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July 20, 2009

Celebrate the First Steps

I turned on NASA TV during lunch today to watch some of the STS-127 spacewalk, and instead, heard Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin recommending we use the space station to test ourselves and our equipment for challenging missions to deep space. He did not single out Mars specifically this time, but with a wave of his large hand, seemed to include all of space in his vision.

His vision is OUR vision: people living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth, and the use of the vast resources of space for the dramatic betterment of humanity.

The Apollo astronauts took those first steps toward that grand vision 40 years ago. Everyone is talking about it, and contemplating, along with the Augustine Committee, how we can tap that legacy to move forward without breaking the budget or risking lives.

While most people in the space community agree that we want to end up with thriving communities beyond Earth, opinions vary on what path we should take to get there.

Buzz suggests that the United States join with its space station partners (plus China, India, and South Korea) to revisit the Moon—but put the bulk of American investment into deep-space exploration—preparing for Mars and asteroids and beyond.

I’m only speaking for myself (not NSS), but I think we are having the wrong argument. While it is important to know where we are going in order to choose how to get there; and it is also important to understand why we want to go in order to plan for the right mix of humans and robots and equipment that must be developed, unless a need is driving us toward space, it is unlikely there will ever be sufficient funds either from the government or private sectors to create the space-faring civilization many of us envision.

So what do we need that space can provide, and provide to the point where the cost of satisfying that need makes good common sense to the majority of people, just like going to the Moon made perfect sense in the 60s to satisfy a political need?

And what do we need NOW that space can provide? I think the answer is obvious: ENERGY.

Space has all the energy we need, and then some. We already know how to collect and use this energy in space. The solar arrays on the space station have been soaking it up and keeping the lights on and pumps pumping for more than ten years. The old solar panels are still at 99 percent of their original generating capacity.

The station arrays generate enough power to support 6 full-time crewmembers and all their equipment in space. They also provide power to the Shuttle while it is docked. One of the tasks of the STS-127 space walks this week is to replace the oldest of the batteries that store the energy for use during orbital night.

So we already have solar power systems that we know will work for more than a decade under space conditions—and technology has come a long way since those arrays were manufactured.

Buzz has a good idea for us to use the space station as a testbed. But instead of just using it to test humans for long-duration missions TO anywhere—how about using it to prepare to build the first “Hoover dam” in space?

Let space become an obvious solution to an obvious need. Then going to the Moon for oxygen to supply the assembly workers in orbit and the propellant for the space tugs and supply haulers; and going to the asteroids or Mars or Jupiter’s moons for metals or water, will just evolve naturally.

People will be needed to help assemble the satellites, repair the robots, remotely control the mining and processing equipment, fly the ships, and, like the STS-127 crew is doing this week, install new equipment and replace batteries. Many of these tasks can be practiced on the station and on the Moon.

All the other reasons for going to the stars will remain: science, exploration, vacation, etc. But I believe that a true space-faring civilization will begin by satisfying a basic human need for energy.

So on this special anniversary, let us celebrate the first steps toward the vision of people living and working in space, and think about what space can do for us as well as what we can do for space!

To the stars,

Marianne Dyson
NSS Advisor

Read more about space solar power:

Posted by m_dyson at July 20, 2009 05:16 PM



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