We’re Back In Space! But Will We Stay There?
By John D. Turner
31 May 2020

Finally! After 9 long years; two American astronauts launch to the ISS from U.S. soil on a U.S. built rocket and spacecraft! And what’s more, they launch from pad 39A at Cape Kennedy, the same pad used to send American astronauts to the moon! America is back in the manned space flight game – but will we stay there?

Fifty-one years ago we landed on the moon. Fifty-one years! And what have we done since? Other than a number of unmanned probes, which, don’t get me wrong, have returned some spectacular data, all our manned space program has done is piddle around in low Earth orbit (LEO) ever since.

To be sure, shuttle was an accomplishment, and the ISS is a fantastic achievement, but shuttle is gone and talk about deorbiting the ISS has been going on for quite some time now. Where are the space colonies? Where are the bases on the moon? Where are the photos of humans landing on Mars and exploring the outer solar system? What about that base on the lunar far side for exploring the universe with optical and radio telescopes isolated from the glare and background of the Earth and Sun?

How about the dream of space solar power, clean energy, beamed back to Earth from space where it is available 24x7, unimpeded by night, clouds, snow, or weather experienced here on Earth’s surface? Where are the O’Neill colonies, first conceived in the mid 70’s, which we have had the technology to build for over 40 years?

Why are we not mining some of the asteroids that pass near us on a regular basis, or visiting those sitting in the asteroid belt? What about the asteroid 16 Psyche, 124-miles wide that appears to be a metal-rich planetary core? NASA plans a mission to check it out, departing in 2022 and arriving in early 2026. Pictures are great, but again, what about prospecting and mining it for materials?

I grew up on this stuff. I got in trouble back in the 60’s in grade school because I wanted to watch the Atlas-Agena hookup in space, the first rendezvous and docking in space as part of the Gemini project. It was happening while I was in class, so I volunteered our 13” Philco “portable” black and white TV so my class could watch it too. The teacher said OK, so I went to the office to call my mom to bring it over. It never occurred to me that she would refuse. And it also never occurred to me that no one would be home!

The phone rang and rang. I didn’t want to miss the mission, and I had promised my teacher and my class, so I faked the conversation, and had someone from the school drive me home to pick up the set. We did, and I and the class watched that historic event. Of course, when my mom got home and the TV was missing, it all hit the fan. Funny thing is, while I remember this in all its gory detail, my mom has totally forgotten this ever happened!

Years passed, but my fascination with space never dimmed. I read O’Neill, T.A. Heppenheimer, and Zubrin. My class presentation for Engineering Communications in college was on Space Power Satellites. I attended the 10th International Space Development Conference in San Antonio, Texas where I live, in 1991. I was a member of the L5 Society, and later, the National Space Society. As a young lieutenant in the Air Force stationed at Kelly AFB, I was one of the officers tasked with starting an outreach program in the early 80’s called the Pre-College Technical Orientation Program (Pre-TOP). Envisioned by Major General Doyle Larson at Electronic Security Command, it was an early attempt to interest young children in what we would now refer to as STEM; Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. A higher level program was envisioned as well, targeted at high-schoolers. For that, I put together a briefing on Space Solar and the O’Neil colonies. I still have the hand-drawn overhead slides I made back then.

I read extensively on a variety of topics, but science fiction has always been a staple. I currently have over 1600 paperbacks in my library, and over 600 hardbacks. That’s just science fiction and fantasy. My total collection is somewhere around 4-5 thousand. In a typical year I will read anywhere between 50 and 100 books, time permitting. That doesn’t include re-reading books I have previously read.

My favorite movies involve space. It goes without saying that some of my favorite TV series include Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, Babylon 5, and Farscape, to name a few. Yes, I am a bit “geeky”. I am a programmer, so what do you expect?

So when SpaceX launched their manned Dragon capsule on 30 May, it was with mixed emotions that I watched. So great to see us back in space as a nation once more. So sad for the lost opportunities and things that never happened.

There is a video someone did of the rendezvous and docking with the ISS that they put to music with the Blue Danube waltz. It was the coolest thing ever! I went running down the hall and dragged my 20 year old son in to watch it with me. He thought the rendezvous and docking was cool (we had missed that because it happened while we were asleep), but he really didn’t get the Blue Danube waltz thing. Which of course, necessitated me dragging out my copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey and playing the rendezvous and docking scene with the Pan Am Space shuttle (which necessitated me explaining what Pan Am was).

He had never seen the movie. (I guess I failed as a parent.) We agreed that for a movie made back in 1968, the special effects had held up remarkably well, but in the end, that is really all it was. Special effects. Back in 1968, 2001 had seemed so far away. We really did think we might have things like a rotating space station in orbit and bases on the moon by then. And here we are, 52 years later, 19 years after the events depicted in the movie, and where are we?

Do we have bases on the moon? No. Are we able to send a massive manned mission to the rings of Saturn? No. Do we even have a computer system like HAL? Not really. It’s funny because I am sure the computers we do have now probably would have more computing power than was envisioned in HAL, however we aren’t even close to having a generalized AI like HAL, and that is probably a good thing.

We do have a space station in LEO, but it isn’t anything like the one depicted in 2001. However…

What we do have now is an active private-sector space “program;” individual entrepreneurs with a vision for space and the wherewithal to support it. Like Elon Musk, who wants to get to Mars, and needs to build the infrastructure to do so, and who is doing it piece by piece.

Shuttle was originally envisioned to be a completely reusable space launch system that would dramatically cut the cost of sending payloads to orbit. It failed in both respects, and was cancelled by the Bush administration. Musk has succeeded in doing both, and the first U.S. Astronauts to be launched from the U.S. in 9 years were launched on a SpaceX booster, the launch stage of which landed nicely on its recovery barge after separation. The Dragon capsule itself will be reused on recovery for cargo missions.

Jeff Bezos envisions building on the moon. To that end, his company Blue Origin is also pushing for space. Both companies are located in Texas, which of course, makes me happy on a different level as that is where I live also. Richard Branson wants to bring space to the masses, and while flights on his SpaceShip Two are pricy now, eventually he expects that price to come down as more launch vehicles are built. Still, $250,000 is way cheaper than the $20 million it costs to hitch a ride on a Russian booster. And his company, Virgin Galactic, has other space irons in the fire as well.

There are others with a vision for space. Sierra Nevada is working on a project called Dream Chaser, which is a reusable lifting body spaceplane to carry a crew of seven and cargo from Earth to LEO. They are looking at first launch of the unmanned cargo version in 2021. Boeing is working on their CST-100 Starliner, which is a reusable crew capsule in competition with SpaceX to send crew to the ISS and other stations that may be built in orbit.

The best news is that this is largely being done by private industry. So if a new administration, like the previous Obama administration rides into town and decides that manned space flight is a waste of money and what we really need to be doing is putting sensors in orbit to monitor global warming, and operating a Muslim outreach program to make Muslim nations feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering, everything doesn’t come to an abrupt halt from which we need to start from zero once an administration with more vision gets voted into office. Space can no longer be held hostage to the vagrancies of government officials! It is too important to the future of the human race.

Besides, China is forging ahead in space now, with a goal to establishing bases on the moon and building power satellites in orbit. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my grandkids future to be a world run by the Chinese Communist Party. Say what you like about American “hegemony;” I doubt you will like life under the CCP any better.

So I have hope once more. I am sad that it has taken this long to get started again. I am sad for the waste of all those years. But if nothing else, it has pointed out the folly of relying on governments to do this for us. Governments do nothing efficiently, and our government in particular changes too often to be able to actually stay on task for long periods of time. Priorities change, politics change. Only private industry can really provide a stable platform for growth, and only men and women with vision, who are willing to take the risks, and have the resources to press forward can make the dreams a reality.

Space is not just for the few as it has been until now. There will be jobs in space. Mining jobs. Construction jobs. Teaching jobs. They will need cooks and tailors and programmers and pipefitters. As the stations are built, as the colonies are built, all the occupations we need here we will need there.

Farmers will be needed. Plumbers will be needed. Tour guides and wait staff and clerks will be needed. Occupations we haven’t even dreamed of will be needed. While many will never feel the urge to leave the Earth, and many will, and those jobs will be filled.

While I wish that I could have experienced zero-gee, stepped onto the lunar regolith, and seen the Earth as the Apollo astronauts saw it, maybe my kids will get to have that experience. And if not them, then perhaps my grandkids. It’s a big universe out there. As Robert Heinlein once said, “Earth is too fragile a basket to keep all our eggs in.” We need to expand; to grow.

Will we stay there? I hope so. There is so much to learn, so much to do, so much to accomplish! We are limited only by our imaginations and our will to succeed. It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The first step has been taken. We need those with vision to complete the journey and continue on.