Space Futures - Stephen Baxter
Stephen Baxter's novels have been published in the UK, the US, and in many
other countries including Germany, Japan and France. He has won the Philip K Dick Award, the John W Campbell
Memorial Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, the Kurd Lasswitz Award (Germany) and the
Seiun Award (Japan) and been nominated for several others, including the Arthur C Clarke Award, the Hugo
Award and Locus awards. His most recent novel is Flood, published in Autumn 2008. Stephen Baxter's
website can be found at www.stephen-baxter.com.
This piece was written specifically for the Reno in 2011 bid.
At the time of writing (April 2009) the US future in manned spaceflight is probably as unclear as at any time since the tragic crash of Columbia. It was always likely that a new administration would revisit the bold Bush-era plan for a return to the moon and a push on to Mars with its new (though retro-feel) generation of technology. In the short term the credit crunch may add to a feeling that this isn't the time for extravagant gestures in space.
However in the slightly longer term the key drivers for manned spaceflight, international competition and its benign twin international cooperation, will keep working. Europe has been working on a parallel programme of space development, while China, most prominently, has begun to fly its own taikonauts. All of this will to some extent lock in US choices, just as it can't make entirely independent decisions about the future of the International Space Station. It's to be hoped by all space buffs that some of the momentum of the first post-Columbia years is maintained, and that we do see a return to the moon by some time not long after the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019, and even a footstep on Mars, maybe sometime before 2050.
But what else is there to do in space aside from walk on Mars?
Just as the (first) race to the moon was a by-product of the Cold War, so our future goals in space will be shaped by what's going on at home. By the middle of this century the world may be dominated by a handful of super-states, including the United States, China, India and Europe. Wars will be 'asymmetric', small-scale and technologically intense local operations, like the recent Iraq war. Economic affairs will be dominated by the need to handle climate change and the depletion of key resources like oil.
But another key driver will be technology. While Moore's Law suggests we might expect a million-fold increase in computer capacity by the 2030s, space launch technology has hardly evolved since the 1940s. We are overdue a revolution in this area, perhaps through new materials (such as very light and strong nano-manufactured hulls) or new fuels (safe and clean nuclear drives) - or some new breakthrough altogether, a 'space drive' technology based on a new physics. But every advance brings its dangers. A hijacked spaceplane would make a good terrorist weapon.
With improved access to orbit and beyond, we will continue to use space to support our civilisation on Earth. Space systems will be used in war, as a layer in integrated command, control and communications systems - and perhaps as the base for space-based weapons. So much data is now carried by fibre-optic cable that the age of the communications satellite may have already passed, but there may be an interplanetary 'internet' spanning the moon, Mars and asteroids, carried by satellites.
The twin challenges of climate change and resource depletion could be met by mining outer space resources, especially the moon, from which an isotope of helium suitable for nuclear fusion reactors could be obtained, and near-Earth asteroids, a source for everything from metals to rich hydrocarbons. An Earth-orbital infrastructure of 'harbours' to receive interplanetary ferries would likely be necessary to handle this. Spaceborne power generation is also possible, perhaps from orbital solar stations. Removing such heavy industries from the Earth could reduce the human 'footprint' on the home planet while sustaining a growing civilisation.
Just as in the land grabs of the past, off-Earth resources will be competed for by the growing economies of east and west. To avoid conflict we will need political innovations such as a new version of the Outer Space Treaty about the exploitation of space resources, a relic of the Cold War.
Climate monitoring will be a crucial activity. Space will support an extensive global monitoring system. Similar systems could be established around Venus, Mars, Titan and even Jupiter, to enable long-term climate studies of other planets to deepen our understanding of Earth. Climate control will remain a controversial topic as spaceborne projects such as solar shields or atmospheric modification are unlikely to respect national boundaries. International cooperation will be essential.
A range of options for tourism and leisure will be available, at increasing price. Everyone will have access to virtual tourism via rovers on the moon, Mars and elsewhere. Human artefacts like Apollo relics on the moon will be a key draw. There will be cheap and cheerful single-orbit hops, circumlunar tours, and perhaps short-duration stays at lunar science bases. Millionaires will enjoy flybys of Mars or even Venus, ventures that will help fund research into long-duration spaceflight. Sports like wrestling, sumo and judo may be encouraged as a (cheap) way to maintain bone and muscle strength in zero-G.
Exobiology, the search for life beyond Earth, will provide the crucial scientific return from space. Human and robotic missions will determine whether or not such havens as Mars and Europa shelter life, and if so if that life is related to Earth life. Meanwhile spaceborne instruments will deliver images and atmospheric analyses of Earthlike planets circling other stars. We will soon have a much clearer idea if life like ours is or is not prevalent in the nearby Galaxy. Either of these outcomes will have profound scientific implications. What if we do discover life, on Mars or Europa? We are already working on 'planetary protection' cross-contamination policies, and policies regarding the commercial exploitation of alien life - just as stretches of the human genome were patented.
SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) protagonists say that new instruments like the Allen Telescope Array and new computer-controlled frequency search techniques will deliver an 'exponential' growth in the coverage of the search for alien electromagnetic signals in the next years and decades. Also much more detailed mapping and exploration may reveal any alien artefacts at such locations as the moon, Mars, the Lagrange points, the asteroid belt. By around 2050 we will either discover evidence of intelligence, or will have much firmer evidence that intelligence (like ours) is rare. Again, either of these outcomes would have profound implications. Discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would probably deliver new priorities for subsequent space activities, such as a detailed exploration of an artefact site, or a possible response to a message. Under the auspices of the international SETI programme a (somewhat piecemeal) study of the wider implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence has been underway for some years.
Of course there is other science to be done in space. Data from the exoplanet studies will underpin a new and complete theory of stellar and planetary formation, covering all the Galaxy's ages. You can even do particle physics in space. Exotic regions like Io's flux tube create higher-energy particle collisions than any possible on Earth, and cosmic rays are relics of extrasolar events in higher regimes still. Besides, some locations such as the moon might facilitate the building of extremely large colliders. In cosmology, spaceborne mappers of such relics as the cosmic background radiation will continue to constrain cosmology models. Maybe by 2050 we'll have a much better idea of what all that 'dark' matter / energy stuff actually is.
Where will astronauts fit in all this? Just as today, humans will explore space over relatively short distance scales - as far as the orbit of Mars. Human spaceflight will probably be dominated by China, perhaps in partnership with Russia, as an expensive display of power by a command economy. Meanwhile smart robotic spacecraft will explore regions still beyond human reach, such as Europa, Titan and beyond. And the convergence of innovative space-drive technologies and nanotechnology will allow the sending of very small, very smart, very fast probes out of the solar system altogether: our first ambassadors to the stars.
(c) Stephen Baxter, 2009