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space shuttle



American Legion Magazine
April 1999
Cover Story

Space: The Next Steps
pp. 10-14

Space officials in Washington and Moscow proudly point to a "new star in the sky", the gleaming International Space Station, which can often be seen as a fast-moving bright dot before sunrise and after sunset. It is an impressive technical accomplishment and an even more amazing diplomatic one. And although construction just began last December, it is widely seen as the beginning of an inevitable step-by-step march into space and far beyond Earth, to Mars and other worlds.

Space activities are at an all-time high. A fleet of deep-space probes is now exploring Mars and more distant targets, while testing revolutionary new technologies. And in perhaps the most far-reaching but least recognized shift, 1998 was the first year commercial agencies outspent governments on space applications.

Thirty years ago, at the height of the US-Soviet "Space Race", Apollo astronauts ventured to the moon in one of humanity's boldest and most successful explorations. America harvested a bounty of scientific, technological, and even diplomatic benefits from that program.

Today, in a vastly different international climate, Russia has joined the United States and its traditional partners -- Europe, Canada, and Japan -- in the hundred-billion-dollar five-year construction project leading to a permanent space laboratory, workshop, and observatory. Supporters of the project promise a host of benefical discoveries in technology, medicine, and other advanced fields once the facility is completed.

Russia's role in the project has become extremely controversial, however, because a host of domestic problems has frustrated the optimistic promises of five years ago, when the Clinton administration brought the Russians on board.

The International Space Station will be assembled piece by piece using NASA shuttles and Russian rockets to send modules and supplies into orbit. Designed to last ten years or more, it is being built to be repairable (with replaceable sections) and expandable, and could easily remain in operation for decades if not longer.

BIG PROMISES. Observers with long memories have noticed that year by year, the promised payoffs of the space station program have tended to shift from one benefit to another. At one time, space officials said the station could serve as a repair station and jump-off point for other missions, but that idea turned out to be unworkable. Expectations of profitable space manufacturing of medicines, electronics materials, or special glass have all collapsed with the advance of ground-based production technologies. Perpetual promises to "cure cancer" are "pooh-poohed" by other US government and private agencies specifically dedicated to medical research. Descriptions of the undeniably high value of earth observation overlook the fact that unmanned satellites already perform that task much more reliably and cheaply. Well-documented examples of profitable earthside technological "spin-offs" show that they most often come from NASA's programs using highly innovative technologies, and for safety and budget reasons manned space programs usually opt for time-tested, off-the-shelf systems.

But in the big picture of exploration, all such attempts at predicting benefits should be expected to fail. Experience has usually shown that explorers and researchers aiming at one goal wind up finding even more valuable things that were totally unanticipated, that could not even have been predicted. Examples range from America itself, to X-rays, to rubber vulcanization. So it is a centuries-long American tradition to go search, based on the faith -- a faith reenforced by our historical experience -- that the very process of searching provides long-term spectacular payoffs.

In a similar vein, all of the official public rationales for bringing the Russians aboard the program five years ago have proven equally illusory. Their participation did not save any money or time;in fact the project will be more expensive and more delayed due to their presence. Russia's highly valuable experience in space station operations was for the most part ignored or overlooked by NASA experts in preparation for the new station. And the fear of the Russian space industry's collapse, and consequently of legions of unemployed "rocket scientists" selling their know-how to "rogue states" has come true anyway, unrestrained by Western payments to the Russian space industry that are approaching a billion dollars a year.

Other long-range benefits not yet in view may eventually prove that the Russian decision was "right", or at least, a reasonable risk to take. The space station and commercial launch contracts have helped to tilt most of the Russians space industry westward, and has addicted a generation of Russian space officials to Western cash flow. In the long run, observers hope that this may have prevented more significant mischief by the Russians.

But critics suggest that Western money has merely helped tide the Russian space industry over during some temporary tough times, when otherwise it would have utterly collapsed. In that view, the partnership has helped Russian space workers survive until the country gets back on its feet, repudiates Western agreements, and goes off again on its own nationalistic, contrary course. The issue is undecided, and only time will tell.

Meanwhile, the International Space Station remains an important aspect of American foreign policy, and not only with regards to the Russians. At a time when the US enjoys a dominant position in world space activities, the multinational program helps direct other national programs in a common direction under US leadership.

DEEP SPACE. All of these joint programs, and the commercial operations (communications, navigation, earth observation) that have come to dominate the planet's space spending, are limited to near-Earth space. Once you look at the Moon and beyond, the sole players are governments, and almost exclusively the US government.

Probably the most significant recent deep-space discovery was made a year ago by a small robot probe circling the Moon. It confirmed earlier indications that deep craters near the Moon's north and south pole have collected ice, probably boiled off from passing comets and deposited layer by layer over billions of years. At the very least, those ice layers are pages in a history book of the solar system. In more practical terms, the ice deposits, once adequately studied, could serve as supplies for drinking water and -- when broken into oxygen and hydrogen by electrical power -- for breathing air and rocket fuel for future explorers.

One probe now on its way to Mars intends to land near the south pole there and also measure ice layers, for similar reasons. Other probes are already providing detailed insights into the climate of Mars, both now and in the distant past. The ultimate goal involves probably the most intellectually exciting aspect of pure space exploration: the question of life elsewhere in the Universe.

Meanwhile, humanity's reach extends farther and farther beyond Earth. Probes launched out of the solar system 20 years ago are nearing the boundary of true interstellar space, where the sun's magnetic and radiation fields are overcome by hitherto unmeasured galactic forces. And NASA recently approved a probe to Pluto -- an eight-year mission beginning in 2004. This will complete the preliminary reconnaissance of all the planets -- and many minor bodies such as asteroids and comets -- that began more than 40 years ago.

PRIVATE ENTERPRISE. Behind these bold, the next great wave of space activity is just beginning -- private space commerce. As mentioned earlier, year by year the funding for space will increasingly come from private sources. Last year, for the first time ever, a privately-funded space vehicle ventured near the moon, to use its gravity to fling itself into a better orbit for serving paying customers. Several venture capital engineering teams are nearing flight tests of commercial satellite launch vehicles (as always in the private sector, most will fail, but a few may succeed spectacularly). In fact, a private fund-raising group awards a large cash "X-Prize" for excellence in commercial manned space exploration.

Of all the millennium prophesies, this may be most credible: the late 20th century will be remembered as that brief epoch when human beings first broke free from the limits of their home world to establish an unbounded three-dimensional civilization. In centuries to come, when the names of movie stars, sports heroes, presidents, and even countries are forgotten, names such as John Glenn, Yuri Gagarin, and Neil Armstrong will live on in the limitless consequences of their pioneering achievements.


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