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HOW do we get there?

April 26, 2012

How, indeed. With the Shuttle now retired, on its’ way to a permanent parking spot at the museum, American presence in space has been diminished, at least for the short term. What will take the place of the Shuttle? That’s a good question, with several private companies working to take the X Prize idea, and run with it, Branson, Rutan bros., Cameron, Bezos, as well as Mr. Google, Larry Page all turning their gaze skyward/spaceward, as well as continuing efforts by other countries including Russia, our current ticket to space, there is that which wishes to find out what lies beyond the atmosphere, and gaining traction and momentum. Which is all good and fine, until you start talking about the sheer scale and scope of this Enterprise, because that first step to space is a Real Bear. A step that’s 70 miles tall. And, that’s just the first step.


Russia was the first country to successfully mount it, their satellite, Sputnik, bringing awe and some paranoia to a world that previously only had one, namely the Moon. Today, comsats and so forth circle the globe like V’ger’s destroyers, only on a more benign, benevolent mission of keeping us connected ’round the world. Still, there’s more to space than just a place to bounce your signal to rebroadcast the Home Shopping Network in 92 different languages around the globe. Indeed, the launch bodies that have ascended a fiery plume into the vacuum beyond our sphere and sent by NASA on quests still continuing today, have now left our solar system completely, fulfilling the desire to quest for those strange new worlds. Pioneer, Mariner, Voyager, long since largely forgotten, but still traveling, probably forever. 

Where will they end up? Will they one day return to Earth, perhaps on a ‘hook’ behind some other spacecraft, with a tow bill due, and a fine and a citation for littering? Will they fall prey to the ravages of time and space, power systems finally failing, frozen solid, pockmarked by micrometeorites, reduced to inert, practically meaningless interstellar space junk, trapped like a fly in amber in some nameless gas cloud or debris field? And, will they be our last offerings to the star-gods, such as they might be? 


WILL there even be a future, for space travel, or will government monies be more wisely spent ‘on the ground’, tending the perennial torrent of human problems here on Earth? For it’s very arguable that if you’re going to spend tax money on something, it may as well be to help somebody, not on somebody’s science project that will probably never amount to anything, the probable rhetoric to be expected from critics of stellar/interstellar exploration.

Now, enter the billionaires, visionaries, entrepreneurs, ground-breakers, mavericks, people of means and desirous of seeing visions come to life, and one such vision now involves mineral extraction from the asteroid belt. Untold fortunes are presumed to lie in the space between the planets of our solar system, but accessing them will itself require untold fortunes, developing new technologies to solve new problems that are only now even honestly really being speculated about. 

With talk of a Mars mission, the challenge is to to keep a number of people alive, and sane, in confined quarters probably no more spacious than a Navy submarine, and probably even more confined, ironically because to get to space, you have to save a lot of space, and weight, at least when dealing with craft built here on Earth. Now, could such craft be constructed in orbit, and how would they be constructed, what shape would they take, what would you make them out of? Space-age materials have been superseded by next-generation polymers, alloys, composites(Rutan bros), and now they have this stuff called, ‘carbon fiber’. What materials will be used to build your Mars craft, and what materials will be used for modules and equipment finally destined for the asteroid belt? And, how many decades and hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars will elapse before space-boot ever touches asteroid?

In space, no one can hear you scream. (Alien). Or, just go barking mad from being trapped in the endless darkness, millions of miles from the green hills of Earth. Whether or not the equipment holds up to the trip, how will the ‘spam in a can’ respond to such extended confinement?   In our natural state, we walk on two feet under 1g, and go to sleep when the sun goes down, eat green things that grow out of the ground, and require gravity for certain other personal reasons. The astronauts aboard the space station are learning about things like extended weightlessness, and its’ impact on the human body. But, years, years upon years, the likely period of time to be spent by some future hypothetical generation of ‘rock hounds’, and will they be produced in orbit along with the craft ultimately destined to bear them hence, true denizens of that new frontier, no longer of Earth, but descended from it, while having adapted to their new environment?  What will a ‘rock hound’ look like, Niven’s ‘belters’, and once adapted to the heavens, would they even be able to set foot on dear old Earth, without collapsing or succumbing to some ailment related to being under the influence of Earth’s gravity for the first time in their lives? 


Here, we are discussing an undertaking no less massive and sweeping in scale and scope, than the conquest of the New World. Not just one ship, but many ships, from many points of origin, perhaps chartered by government, perhaps independent ventures, but all in the common quest, to explore, to discover, to acquire new wealth potentially, but resources to build future colonies at any rate, then comes the question of processing.

What would a space mining operation look like? How do you handle molten steel safely, in a zero-g environment, how do you produce that heat, first and foremost, and how do you move the ore into position and process it so it can be fed to the forges to begin with? 

How, indeed…


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  1. ID10T permalink

    I do believe that Osama bin laden was seen on Jupiter….we should deploy troops to hijack the resources of Jupiter….I mean capture bin laden.

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