Ahead of the Curve: Space Is Relevant Again

Your intrepid reporter traveled from Washington, DC, to Cape Canaveral Florida, earlier this month to watch the test launch of the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket on earth today. The trip involved about eighteen hours of travel to watch about five minutes of rocket flight. But for someone who had never before witnessed anything like that up close, it was a good five minutes, and worth the trip.

It’s time to consider the human utilization of space more seriously, now that it seems more practical than it has in many decades. When I was growing up, delighting in being excused from class to troop down to the school auditorium to watch the Project Mercury launches, everyone was sure that by 2018 we’d have populations on at least the moon and Mars, and maybe more than that. Then the cost reality sunk in. The last few years, though, have seen a dramatic reduction in cost, in part because of the new-found ability to recover and reuse booster rockets. In the spirit of staying ahead of the curve to get humanists thinking about the future before it hits us, here are some items to ponder

1. Public vs. private space transport. The government is better than the private sector at some things, and the private sector is better than the government at others. Profound, huh? It seems increasingly clear that the private sector has become far more cost effective than the government in space, and there is every reason to welcome that change. In fact, during my five minutes of gaping at the launch, I had the warm and fuzzy thought that “I’m not even paying for this!” SpaceX is the most well-known name in private space transport at the moment, but they’re not the only firm. The more competition they face, the better. But “private” doesn’t mean “lawless”—private space transport still needs to be subject to regulation, just like private firms on earth are.

An undercurrent to some of the grumbling about the privatization of space is the fear that it may make some people very, very rich. I’ve written previously about how all types of capital growth can and should be financed in ways that broaden ownership, rather than perpetually concentrating it in the hands of a few. Those ideas apply to all industries, not just to space. But whether or not we can attain that more ideal world, I don’t think we should let envy stop us from functioning in the most efficient and sensible manner.

2. Space-based internet. SpaceX’s next launch, which happened today, may have a greater impact on the near future than the more celebrated Falcon Heavy extravaganza. It should place in orbit the first of what will ultimately become a network of over eleven thousand internet-beaming satellites. As I’ve noted here before, a space-based internet could make it much easier to defeat censorship in places like China and Iran. Whether or not that happens, adding competition to the current internet service provider (ISP) market even in relatively free countries is a good thing—especially if we’re going to lose net neutrality. Cheap as I am, I’d be willing to pay more for an ISP that promised a level playing field, and I suspect I’m not the only person with that preference.

3. Space debris. Those eleven thousand new internet satellites SpaceX is starting to deploy will exceed the total number of satellites currently orbiting the earth. The more satellites, the greater the risk of collision, and a single accident can have widespread ramifications. If a satellite is smashed into a thousand pieces, those pieces remain in orbit, and each of them creates its own, harder to track hazard. Conceivably, even the basic communications services we have today could be placed at greater risk.

The problem is not unmanageable, any more than the problem of traffic is here on earth. Whatever’s up there can be tracked, and objects likely to cause problems can be captured or diverted. But none of this can be done cheaply. If space is going to become more heavily trafficked by private vehicles because of the reduced cost, then some of that cost savings needs to be devoted to keeping it safe. Government needs to enforce this, just like it enforces rules for private vehicles here on the ground.

4. Space mining. Other writers for this publication have discussed legitimate concerns about the possibility of mining resources on the moon or asteroids. Not every asteroid is a decent candidate for mining. But a representative of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has run calculations demonstrating that because of the added power of the Falcon Heavy, “Instead of a few hundred we may have thousands of ore-bearing asteroids available.” Mining is one of the dirtiest, most dangerous activities on earth. Shifting more of the risk and environmental degradation to mining robots in space would have benefits even beyond the economic benefits of cheaper minerals for consumers.

5. Contamination. Worst case: accidentally bringing a microbe from an asteroid or Mars that stumps our earthly immune systems. Bad, but something we can probably protect against. Second-worst case: accidentally bringing to Mars some sort of organism that thinks bitter cold, radiation, and a carbon dioxide atmosphere are just fabulous, and starts reproducing like gangbusters. There goes lots of scientific opportunity, and there may go some delicate true Martian species that can’t handle the onslaught. Third-worst case: whether or not we have an effect on either biosphere, we tear up the landscape so much that we ruin both science and natural beauty opportunities for future generations.

These are legitimate, non-trivial risks. They’re worth requiring some costly precautions to try to avoid. But not so costly as to make otherwise doable exploration or colonization impractical. I would cite Hawaii as an example—the place on earth furthest away from any other inhabited place. When the first Polynesians arrived, they brought with them all sorts of invasive species. Whatever native species they may have wiped out, we’ll probably never know. When Europeans arrived a few centuries later, the same thing happened again. Our understanding of the natural world suffered as a result. But would the human species have been better off if none of us had ever decided to inhabit those islands? My vote would be “no—millions of us are happier because of the opportunity to visit and live there. That’s the same response I’d give to worry warts over the possible colonization of Mars, which is SpaceX’s stated goal. So long as you’re not spending my money, and so long as reasonable efforts at preservation are made, go for it.