It seems to me….
“I’m really hopeful about the future of space exploration and human spaceflight. Civilization as we know it has been defined by exploration. You know, we need to go off and find out what’s around the next corner and what’s just beyond what we already know. It’s part of our being; it’s part of our moral fiber to go off and explore.” ~ Alan G. Poindexter.
For most of us of a certain age, future interplanetary exploration and colonization was an absolute certainty. The idea had been popularized by American science fiction writers of the 1940s and we assumed it would happen within our lifetimes. Now, for the first time in five decades, the U.S., along with private-industry and international partners, has committed itself to returning to the moon and to doing it on a defined timeline (though I remain skeptical of that actually happening based on past history).
NASA finds itself in a much different world than the one which existed when the Apollo astronauts first set foot on the Moon half a century ago. The Cold War space race has receded into history but other countries (including China, Japan, and India) have emerged as significant international players in space exploration.
Over 10 years ago, Google and X Prize offered a $20 million prize for the first nongovernmental organization to complete a defined lunar mission. The prize required a private team to successfully perform three tasks to claim the prize:
- Successfully place a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon,
- Travel 500 meters on the Moon’s surface, and
- Transmit high-definition videos and images back to Earth.
After multiple extensions of the deadline from the original date in 2012, the competition was officially killed when it became obvious that no private company would make it to the Moon by the final deadline of 31 March 2018.
Basic capability has been improving but only slowly. The Lunar X Prize can claim some credit for the growth of private interest in lunar travel. Many space startups were formed in conjunction with the competition and some still plan to make the lunar journey. The competition set the stage for a number of potential private Moon landings in the next five years, drew attention to private space travel, and prompted an influx of space startups raising money.
Reusable rockets are driving down the cost of launches which might open the door to a new set of zero-G pit-stops around the Earth and perhaps the Moon. These private rest stops would eventually replace the International Space Station, a $100 billion, 20-year-old NASA-funded mission that is now on its last legs.
Even when LEO costs have been significantly reduced, it will still be necessary to use local resources as much as possible. Early pioneers didn’t take pallets of lumber to build houses at their intended destinations. The Moon is extremely rich in exactly the materials necessary to build a Moon base, for example, anorthite rock, which covers vast areas of the lunar surface, can be separated into aluminum, oxygen, calcium, and silicon (used in glass).
Space exploration remains popular in the U.S. Space exploration remains popular in the U.S. Roughly seven-in-ten Americans (72 percent) say it is essential for the U.S. to continue to be at the forefront of global leadership in space exploration – even as private space companies emerge as increasingly important players. But if we are the leaders in space exploration, why do we have to pay the Russians (or potentially the Chinese) to take Americans into space or to the Space Station?
65 percent of Americans believe NASA should continue to play a vital role in the exploration of space while a third (33 percent) say private companies will ensure enough progress in this area even without NASA’s involvement.
When asked to rate the importance of prospective missions, the majority of Americans say a top priority for NASA should be monitoring key parts of the Earth’s climate system (63 percent) or monitoring asteroids and other objects that could potentially collide with the Earth (62 percent). Slightly fewer than half of Americans (47 percent) believe that conducting basic scientific research to increase knowledge and understanding of space should be a top priority with 40 percent saying such research is an important but lower priority.
Some 41 percent say developing technologies that could be adapted for uses other than space exploration should be a top priority, and 44 percent characterize it as an important but lower priority for NASA. 38 percent believe NASA should make it a top priority to conduct scientific research on how space travel affects human health while 41 percent see it as an important but of lower priority. Around one-third of U.S. adults say that searching for raw materials and natural resources that could be used on Earth (34 percent) or searching for life and planets that could support life (31 percent) should be top priorities.
Missions for human astronauts to explore Mars and a return to the Moon are among NASA’s most high-profile programs. The Trump administration has expressed strong support for these initiatives saying that exploring the solar system should be NASA’s core mission beginning with a return of astronauts to the Moon. Compared to other NASA programs, however, fewer Americans say such space exploration should be a top priority. Just 18 percent and 13 percent, respectively, say that sending astronauts to Mars or back to the Moon should be a top priority; 37 percent and 44 percent, respectively, express the view that these missions are not very important or that NASA shouldn’t undertake these missions.
44 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence private companies will make a profit in their space-related ventures with 36 percent saying they are fairly confident that space companies will be profitable and express confidence that private companies can make meaningful contributions in such areas as developing safe spacecraft and conducting research to expand scientific knowledge.
About a third of Americans (32 percent) believe that colonies on other planets – habitable for long periods of time – will be built by the year 2068 while two-thirds (67 percent) doubt this will happen.
Space exploration will admittedly be more challenging than previously believed. Space is extremely cold, lacks atmosphere, has only microgravity, and high radiation exposure. While the hazard presented by cosmic radiation has long been realized, it is increasingly apparent it is more harmful to the brain, especially the medial prefrontal cortex, than previously determined. These findings will necessitate improved shielding for spacecraft and spacesuits or drug or dietary countermeasures to mitigate the worst effects of prolonged exposure.
Regardless of difficulties and dangers, we always have been, and still remain, an exploring species. To lose that part of ourselves is to no longer be truly human. It has been too long since we initially opened the door to becoming extraterrestrial; it is time to take that next step – and then to never stop. The space program was one of the best investments our nation ever made and one that still continues to pay dividends. Additionally, it is critical to our very survival; many of our problems here on Earth can only be solved from the perspective of space.
I feel truly sorry for all those unable to hear “the thin gnat-voices cry, star to faint star, across the sky”. There isn’t any sufficiently reasonable rationalization able to justify any additional procrastination in not responding to those mythological siren’s calls. There admittedly are dangers; it will not be easy: it is time to go.
That’s what I think, what about you?
 Alan Goodwin “Dex” Poindexter was a U.S. naval officer and NASA astronaut who went into orbit aboard Space Shuttle missions STS-122, and STS-131.
 Kluger, Jeffrey. NASA Could Have People Living On The Moon In 8 Years. And That’s Just The Beginning, Time, http://time.com/5342743/nasa-moon-mars/?utm_source=time.com&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=the-brief&utm_content=2018072010am&xid=newsletter-brief&eminfo=%7b%22EMAIL%22%3a%22rlLoGrfqYePpxcyxABaDgg%3d%3d%22%2c%22BRAND%22%3a%22TD%22%2c%22CONTENT%22%3a%22Newsletter%22%2c%22UID%22%3a%22TD_TBR_CAE7A8B0-82A2-4681-8137-6DE76326BACB%22%2c%22SUBID%22%3a%2224166950%22%2c%22JOBID%22%3a%22830401%22%2c%22NEWSLETTER%22%3a%22THE_BRIEF%22%2c%22ZIP%22%3a%22960039319%22%2c%22COUNTRY%22%3a%22%22%7d, 30 July 2018.
 Funk, Cary, and Mark Strauss. Majority Of Americans Believe It Is Essential That The U.S. Remain A Global Leader In Space, Pew Research, http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/06/06/majority-of-americans-believe-it-is-essential-that-the-u-s-remain-a-global-leader-in-space/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=d78d8ebef5-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_07_09_05_27&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-d78d8ebef5-400092341, 6 June 2018.
 Funk, Cary, and Mark Strauss. Majority Of Americans Believe It Is Essential That The U.S. Remain A Global Leader In Space, Pew Research Center, http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/06/06/majority-of-americans-believe-it-is-essential-that-the-u-s-remain-a-global-leader-in-space/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=a01968e8db-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_06_06_05_19&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-a01968e8db-400092341, 6 June 2018.