Now that we are back on track with the shuttle, where do we go from here? It’s important to have our future in space planned, for the road is an expensive one and we cannot afford to flounder.
One obvious dream goal is that of a manned flight to Mars and its satellites. If we accomplish this, we will explore a world that is not too far away and that in some ways is like the Earth. It is smaller and colder, but it has a thin atmosphere, a 24-hour day and icecaps. And it has mysteries, too--dried-up riverbeds that once may have flowed with water, volcanoes that once may have spewed lava, a vast canyon that may betoken a once-active crust.
Yet the task of sending human beings to Mars and bringing them back alive is so enormous and so barely within the realm of possibility that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union can undertake it without back-breaking effort and unimaginably suspenseful fears for the safety of the astronauts. It becomes marginally less dangerous if the United States and the Soviet Union pool their resources and expertise, making the Mars Project a global effort rather than a national one. That might encourage globalism in other directions, too; and since the problems we now face on Earth are global in nature and require global solutions, that might be an even happier result of this difficult project than the exploration of Mars would be.
Still, a trip to Mars from Earth-as-base is bound to be a showpiece not easily repeated. It would be like the trips to the moon 15 years ago, which, however spectacular, seemed to lead to nothing broader and deeper.
It is absolutely necessary that we build a base other than Earth for our ventures into space--a base with a lesser gravity and one without an interfering atmosphere.
The logical beginning is with a space station, one larger and more versatile than the Soviets have set up in space, one that would be continuously inhabited by crews working in shifts. To the space station, the parts could be brought out of which new space vessels can be built. The intact vessels could not be lifted off Earth without vast rocketry, but the parts could be brought up much more cheaply and safely. The vessels, once built, taking off under weaker gravitational pull than they would from the more distant Earth, and with the initial kick of the space station’s orbital velocity, would need less fuel and would carry larger payloads.
With space-station-as-base, it would be far easier to reach the moon and set up a permanent base there. The moon could then serve as a huge mine. Suitable chunks of the moon’s surface can be fired into space by means of “mass-drivers” that use electromagnetic forces for propulsion. This would be relatively easy on the moon, where the surface gravity is only one-sixth that of Earth. In space, the lunar ore could be smelted and from it all structural metals could be obtained, as well as concrete, glass and soil.
It is with moon materials that we will be able to build structures in space--power stations that make use of solar energy and relay it to Earth; automated factories that would take advantage of the special properties of space, and help lift the pall of industry and pollution from Earth itself; settlements that may each be large enough to house 1,000 human beings in orbit about Earth under conditions that closely mimic the environment we are used to.
It may take us the better part of the 21st Century to build up, and put into use, the space between Earth and moon, but once that is done, we will have, at last, a firm base for operations in space beyond; one that is far superior to Earth itself.
The inhabitants of the settlements will be accustomed to space as Earth people can never be. They will be used to living inside an artificial world. They will be accustomed to changes in apparent gravitational pull as they move about their small worlds. They will take for granted the necessity to recycle tightly all the air, water and food they use.
When a settler steps into a spaceship, he will be moving into a world that is smaller than the one he is used to, but its properties will remain familiar. What would be impossibly foreign to an Earth person would be home-sweet-home to a settler.
The settlers, then, being much better suited, psychologically, to life on a spaceship, will be better equipped to face long voyages through space. It is they who will be the Phoenicians, the Vikings, the Polynesians of the future, making their way into the 22nd Century through a space-ocean far vaster than the water-ocean traversed by their predecessors.
It is from the settlements-as-base that repeated voyages to Mars and its satellites can be made. That will be only the start too, for other trips can be made to the asteroids, to the satellites of Jupiter and eventually to all the solar system. And beyond that are the goals of the 23rd Century--the nearer stars.