Friday, February 2, 2018

To the Moon, Mars and Beyond: A new spirit of exploration, fueled by tech entrepreneurs, big plans at NASA and worries about the fate of the Earth

The Wall Street Journal
By Michio Kaku
February 2, 2018 12:24 p.m. ET

—Dr. Kaku is a professor of physics at the City University of New York. His new book, “The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality and Our Destiny Beyond Earth,” will be published on Feb. 20 by Doubleday.

A new countdown has begun in space travel. The most powerful rocket since the Apollo moon missions stands ready for a test flight, scheduled for this Tuesday, on the same launchpad used by the NASA astronauts. It’s a step toward putting humans back in lunar orbit, and still more ambitious plans are in the works. Last month, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation that commits the U.S. to a series of missions to the moon, then Mars and, as he said, “perhaps someday to many worlds beyond.”

Nearly 50 years after the first moon landing in 1969, we’re on the verge of a new golden age of exploration. But there are significant differences this time. The Falcon Heavy rocket now on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral has been privately built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. It is one of several commercial ventures working alongside NASA, which plans to launch its own giant moon rocket late next year. Returning to the moon is a first priority for all of these projects—but only as a steppingstone to interplanetary travel. It has suddenly become fashionable again to talk of reaching for the stars.

The SpaceX venture features Mr. Musk’s usual showmanship. The rocket will, among other things, blast a cherry-red Tesla sports car into solar orbit. But the launch—assuming it actually takes place next week, after several years of delay—is also a serious business.

Mr. Musk has already shown the commercial viability of his smaller Falcon 9 rocket, which can land and be reused, like the U.S. space shuttle, making it much less expensive than other rockets. He is using the same strategy for the Falcon Heavy, which is essentially three Falcon 9s lashed together. SpaceX also has just sent one of its unmanned Dragon space capsules to the international space station and back for NASA, and is vying with Boeing starting in 2019 to launch NASA astronauts.

As for NASA, it plans to test its taller, more powerful new rocket, the 212-foot Space Launch System, as soon as December 2019. The SLS is close to the size, profile and power of the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo missions. Its first launch will send an unmanned Orion space capsule into orbit around the moon. If things go smoothly—a big “if,” considering the many delays since the program’s start early this decade—the SLS could take four astronauts to an orbit around the moon in 2022. The SLS may cost as much as a billion dollars per launch, whereas a reusable Falcon Heavy could cost a 10th of that.

‘It has suddenly become fashionable again to talk of reaching for the stars.’

NASA then plans to construct a space station orbiting the moon, dubbed the Deep Space Gateway. Current plans call for four SLS missions to build it by 2026, with the help of Russia, Japan, the European Union and Canada for key components. Mr. Musk recently added the idea of a station sited on the moon to his own plans, though he provided little detail beyond calling it “Moon Base Alpha.”

NASA intends to use its station as a base for building a rocket bound for Mars and possibly for the belt of asteroids that orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft planned for the journey employs huge solar panels to generate power for its ion-thrust engines, technology that works only in the vacuum of space. Labeled the Deep Space Transport, its first two-year round trip is slated sometime after 2033.

SpaceX calls its version the Interplanetary Transport System, to be powered by an even bigger rocket that Mr. Musk calls the BFR (with “F” standing for just what you think). As he imagines it, the ship would carry a small colonizing force of dozens of people, who would make fuel for the return trip by synthesizing materials found on Mars.

The cost of rocket technology has dropped dramatically since the Apollo missions of the 1960s consumed some 5% of the federal budget. More players, both public and private, now have the financial and technical resources to join the nascent space race.

India sent a probe to Mars in 2014. China plans to send astronauts to the moon and unmanned probes to Mars, followed by a manned mission. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is funding his own space port in Texas for his Blue Origin project, which has successfully reused its “New Shepard” rocket for suborbital flights, on which it intends to take passengers. Google co-founder Larry Page and other Silicon Valley billionaires have formed a company called Planetary Resources to explore the commercial possibilities of landing on asteroids to mine for rare elements used in electronics.

The stated goal of the U.S. Mars program is to create a permanent base there. That is difficult to imagine in the planet’s harsh environment, which was depicted with such stark realism in the 2015 film “The Martian.”

But there are possibilities on the planet for making bases more viable. Mars explorers could use natural lava tubes in extinct volcanoes to create an underground base shielded against harmful radiation. Underground deposits of ice discovered in recent years could be used for drinking water and to provide oxygen for breathing, as well as hydrogen for rocket fuel. In theory, astronauts could eventually establish agricultural stations to create a self-sustaining colony, using genetically modified plants that could thrive in a cold environment rich in carbon dioxide.

A new spirit of exploration and discovery is certainly part of the push for this new space age, but concerns about the future of the Earth are also a motive. There is a growing realization that life on the planet is extremely fragile, that killer asteroids, super volcanoes and ice ages have nearly extinguished life in the past, and that climate change may spin out of control. Even if the Earth remains habitable, we know that one day the sun itself will expire.

So the choice ultimately will be simple: Colonize outer space, or perish. We need an insurance policy, a backup plan. The dinosaurs didn’t have a space program. We may need ours to evade their fate.

Original article can be found here ➤

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