Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Time for True Space Explorers

Ralph Buttigieg
Sydney New South Wales Australia

As I write this the next Shuttle launch date is due in May and the next Chinese flight has been delayed until 2008. The only regularly operating manned spacecraft is the Russian Soyuz which is keeping the International Space Station going. The good news is that you can buy a ticket to Space. It will cost you about $20 million and you will have to learn Russian and spend several months training, but you can hitch a ride to the ISS on Soyuz.

As Dennis has written the necessary breakthrough to open up space for more then just multi-millionaires may have been made. Burt Rutan's spaceships are only suborbital, reaching orbit is much more difficult but there is a clear evolutionary path to orbit. Remember Burt and the others are building high altitude hypersonic vehicles, theres going to be more uses for them then just tourism. Fast package delivery and military reconnaissance come to mind. The economic pressure on rocket companies to develop faster and higher flying vehicles will get commercial spaceships into orbit. Then let competition knock a zero or two off that 20 million and expect to see a considerable market. So where to go? How about a commercial Space Hotel. Las Vegas Hotel tycoon Robert T Bigelow has set up a company to do just that. Actual hardware has been built and should fly into space this year. Bigelow is even offering a $50 million America's Space Prize to the company that can loft 5 people to his inflatable habitat.

I don't think we can underestimate what even a factor of ten cost reduction would mean to Space exploration. All astronauts so far have been contract explorers, Tito and the other private astronauts were tourists not explorers. The high cost of Space travel has excluded people in the Mawson, Cousteau and Bill Stone mould. Dennis describes the true explorer this way:

......The true explorer defines himself by the expedition that came about by his own reasoning and his own dogged determination and he was able to achieve his goals from the energy and creativity he found only within himself. In the end, the expedition is his life and his life is his expedition - they are inseparably one....

Combine affordable spaceflight with an orbital station and private expeditions outside Earth orbit become possible. Remember we are at the bottom of a gravity well, to reach orbit a spaceship requires a Delta Vee (a measure of mission energy requirement) of about 9.7km/s, to get to the Lunar orbit from LEO , 3.9km/s and Mars orbit 4.7 km/s. Its a lot easier to get around the Solar System once out of the gravity well.

While private expeditions to Mars are decades in the future the Moon is a different matter. Space Adventures, the company selling Soyuz tickets, hopes to be sending explorers on around the Moon flybys by 2010.

The $100 million asking price is a deterrent but cheaper access to Space will bring the cost down. Don't be surprised if someone attempts a Moon landing. In the 60's NASA considered a cut down Moon shot with one man rocket chair lander. Although far too risky at the time its the type of mission a modern day adventurer would consider.

However, the real age of the Moon explorer will begin when theres regular transportation to a Lunar outpost. Like Antarctica is today the Moon will be the great magnet for the adventurer and explorer. Expect to see people trying to cross the Farside, circumnavigate the Moon, travel from Pole to Pole etc. They will be the pioneers who will develop ways to live of the land and survive the harsh Lunar environment for long periods.

The Moon is not the only destination for the early space explorers. There are other nearby worlds within reach and that will be the subject for tomorrow.

Antarctica Updates

The JRM Antarctic Kayak Expedition is still making progress as the paddle around the Antarctic Peninsula. Laurie Geoghegan has rejoined the team:

We had a nice surprise last night when Gages strolled into camp. He'd managed to hitch a lift to Prospect Point and then found our camp a few km away in the Fish Islands. After five days of rest he reckons his elbow is OK now so he will join us again for the paddle across the Antarctic Circle and beyond.

Now how does one hitch a lift in Antarctica? Anyway, the view is magnificent!