Saturday, July 9, 2011

The End (of the Space Shuttle Program) is the Beginning...

The Space Shuttle's robotic successor, the X-37
I've spent a lot of energy lamenting the end of NASA's manned shuttle program. For a sci-fi writer who dreams of extra-terrestrial worlds, accessible, cheap, and ubiquitous, to have your sense of wonder stolen by U.S. policy decisions is a bit of a kill joy. Sadly, the United States will have no capability to put a man into space once Atlantis is stuffed in a museum somewhere. NASA plans for a future craft are woefully underfunded and its expected we won't see a U.S. manned spacecraft launch in the next decade. There's the "barnstorming" private spacefarers like Scaled Composites, but these are sub-orbital tourist ventures that are incapable of achieving orbit. To make orbit, a full rocket launch is required. Space, besides satellite launching and maintenance, is unprofitable. Its resources are still too challenging access.
The Mars Rover: exploring the Martian surface so you don't have to.

I doubt the United States' feats in manned space exploration will be trumped. There's talk of the Chinese landing on the Moon in the next 10 years, but I sincerely doubt it. Regardless, old tricks. Neil Armstrong landed at Tranquility Base 40 years ago and I'm not sure how much they could push the exploration envelope. To build a sustainable Moon base is an exotic challenge, and I think the Chinese space program is nowhere near innovative enough. I could be proven wrong. But I doubt it.

My take is this.... human beings and their relationship to outer space is founded in old paradigms. The salient inroad to outer space is based in the obsolete. Why say this? Believe me, there'd be no bigger thrill to see a balls out race to put a man on Mars, but it's not happening, it's too dangerous, too expensive, all that. We're looking at the future of spaceflight and space exploration through the distorted glass darkly of the now.

Darpa's Big Dog robot, creepy but cool

The advancement of robotics in the past 20 years has been staggering. Those with the 'Right Stuff' are not human beings of flesh and blood anymore, but CPU's engineered to the proper environmental requirements. As we speak, there's a rush to eliminate fighter pilots from the cockpit entirely, and robots are insinuating themselves onto the battlefield in odd and peculiar forms unthinkable only a decade ago. Soon, they'll be driving our cars for us and who knows what else... One point that seems to be lost in this robotic/drone rush is that these type of machines are the hardened veterans of space exploration, their technology honed by the extremes of our solar system. To land and deploy a Mars rover from Earth is a monumental feat, no doubt as challenging as landing a man on the Moon in the day. Now, that very technology has fallen back to Earth, an invasion, if you will.

Singularity: Machines getting on with it without us

There's a sub-genre in sci-fi having risen to prominence as of late called "The Technological Singularity". It's the notion that we will soon develop machines with quasi sentience that will fundamentally change history in an unknowable ways. The idea originates with "Moore's Law" for integrated circuits, that artificial intelligence will continue at a rate where soon (maybe within our century) silicon brains will overtake their biological predecessors. Whether or not its plausible remains, but again, many of our current technological advances we now take for granted. The future has always been unpredictable. To have the audacity to believe that humanity's outbound quest into the stars is "over" with the death of a 30+ year old space truck seems bizarre.

Looking at the upcoming unmanned missions, there's some crazy stuff in progress. NASA's New Horizons probe is bound to intercept Pluto in 2015.... yes Pluto!!! While demoted planet-wise, it's a realm human beings have never laid eyed upon... undiscovered country. And soon we will know it. Personally I find this much more of a thrill than yet another launch of the shuttle a few hundred kilometers above the Earth, loaded with silly schoolkid experiments. Don't get me wrong, the ISS is the equivalent of the Giza Pyramids today. The engineering to allow human beings to live and work in the void is astounding. But I believe, by continuing to fund the exorbitant (relatively of course, its pennies on the dollar when compared to our military budget) we could be investing into robotics.

Trying to be positive here... I could watch montage hours of NASA's archives, lunar rovers, the power of the Saturn IV, EVAs in and around the shuttle and ISS, but that's nostalgia, and nostalgia is retrograde. Whether a technological singularity will bring the next Skynet, or something more benign (lets hope) remains. The death of human spaceflight is a tragedy no doubt, I would have dearly liked to see it continue, but its not happening. We need a reason to leave Earth again, and I believe our automated Louis and Clarkes will one day give us that reason...

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