Into the Final Frontier

Well, it’s finally happened. As I write this—on Tuesday, the 22nd of May, 2012—there’s an unmanned capsule orbiting our home planet that contains supplies for the space station. After going through a series of maneuvers to test its control, this capsule will dock with the station on Friday.

What makes this special? It’s the first capsule launched by a commercial company, in this case, Space X.

I love it.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’m very much in support of space exploration. Maybe you think the opening to Star Trek, with its introduction “Space—the final frontier” is a bit overly dramatic or tacky, but it’s true: space is the final frontier. While we haven’t exactly conquered Earth—and probably never will—we do need to expand.

There is a contingent of people out there whose only goal is that we reach some mythical Utopia. I’m not sure why anyone would want to live in Utopia. Sounds pretty boring to me. But I contend that, the moment we reach Utopia, we’ll start breaking down and/or stagnating. Maybe even both. Why? Because we, as a race, need challenge. We need something to strive against.

It’s all well and good to long for peace. And I have to agree that out-and-out war isn’t where you want to stay all the time. It’s too hard on our young and gets too few people too much money (I’m not a fan of the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about in the fifties).

But we do need a challenge. And what bigger challenge is there then expanding into space?

“But what do we get out of it?” you ask.

“What don’t we get?” I counter.

First off, there’s the commercial potential, which is why I’m glad to see we’re getting space companies. Robert A. Heinlein, in his future history series of stories gathered in the omnibus volume entitled The Past Through Tomorrow, envisioned the space race being a commercial venture, and I personally believe it would have worked better that way. I mean, what venture has the government ever dipped its greasy fingers in that’s worked out?


So why should they stay in it?

Look at what they did. First, the Apollo program, which worked out fairly well. But see, with Apollo 11, we hit the surface of the moon. By Apollo 13, interest had already fallen off, and the only reason that mission got the attention it did was because it ended up a disaster with a happy ending. By the time the Apollo program ended, nobody cared that we were going to the moon, and we haven’t been back since. It’s like, once we made it there first, we saw no reason to go back, because it was no longer engrossing the voting public.

But in Heinlein’s series of stories, it was commercial interests who got us into space, and the moment they saw its full potential, there was no turning back. Say what you will about corporations, once they get their teeth into something, they go all the way. And, since the government has shown us they can’t manage the space program worth a damn, let’s see what commercial interests can do.

I betcha they won’t build one of the most complex vehicles in the world that can’t be launched if it’s friggin’ raining.

Really? You can’t launch a space vehicle—i.e. something built to endure absolute zero and total vacuum—because of some falling water? What’s up with that?

Wait a minute? Are you telling me the Challenger blew up because of an O-ring? That the Columbia disintegrated like cheap glass because of a missing tile? All this in a vehicle that costs something like a billion bucks, all told?

Sounds like classic bureaucratic inefficiency to me.

Okay, to be fair, that’s actually not a bad record. Three vehicles lost in over fifty years in space: one Apollo capsule blew up on the pad, and two shuttles exploded in flight. Considering all the risks associated with space travel, that’s pretty good. I don’t think the Russians did as good, but I’m not sure. I don’t know much about their space program, other than wondering how they land those capsules on dry ground without killing the occupants.

But the NASA program risks a highly expensive vehicle—I think a shuttle, depending on when it was built, runs somewhere around $30,000,000+—every time they launch. And then they have to inspect it before they risk reentry. They attach it to a very dangerous launch vehicle—a flying bomb—and sling it into space at over 17,000mph.

Meanwhile, there’s a guy in California—or was—who has a design for a literal space plane—which is what the shuttle was supposed to be, but isn’t—that takes off from a runway and gets into space for about the cost of a trans-Pacific flight from LA to Australia. And takes about the same amount of crew members. If you want more details on this guy’s design, find the novel Space Angels by Larry Niven et al. There’s a very good description, including a diagram of the vehicle, in the Afterword. It’s a space plane that costs a million bucks to build, if I remember right, and takes of just like a conventional airplane. Except it goes into orbit and beyond.

The government turned his plans down. I don’t remember the details.

But now…now we’ve got Space X, along with other companies, vying to get to space as quickly as possible. One of these companies is Virgin, the one run by British billionaire Richard Branson. If Branson sees potential in it, I’d say it’s a good bet there’s something there. He didn’t get as rich as he is by being stupid.

No, companies aren’t perfect. Things don’t turn out the way they do in most sf stories, where everything works just as it’s designed to unless it’s the Millennium Falcon. If things worked that way, retail stores wouldn’t need return policies and there wouldn’t be lemon laws. And, as mentioned before, space travel is dangerous. The conditions up there are extreme. But it’s a high risk/high reward scenario. I can’t even go into all the things we stand to gain by expanding into space. It would take up too much, um, well, space, if you’ll pardon the unintended pun. Besides, if you look it all up yourself, it’ll convince you more than I ever could.

I’m glad to see we’re going out there, even if we’re still taking baby steps. You gotta start somewhere, and I think it’ll pick up pace from here on out.





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2 responses to “Into the Final Frontier

  1. Look at our oceans. We have lots of commercial and private traffic, but there are still national navies out there. It’s not an either/or situation. Recall “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Dr. Floyd uses commercial transports to get to the Moon, but the “Discovery” was a government project. (Yes, that mission failed, but that was thanks to the dang computer. . .) All in all, the more ways that human beings get out into space, the better.

    • You have a good point. And I’d have to say that, overall, the government did pretty good with the Gemini and Apollo programs. The shuttle program was overblown and expensive, in my mind, overkill in the space plane department. But, bottom line is yes, it’s better to have too many folks trying to get up there than none at all.

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