NPR logo Stuck At Home: Why Have A Space Program At All?

Stuck At Home: Why Have A Space Program At All?

The Space Shuttle Discovery seen from the International Space Station. NASA hide caption

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The Space Shuttle Discovery seen from the International Space Station.


We won't be getting out of the hood anytime soon.

It's the planetary neighborhood I am talking about here. The stars may beckon but it's an interplanetary, rather than interstellar culture that we will likely inhabit for hundreds if not thousands of years in the future. Baring the miracle of a "warp drive," the stars are simply too far away in space and time (via the theory of relativity) for a true interstellar culture to develop. The solar system with its 8 planets, 166 moons and countless asteroids and comets is likely to be our home — our only home — for a long, long time.

We should consider the implications of these limitations on coherent human cultures in space because today the president unveils his new plans for NASA.

The Obama administration made headlines recently when it reversed direction on NASA's Bush-era push to return to the Moon. The new plan turns to hungry young private space ventures to give us access to Near Earth Orbit. Stepping back on any present space mission the plan calls for development of the next generation of space technologies for the next generation of space exploration. But critics fault the Obama plan for its lack of any clear goals for these new technologies. Without a bold choice of destination — Mars is the obvious choice) — critics say the human space program will simply drift.

Horse-trading is, of course, at work here as real world issues like jobs, aerospace contracts and congressional districts are up for grabs. But if there is anything our young global culture needs to learn right it's how to think long term. Once we recognize the solar system to be humanity's sole habit, our only niche for expanding the meaning and reach of culture for millennia, then a new set of imperatives begin to appear.

If we take on the unfamiliar exercise of long term thinking then "the space program" becomes about something more than the excitement of astronauts with American flags on their sleeves standing on Mars. It moves past "exploration" to questions of habitation. Exploration is, after all, something our robot probes have gotten very good at.

The long term view means understanding both the opportunities and limits of being stuck in the solar system. There are no other planets "in-system" that will be easy for us to live on (to say nothing of fully colonizing). But, if we last as global culture, we will surely want to push outwards. If we make it through our current ecological and resource bottleneck we will surely want to expand into a true system-wide culture. We will surely exploit every niche we can find and use every opportunity our technology and the planetary/lunar environments allow.

Thinking in century's rather presidential terms throws a new light on the entire enterprise of a space program. Critics are right to point out the lack of bold, clearly articulated and properly funded goals NASA has been given over three decades. While lip service was paid to reaching Mars or building new bases on the Moon, we as a society were never really ready to pay for those goals. That left NASA cutting back every other effort to even reach underfunded status for big missions.

If shifting funds from NASA launch programs allows the creation of a vibrant commercial space culture then we should support it. Such a move might establish a truly broad platform for driving the human future in the solar system. If a stepping back on unfundable goals now allows us to develop next generation technologies for spacecraft propulsion later then we should support that too. If these proposed changes can, in a measured fashion, move us towards the real goal of a trans-system human presence then I am all for it.

The real question, the one that really matters, is do we have the patience to keep our eyes and efforts on that prize.