tackling the high cost of exploring space
Whenever the topic of space travel comes up, the costs involved with leaving our world are bound to come into play and without a massive infrastructure or reusable single stage launch vehicles, even routine missions will continue to come with price tags in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Want to do something more ambitious, like a grand tour of the outer solar system? Do you want to get there on the most advanced rockets we could conceivably make in the near future, adequate protection for your astronauts and have it all wrapped up in five years? That wish list will run you about $4 trillion, more than the GDP of all but three individual nations, and a lot more than would be feasible, even with an international effort. So how can we cope with the costs of space exploration and see alien worlds with our own eyes, or ever even hope to venture beyond our solar system?
Even though we can find enough energy to build a warp drive sometime in the future, the fact that we’d have to hijack distant gamma ray bursts and other energetic and distant phenomena essentially puts them way out of our reach for now. We need to think more practically and focus primarily on getting around our solar system before we aim any higher. Today, even the most ambitious and realistic designs fall short of what we’d need to travel to the stars and relativistic rocketry using exotic power sources like micro black holes are still just equations in physicists’ papers. Even if we can build them in the coming decades, they’re not going to get very far without a vast infrastructure ready to supply a massive interstellar craft. And this is why we’ll need to return to the Moon to practice surviving on other worlds, then aim towards Mars and the Jovian moons, especially the oceans of Europa where we could help robotic submersibles find life. Along the way, as we’d expand from world to world, we would build ever more satellites, launch vehicles, habitats, and use every opportunity for an interesting scientific experiment or two, enabling us to keep going even farther.
So far, we only talked about physics and practicality, What about the cost? Well, if we really want to explore the outer reaches of the solar system, we should’ve done what a surprisingly large amount of people in the U.S. already think is happening: spend $500 billion a year on spaceflight and putting space on par with that of the entire Department of Defense. And while the previous link dreams about the kind of progress that might have happened in a world where space travel was treated with the same priority as the military, we live in a world in which that didn’t happen and if we want to really travel to other worlds, we’d need to give sky-high finding to the space agencies we expect to colonize the solar system on humanity’s behalf rather than dismantle scientific and educational programs in the relevant fields. True, investing hundreds of billions into space would have major consequences for the global economy, but it would generate countless jobs and fuel innovation across the world, creating profits for companies which would help fund research, buy licenses for new inventions and integrate them into today’s high, and low tech products. Pretty much every field from energy, to construction, to industrial design would be prfoundly affected and change focus virtually overnight.
But what if you don’t want to completely restructure the global economy to pull off truly ambitious space flights and colonizing expeditions? You can’t just spend a few more tens of billions of dollars and expect that things will just take off with a little more cash. We’re talking about massive, multi-decade long projects here, many of them akin to building new cities in the middle of the wilderness, except that in this case, the wilderness would be radioactive, deadly, and brutally inhospitable to anything even remotely resembling humans. We need that seemingly unrealistic 25-fold increase to NASA’s budget if we really want to establish a real presence beyond our orbit rather than go on a few flag planting trips as Obama’s plan for space exploration would have us do. Realistically (or not so realistically), we would need to remove politicians from having a stranglehold over the space program since they’re far more concerned with using NASA as a PR tool or populist carrot than any real exploration, and treat space as a scientific and commercial venture rather than a Cold War artifact. With a slow start, help from private industry and grants for space-related R&D programs which would be considered by experts in the applicable fields, we could raise enough money to boldly set out into the solar system.
We just need to convince ourselves that it’s not impossible and avoid trampling the dreamers inside each one of us with a misguided, self-destructive pessimism and nay saying we pretend to call realism. After all, only a few generations ago we were soaring into the final frontier and calling our lifetimes the Space Age. Were three decades all it took to trade our cosmic ambitions for the humdrum, pretending that we’ll solve all the world’s problems before we return to conquering space? And do we really want to go down as the generations who decided to trade dreams of an amazing tomorrow for praising ourselves for our grounded mediocrity?