Those of us in the space business have been looking for an “airtight” rationale that justifies human spaceflight. Many different reasons and justifications have been advanced, all refutable to a greater or lesser extent by skeptics. Using the settlement of space as a rationale seems very attractive because, by definition, it requires humans to be present there. The story of life on Earth is the story of extinction, so we must establish multiple human settlements throughout space to insure the survival of our culture and species.
Derek Webber, writing in The Space Review, is the latest to take up this rhetorical argument. Webber does not suggest that we make settlement the only goal of human spaceflight – he simply wants it explicitly listed among all of the many other goals and objectives. He recognizes that this is a long-term goal, distant enough that its inclusion has no budgetary implications. In this sense, it mostly serves to raise the consciousness of the public, to inculcate within them the idea that the human settlement of space is a long-term strategic aim.
Webber argues that because adding this goal has no budgetary implications, there is no downside to including it. I beg to differ. As I have argued previously, although I am sympathetic to the intellectual argument that species survival is the “ultimate rationale” for human spaceflight in general, I do not think that this is an appropriate goal or rationale for a federal, civil space program. The reasons have to do with perceptions among those who work in the space field, as well as by politicians who fund it, and by the public at large.
Those of us working in this field have long cherished the common dream of possessing the ability to go anywhere in space – for as long as we want, to do any task we can imagine. We differ only in our envisioned approaches for achieving this hypothesized Nirvana. Politicians want to serve their constituents – and sometimes, they have a desire to serve the nation as a whole. The public finds space travel exotic and occasionally interesting, but few desire to live there. They tend to look at those who do harbor such desires as interesting but peculiar. Thus, we have three groups, all having different experience bases and motivations, searching for common policy ground. The problem is that two of those three groups (politicians and the public) view space settlement at best as impractical. Even some within our own business find the concept a bit flaky. Such a mixed bag of negative perceptions about settlement does not make this a good nail upon which to hang our rationale for a multi-billion dollar per year program.
As suggested above, if in the long run settlement of space is objectively a good idea, how do we work it into our multi-lateral programmatic rationale? One way is to change the perceptions of many who find the idea of living in space laughable. My preference has been to work towards the creation of capabilities with immediate and practical rationales, capabilities that will also enable us eventually to live in space.
In the near term, a rationale for space must yield practical benefits. The way to do this is to establish an extensible and permanent space transportation system in cislunar space – the zone from low Earth orbit to the Moon – as that is where most of our national economic, security and scientific satellite assets reside. Developing the ability to move freely throughout this zone of space will revolutionize the spaceflight paradigm. By possessing the ability to send people and robots to all the locations in cislunar space, large satellite complexes with unlimited capabilities can be built and maintained indefinitely where these satellites dwell. My chosen strategic path is to harvest and use space resources – most notably the abundant water found at the poles of the Moon that can fuel and operate a reusable space transportation infrastructure. Once this architecture is established and running, we will become a space faring species. By demonstrating the ability to use space resources, we will possess the means to travel to the planets. Entrepreneurs and visionaries will rush to participate and innovate; spawned by an understanding of new possibilities, the public will recognize the long-term societal value of space.
Note that in this discussion about the development and use of space resources, settlement of space is nowhere mentioned or even hinted at. However, settlement is not precluded by taking this path and arguably it is enabled through the creation of the ability to use the material and energy resources of the Moon. Which is likely to be more appealing to a politician struggling to justify a large expenditure: a Moon colony or the creation of a re-fueling station to supply the spacecraft building a new strategic surveillance satellite cluster? Which sounds to the public to be more “practical” and provide more societal benefit: an experiment in utopian societal engineering somewhere in space or the building of an ISS-sized communications complex in GEO, broadcasting 5000 channels of high-definition television to their smartphones and iPads?
The creation of a cislunar transportation infrastructure serves all of our current and envisioned space needs and wants. Ultimately, it will serve the goals of space settlement as well. The perception by some that the recent Augustine committee claimed that settlement was the “ultimate rationale” for human spaceflight is not correct; that report outlines several nebulous goals of which “charting a path for human expansion into the solar system” (page 33; note well: charting a path not “traveling down it”) was only one (and the last to be elucidated). In fact, the Augustine report was masterful in its bureaucratic non-specificity – something for everyone (eventually) with no one satisfied (in the near term) – equal non-opportunity.
Even from a philosophical perspective, perhaps human settlement of space is not an “ultimate rationale.” We may find that living in space is neither desirable nor possible. But that does not mean that we won’t want to go there. Although the islands of Earth are mostly all inhabited, few people actually live at sea – yet they traverse by sea or air to reach those island destinations. Like the sea, space is a vast and empty zone between islands (worlds). We created the ability to journey on the world’s seas for many reasons, some practical and others not. Once we had that ability, many different kinds of missions (including survival) became possible, including settlement of distant shores.
We need to create a navy to sail throughout space. Like Earth’s vast expanses of navigable water, space has many different strategic zones and theaters of operations. Cislunar space is the littoral zone of the sea that is our Solar System. It is in this nearby zone of space where we must first create the building blocks necessary for establishing a greater capability to journey farther, and long term. But why do we need humans with their expensive special needs, slowing down progress and driving up costs? Because machines remain simply tools that we create to make our lives easier. They possess neither the capabilities nor the judgment of people and are a long way, if ever, from replacing our abilities. We desire to sail the oceans of space because we must – because of all the possible activities that we can imagine there, people are needed to realize them. Curiosity is the emotional engine that drives us to explore and create. Denied this outlet and opportunity, humanity becomes dysfunctional.
Settlement of space may be a good idea in principle (species survival), but it is a bad rationale for NASA (the giggle factor). What we need is the ability to go anywhere and do anything. We may want to live there, but most will probably not want to. However, we still need the ability to go there – to work, to explore, to play or for any other activity we can imagine (and probably a few more we can’t yet imagine). Government should back endeavors that open doors to activities where new economic opportunities can be undertaken by the private sector, that advance national security and scientific knowledge, and that serves and advances the interests of their citizens. We need a navy to sail the “new ocean” of space. Navies don’t “settle” the ocean, they “rule the waves” – the modes of travel. They project power when necessary and ensure the peace. By establishing a space navy, we develop the techniques and means to settle space naturally as we learn and understand from the process. Rather than being distractions, the Moon and cislunar space are close, interesting and useful – keys at our disposal to unlock the doorway to space.
Some of my previous rants on this and related topics: