Monday, November 03, 2014

In Defense of Space Travel

As you've no doubt heard by now, on Friday the commercial space industry suffered a major setback when the Virgin SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test run, killing one member of the crew, and critically injuring another. The aircraft was testing a new fuel mix that was expected to improve the efficiency of its rocket engines, when something went wrong, causing the plane to lose control and crash in the Mojave Desert. The investigation into what caused the crash is still ongoing, although preliminary indications point to the early deployment of the ship's rotating tailboom, which helps to steady the craft on reentry. It is not known whether it was an automated procedure that had failed, or if pilot error was involved.

For a number of years now, the commercial space industry has been trying to get off the ground, both literally and figuratively. There are a number of players that are trying to get a foothold in this space, and Virgin Galactic has widely been seen as the leader out of the gate. But numerous delays have kept space tourism grounded, despite the fact that hundreds of people have already prepaid the $200,000+ ticket price to fly with the company. Many of those delays have been due to safety concerns, as Virgin has worked hard to ensure that its aircraft are working properly, and are as safe as possible, before they begin taking customers into low Earth orbit.

Fortunately, the accident that occurred on Friday was with a test crew, and not a flight filled with passengers. It is sad to know that one of the pilots died in the crash, and I send my condolences to his family. But those test pilots also knew the risks that they were facing when they signed up for the job. The customers who are waiting patiently to take the first sub-orbital trips will expect a higher degree of safety when the service actually begins operating.

It probably comes as no surprise that I am a big proponent of space travel and exploration. The same spirit that sent early explorers around the world to chart the continents and oceans, lives on in various space programs, and while we are still decades away from truly traveling to other planets, we have started to take our first fledgeling steps in those directions. For years, the U.S., Russian, and European space programs have sent manned, and unmanned, missions out into space to learn more about not just our planet, but the others in our solar system as well. Sadly, we are now in a time when the Space Shuttle is grounded, and NASA has no replacement arriving in the near future. This lull in space exploration is the result of a poor economy, and a hard-sell to the public back home.

I could go on and on about how small NASA's budget is compared to a lot of other programs in the U.S. government. I could list off all of the advancements that have come as a result of the space program over the years, including some significant products that we use on a daily basis. But the reality is that economically, many people don't want see us spending money on endeavors in space at the moment, which is why we have scaled back our plans for the immediate future.

But the commercial space industry could potentially pick up the slack, and drive us in new directions in space exploration. Sure, those private space programs are years behind those run by governments, but they are making strides all the time. In another decade, it could be quite common for travelers to pay to go into orbit, and the idea of a private space station playing host to guests is not beyond the realm of possibility.

SpaceX, which is another brainchild of Elon Musk, is already charting new paths in terms of unmanned missions, but it is possible that the company could shift focus towards other uses for its proprietary rocket system as well. The possibilities are endless, and at this point, it seems more likely that the boundaries of space travel and exploration are going to come from the private sector, than from governments who are constricted by politics and budgetary restraints.

Personally, I am of the mind that we must continue to push the boundaries of exploration in space, from both commercial and governmental entities. As a species, I feel that our future is out amongst the other planets of our solar system, and someday beyond. Those days are a long way off still, as we must take baby steps to achieve those goals. Along the way, there will be setbacks like the one we saw last Friday, but from those mistakes, we will learn to improve our technology, make things safe, and push out beyond our planet, and on to others.

The great explorers of our past were often questioned about why they would want to travel to the places that they went. There were times when it was thought to be foolhardy to sail across the Atlantic for instance, and that doing so would mean certain death. But exploration has always been a part of our DNA, and that hasn't changed even though we've filled in most of the blank spots on the map of our planet. Exploration beyond our planet will one day be as important to us as Magellan sailing around the world, or Columbus crossing the Atlantic to discover the "New World." What new worlds await us beyond our own? Someday we'll find out, and we'll be the richer for having gone.

President John F. Kennedy is famously quoted as saying about the his intentions of putting a man on the moon: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

While those words are a bit dated in the post-Cold War world, their sentiment should still ring true. At times, it seems we have forgotten those words however, and with it our ambitions to go beyond our world. In time, we will need to look to that vision once again, and go searching for other worlds to explore. In the end, the rewards will be greater than we can imagine.

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