Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Retardation of Space Travel

...and its Consequences

In the light of mankind’s seemingly natural escalation of exploration and technological progress, the last forty years marks the non-appearance of giant white elephant which few seem to acknowledge or comment on much: How has it come about that Mankind’s thirst for new frontiers has come to a screeching halt?

Consider the time-line comparison below:

1909 - 1949

Forty years of accelerated expansion

  • In 1909, Luis Bleriot crosses the English Channel in his monoplane.
  • 1919, manned non-stop flight from New York to California
  • 1929, first round the World flight is achieved.
  • 1939, first successful manned flight of a jet plane.
  • 1949, first manned non-stop flight around the World.

Summary: From the ground hopping to non-stop circumnavigation of our planet in 40 years.

1969 - 2009

Forty years with no significant expansion

  • In 1969, manned space craft lands on the moon.
  • 1979 the manned Space Shuttle nears completion.
  • 1989, unmanned launch of the Galileo spacecraft.
  • 1999, Manned Space Station, 200 miles above the Earth.
  • 2009 sees the beginning phase-out of the Space Shuttle. There is no replacement.

Summary: Regressing from the Moon to orbiting a scant 200 miles above the Earth.

In the first seven decades of the last century, our ability to rapidly cover large distances went from barely getting off the ground to flying non-stop around the World. This breath-taking pace of technological advancement culminated in placing a man on the Moon, 76 years after the first tenuous leaps into the air at Kitty Hawk.
The next forty years, from 1969 to 2009 one could best describe manned expansion into space as exceedingly retarded. Forty years after Mankind landed on the moon, all we have achieved is a tenuous foothold in space, the barely funded Space Station, orbiting a scant 200 miles above the Earth. Even more disturbing, the Space Shuttle, which was America’s only versatile space-going vehicle, is about to be scrapped, with no foreseeable replacement.
In 1967, the imagery in Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001 Space Odyssey” movie did not seem far-fetched. Man was due to land on the moon in a couple of years, and extrapolating from the past meteoric rise of aeronautics, moon bases 30 years hence seemed so predictable that the concept was almost humdrum.

The real surprise was that this amazing technological expansion and advancement has come to a screeching halt.
It is an ominous sign, for it suggests that a major shift in our species modern social behaviour has occurred.
Apologists will state several reasons for this shift away from manned spaced exploration, chiefly amongst the arguments is that long-term resource output does not justify short-term gains, visualized as a profit incentive. The essence of other objections can be boiled down to the gradual stripping away of financial resources, these being increasingly reallocated towards the escalating proxy wars in Third World countries as competing nation-states bicker over diminishing global resources.
The less than enthusiastic move to send men to Mars is a concept visualized to happen so far into the future that it allows politicians to complete their tenure with no real commitment, passing the project along to the next generation who would be likely to inherit the unsubstantial drive of their predecessors. The whole affair is reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch in which a chartered accountant wishing to become a lion-tamer, advised by his job guidance councilor to approach his job-change by gradual degrees “via, banking.”

The retarding trend is disturbing, because manned expansion and settlement of the solar system would alleviate dangerous nation-state competition brought about by expanding populations and an increasing need for diminishing energy and raw materials.
Expansion into space is also the ultimate species insurance, in that we are less likely to be wiped out by any number of conceivable planetary catastrophes.

It may be quite possible that the only real hope for a future in which Mankind emigrates into space will once again to boil down to the military might of nation-states jostling for tactical high ground. After all, a strong argument could be made that the only reason Man made it to the Moon was due to the Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. It is perhaps no coincidence that the decline of outward expansion is directly related to the lack of competition. One can draw a direct parallel between the collapse of the Soviet Union and America’s flagging interest in manned space projects, in which case the emergence of new, powerful nation-states will topple the placid World Order of the last twenty years, in which the US was indisputably dominant.
Sad indeed, having to entertain the notion that, in order to accelerate space exploration we must tolerate the military competition of nation-states as they vie for high ground. This is a dangerous path, fraught with the possible seeds of our own self-destruction.
Sadder still would be the continuing strangulation of space expansion which will ultimately herald an inevitable self-destruction as diminishing nation-states, trapped like competing molds in a petri dish, slowly strangle each other for lack of resources.

If this ‘cold war aggression’ is what it takes to re-awaken the expansion outwards, then it is with some trepidation that I welcome the coming competition between the USA and the emerging super-states, whilst praying that we succeed in gaining a foothold in space before we run out of resources and self-destruct.
Our insatiably increasing need for ever more resources is rapidly driving us down a one-way corridor towards an inescapable dead end. From this corridor there is but one avenue of escape: We must continue to expand outward into the Solar System if for no other reason that to feed the material appetite of our voracious species.
To this end, we desperately need to develop our technologies in order to build space elevators so that inexpensive payloads can be brought out of Earth’s gravity well, and do the research necessary to understand how sealed biospheres can function.

Mankind is rapidly out-growing Mother Earth and the bio-mass of our species is becoming too large for her insular womb. The time is rapidly approaching when we have to emerge from the planet Earth and cut the umbilical cord - or perish.

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