I’m a pretty big space buff. When I was in Junior High I used to spend my lunch time reading books on the space program during lunch. I have models of spacecraft in my office at home. As the extempers know, if I have the TV on at school, I’m usually watching the NASA channel.
That being said, I can’t say I’m a big supporter of the current plan to go to the Moon and Mars. I applaud the goals, but the methods and means are the wrong ones.
We can send human beings to Mars. I have no doubt it can be done. We can go back to the moon. Been there, done that. The problem is, any effort in going to Mars will undoubtedly be mostly wasted. Despite all the spin offs you hear about from the space program (like Tang) most of the effort of the Apollo mission, from an engineering standpoint, was wasted. We were never able to leverage the technology because we killed the program and moved on to something else. It was a one shot (or to be more precise, six shot) program.
The space shuttle was a step in the right direction, but the shuttle eventually fell victim to bureaucratic inertia and now is nothing more than a bus to a space station who’s only purpose is to be a destination for the space shuttle. Its its still damn expensive.
My primary argument isn’t that we can send robots to do research (which is true) its much more fundamental. Our priority right now should be to make the cost of getting into orbit really really cheap. Once that problem is solved, then you’ll see a rash of space innovation that will rival what we saw with the Internet. In fact, bandwidth is an excellent metaphor for cheap, reliable orbital transportation.
No one knew how TCP/IP or HTML would be used when it was developed. Cheap orbital transportation would be the same way. The actual cost of building a satellite can be pretty cheap now. The real cost is in getting it to space. If it was cheap enough, eventually universities and even high schools could launch satellites as projects. Do you remember a company called Teledesic? (note, how you can’t click on anything) It was a start-up founded by Craig McCaw and funded by bigwigs like Bill Gates. Their idea (and it is a good one) was to have a constellation of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites that would provide broadband data access anywhere on the face of the earth. Their trick was in making the satellites fly in LEO and routing the data between the satellites.
They eventually had to put everything on hold when the bubble burst because of the costs of the project, the majority of which was the cost getting hundreds of satellites into orbit. Imagine however, if access to orbit was several orders of magnitude cheaper. Even if it was only $100,000 to get a small satellite to orbit, you’d see an explosion of activity.
THAT should be the priority. Once you can do that, everything else will take care of itself. The hard/expensive part is getting out of the initial gravity well. Once your in orbit, the boost needed to get to escape velocity isn’t that great.
Perhaps the most promising long term solution to the problem is the space elevator. It sounds like science fiction, but the concept is pretty simple. Drop a cable from geosynchronous orbit to the ground. Climb up the cable. The problem is, nothing we have right now is strong enough to support its own weight, let alone anything which may climb up it. Steel is too heavy and not strong enough.
There is a material on the horizon that can do it, however: carbon nanotubes. The problem is, the biggest nanotubes ever created are only a few millimeters long. We need strands that are much thicker and about, oh, 21,000 miles long. That sounds like a long piece of rope…and it is, but moving from a few millimeters to 21,000 miles isn’t as big of a stretch as it might seem. Having nanotubes of arbitrary length in 10 years is not out of the question.
If you can crack the nut of cheap space access, you could probably lap the people working on a direct to Mars mission.