Friday, December 17, 2010

Footprints in the Solar System


What an exciting week! Now that we live in a world where a private company is capable of conquering space travel, I wonder: will a new space era ensue? Is there money to be made? Will commercial aims make this industry safer (competition equals more choices)? Or more dangerous (dollars over human lives)?

A non-government entity, through years of failures and stumbling blocks, discovered for themselves just how difficult it is to orbit a piece of hardware, much less living organisms. However, SpaceX and their celebrants appear confident that the next Dragon flight will deliver warm bodies to the International Space Station.

Spirit Rover Tracks On Mars
Alongside this news, many outlets ran articles about how Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity rover tracks are being erased by Martian winds. I got too used to the idea that the footprints on the moon would last for eons, since there is no lunar weather to erode them... but the same cannot be said for Mars, or other future places we might land our perky little robots and leave "human graffiti" behind.

NASA remains conservatively non-committal about where humans may be headed next, and what role the commercial sector will play, but in continuation with yesterday's post about space records, my mind started meandering about what milestones are next for our species?

What's Next For NASA?
In more practical down-to-Earth terms, the aerospace industry employs half a million people in the US alone. Industry sales have seen increases every year since inception, and sales of aerospace products account for about 2% of the gross national product, not to mention it has for some time enjoyed the largest trade surplus of any manufacturing sector. Will our nation continue to enjoy success in this area? Can other nations get on board? Quite a few naysayers are joining the doom chorus these days, insisting the days of the yankee empire are drawing to a close. Certainly, the next footsteps on the moon are unlikely to be American.

If the longevity and radiation hurdles can be overcome, I imagine the first foot on Mars may be Russian –- and the next major milestones for off-world travel will be categorized in terms of race, population and duration. We are up to 40 nationalities in orbit, 13 people at a time in a space station, and we now measure years spent in micro-gravity instead of weeks or months.

Space Craft Evolution
In my lifetime, I had always hoped to see greater international cooperation, and as I add countries to my space map, I am gratified to see that happening before our very eyes. I also think I'll still have a pulse when the Voyager probes leave our solar system in about 4-5 years. Will the golden records they carry ever be found?

I always felt very fortunate to have been born at the late aurora of the very first space age... but I have a profound sense of sadness that in the next four decades comprising my statistical life-expectancy, I may only see small increases in the numbers of things our collective space agencies have already achieved: more people in space at once, more people in space for longer times, and perhaps more nations going into space.

The truly amazing accomplishments, if we can pioneer them with the spirit we already know humanity possesses, may only be a hope for me, because they will occur long after I am gone.