement and expression should spearhead the endeavor. Outer space offers an ultimate arena to express human freedom, and we believe we should do it now since the technologies exist today both in government agencies as well as within the newly homegrown, innovative, and agile private space sector that is chomping at the bit to go.
Visions like those offered in the American Space Renaissance Act and the European Space Agency’s Moon Village suggest that a new paradigm is emerging for space activity in general, and human space activity in particular. A Space Renaissance of sorts is happening right now, especially in the human space endeavor, and it appears to have many nations and many sectors, both governmental and private, eager to participate in projects. At the September 2017 International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos agreed to study potential cooperation in the Deep Space Gateway (now Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway) to locate a crewed orbital station around our Moon. This act alone shows the ties that bind humanity, sans the prevailing thorns in the politics between rivals of the Cold War past.
With many promising space systems like the private SpaceX Falcon Heavy and Crew Dragon capsule, and NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System coupled with the Orion capsule, it is clear that human space activity will now see a healthy catalyst in commercial space sector involvement. In fact, the Falcon Heavy test flight last month is the harbinger of truly economic space access, providing the much needed catalyst our spaceflight program needs to spur on the development of human space activity, both on the domestic front and in the international arena.
The private space sector is poised to take advantage of new and emerging human space systems like fully reusable heavy-lift launchers and extraterrestrial landers. Advanced robotics, secure wideband delay- and disruption-tolerant communications, and agile and advanced manufacturing techniques are all essential technologies being honed to accelerate innovative and economically viable space systems needed to support crew on long missions away from home. Advances in biomedical and genetic engineering hold promise for shaping the future of bioastronautics, the discipline seeking to extend humanity’s reach into deep space, combatting space environmental issues like gravity and radiation, and providing crew sustenance through space agriculture and efficient recycling of consumables like air and water.
Of special mention are the technological advances in the nuclear thermal power generation industry. For a long time, space activities and visions of future space activities have been constrained by the paucity of power. The deregulation—or rather the ongoing re-regulation—of the nuclear power industry may bring forth new visions of spacecraft and extraterrestrial settlements based on the heritage that NASA pursued and successfully demonstrated decades ago. Long-duration missions, especially those proposals for space vehicles headed for destinations beyond our immediate, warm solar neighborhood, would benefit greatly from a new generation of compact nuclear fission power plants. The long nights on our Moon would be a perfect setting to test and certify this technology for safe and sustainable extraterrestrial settlement activity.
Unlike robotic space missions, human space activity has proved to be difficult to budget in the past, with extremely narrow engineering and human factors tolerances that are critical to preserving crew safety. In a global economy that is fast evolving into a multipolar one, aided by the reach and penetration of innovative and agile communication system networks, highly disruptive and distributive technologies like blockchain and cryptocurrencies like bitcoin seem to be reshaping economic activity. Perhaps space policy and economics will also be affected positively by the democratic transparency and fluidity we see?
Many chapters in the history of modern science and technology may be viewed through the poignant discoveries made by the inventions of the microscope and the telescope. Indeed, the great classical philosophical debates and divides between the biological and life sciences and the physical sciences mark the beginnings of the modern era of scientific thought. While the microscope allows the life sciences to continue to probe deeper and deeper into the living organism, the telescope looks outward into the heavens, toward the beginning of time and space. The James Webb Space Telescope is being readied for launch and will soon enhance the revolution in astronomy that the Hubble Space Telescope started more than a quarter century ago. Recall that astronaut missions were crucial in servicing the Hubble and to enhance performance, time and again.
Armed with the scientific and space instrumentation tools we have today, space science has much to offer humanity, about the origins of our universe, our solar system, the evolution of our Sun, and the origin of life itself. Far from over after the Apollo era that but scratched the surface, the scientific exploration of our Moon has not yet begun. Our dormant Moon holds an unperturbed record of solar activity over a billion-year span. Return to the Moon and careful extraction of material will bring hard data about solar activity that is of immediate benefit to humanity, as we try to understand and build reliable long-term climate change and solar behavior models that are crucial to preserving our biosphere and our species in particular. Recent discovery of breaches on lunar lava tube roofs called “skylights” would allow exciting exploration of their interiors, long considered for their potential to shelter us from the harsh lunar environment, and safely locate permanent habitats, from where we could evolve advanced technologies for humanity’s expansion into the cosmos.
Information is the lifeblood for the progress of civilization. The flow and freedom of information are the hallmarks of democracy. Information enhances plurality and enriches the colors of diversity. The emergence of a truly interconnected globe is happening right now as satellites are being deployed to provide global Internet coverage. The velocity of information today, aided by advances in information and communications technology, is vital to save lives in jeopardy. Timely information allows for progressive education of the professional and the new generation alike, and is the engine that drives new views and exciting innovations and inventions that make new dimensions in civilization possible. Human space activity is at the leading edge of such progressive activity and is one such arena of information-driven endeavor.
But we may be arriving at a critical inflection point; a confluence of philosophies of sorts. All our views of the world and our universe so far have been limited by looking out from Earth into our surroundings and peering into the universe from platform Earth. What would it feel like to step out of our only home, the blue planet we call Earth, and look back at this magical marble floating in the dark and void emptiness of space; to turn our heads and look back from another world, albeit barren and desolate? What would looking at Earth from outside feel like? What would people on Earth feel, looking up at our Moon, the largest, brightest and most visible orb in our night skies, and knowing that people are living, working and looking at us from there?
We already know that people who orbit the Earth or those who visited our Moon say the experience cannot be put into words. Such a view must be experienced directly, they say, and it permanently changes our minds, our lives, and our worldview.
And so it appears that through the mastery of human space technology, we are more ready than ever before now to embark on a journey that would allow large numbers of people to experience the out-of-this-world experience that philosophers call the Overview Effect. We will use the stepping stool of information and the machines that make technological progress possible to relish and bask in the spiritual sublime offered by outer space. And in the process, we will become a more refined and sensitive species, appreciative of humanity’s predicament on Earth and refine our consciousness and become more aware of our place and purpose in the cosmos. And perhaps become better neighbors, accepting of a new cosmopolitan worldview, and in the process, become better stewards of our only home we call Mother Earth.