Over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about and imagining the technologies, dangers, and adventures facing humans as they embark on further exploration and colonization of our space system. However, one of the key questions is how we are going to get there given the current realities of space travel. While there is certainly some reason for pessimism, there is thankfully, much reason for optimism as well. NASA and DARPA (the productive defense think tank that, amongst many other things, helped launch the precursor of the Internet) began an effort last year called The 100 Year Starship to begin the process of identifying the needs and obstacles to a multigeneration space mission (to be clear, no actual mission is planned at this point). The mission is being led by Mae Jamison, a former astronaut (below):
(Mae Jamsion, MD; courtesy of AP)Waning Capabilities?
The United States (as well as some other countries) has had the technical capability of launching a spaceship deep into space since the 1970s. The US government, with regularity, sends probes into deep space (e.g., the Pioneer and Voyager missions) and to visit specific planets (with probes sent to Mars, Venus, Titan, etc.). The US and other planets have the technical capability to launch humans into space and keep them there for a long time - the record for longest stay in space is about 14 months! However, it’s pretty hard to put the two together and set humans on a pathway to deep space travel. This is because of the long time frames involved in the travel and the large amount of resources that would be needed for the safe conveyance of humans for years in space.
Until very recently, the only serious players in space exploration has been the US government, led by its civilian program at NASA. For close to 30 years, NASA’s most advanced program was the space shuttle, which flew 135 times (with 2 flights ending in disaster). The space shuttle program ended in 2011, and the current policy of the Obama Administration is to develop a new heavy lift rocket this decade and get humans to Mars by the 2030s. Given the long horizons and the political and technical problems involved, there is reason to be concerned that this plans may not come to fruition.
(Artistic Rendering of future Space Launch System, courtesy Wikipedia)Aiming for the Future
The aims and direction of the US space program has been in flux over the last decade. President Bush endorsed an aggressive program known as the Constellation program. President Obama delayed and then partially cancelled the program. The current program, which is subject to changes in legislation currently being considered by Congress, does aim to go beyond low-earth orbit and into deep space. This involves several steps:
At the center of these plans is the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which will use the new Space Launch System to escape Earth. Orion will contain a conical Crew Module (CM) and a cylinder-shaped Service Module (SM), see the picture below, which represented its design as of several years ago.
What is very much up in the air is Orion’s future destination. Currently debated possible destinations are the Moon, a rendezvous with an asteroid, and a trip to Mars. Which ones will happen and in what order is not clear, but Orion should have the capability to serve in any of those missions.Can Free Markets Be the Answer?
Will Durant wrote that “the future never just happened, it was created.” The Obama administration has made it clear that private, commercial space flight will have a role in the nation’s future space launch plans. Some examples of key players in this industry are:Virgin Galactic and the X Prize
The Ansari X Prize was created in 1996 for the first non-government organization to launch a manned spacecraft into space and reuse it within two weeks. The winning project was SpaceShip One, designed by Burt Rutan and funded by Paul Allen. A picture of it is below. The program is now under Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, whose SpaceShip Two is their currently used model and they expect to begin commercial flights in the near future (a ticket price is currently $250,000).
(SpaceShip One in flight, courtesy Wikipedia)SpaceX
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation or SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk in 2002. He also founded PayPal and Tesla Motors, and is a key player in SolarCity. SpaceX developed the reusable Falcon launch vehicles and the Dragon spacecraft, which has carried cargo to the international space station. Most ambitiously, he is working on a privately funded Mars Colonial Transporter that will have regularly scheduled commercial service to Mars. Not much is known about this spacecraft, but Musk has talked about doing completing this in the 1-2 decade timeframe.
(SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle; courtesy Wikipedia)