Saturday, October 22, 2011

Space Week 2011 #3: "50 Years of Human Spaceflight"

Greetings, everyone.

I know its been a while since the last one, and sadly writing/blogging is still something I do only as a hobby. Now it is only a coincidence that I am writing this on Oct. 22nd, the day after the latest failed prediction of the Rapture. Interestingly enough it also happens to be Darkness Day, the annual ritual at Surly Brewery where they sell their most excellent Russian imperial stout, called Darkness (I got mine, thank you very much). In a way I was almost hoping the Rapture would actually happen, since then the Tribulation, or, as most people call it, the Republican presidential nomination campaign, would have been blessedly over, but unfortunately it looks like we still have another year and few weeks of stupid bombardment to endure from the candidates. On to the topic at hand.  

The first official Space Week was celebrated in 1999, and one year later I began my annual article series in honor of it. Space Week and its attendant activities are coordinated loosely by an organization called the World Space Week Association (WSWA), which works closely with the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) to plan events and generate publicity. For the past several years the WSWA has declared a theme for Space Week, and for 2011 the theme was "50 Years of Human Spaceflight". This was highly appropriate since April 12, 2011 was the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic orbital flight aboard Vostok I. This day has long been celebrated in Russia, and some other former Soviet republics, as Cosmonauts' Day, and the commemorations there featured massive public ceremonies with all the pomp and circumstance that comes with them. While this may seem quaint to westerners we should remember that of the many legacies the Soviet Union left behind, the Soviet space program and its early achievements are one of the few of which Russia can be justly proud. Thus I am more than willing to let them whoop it up in Yuri's honor (having read a few things about him, I think he would heartily approve), but I also hope that one day April 12th will be celebrated worldwide on the scale it deserves.

Now that the hoopla has died down, though, we can look back on those 50 years with a more sober eye and ask ourselves "What have we really accomplished?" Regrettably, when I consider human spaceflight specifically I think my answer has to be not all that much, especially in comparison with how robotic exploration has fared. We started out pretty good, going from one man completing an orbit or two to sending crews of three to the Moon and back in barely eight years. But since then we have been stuck in low Earth orbit, with no nation or coalition of nations willing to make the investments necessary to truly push out into the Solar System. Why we have yet to make good on that early potential is a subject on which I can pontificate at length, but in a nutshell the reasons have more to do with the political (Cold War detente in the 70's turned the Space Race into a crawl) and economic (putting people in orbit is pretty damn expensive) environments than with any scientific barrier. Now, however, I think we might finally be ready to get going again, and the catalyst for this, oddly enough, is the retirement earlier this year of the Space Shuttle. Like many of you, I watched the final launch with a tear in my eye, nostalgic for the class of vehicles that for my entire lifetime has been the way NASA sent people into space. But look again at that last sentence. If the phrase "my entire lifetime" didn't jump out at you...well it should have.

I was born in 1977, so can no longer consider myself a spring chicken. Think for a minute how much computer technology has advanced from that time to today and you might be able to understand my disappointment. But hopefully that is water under the bridge. The shuttles were never meant to be around as long as they were, and we are capable of making something much better, so now that they are finally out of the way perhaps we will. This motivation coupled with two other factors are what I believe will help us get human exploration rolling again. Firstly, the last 30 years haven't been a complete waste, far from it. Thanks to the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) and the research now going on there we now know a lot more about how the human body might fare over the course of a long-term space voyage and the hazards from which it will need to be protected. Secondly, renewed and increased competition, both from other nations and from nascent private companies, will require NASA to up its game. The Chinese became the third nation to send their own people into space in 2003, and I will not be surprised if other emerging powers such as India or Brazil do so by the end of this decade. Also, the first private spaceport is now under construction in New Mexico, and later on we will take a closer look at how that industry is faring. For the next few years ISS crews will be using single-use Russian Soyuz capsules to get to and from orbit, but it is hoped that eventually private carriers could perform that function (though sadly you will be SOL if you bought a ticket to space from Pan-Am in 1968).

This handoff should then allow the folks at NASA to focus on the next big target, whether that be a return to the Moon, a near Earth asteroid, or even Mars. Anything that gets us beyond low Earth orbit on a consistent basis really, and the sooner the better. Though to expect advances in human spaceflight at a rate comparable to that in computing is pretty unrealistic, significant progress is possible when there is a clear goal and a reliable commitment of resources to make it happen. It will be expensive, certainly, but not beyond the pale, especially when many nations pool their funds and expertise, and investments of that type often pay off several times over as they spawn new technologies and create a more highly skilled workforce. I can think of nothing better to get this country out of the collective funk it has been in since late 2008, in both the economic and psychological sense, and look forward to the day when going into space will be as routine as air travel is currently.

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