Saturday, November 19, 2005

Yawning in the ArmChair

While Canadians doze in their armchairs, waiting for our current collection of clowns in Ottawa to decide when they are going to trigger an election, I thought I'd divert away from my usual tirades about politics.

I was just listening to a very interesting piece on CBC's Quirks and Quarks program that was discussing the practicalities and realities of human space exploration. It seems that there is a growing, active debate over whether it is practical to have people going into space, and whether that particular activity has any "scientific merit".

Basically, the argument boils down to this:

Right now, on a "dollar for dollar" basis, we get more productive science out of remote control / robotic technology used for space exploration than we do out of putting a human out there. In fact, the ISS (International Space Station) has had its budget for research trimmed to nearly nothing. The crews staying on that station are essentially "maintenance crews".

On the other side of the argument, proponents of human spaceflight argue that we need to have humanity reaching off-planet - and of course, that there is no substitute for human ingenuity.

My thoughts? I think space flight is at a junction point just as naval exploration was at in the days of Magellan and Champlain. From a pure science point of view, I suspect that the proponents of robotics are correct. We can no doubt build a device that will tolerate hostile conditions that is robotic far easier than we can achieve something which will protect a human being in those same conditions.

However, I also think that as human space flight moves from being "pure science" to an "engineering discipline", that it will come to play a vital role in our society. The trick is that it is time for human space flight to become a commercial enterprise (a la Robert Heinlein's Jubal Harshaw character). It will take many years and billions of dollars for humanity to start colonizing space, but I think that human space flight is going to move forward most positively in the commercial arena as it moves out of the realm of "pure research" and "international competition".

Space travel is a big dollar game - the chances are that few will have their own "space runabouts" in the sense that the Jetsons or that Popular Science once suggested. Even a scenario similar to Firefly/Serenity is probably a bit far fetched for the forseeable future. Like the ocean liner, the first few hundred years of commercial, human spaceflight will be economical only on a huge scale. I suspect that the underlying economics won't make a lot of sense until we learn how to process and manufacture materials in orbit. (All of which is valid engineering research, but hardly "pure science" in any sense of the word).

Essentially, we are reaching a point where we need to establish an independant economy that exists "in orbit" around earth. Once that economy is viable and solid, we will start to see real gains in human space travel. For the next hundred years or so, the people on that frontier are going to have lives that will make the life a Hudson's Bay Company trapper look pretty soft.

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