Tonight isn’t a typical Friday night for me. It’s 7:30 PM, and I’m currently sitting in room 162 of Mcdonnell hall, surrounded by gray-haired St. Louisians that I don’t know. I feel like a kid sitting at the adults’ table at dinner. I’m at a meeting of the St. Louis Astronomical Society, with a guest lecture by Ms. Ryan Clegg, a WUSTL grad student. You may be wondering why I’m here. The answer: this lecture is called “Future Destinations for Manned Space Exploration,” and it is my dream come true.
We haven’t had any major human spaceflight milestones since 2004, when the first commercial space flight took place. It’s about time for some new developments. We ought to send more people beyond low earth orbit (LEO) to answer scientific questions, harvest resources, perform tasks robots can’t, develop new technologies, and build settlements. We have 5 places that we should go, some of which we’ve already been to: the moon, asteroids, Mars, the moons of Mars, and Lagrange points.
Despite the fact that we’ve already been there, we should go to the moon again. It has so much potential, and we’ve only traveled around 60 miles on its surface. We could be missing huge discoveries, right on our front doorstep. Not only that, but the moon has potential resources, such as oxygen, water, and fuel. Most importantly, however, we could use the moon as a stepping stone to Mars. Developing technology and using the moon as a launch-off point would be much more cost-efficient than sending everything from earth. We can also use the moon as a testing ground to understand the long-term physical effects of being in space. It serves as a wonderful location for radio telescopes, giving us a great view of the universe that is un-obscured by the atmosphere. From a pure scientific point of view, we still know little about the origin of the moon, the presence of water, the moon’s impact craters, or regolith ( “moon dust”) formation. Besides, it’s so close.
Asteroids also hold the keys to the universe, or so it seems. In addition to the usual potential for resource mining and technology development, studying asteroids may one day save the earth. If we can understand them, we may be able to divert an impact one day. President Obama recently approved NASA’s petition for funding on an asteroid capture program. Yes, it is as crazy as it sounds: we’d send an unmanned spacecraft in to grab an asteroid with a giant bag, bring the asteroid back into earth’s orbit, and study it. Now all we need to do is find an asteroid small enough, and pull it in without destroying the spacecraft. And then take the multiple year journey back to the earth’s orbit.
After teasing us with asteroids and the moon, Ms. Clegg soon got to the good stuff: Mars. While it is 6 months away and would cost most of NASA’s budget for more than 2 decades, Mars is, as Clegg says, the most likely place to extend human civilization. This is a big deal. This is probably the most important thing for the human race, maybe ever. This is why we get educated: so we can have the knowledge to make things like this happen. Because goodness knows, we need a lot of brainpower to tackle the cost issues, logistical nightmares, and physical and psychological issues that will come with sending a manned spaceflight to Mars.
The presentation also covered the moons of Mars and lagrange points, which also have merits to being explored, but aren’t nearly as exciting as Mars. Our main uses for them would be as jumping off points to the red planet.
At this point, you may be wondering why we should have manned missions to these places. We’ve got robots, aren’t they good enough? My answer to that is simply no. They are great to map out environments for us, doing the preliminary work, but they can’t replace humans. Not only are rovers glacially slow and limited in their range of movement, but the point of going to space is to actually physically go, so that one day we can inhabit other planets. Besides, even if our missions fail, they will still drive technology on earth like nothing else can. A quick look at the wikipedia page of NASA-spin off technologies will attest to this.
Sorry for the long rant. I’m just mind-blown by this entire evening.