I mentioned in my last post that the human race now has the ability to create our own future, for good or for bad. That means we have to decide the kind of world we want in the years to come and figure out what needs to be done to make that world come about.
It was ten years ago this week (October 4, 2004) that SpaceShipOne, manufactured by Scaled Composites, LLC made its second flight within two weeks to the edge of space to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize. In my future world, travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere is virtually routine. Sure, I wanted to be a space cowboy as a kid (with all the poise and composure of Buzz Lightyear, no doubt) but the adult in me can justify it in lots of rational ways. The biggest reason is that, in a universe with planet-killing asteroids and globe-scorching weapons of our own devising, we don’t dare entrust all the forms of life that we know about to one vulnerable planet. We owe it to Life to spread its eggs beyond this basket, whether that means terraforming Mars or building space arks to other solar systems.
There’s also abundant free energy out there. It may not be possible to safely transfer it to the surface of the Earth, but we should at least be taking advantage of it to perform manufacturing tasks that are energy-intensive and use huge quantities of finite and polluting energy resources when carried out down here. The same argument goes for resources of other kinds: minerals and rare earths that we know are available in asteroids and moons, and can be mined without despoiling the environment of the Earth.
It may take significantly more time to accomplish, but the ability to colonize other planets, near and far, would relieve a lot of the pressure on our home world all by itself, as well as providing opportunities we can’t yet imagine on whole new frontiers. Individually and collectively, humans have always been inspired to improve our lot by pushing against boundaries and seeking greener pastures.
To do all of these things we need spaceflight to become cheap and routine. How do we do that?
Government programs aren’t the answer. There is a place for public money to support technological innovation, but bureaucracies and shifting political winds are the enemies of real progress. That leaves private ventures or publicly-traded companies, of which there are now many that are directly involved in space exploration and exploitation (see these lists thanks to The Space Settlement Institute). Among the highest profile examples are SpaceX (with a number of successful supply missions to the International Space Station) and Virgin Galactic (more than five hundred people have booked their sub-orbital flight aboard SpaceShipTwo, hopefully beginning next year). But many of the other players are serious, well-staffed, and well-organized. If you want to do your part to bring about routine spaceflight in your lifetime, consider investing in these companies, either by buying stock or making a donation. Some may invite you to volunteer your time and talent. All would appreciate you urging governments to smooth their path with friendly legislation or funding or both.
Maybe you and I will never get to be space cowboys, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help to put things in motion. Onward and upward, that is.