Monday, January 12, 2004

The Beckoning Sky

President Bush is widely expected to lay out a strategy for the coming decades in space exploration. In a sense, he cannot. Rocketman points out that no available engine technology can boost payloads into space in economical quantities. Current launch costs are on the order of $8,000/lb, a number that will have to be reduced by a factor of ten for the habitation of the moon, the establishment of La Grange transfer stations or flights to Mars to be feasible. This will require technology, and perhaps even basic physics that does not even exist. Simply building bigger versions of the Saturn V will not work. That would be "like trying to upgrade Columbus’s Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria with wings to speed up the Atlantic crossing time. A jet airliner is not a better sailing ship. It is a different thing entirely." The dream of settling Mars must await an unforseen development.  Although Rocketman hopes that President Bush will devote additional resources to developing better propulsions systems, he cannot produce this "different thing" to order.

Yet if history is any guide, the "different thing" will come into being when least expected and on fairly short notice. Just as long distance ocean voyaging became possible with the discovery of new aerodynamic shapes for sails, the propulsive revolution that Rocketman envisions will probably emerge unanticipated. Then like Europe in the Age of Exploration, the Solar System will belong to whichever nation, or group of nations that can lead the breakout. America cannot be indifferent to that moment, for the character of the civilization which achieves spacefaring will determine whether humanity goes on to become a Type III civilization or is fated to perish as a sub-Type I civilization under a rain of Islamic bombs.

Whether Europe, Asia or America will first find the key technology necessary to make interplanetary travel an economical reality cannot be foreseen. Yet history suggests that the answers will be found by those who are looking for them. The life of Prince Henry the Navigator, the potentate most associated with the European breakout, conveys lessons which are still useful today. Henry used his power to bring together sailing technologists at the cutting edge, who may not have known the all answers, but who ceaselessly quested for them. Henry tirelessly collected operational sailing data. He commissioned expeditions which slowly laddered down the coast of Africa until Cape Palmas was attained, though it took him 36 years to do it. In the process, many associated systems, from hull construction to ropemaking to navigation, advanced to the point that when critical breakthroughs were finally achieved, they dropped like a missing piece into a nearly completed jigsaw puzzle. The Europeans were not merely lucky. They made their luck.

The conditions for the European breakout were not wholly technological. They involved the development of internal markets for the fruits of exploration and a system for claiming possession of new lands. David Kopel and Glenn Reynolds have argued for a review of Cold War treaties that limit sovereign claims and private property in extra-terrestrial space, with a view to their rejection or modification. Without a foreseeable mode of propulsion to transport substantial payloads economically beyond earth orbit, perhaps the best President Bush can do is attend to these deficiencies, rather than promise meaningful landings which really wait on events. Maybe the challenge is not to put men on Mars by a date certain, but the subtly different one of making investments to ensure that any technological breakthrough can be exploited rapidly and without hesitation. Clearly the day will come when nations will expand beyond the confines of the planet and our task is to be ready to mount the first real breeze for the distant shore.

For all but a vanishing instant near the dawn of history, the word 'ship' will mean - 'spaceship.'
-- Arthur C. Clarke