Thursday, September 22, 2005

Civilians in Space

I just read an article on about a group of students who, with the help of the ESA, have designed and built their own satellite that will be launched aboard an ESA booster. Now, this is not a "Get-Away Special," the NASA program that would let students fly a small, self-contained experiment on the shuttle for about $10,000. This is a full-up, fairly large satellite, about the size of a large washing machine. Furthermore, the satellite will launch a set of "picosatellites," tiny satellites designed by other student experimenters. The total cost to the ESA for the design, development, and launch of the satellite is about $100,000. The actual value of the satellite is quite a bit more than that, of course, since a number of companies donated materials and/or expertise to work with the students.

The key here, though, is that it was the students who did all the work. This is regular people putting an object in orbit. The next project that is planned will go all the way to the moon to take pictures. How cool is that? It's become more and more obvious that the world's space agencies are not going to get us very far off of this planet, certainly not in any routine way. If we want to make the dreams of an interplanetary civilization a reality at any point in the future, governments aren't going to get us anywhere. It's not their fault, necessarily, it's just that science and politics don't often pair up very well. Science depends upon rational decisions, and politics ... well, political motivations just aren't very rational many times.

Economics and science, on the other hand, pair up quite well. In fact, one could argue that economics have driven every great exploration and settlement adventure in history: People naturally look for a better life and hope that a new land will give that to them. If there's money to be made, you won't need government funding and special research programs. People will do it all themselves. The problem, of course, is that the energy needed to get out into space at all is huge. Energy is power. Think about the energy contained in the airliners that blew up the World Trade Centers. Huge. And that's nothing compared to what you need to get any sizable mass into orbit, much less to another world. The technology that gets Joe Average into space could be the technology that destroys a city. Governments are historically very nervous about giving private citizens access to that level of power. Car accidents are bad. Cars that accidently run into buildings are worse. Civilian spacecraft that crash into downtown are much, much worse. Now imagine a suicide bomber-space pilot who does it intentionally.

So, in the face of these dangers, should we prevent the development of civilian space flight? Not at all. We do need to develop some way to protect people on the ground. If you want to keep a spacecraft from crashing into a city from orbit, you've got to stop it from orbit. That means we need an "Orbital Patrol" that can enforce space traffic regulations near planets. Once you get outside of the planet's gravitational influence, well, it's wide open country, so go wild! The odds of you hitting someone else in space are really, really small. It's only in the near-planetary space that we will need traffic laws and cops. It's time we started working out what that force would look like and how traffic in space would operate. Science fiction authors are perfectly suited to lead the way on this. Too many books describe a ship that simply arrives in orbit from deep space, and everyone just assumes it will do what it is supposed to. As we have had graphically demonstrated to us since 2001, however, not everyone does what they're supposed to. How will space traffic control look? Writers, let's get cooking!

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