The Future of Space Exploration: Solutions to Earthly Problems

2007-May-1 Supriya Chakrabarti hosted this conference at Boston U in April 2007 to study the next 50 year in space. You'll have heard of some of the speakers: President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam of India, Freeman Dyson, John Mather, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. I was impressed, so I cashed in my frequent-flier miles and headed to Boston.

Fun fact: Will, Chris, Peter Hays, and I discussed over lunch: There are two ways to make money in space, remote sensing, and communication. Communication is an old boy's. That leaves remote sensing.

Following the symposium, Sesh Velamoor of Foundation For the Future led a workshop to condense a vision. Will Marshall, now CEO of Planet edited the result: Surviving and Thriving in the Next 50 Years of Space Exploration: Leading scholars gather on 50th anniversary of Sputnik. This document identifies 5 objectives that need to be addressed soon if our optimistic vision for a prosperous future is to come about.

It's worth reviewing every few years to see how we're doing.

Below are the 5 objectives. My commentary is on the right.

1. Space Governance. In anticipation of emerging space activities, a system of laws, regulations and agreements are needed in space. Particular areas that need addressing include:
(1) prohibiting space weapons;
(2) managing traffic of space vehicles to avoid collisions and ensure uninterrupted satellite services;
(3) managing the global environment and security; and
(4) enabling and encouraging private and national space utilization.
A launch vehicle is only part of the story. Niche products like RocketCam give small companies a foodhold in space. Private habitats and personal satellites are not far away.
All spacefaring nations have already signed The Outer Space Treaty and Convention on Liability.
New guidelines from COPUOS say, "Avoid intentional destruction and other harmful activities." (like China's ASAT test)
Communication, GPS, and weather satellites are required for a healthy global community.
Environment = climate change. Security = military reconnaissance and communication.
Tomorrow's players could be private companies, transnational NGOs, or ambitious individuals, not just today's nations.
2. Public participation. To ensure the long-term sustainability of human endeavors in space, the public can be, and should be, directly integrated with space missions. We would like more communication of the benefits of space exploration to society, emphasizing that survival is the foremost incentive, both in terms of space providing knowledge of our environment and natural disasters, and through the potential of self-sustaining settlements off our home planet.
Outreach is out, Marketing is in.
Chat with the ISS by HAM radio.
Remote sensing is essential to understanding global warming, and to doing anything about it. Canadians acknowledge the scientific evidence of global warming. Americans, less so.
Historically, isolated populations of fewer than 1,000,000 people have not advanced. Lifting that many people off the planet is impractical, so social as well as technological advances will be needed.
3. Resources and Energy. Material resources, energy sources and other sources of economic value in space need to be developed. These assets have the potential to improve the quality of life on Earth, and will require the development of new space technologies and infrastructure.
The superpowers are worried about a Lunar land grab. Fusion with He3 (harvested from the moon) doesn't break even yet, but that's not the only way to harvest extra energy for Earth. Or, more likely, energy to make robots that make more robots.
Strip-mine the Moon? You bet! If you're careful, you wouldn't even see it from Earth.
4. Biotechnology. The coming biotechnology revolution that will change the health and survival capabilities of the human race should be fully exploited. Developments in biotech may allow humans to live in space without harmful effects of space radiation or bone degradation. This will have profound effects on the limits of human experience and our presence in the solar system.
Ionizing radiation damages DNA, and fixing it is a hard error-correction problem. Maybe astronauts will have to gargle stem cells, or maybe space residents will be highly engineered versions of today's humans.
5. Strategy. We believe that a 50-year global vision should be developed that can provide guidance for the future of human endeavors in space. Concurrently, a 10-year horizon rolling plan, considering the needs of all peoples, is necessary to ensure sustainable progress towards the longer-term goals. We urge development of suitable mechanisms for this that could involve the world's space agencies.
Stakeholderss (like governments) resist making long-term commitments with incomplete information. I envision a process that creates a forum for cooperation, rather than a governance body. A 10-year plan, reviewed and extended every 3 years, seems about right. If you want to put a power station on the moon in 10 years, you put it in the plan. This lets speculators start to develop technologies that they know you'll need in 8 years.
It will be tempting for today's space players -- scientists, space agencies, aerospace companies -- to make a power grab to control this vision. But the vision won't mean much unless it benefits everyone who has a stake in space. And that's everyone. The Space Generation Advisory Council is a peoples' representative to COPUOS. But small nations, NGO's, and companies should also participate by bridging gaps in larger players' visions. I call this the Gold Rush Model -- more on that later.