The recent passing of Neil Armstrong – the first human to step foot on the moon – combined with recent Russian plans to build a base on the moon, provides a good opportunity to pause and consider the future of human spaceflight.
I am old enough, like many of my “baby boomer” counterparts, to remember where I was when that fateful “small step for [a] man/giant step for mankind” was taken.
I watched the scratchy image on a TV set in a common room at La Trobe University and recall thinking this really was a crowning moment for human ingenuity.
I also recall thinking: “But why?”
Like the rest of the world, I soon came to take manned (and it was decidedly male-dominated) spaceflight, to the moon at least, as a given – as just another milestone in human mastery of Earth’s environment. But looking back, what did the Apollo program actually achieve? What is its enduring legacy?
There are three points worth considering:
The Apollo program persuaded the superpowers (the US and the USSR at the time), and others with aspirations to join the exclusive club of space-faring nations, that space ventures were expensive and long-haul activities.
The program was portrayed as a significant victory for the ideology of democracy and the spirit of free enterprise. The moon landings scored important points for the US in its Cold War with the USSR. They also underscored the technical prowess of the US.
Most importantly, with the full impacts and implications yet to be realised, the Apollo program allowed humans to look back to Earth from a vantage point that challenged all of humanity to think of our planet as a complex but single entity.
Our blue planet, with the moon in the foreground and the darkness and vastness of space behind, really is alone. There is no lifeboat.
Between 1969 and 1972 there were six Apollo missions to the moon and no human has returned to the moon since. Quickly the exceptional became routine and politicians and the broader public began to question the point of the exercise.
The Vietnam War was in full swing and the US was facing challenges closer to home as well – not least growing domestic opposition to the war and a civil rights movement that was increasingly confident in demanding a voice for Afro-Americans.
The Apollo program had been hailed as an achievement of science and engineering, the larger political and strategic purposes had been met and the national monument – the National Air and Space Museum – was built on the Mall in Washington next to the Capitol – a powerful and enduring symbol of American dominance of space.
A stake in the future
Future historians may look back on these programs as twin white elephants. For huge outlays, little has been gained in the way of new science or technology and much of what has been achieved one suspects could have been done by unmanned and robotic missions at a fraction of the expense.
The conclusion is hard to avoid that the ISS, the rhetoric around the program notwithstanding, is really about a small number of countries maintaining a presence in space as a stake against the day those interests, some of which have become increasingly vital from a national security perspective – especially for the USA – may need to be defended.
The profoundly “dual use” nature of space – military and civilian – compels the spacefaring nations to “hide” their classified military ambitions and developments in open view by offering the global public an acceptable and legitimate reason for particular types of experiments and activities.
Satellites in LEO, including the ISS, are under constant risk of colliding with space debris, with almost certain catastrophic consequences should such an event occur.
The civil community has recognised the problem and is beginning an international conversation to determine what might be done. The in-principle difficulty is that what one nation sees as a space garbage truck may very well be seen by another as a space weapon.
Expressed differently, legal norms and policies that build confidence and some minimum level of trust among nations will be just as important, if not more so, than the technologies developed to solve the problem.
While there are six souls hurtling around the Earth every 90 minutes or so on board the ISS, the interests of all spacefaring nations, and humanity more generally, are served by doing what we can to ensure their safe passage and safe return to Earth. The ISS’s mere presence in space serves as a brake on unilateral bad behaviour.
Rhethoric or reality?
In recent times, China and Russia have both announced ambitious plans to increase their commitment to human spaceflight. The preferred phrase is “space exploration” – a phrase that’s misleading, disingenuous and worthy of some discussion.
The word “exploration” links, by association, cosmonauts, astronauts and taikonauts with the likes of Vasco de Gama, James Cook La Perouse, Lewis and Clark and Dr Livingstone. Beyond being involved in inherently dangerous activities there are no similarities.
Those who explored Earth had considerable latitude in their travels and a great deal of discretion because they were out of touch and out of reach more or less as soon as they were out of sight. In marked contrast, all human activity in space is pre-planned, carefully scripted and monitored with great care in as near real-time as possible.
Little discretion rests with the on-scene commander and we are all familiar with the famous line from the Apollo 13 mission: “Houston, we have a problem”.
In space, as soon as something goes wrong, it’s the army of engineers and technicians back on Earth who are called on to figure out what to do. In system terms, Earth exploration is a loosely coupled and relatively uncomplicated activity. In space it is tightly coupled and highly complex.
Getting into space is difficult, expensive and dangerous. The fundamental limitation on human activity in space, especially any program involving placing humans in space, is the difficulty of breaking free of the Earth’s gravitational field.
Until the costs of gaining access to space are reduced by several orders of magnitude, no matter what method is used, the ambitions of nations and others who dream of colonies on the moon (and later Mars), are likely to remain unfulfilled.
In the case of human spaceflight, there is also a presumption that those who travel into space should be able to return to Earth. Return, using current technologies, is just as difficult and dangerous as launch as the crew module plunges through the upper atmosphere as a fiery ball until it slows sufficiently for parachutes to be deployed allowing for a safe landing.
Leaving aside the travel hazards, Mars is a dangerous place for humans, not least because cosmic rays – which can kill – bombard the Martian surface. Any humans living on Mars will have to quickly move underground and live like moles or construct very solid structures on the surface.
Both options will require a lot of earth to me moved and structures to be built. Quite how this will be done and paid for nobody can say. I suspect nations will find more pressing demands on their treasuries closer to home: energy, water and food security, health and educational services, transport infrastructure, as well as defence forces come to mind.
Some people dream about an approaching golden age of human activity in space. For my money the laws of physics, the facts of life as we know it and the logic of money will work together to keep that golden age well beyond the life horizons of any person walking on Earth today.