Empty Space

Soon the current mission of the Space Shuttle Atlantis — the last mission in the United States space shuttle program — will end.  For the first time in a generation, the United States will have no existing program to place human beings into outer space.  Until a new program is developed, Americans who want to get to the international space station will have to rely on the Russians to get them there.

Of course, American exploration efforts are not limited to manned space flight; NASA continues to make excellent use of unmanned probes and drones to explore the planets, asteroids, moons, and outer reaches of our solar system.  Many people — including Dr. Science — believe unmanned space exploration is the most sensible approach.  They reason that space is too hostile to human beings and therefore it is too expensive to design crafts that can safely house humans in that hostile environment.  In their view, we get more far more science bang for the buck through use of unmanned devices.

I understand that position, but also think manned exploration must be a continuing focus.  Right now, there is great uncertainty about what course the United States will follow with respect to manned space flight.  There will be a gap of some years — at least — and the bright, experienced people who worked on the shuttle program will move on to take new jobs.  A great opportunity has been missed.  Rather than spending billions on ill-fated stimulus projects, We should have invested that money in the manned space program — which has a history of producing useful technology and encouraging innovation and also has an inspirational and aspirational component.

America must, in part, be about pushing the envelope and leading the world; it cannot simply be about health care dollars and internal disputes about who gets what piece of the pie.  The end of one of our most noteworthy forays into the realm of exploration and pure science, with no replacement at the ready, sends a sour message about where we are going as a country and as a society.

We are either moving forward, or we are moving backward.  I would rather move forward.

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Close Encounters In The Asteroid Belt

Although the space shuttle program is ending — more on that in a later post — U.S. space exploration efforts continue unabated through use of unmanned probes.  Tomorrow one such probe, called Dawn, will begin to orbit Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Once it settles into orbit, Dawn’s mission will be to photograph the asteroid, deploy instruments that can detect the minerals and elements found on the asteroid, and gather data that will allow scientists to assess the geological forces that shaped the asteroid.  After orbiting Vesta for a year, Dawn will move on to Ceres, an even larger asteroid.

For science fiction fans like me, the mineral composition of the asteroid will be of the most interest.  Lots of good science fiction deals with asteroid miners and mining colonies, and potential exploitation of minerals is one of the reasons why space exploration may end up being of great interest to private concerns, too.  If we learn that Vesta possesses a treasure trove of minerals, and Dawn proves that navigating among the asteroids can be safely accomplished, we may move one step closer to significant commercial interest in space — and in this era of tight governmental budgets, moving forward in space exploration and technology probably will require significant investment by private entities.