Thursday, August 20, 2009

At the limits of the possible

Tight budget quashes US space ambitions: panel is the headline for a story from which landed in my in-box this morning. President Obama has commissioned a panel, which has produced a report laying out the reality of the costs involved in manned space travel versus the likely budget allocation. Here's a snip…
Reaching Mars was deemed too risky while returning to the Moon by 2020 was ruled out barring an additional three billion dollars per year to replace the retiring space shuttle fleet and build bigger rockets, according to the group led by Norm Augustine, a former CEO of US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.

The problem is not the just the will to do manned space flight, it's the money. You need a lot of reliable finance for a manned space program, because it takes many years to develop and the people have to be recruited, trained and paid to stay there. They need confidence and continuity in order to do their best and you need the best kind of work from such people, because to quote Tom Wolf from The Right Stuff, "It can blow at any seam!". This is why the Chinese could be on a roll at the moment with their manned program. They have a certain stability and predictability due to their dictatorial political arrangements. At the moment they're likely to do better than the Americans over the next few years if their technical people are up to scratch and the leadership of their program is good.

But in the end we are all hostages to the environment we live in. Some may push out further along a certain path than others, because they can cooperate better or are more amenable to discipline. But no-one can live on nothing, and the Chinese are likely to discover their limits are not too far away either, because the manned space enterprise rests on the back of industrial civilisation in general, which in turn is hostage to cheap oil.

We now appear to have crossed the bumpy summit of peak production in oil sometime in the last couple of years and to be standing at the top of the long slope down. From now on oil will be available, but not affordable in the way it has been, and this will undercut the assumptions which have underpinned our growth economy and our ever expanding world population. The surplus wealth and energy at the command of large organisations, which is necessary for exuberant adventures such as manned space flight, will not be there for much longer.

This is a tragedy of a profound kind. It means we are likely now to remain forever on Earth until we, meaning humans firstly, and then terrestrial life in general, goes extinct. We had a tiny window of opportunity but we missed it. Maybe the step was always too big. While us space nuts could wheel out all kinds of blue-sky designs which could theoretically get us not just off Earth and on to our local planets but beyond to more distant stars, the cost was always going to be phenomenal. We almost had the chance at the beginning of the seventies, but once public interest in the whole enterprise waned after the initial Moon landings and we lost ourselves, in the words of James Howard Kuntsler, in dark raptures of personal consumption and non-stop entertainment, the opportunity slipped from our grasp.

The Space Shuttle is a triumph of sorts, more over a basically poor design than of anything really useful. To quote again from the article I mentioned at the beginning…
The White House could take months to decide its course of action, said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

"We have inherited one of the many failed promises of the Bush administration -- to set out a very good program without providing the resources to fund it," he told AFP, urging a new direction.

"We have lived an illusion for five years."

The US space shuttle program and the ISS, he said, "were a mistake" when compared to the Apollo Project that landed man on the moon for the first time.
The unmanned commercial exploitation of space will continue for a few more decades and will return its shareholders money on their investments. There is a faint possibility that a manned program could grow out of it, but it is very unlikely, simply because manned flight is orders of magnitude more difficult than unmanned.

Isn't it an extraordinary thing though, to live at such a moment in world history when we are wheeling through the very outermost limits of what was possible. Of course our appetites are always well beyond our capabilities. But what a dream it has been and how difficult it will be to let it go.

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