We're not living in the 2001 we expected to have. As Avery Brooks puts it in the IBM commercials, "they promised us flying cars!" Retrospectives on the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" have wondered at our shortfall in space technology from the movie's well-researched projections. Many authoritative plans had us on Mars as early as the 1980s. This "space gap" between the expected future and the reality of our times inspires much tub-thumping by advocates of new large-scale space projects. Their explanation for the space gap is a lack of national will: Americans have become whiny, degenerate slackers, and if we just recover the grit of the Greatest Generation and declare a new government crash program, we can do anything. But the real answer is much more disconcerting: we can‚t get there from here. Given the structure of our space efforts, no policy or program can bring about the sustainable settlement of Mars. Not in two Presidential terms, not in the scope of NASA's 20-year plan. Not ever.
I'll be spending a lot of time in this column backing up the following statement with a great range of evidence, but here it is in its baldest form:
No space program can ever succeed in creating a sustainable human presence beyond Earth.
That's "can" not "will." Popular demand, Presidential inspiration, generational fortitude - all irrelevant. The tools we have are incapable of doing the job, if what we want is a permanent, sustainable human presence on Mars.
It's no coincidence that the few government-affiliated space projects that are doing important, useful work are being starved for funding. Not an accident, not a matter of a policy to change with a new NASA administrator. It's fundamental: the structure of space efforts worldwide, a legacy of Cold War history, can only produce engineering-driven one-shot spectaculars.
I think - I'm not sure, and this column will be looking at the evidence - that spending resources and attention on "mules" - sterile, non-sustainable technological efforts such as Apollo or the ISS - actually retards our development. In a few weeks, this column will focus on the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous decision, which was as critical to Apollo's success as it was crippling to sustainable space settlement. The necessities of NASA-managed projects are in direct opposition to the goals of a sustained expansion into space. Bureaucracy and the unknown are natural enemies, and exploration and settlement are all about the unknown. Some segments of society are familiar with managing risk: the military and the commercial are obvious and often discussed in the context of space exploration. But explorers themselves - both the field and the armchair types - have been an important force in some cultures and at some times, as well. In any realistic plan to settle Mars, the real constituency for exploration and settlement has to be identified and recruited. And they're not in Congress, and not - openly - in management jobs at NASA.
So why don‚t we have our promised future? Simply, the tools we used to build it took us farther from it than if we'd done nothing. Meanwhile, the computer and telecommunications industries used the right means to make their technologies affordable, ubiquitous and effective (i.e., faster, better, cheaper), and changed the very nature of civilization from courtship to international trade to political revolution.
There can be a space revolution to match the internet revolution. Another question this column will ask is whether - or, more accurately, how soon - a space revolution will get us to Mars. I'll try to show that while a crash program might land us on Mars sooner, only an internet-style sea change can possibly get us there to stay. For that sort of change to come about, we have to understand why the current system can't possibly work. The missing elements - technological, economic and cultural - that we‚ll need for the sustainable settlement of Mars have to be identified. I'll be using this column to spotlight the people working on those issues and encourage support for their projects. Finally, we have to redirect our efforts away from the useless and onto the critical projects that will get us to Mars.
I believe - and this is another statement of faith - that we can begin the sustainable settlement of Mars in this generation. But it won't happen unless we understand precisely what must be done to reach that goal, and what obstructs it. And, we must act. If we don‚t, our historical experience of exploration shows that we will reach and settle Mars, but that centuries may well pass first. It falls to us to settle Mars now. We can get there, but not if we continue down the pathways of the past. No more Apollos: next time we go to stay.
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