During the first high profile spacecraft launches of the 70s, public support for space exploration was at an all-time high, but since has seen steady deсline. The past decades have been spent formalizing our understanding of scientific data and completing the institutionalization of processes usually associated with any totally new and unknown industry, with bureaucracy slowing down research efforts so vitally needed for true advancement in the field. As it happens in most organizations, daring pursuit of innovation has been replaced by administration requiring a whole generation of managers focused more on adjusting the accuracy of existing findings than producing scientific breakthroughs.
With explosive growth giving way to steady extension, space exploration became the subject of interest for specialized professional – not the general public.
Then, about ten years ago, the private sector realized the staggering dimension of potential market impact that space exploration promised and went on to build new companies to exploit it. While Elon Musk’s SpaceX managed to get funding through contracts from NASA, Blue Origin of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos managed to remain completely privately financed. With the promise of overhauling the whole industry they were granted access to launch facilities and are now making steady progress in pursuit of that goal.
Musk’s statements about the importance of Mars exploration and his real efforts to achieve it in his lifetime pushed interest to the potential economic opportunities of space exploration. A fresh and interesting idea is mining asteroids in orbit around earth, which are likely to hold enormous value in the form of rare earths and precious metals. Growing demand for electronics and a shortage of raw materials for manufacturing them makes it a multi-trillion dollar industry, while also potentially holding the key to sustainable space exploration.
Now, in 2015, sustained and ongoing space exploration is closer to becoming a reality than ever before, but there are still some obstacles we need to overcome. Let’s take a look at four reasons why we are not exploring space and why they aren’t reasons at all.
LACK OF GENERAL INTEREST
News portals in 2015 never seem to run out of stories related to space exploration – there are companies working on reducing costs for space travel, Saturn is giving birth to a new moon, we rendezvoused with a comet and are now in possession of the most detailed map of our place in the universe to date.
But these headlines may seem bleak and boring to a public that gets its picture of space from movies like “Gravity” and “Interstellar”.
The cost of the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission ($ 75m) was actually lower than that of producing the “Gravity” movie ($ 100m), a fraction of the average cost of regular NASA satellite launches. We should hope that these movies contribute to public interest in space – if not, it’s quite sad to think about what could have been achieved by putting that amount of money to use in research.
But politicians use their nations budgets for appealing to the interests of taxpayers while directors make movies about stories they expect to sell well, and only history will tell which benefitted civilisation more.
There were many news about space exploration so far this year, but none of them have been as viscerally breathtaking as the space exploration movies.
Humankind hasn’t built a space elevator yet, we are still not on our way to Mars, rocket fuels remain woefully inefficient, we don`t know how to deal with high radiation levels found in space and we have yet to make a breakthrough in decreasing the cost of delivering payloads into orbit.
And no, aliens still don`t talk to us.
Last year, when Voyager was 11.66 billion miles (18.67 billion kilometers) away from earth, it was the first time in history that a human made device left our solar system – yet it is just one spacecraft (launched in 70s) going in just one direction.
Someday in the future we could imagine another regular tourist shuttle “Earth – Alpha Centauri” will slow down near Voyager to show this peculiar museum object to the passengers, similar to the way we look at prehistoric monkey’s fire stones in museums here on earth.
But in order to make this happen, we need a shift in priorities. Governments and the private sector are allocating some amount of money to space research, to acceleration of particles at the LHC, testing space elevator climbers, and sometimes even give their computers to process and search for pulsars. We need more people involved in space science and the money invested in movies popularizing the field is likely to do just that.
LACK OF RESOURCES
Total U.S. outlays for 2016 are estimated at $3.99 trillion. NASA’s request would earmark $18.529 billion, or 0.46 percent of the total.
In the 1960s, when the US struggled to overtake the Soviet Union in the space race, NASA’s budget was 4.5 percent of the US budget.
There is a common misconception that the single biggest cost factor in space missions is rocket fuel (there is an opinion that this is due to the high cost of rare earth metals needed for production), but this isn’t true. Yes, at this stage of development of the industry fuel costs are high, but the main item of expenditure are the rockets.
According to Elon Musk, fuel costs could account for only 0.4% of the total cost of the launch as long as the frequency of launches increases – a goal which we are making progress towards.
The main objective of space science right now is reducing the cost of launches, and one of the ways to do this is making rockets reusable. Continuing the tradition of the Space Shuttle program, Musk expects a 100 fold reduction in overall cost.
The recent attempt to return the machine to Earth was successful enough. The unmanned Falcon rocket delivered its Dragon cargo module to the International Space Station and then attempted a controlled landing on a marine platform, which failed.
ESA brought us good news too: its Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) splashed into the ocean after a successful launch this March.
The strategic goal of the global space science community is – and should be – to involve business in space research. Making it work economically by opening up space to tourism and other commercial uses will allow the industry to develop in a sustainable way. After 50 years of space research it is a time to shift from government funding to profit optimization.
Now the development will need to aim for conveyor belt production of rockets as the painstaking work of building by hand is a major obstacle to growing this industry.
Every dollar invested in NASA was recovered and brought huge profits, but this long-term money will bring profits just in 10-15 years. Such long-term deposits can be afforded only by wealthy companies – that`s why they built so many telescopes around the world, and that`s why they are the first to believe in the success of the Planetary Resources.
Every time the government tries to cut NASA’s budget, scientists are quick to remind us that all GPS navigation has grown out of scientific contributions, especially made as a result of the space flight program.
Scientific research is generally conducted with a long-term vision of actual usefulness – technology development, and that’s why graphene is made in the United States: they understand that cutting-edge technology development takes time but in the end tends to lead to profits for the commercial sector.
Now companies are starting to think about putting production facilities in orbit, because having access to 24/7 non-stop sun energy combined with zero-gravity conditions holds promise for new production possibilities. It will be possible, if science and business work together and drive down the price point of sending cargo to orbit with reusable rockets, the space elevator or other methods.
NEGATIVE PUBLIC VIEWS
History of science is a history of thousands fails and several success stories – not such a good balance for newsmakers.
Usually when I ask people why NASA shut down its shuttle program, they answer: because they crash too often. But of 135 total flights only two shuttles crashed. The Challenger was lost at liftoff and Columbia at reentry. Since the 1960s more than 20 astronauts died in accidents.
Recent breaking news with titles like “Russian cargo spacecraft is out of control and falling to Earth” do not contribute to favorable public opinion which has decreased with each of the accidents. Good news don’t sell, so in the editorials we see mostly space accidents.
The public doesn’t consider that despite the misfortunes, space exploration holds enormous potential for scientific advancement and economic growth. Each science experiment yields new data and is conducive to the advancement of science, regardless of the success or failure of any particular one.
Space mining may seem seem like a grand endeavor likely to fail, but it is through those failures that we get closer to actually succeeding.
It takes time to screen the myriads of asteroids in near earth orbit, find those with high enough value to warrant a mining operation, and then bring the output back to Earth. But we are not too far from it: the Rosetta probe landing had the mission to gather data on mineral resources in comets and its landing on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet was successful. But yet again this great scientific achievement, despite the well-crafted launch campaign with a science-fiction short film, is mostly remembered for the “unseemly appearance” of Matt Taylor at the presentation of the project, turning the whole affair into a feminist scandal. Now the public’s view of a successful space scientist is “just another guy who was put down by feminists”.
One of the most powerful women characters in science-fiction films, Lieutenant Ripley from “Alien”, has brought more feminism to the masses via the big screen than the instigators of the surge against Matt Taylor’s shirt.
Until we routinely send television celebrities to space (and, what is more important, successfully return them back), negative views will likely prevail in public opinion and those writing about it.
One of the most long lasting and far reaching campaigns for “space as a friendly place” has been undertaken by Lego, who have been producing space-related toys since 1978.
The next surge of space popularity will likely come from things like 3D movies in Oculus Rift or a horror game featuring the ISS.
LACK OF CONNECTIONS
Yes, it is true. We dealed with a lack of connections between scientists, between different science fields and between business and science.
While many people are aware of the problem that too few students are choosing careers in science, much less space science, and are working hard to change that through various STEM initiatives, there is another problem just as troubling – there is too little exchange across disciplines and between science and business. With scientific knowledge reaching unprecedented depths and stretching across so many disciplines, with people using technologies and machines much smarter than they, with projects becoming so big that no one person can oversee them, we need collaboration between the specialists of many different fields. Not in the usual hierarchical structure common in research, but with an informational matrix in the optimal shape of a well-connected and transparent network.
More and more science is being done this way. Studies have dozens of authors from all kinds of backgrounds, there is a growing number of research projects involving members of the public (“citizen science”), and hackerspaces are springing up all around the world, bringing together businessmen with amateur tinkerers and student scientists.
Nowadays it has become comparatively simple to finance new projects in this area (e.g. the production of miniature satellites) via venture capital financing or crowdfunding.
The truth is that people are still disconnected, scientists are still disconnected, different science fields are disconnected. But at the same time human communication gets better and better. The connection quality is experiencing exponential growth, but inflated requirements don’t allow us to fully enjoy the current speed of technological progress.
The idea is we can fix the disconnection of different areas by working together on a shared goal.
The evolution in one field of science can cause unforeseen developments in another field: neuroscience was made possible by computer chip production, biologists help the military to develop technologies unrelated to space that will send man to Mars, thus allowing scientific progress to go incredibly far. And we’re not just talking about increasing the number of scientific researches as a must, we are talking about a paradigm shift. We should start to ask totally new questions: how can we create an atmosphere on Mars, how are we going to build a factory in orbit, how is work in conditions of strange gravity possible? We need to start talking to each other to figure out how we can affect the world, how to develop new ideas and how to breath life into them.
That is what we at Copernicus are there to do.