Astronomy

Space Exploration Research in Future



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"Space Exploration in the Future"

Space research is critical to modern civilization's future, but there is a vast distinction between the cost-benefits and rewards of research vs. manned and robotic "exploration," along with limits on how far into the future any assessment of man's reach can be realistically made. On a short timeline, the prospects for manned exploration are extremely bleak, simply because of the cost and the economic and political state of the world, where unmet needs, from the basics of food and shelter, to confronting disease and the sickening Earth, are all growing with the unchecked growth of populations and, until the recession, resource exploitation.

The International Space Station (ISS), the world's only manned space project, after the Space Shuttle program ends, isn't even a tool of space exploration, because its missions are mostly research, focused on production-and-fabrication processes and environmental study and measurements. The array of robotic satellites, not tasked for intelligence or communications, are the mainstays of space exploration, along with ground-based observatories, and both are resources where new exploration projects with significant goals continue to be funded, while the Mars exploration program is currently, and for the foreseeable future, limited to surveys and a paced search for water and life. The staggering cost to send manned vehicles back to the Moon, or beyond, to Mars, or the moons of Jupiter, are beyond the capabilities of any nation with a social priority for the subsistence needs of the population. Any such project, when such a project is justified and possible to consider, will require a partnership that combines the resources and talents of the most well-to-do nations.

It's great fun to imagine mining colonies around Jupiter, a growing civilization on Mars, manned bathyspheres searching for fish under the ice of Europa, or what can be done if one wins the big lotto, but that is futile, unattainable fantasy for almost everyone. Star Trek was, is a wonderful concept. But it is glorious social and technological fantasy, not even science fiction, and the world will never see such a fleet of ships with such capabilities, nor, likely ever encounter an intelligent, alien race, even by radio, which is not to say they do not exist. Enumeration of the reasons why is beyond the scope of a "Space Exploration" title, other than to say, where the universe is concerned, think really, really, really big, bigger than can be imagined or really comprehended. But the essence of that reality is that humans need to focus on extending the hand of peaceful friendship to other humans, and that space exploration will be limited to gaining knowledge of mankind's place in the universe, which includes a knowledge of whether or not life is simply a consequence of right circumstances, on Earth or anywhere else, as evidence indicates, and determining if the other worlds in Earth's system are exploitable and can be made habitable to do so.

Exploitation and habitation are beyond the realistic planning horizon. But there are important reasons, justifiable now, why programs in space research and exploration are absolutely necessary and why exploration cannot and should not be eliminated, but exploration must be subordinated to research, because the survival of modern civilization will eventually depend upon critical, space-focused research programs. Unmanned projects will continue to be the most effective and economic means to advance space-related research and exploration, and participation in internationally cooperative, manned space programs, like the ISS, and the means to get there and back, for the purpose of supporting research and development of beneficial, space-based science and commercial endeavors is a legitimate national priority, as long as it is focused on maintaining research components, comprehending and answering the challenges posed by the changing environment, and developing medical and industrial processes that require the conditions afforded only by orbital laboratories. Economic constraints will dictate that most projects be shelved and that priorities be soundly developed for application of the available resources.

The $16 billion-per-year program to return to the Moon, initiated by Bush in the beginning of his second term, began by sinking into what will no doubt become over-run spending for a manned, Moon-return mission that has no priority or benefit, other than the chance that helium-3, a rare element on Earth that is useful for power production with fusion reactors, might be economically processed there. But even so, the availability of viable reactor designs should precede robotic research as the first steps to answer that question. The funding allocated to space exploration and research competes against the funds needed to solve today's problems in energy, agriculture, education, health, and social uplifting, and tomorrow's needs that must be met today, to deter that asteroid, to neutralize that deadly virus of pandemic, to build and improve irrigation systems to make arid and water-scarce regions productive to feed the world, and also levee systems, if the inhabited coasts are not to be more severely storm-damaged and abandoned as sea level rises. The Moon program will also mean $billions of taxpayer funds going to the industrial base Bush served, but there are more legitimate challenges for spending in space to benefit that sector's necessary technological and fiscal growth.

Government investment in technology and science must focus on understanding the environment and its complex, interrelated systems, to better prepare for, avert, and sustain recovery from the devastation threatened by global warming which, as an unavoidable part of its dynamic, cannot be averted without swift and meaningful international actions. Satellites have been invaluable in advancing knowledge about the environment and Earth's geophysical dynamics, but there still must be a much better understanding of those dynamics than we have today. Less is still known about the deep oceans' abyssal plains than is about the Moon. Scientists armed with new data have already declared that the progression of some significant elements of warming, as in the cryosphere, with the melting of major glaciers, has gone beyond the tipping point, where anything that is done to neutralize the human contribution to warming can no longer halt the process. After new measurements on the melt rate by the U.S. Geological Survey, Montana's Glacier National Park, first predicted to lose its glaciers by 2030, is now expected to be without its namesake ice rivers in just 12 more years. Worse, geologists have confirmed that the great ice sheets, in Antarctica, Greenland, and the north polar cap, are all receding at higher rates than first believed. The melt of these "ice continents," which directly affects the rise in sea level, is already causing detrimental life changes for millions of people and poses a near-certain, future threat for hundreds of millions more in coastal areas all around the world, and inland, as ocean changes affect shifts in climate and drought.

As the money begins to flow, more news about the Bush Moon program comes to attention, but very little of it addresses any benefit of such a costly outlay of limited resources. Why is that? Could it be because there really is no benefit, aside from those who get the contracts and those who deliver them? Two decades or so ago, Apollo 8 astronaut, Frank Borman, emphatically said, "We'll never go back to the Moon. It's too expensive and there's no reason to go." What's changed? Solid reasons and benefits should be ahead of the commitment and spending, not a possible, wishful, or Bush-contrived postscript to them. Every industrial segment Bush targeted for the tilt of the federal purse was another misplaced priority. The fantasy $230 billion for the new Moon project, if allowed to go forward, will begin to mushroom into a reality that will be astronomically far beyond that, beginning with Lockheed Martin's development of the Apollo-like Orion spacecraft.

Meanwhile, astronomers and "anti-collision" engineering researchers, operating under a tiny trickle of the money-shower primed to fall on Lockheed, have only found an estimated half of the large asteroid bodies that can wipe out or seriously reduce civilization as we know it, and they have nothing in the pipeline to deal with the threat. And, suddenly perturbed, fast-moving comets can't even be found to be tracked, long-term. They just show up, and the means to deal with them must be at hand for a relatively quick response. Now, and in the foreseeable future, when a comet or asteroid is found heading Earth's way, there will be nothing that can be done to stop it, given the current funding and planning. Earth is laid open and totally unprepared, with the only option to be an announcement that emergency steps are underway that may be able to, or might prevent, or should do this or that, or "the government will do all that can possibly be done, etc." If anyone believes the stunts performed by Bruce Willis and those shuttles in the movie, "Armageddon," have any basis in fact, any at all, think again. NASA engineers were undoubtedly rolling on the floor laughing at the impossible absurdities they saw when they watched it. Any substantial rock found with Earth's name on it will be met only with a frantic scramble with the nuclear ICBM fleet, and a hopeful, yet highly-dubious outcome. Or worse, there will be no time for a scramble, except into a hole in the ground for all the good that'll do.

While it is true that co-ed astronauts on Mars and the Moon may be an excuse for the expense to put them there, as insurance against the complete eradication of the species, that is not the most cost-effective or utilitarian method to apply to a problem which WILL, someday, face the world's population. A priority that IS in the best interest of the taxpayers, and their children, would designate a major portion of the space budget toward finding and tracking all the threats, and to full-time development and deployment of a reliable system to deal with the multi-faceted danger when it arises, as it one day will. "Multi-faceted danger," because the solution needed to meet the threat of an iron or nickel asteroid won't be effective against one composed of compacted stone, or a comet. Only after that is done, and we have a defense against doomsday should large-scale spending and effort on manned exploration, beyond the ISS and/or off-world colonization, even be considered. The environmental and asteroid/comet threats are sufficient and worthwhile projects that can utilize most of the space-research funding that is likely to be available. But, there are other projects that will, and should have a share of that budget. The James Webb Space telescope, scheduled for launch in 2013, will be an important tool to replace and expand our view and understanding of the universe, beyond that of its predecessor, Hubble, and the answers physicists and astronomers expect may be waiting for Webb to uncover are very exciting.

Restricting funding to these projects: environmental and global-warming; space-specialized medical/industrial ISS research; doomsday-impact response; the Webb telescope and other specialized orbital satellites, like the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), the Chandra X-Ray and Spitzer Infrared Observatories; prioritized solar and planetary probes; and continued, limited, robotic exploration of Mars in the search for life and water, would be sensible and responsible exploration and research projects. Implementing programs based on those priorities would be the kind of level-headed, responsive leadership of which Bush was incapable. China is now planning to land a man on the Moon by 2024, maybe with the Russians, and while they should be persuaded to abandon that in favor of applying those resources to join international efforts to solve global problems, if they go ahead, another space race is the last thing America needs. Bush's culpable leadership, still touching space science, was primarily a backward step to those competitive decades with the Soviet Union, where his aim was the lighting of himself in the glow of that past Kennedy challenge and success, and his Moon initiative should be another Bush-policy priority tagged for immediate cancellation by President Obama, shifting those funds, instead, to the necessary projects, still neglected, upon which preserving and advancing the quality of life on Earth so depends.

The greatest achievement America realized by conquering the Moon was to prove to every person alive, and in the future, that humankind has the determination, intelligence and courage to reach out and grab the stars, to do what may seem to be impossible. That assurance can never be diminished or taken away, even if another footprint is never cast in the timeless dust of that far-flung and dangerous surface. And that assurance must be applied to the equally challenging problems of climate, energy, natural disaster, hunger and greed that now confront the people of the world. For the lifetime of this generation, and the next, and probably the next, the greater responsibility and crying need, also reaching out, will lie here at home, on Earth.

The Moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter and, perhaps, places beyond, will still be there, waiting, until humankind is ready and able to make reaching for them a justifiable priority, and then, make of those dreams new chapters of great achievement in the human story. Thanks to the Moon landings of Apollo, the world of this time, that will never see those dreams come to fruition, can have the confidence that, someday, with cause, they can likely come to pass. And doesn't that make the dreams all the sweeter?

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