After too much time, effort, and political wrangling, Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator, has announced to the world the design for a new heavy-lift Space Launch System. Nominally designed to take over the Space Shuttle’s duties with respect to servicing the International Space Station, it is also being touted as our ride into the next chapters in the U.S.’s (and, perhaps, humankind’s) ventures off our home planet and into space.
Therein, however, lies the rub, as Shakespeare noted.
Where are we going? I’ve noted in an earlier post about the end of the Space Shuttle era, that I never found the engineering-heavy but distance-minuscule movement into low-Earth orbit satisfying. It’s been a needed stepping stone, but we didn’t really go anywhere.
Space-travel fans have long touted a return to the Moon, visits to asteroids, or trips to Mars as worthwhile (ad)ventures. I concur. But even with such grand visions, there must be some palpable reason for going anywhere. I do support the philosophical approach that supports getting off our home planet and into space for many intangible reasons. But we are not (yet) at the stage in our development where we can afford to do this just because we might want to.
The venerable “bottom line” is often used as a justification for many activities. And so may be the case here. We must analyze the possibilities with an eye toward understanding what such voyages would do for us here on Earth in a very practical way. Advancing science and technology in pursuit of knowledge always pays off—in the longer term, if not in the shorter—and is a good adjunct to other, more immediately practical reasons for going Out There.
To my way of thinking, going to an asteroid is an excellent next step—not because we can or could, but careful selection of a target may bring with it untold wealth in terms of metals, of which many asteroids are composed. Yes, the costs are manifold, and asteroid mining technology doesn’t even exist, but transferring mined ore from an asteroid “down” to the moon, for example, for refining and then, subsequently to Earth for use, would be made relatively easy owing to the respective gravity wells. Landing is another matter, but that’s what engineers do: Solve seemingly impossible or improbable problems.
Bravo to NASA for developing this behemoth, but let’s actually go somewhere and do something with it!
Questions: Have you ever received a task for which you can find little or no justification? What did you do in response? Would you give such a task your all?