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K Aerospace & W Kistler, July 19-21, 1998, "Humanity's Future in Space", Presented at the World Future Society Conference, Chicago, IL, July 19-21, 1998.
Also downloadable from future in space.shtml

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Humanity's Future in Space
Walter P Kistler
Should the U.S. Government Support A Manned Space Program at the Expense of the U.S. Tax Payers?
1. The Man In Space Controversy

Should the United States support a "Man In Space" program? Opinions here diverge, with opponents and proponents presenting strong arguments on both sides.

The opponents like to point out how enormously expensive manned space operations are with every shuttle flight costing tax payers some $500,000,000 and with the anticipated bill for the international space station expected to be $35-40 billion dollars. They also think that the returns from such space investments so far don't justify the expense. They suspect that many of the tests on new materials and purer crystals could somehow be performed on earth for much lower costs, either through automated systems on less-expensive unmanned rockets or even in laboratories. They further state that in their opinion it is reckless to spend such enormous sums of money on something with uncertain return when there are so many unmet needs here on earth.

The proponents of manned space programs have a difficult time countering these strong arguments. However, they point out that the space shuttle now exists, so we might as well make use of it. They believe that the new materials created in the space environment may prove extremely useful, and that the perfect crystals which cannot be made in earth's gravity will allow us to decipher the molecular structure of viruses. Thus, they may help us create powerful new drugs, perhaps overcoming critical diseases, even AIDS. Furthermore, they state that the space station, which represents the first truly international endeavor on a great scale, will promote cooperation and understanding between nations and will help eliminate future wars.

Taking a broader view, there is no doubt that exploration of new lands and conquests of new frontiers have always been creative forces throughout the history of humanity, and have promoted the advancement of knowledge and culture. In my view, when Congress, in 1993, barely saved the International Space Station from being abandoned, by a single vote, a decisive event occurred in man's conquest of space. This critical act may deeply affect humanity's future. It was the discovery of the New World that gave Western civilization the impetus for the explosive growth in science and technology that took place during the succeeding centuries. Exploring space and colonizing other planets is not an option. It is a necessity if humanity is to evolve and not become a stagnant species with no room and no incentive for further development.

2. Near-Term Goals in Space

Thanks to the American Space Shuttle and to the Russian Soyuz rockets, two independent manned space transportation systems do exist. Thus, even if one of them should fail, manned space activity would not necessarily come to a halt. With the International Space Station now confirmed and many of its key elements in production, the future of manned space activity seems to be firmly established. Once the station is completed and permanently manned, even a serious accident like the Challenger disaster won't stop our involvement in manned space, since the Station's crew will have to be supported and exchanged whatever happens.

Today several very expensive projects involving the launch of large numbers of communications satellites into orbit are progressing, and more are being planned. They will provide another important support to space activity in general. The large market for satellite launch services is encouraging commercial companies to develop unmanned space-transportation systems based on reusable rockets. These projects, if successful, will provide safer and more affordable access to space and thus benefit all other space-related activities. Furthermore, NASA is financing the X-33 program, the sub-orbital forerunner of the Venture Star, a reusable single-stage orbital rocket which, if successful, will provide a much more affordable manned space transportation system.

3. Future Space Activities

Once the International Space Station is established and operating smoothly, what will we do next?

As the name clearly states, the ISS is just a station - a first step to further ventures in space driven by real needs.

One of the greatest needs in an ever growing and ever-more-affluent society today is the requirement for more electric energy. Developing countries like China and India, with a combined population of over 2 billion, will demand the same degree of technical progress and comfort that we enjoy in the U.S. and Europe and this will require the construction of many large power plants. Since nuclear power is not deemed an acceptable solution, only a large number of new coal-fired power plants will be able to satisfy their needs. In the long run, however, such plants will be even less acceptable than nuclear ones since they emit large amounts of CO2 gases and exacerbate global warming. The only clean acceptable solution conceivable today is solar energy from space. This would be supplied by a number of solar power plants in orbit around the earth, which would radiate the collected solar energy to earth in the form of microwaves. An even more ambitious project would place such power plants on the lunar surface, where they could be built using mostly lunar materials and could be better maintained and serviced.

If large power plants based on fusion energy should ever become feasible, which is not expected before the middle of the next century, the only really clean fuel will be Helium Three. Since He3 can only be mined on the lunar surface, this will necessitate manned operations on the moon.

Scientists who are seriously concerned with the future well-being of mankind, and are not satisfied with schemes based on wishful thinking, consider such projects as inevitable for humanity to further progress. The tasks will, of course, require greatly expanded space activity, both manned and unmanned. They will also mean the setting up of permanent lunar colonies, the first step to the expansion of humanity into the wider universe.

Another project likely to evolve in the near or intermediate future is space tourism. This is a purely commercial activity that would not have to rely on unpredictable government decisions. It would therefore put space operations on a much more solid, dependable footing and would enormously expand man's space activity. Some people see a potential for multi-billion dollar businesses there.

However, some difficult problems will have to be solved. First of all, a manned reusable rocket like the Venture Star will have to be built. But even then, a serious problem exists. Space rockets today, even the most advanced concepts, are able to lift only about two-and-one-half percent of their launch weight into orbit and this ratio has hardly changed in more than 40 years. It is pretty much set through the limits of material characteristics and the limits of chemical power sources, and there is no indication that any fundamental breakthrough can be expected in the foreseeable future. Costs may be somewhat reduced by the use of air-breathing engines to help a reusable rocket penetrate the earth's atmosphere. Today the lowest cost to lift a payload to orbit is over $4,000 per pound. Even with a very optimistic assumption of costs on the order of $200 per pound, the price of a ticket to space would have to be at least $50,000. It is somewhat questionable whether a sufficient number of customers could be enticed to pay such a high price for a short trip around the world. However, space tourism may become more attractive once space facilities will be available to offer tourists a longer and more interesting stay in space.

With the ISS becoming the hub for all kinds of space activities, service and repair functions will be required as well the refueling of manned and unmanned probes. This will eventually lead to space assembly and manufacturing and will herald the start of an industrial park on the ISS comprising space hotels, space recreation centers, etc. Once such amenities can be offered and longer sojourns in space are possible, some people will be inclined to pay the expense for an extended trip into space. We could even visualize hospitals for wealthy patients whose suffering may be relieved in the weightlessness of space.

The next natural development is bound to be a lunar colony necessitated by humanity's thirst for large amounts of electric power. Such colonies will be made possible through the presence of considerable amounts of water, in the form of ice, which has been detected in deep craters at the lunar poles. These colonies may lead to larger industrial parks and to lunar hotels with entertainment facilities that take advantage of the moon's low gravity. A well-established and well-supplied lunar base may become the stepping-stone for travel to other planets, the first of which would likely be Mars.

4. The Very Long-Range Future of Humanity in Space

Will humans ever visit other stars and colonize planets in deep space that offer conditions similar to those on Earth-temperate climate, oceans and continents, an atmosphere similar to ours? Only one in a thousand planetary bodies is likely to meet all those conditions. Since the star closest to Earth lies at a distance of over 4 light years, the right planet circling the right sun at the right distance will hardly be found at a distance of less than 10, 20 or 50 light years from our Sun. The farthest stars in our own galaxy lie at distances of nearly 100,000 light years from us.

How will humans ever be able to traverse such distances within their lifetimes? They probably won't! The first travelers to distant stars will not be people, but robotic probes, moving at much less than the speed of light and requiring centuries to investigate distant solar systems. Only after exploratory work is done and we know the nature of our near galactic surroundings can humanity afford to venture further into the cosmos. The only conceivable way this can happen is through means of human colonies living in large space islands similar to those suggested by Jerry O'Neal of Princeton University. There is no way we could imagine those large objects, weighing millions of tons, being able to move with anywhere near the speed of light and so, unless people are put in a stage of suspended animation, many generations will come and go before the "promised land" has been reached.

The spread of humanity throughout our galactic system will be a very, very slow process, not to be expected in the next century, but perhaps in the next millennium. However, when we look at the millions of years it took us to evolve in our development, humanity will have plenty of time to progress towards our destiny.

K Aerospace & W Kistler, July 19-21, 1998, "Humanity's Future in Space", Presented at the World Future Society Conference, Chicago, IL, July 19-21, 1998.
Also downloadable from future in space.shtml

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