when too much skepticism about space exploration can be a bad thing
Hotel owner and space tourism pioneer Robert Bigelow has a pretty fervent belief that alien life is out there, that it’s intelligent, and that it may be visiting Earth. While most people would make little of the first two ideas, the third, especially his story of supposedly running into a UFO in the middle of the Southwest, prompted many journalists covering his aerospace company to put in plenty of jokes at his expense. As a result, every time an in depth profile of Bigelow and his big plans in Earth’s orbit and beyond appears, there’s an inordinate amount of skepticism injected into discussions of sober and eminently reasonable plans. Yeah, sure, we’re going to trust the guy who thinks aliens are vising our planet make space stations and bases on other worlds, it’ll be great, right? Well, actually yeah, sure, let’s have him do exactly that. Creating a very cheap, convenient way to put up self-contained interlocking habitats built to absorb radiation and swift blows from micrometeorites that ding rigid metal spacecraft is a fantastic endeavor, and having the first direct application of this technology on the Moon makes a whole lot more sense than a flag-planting mission to Mars, which works much better as a logical extension of that effort.
See, the problem with simply skipping ahead to a Mars mission because we’ve already been to the Moon back in the day is that you’re not actually building an infrastructure for future missions that go farther and farther. This increases the cost because you now can’t piggyback on assets already in orbit and deeper in space, and vastly increase the risk because if things go wrong, a possible place to which you can retreat and survive while someone can rescue you won’t be an option, so the escape plans far from home will be very limited. Considering that the Moon is the perfect dress rehearsal for a mission to another planet right in our cosmic backyard, and a very convenient place to launch bigger and bigger craft into deep space thanks to its shallow gravity well, going back before we set our sights for Mars isn’t a crazy plan at all. If anything, it’s much, much more conservative and reasonable than anything being dictated to NASA right now. The same thing applies to the design and execution of the inflatable modules. Bigelow didn’t design them himself, he bought the technology, patents, and methods from companies contracted for NASA-backed programs to build exactly what SpaceX just launched to the ISS today.
With all this in mind, can we please stop wondering if Bigelow and his investors and supporters are crazy and overly ambitious when the technology they use has been originally created by a number of companies which have been launching things into space for the last 50 years, have been tested over the last three decades, easily survived several launches into orbit, and which are designed for a space exploration strategy that’s been kicked around since the 1960s and is based on the slow-and-steady-one-step-at-a-time principle rather than jumping straight into the far, far more complicated world of interplanetary human spaceflight? As of today, we have both reusable rockets and inflatable space habitats, proofs of concept for everything Bigelow would really like to accomplish, and the only things missing are monetary support and political will. We can’t just look at proven, functioning, mature technology and shrug out shoulders in skepticism solely because the guy has a UFO story he likes to tell. Here’s someone who wants to finish an amazing undertaking NASA started and has the tools to do it. We should be helping him rather than constantly reminding us that he’s a little eccentric when it comes to astrobiology.