Let’s say that a few weeks from now, a big piece of space junk slams into the International Space Station. The crew all escapes in that old Soyuz capsule (which is kept around for just such an emergency) but the station is considered a total loss.
Would human beings ever travel into space again?
I don’t see it happening in the forseeable future. With the entire developed world trying to deal with long-term economic problems, I’m having trouble imagining how manned space exploration would ever become a priority again.
On the other hand, I hope not. When I was a teenager, I read one or more books by Gerard K. O’Neill who had elaborate plans for establishing orbital colonies, built out of stuff mined from the moon. I’d like to see those planned carried out.
Well, the space based solar collection satellites were envisioned as in addition to large (like multiple thousand residents) colonies. Part of the reason for the manned colonies is to build and support the solar satellites.
The problem with manned space habitation is that it has to be done on a very large scale in order to be practical for the long term (i.e. sustainable), but the steps leading up to this require a very large investment in terrestrial-based infrastructure to support developing the capability. This is only practical if we posit a relatively inexpensive surface-to-orbit capability combined with a directed effort to develop the extraction of material resources and manufacturing in situ. (Note that mining and manufacturing on the Moon, while requiring somewhat less energy than launching from Earth, is still significantly constraining and probably not practical with foreseeable technology.) The current missions and plans with the ISS, whether supported by the Soyuz/Proton launches or the proposed successors to the American STS do not remotely satisfy these conditions. “Space colonies” that require significant construction in space are also prohibitive due to the shear level of effort of performing manual labor in free-fall and vacuum. The level of effort required to assembly the simple modules on the ISS is ridiculous in the extreme, making astronauts the most overtrained, overpaid construction workers in history by several orders of magnitude.
A realistic, self-sustaining colony structure is problematic; structures the size of an O’Neill “Island Three” or Stanford Torus require huge engineering construction projects that dwarf the complexity of any existing efforts. A habitat built from modular inflatable modules is perhaps more manageable but unlikely to be able to scale up to true sustainability. All will require shear mass for radiation shielding, protection from micrometeors, and other hazards that make it prohibitive to construct one in piecemeal fashion from simply attached modules.
I have an alternate design concept that uses an inflatable plenum that is filled with a wound fiber-reinforced ice/silica matrix to provide an expandable habitat filled with floating islands suspended on an interior “sea” of water, held in place by centrifugal acceleration. This uses predominately space-extracted resources for the basic structure (water, silicon, and air from near Earth asteroids, terrestrial carbon fiber), assembled by largely automated processes with minimal manual labor. It would require little in the way of material refining and manufacturing capability (no glass or refined metals). However, even this minimal infrastructure construction still would require ground-to-orbit costs in the $50/kg to orbit range to be feasible (i.e. a structure that costs <$500,000 per occupant based upon a population of 10,000 people) plus technical development of space-based extraction and transportation of resources. Realistically, the cost to construct the first of such habitats, independent of the necessary developments in propulsion technology, are probably on the order of $50B. The benefit is being able to support habitation in space is more sophisticated manufacturing and resource use than can be supported by automated facilities, with finished goods being shipped “downhill” at low energy cost and no issues with pollution or limited resource availability. However, the demand for this capability does not, at this point, justify the cost. A sustained program of both propulsion technology and space resource extraction infrastructure would be required before this would be viable.
In terms of exploration, there is simply no comparison between manned and unmanned; the cost of performing even the simplest of manned scientific missions is about two orders of magnitude more costly than a comparable unmanned mission, and the more complicated and in-depth exploration missions would simply not be able to be performed in a manned mission at all, e.g. landing on the surface of Venus or transiting the hazardous radiation environment of the Galilean moons.
Rockets, or chemical rockets at any rate, are to the exploration of space what the hot-air balloon was to the science of aeronautics: the best that could initially be done, but too limited to ever support the plans of the enthusiasts. Apollo was the equivalent of three men crossing the Atlantic in an open lifeboat, and even the most determined effort we could make today would be like the Viking expeditions braving the ocean in longboats.
I would say we’ll see people in space when some technology developed for other purposes, like hypersonic aircraft or mass-produced nanocable, makes it inexpensive to go into space purely as an afterthought. We’ll stay in space only after closed-cycle habitats have been demonstrated on Earth, again for other purposes such as arcologies perhaps.
(It would help a lot if we had a quick and easy way of splitting carbon dioxide directly into carbon and oxygen, the way we can electrolize water.)
And where is the money for such exploration going to come from? Private industry won’t see any immediate returns from exploration. The public isn’t going to support pure research by robots without also having some humans to fire hero worship, or at least to admire as something for their kids to dream about.
Gus Grissom had it backwards. No Buck Rogers, no bucks.
One reason for having taller buildings is that if real estate in a particular geographic location is limited you can stack floors to occupy more space…like in NYC for example. Manhattan is an island. If you want to work and live in Manhattan and make room for more people, you have to build up.
Last time I checked, land and real estate for the planet is still very plentiful. No need to build up into the heavens, yet. And probably not for a very long time.
Of course over the long term, a very good reason for space exploration and colonization is to reduce the risk of losing the species to a catastrophe. Of course if such an event occurs, an orbiting colony may also be affected by the same event.
I’m betting that people would rather live on terra firma than on a space station, that can easily be hit with and tragically damaged by flying space debris and meteorites. Living in space would be a last resort, at least for me. I’ll take my chances with tornados, earthquakes, hurricances, mudslides, etc. At least I can move around and get away.
I’d venture a large segment of my generation (late Boomer, early X-er) would leap at the chance to visit, work and live in space. If there is a lack of enthusiasm for it today I’d say it’s because the younger generation has lost hope that it will ever happen in their lifetimes. I can’t blame them, because so little has been done.
Compared to what we spend invading and occupying other countries, **Stranger’s **colony plans are an economic trifling, and what we’d learn in the process would have further reaching long-term benefits for humanity than what we’re probably going to reap from our recent military indulgences.