From The Wall Street Journal, February
3, 2003, p. A16
remains of the orbiter Columbia and its crew bear testimony to a
and more insidious problem than a tragic
and the spacecraft they heave into orbit around Earth are inherently dangerous
devices. A rocket engine that turns
combustible substances like liquid hydrogen and oxygen or solid fuel into fire
is undergoing a controlled explosion
that can get out of control very quickly. Challenger, many of its
predecessors, and a number of Soviet launchers
-- one of which blew up on the launch pad in October 1960, burning 92 people
beyond recognition -- have already shown
safety record has improved dramatically over the years and
to do so. But it will always carry danger.
The question to ask is whether the risk of traveling to space is worth the
benefit. The answer is an unequivocal yes,
but not only for the reasons that are usually touted by the
community: the need to explore, the scientific return,
and the possibility of commercial profit. The most compelling reason, a very
long-term one, is the necessity of using
space to protect Earth and guarantee the survival of humanity.
"Encounter With Tiber," a 1996 novel by astronaut Buzz Aldrin and
Barnes, the commander of a large interstellar
space cruiser justifies its immense journey by warning its crew: "There's
not a place in the universe that's safe forever;
the universe is telling us, 'Spread out, or wait around and
Indeed, this is an abidingly unsafe neighborhood.
It is a cosmic shooting gallery in which one horrendous asteroid or comet impact
roughly 251 million
years ago virtually brought the dinosaurs into existence by killing off
their competitors, and another, which struck about
186 million years later, is thought to have finished them off.
are so many large asteroids that cross Earth's path with potentially
catastrophic consequences that an international
Spaceguard program has been started so astronomers can catalogue them. This
would allow one that is on a
collision course to be deflected or destroyed. No astronomer doubts that several
are headed our way.
is not to say the sky is falling. But it is to say that it is prudent to spread
out. For the first time in history, we have the
wherewithal to do so thanks to access to space. In order to ensure our survival,
it is imperative that we move beyond the
short-term "fight or flee" mentality and think about using
to protect Earth and civilization for the very long
that end, some of us have started an Alliance to Rescue Civilization, or ARC,
that would copy civilization's essential elements
-- its cultural, scientific, historical, political and biological components --
the way a computer's hard-drive is backed
up, and for the same reason: to protect against a crash. The idea is to have a
continuously updated archive stored both
on Earth and in a large settlement on the Moon that would be self-sustaining.
defense, in its various forms, is so important it ought to constitute the
overarching focus of a space program that
is now so unfocused it is in shambles. A solid defense requires constant and
relatively easy access to space. And that,
in turn, depends on single- or two-stage-to-orbit, reusable
that can carry people and cargo at frequent intervals
and be serviced like airliners.
other words, we need a second generation shuttle. What we have, however, is a
grossly diminished fleet of aged and precariously
capable spacecraft that are not conceptually much different from the Roman
candles that carried the Apollo
astronauts. The technology to change that is at hand. It is foresight and the
will to do so that are lacking.
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