Article: The End of the Space Age

Another article from 2011 published by The Economist called “The End of the Space Age” which points out some very sobering truths about the Final Frontier.

It is quite conceivable that 36,000km [the orbits of the geostationary satellites] will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.

Bye-bye, sci-fi

Today’s space cadets will, no doubt, oppose that claim vigorously. They will, in particular, point to the private ventures of people like Elon Musk in America and Sir Richard Branson in Britain, who hope to make human space flight commercially viable. Indeed, the enterprise of such people might do just that. But the market seems small and vulnerable. One part, space tourism, is a luxury service that is, in any case, unlikely to go beyond low-Earth orbit at best (the cost of getting even as far as the moon would reduce the number of potential clients to a handful). The other source of revenue is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science.

The reason for that second objective is also the reason for thinking 2011 might, in the history books of the future, be seen as the year when the space cadets’ dream finally died. It marks the end of America’s space-shuttle programme, whose last mission is planned to launch on July 8th (see article, article). The shuttle was supposed to be a reusable truck that would make the business of putting people into orbit quotidian. Instead, it has been nothing but trouble. Twice, it has killed its crew. If it had been seen as the experimental vehicle it actually is, that would not have been a particular cause for concern; test pilots are killed all the time. But the pretence was maintained that the shuttle was a workaday craft. The technical term used by NASA, “Space Transportation System”, says it all.

But the shuttle is now over. The ISS is due to be de-orbited, in the inelegant jargon of the field, in 2020. Once that happens, the game will be up. There is no appetite to return to the moon, let alone push on to Mars, El Dorado of space exploration. The technology could be there, but the passion has gone—at least in the traditional spacefaring powers, America and Russia.

The space cadets’ other hope, China, might pick up the baton. Certainly it claims it wishes, like President John Kennedy 50 years ago, to send people to the surface of the moon and return them safely to Earth. But the date for doing so seems elastic. There is none of Kennedy’s “by the end of the decade” bravura about the announcements from Beijing. Moreover, even if China succeeds in matching America’s distant triumph, it still faces the question, “what next?” The chances are that the Chinese government, like Richard Nixon’s in 1972, will say “job done” and pull the plug on the whole shebang.

Which means that if China, now one of the richest countries on Earth (if measured by balance of trade) won’t bother going to Mars because its too expensive, what are the chances that anyone will?

Because unless there are untold riches on Mars that cannot be got simpler and cheaper here on Earth, then the robotic exploration of the Solar System is where we’ll be in 25 years’ time.

For myself, I applaud the ISS being de-orbited. Will anyone tell me what scientific discoveries were made on the ISS that even remotely justify $100 billion?

The whole thing is one enormous boondoggle. Just imagine what problems here on Earth could have been solved with $100 billion.

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