Everyone and his dog wants to go the Moon these days. Could George W. Bush be to blame?
When the European Space Agency held a major workshop for representatives of science, industry, politics and the public at Edinburgh last month, it was very much focused on scientific exploration of the Moon, Mars and the planet Beyond. But there was very little discussion of what ought to be the relative priorities among pure exploration, space tourism, space solar power and developing asteroid resources.
As some of you have already heard, I was lucky enough to be invited to the workshop as a representative of the space-aware British public, following an online competition. Five representatives were chosen in all, the others coming from Finland, Germany, Greece and Ireland.
The ESA workshop, hosted by the BNSC, is part of the ongoing process of preparing a European Long-Term Strategy for Space Exploration. Another similar event is due be held in Berlin towards the end of this year. The process will culminate in recommendations to be put before the 17 space ministers at the Ministerial Council in 2008, including proposals for specific missions to follow ExoMars.
There were a total of 177 attendees from the UK and continental European countries, also including representatives from NASA, Ukraine, Canada and Japan. There were some well-known faces among them, such as Prof. Zarnecki, Prof. Sweeting, Daniel Sacotte of ESA, and David Parker and David Williams of BNSC. Lots of people from EADS Astrium, Alcatel Alenia Space, Logica, Qinetiq, and similar companies. Surprisingly, there were no astronauts present.
The contrast between the American approach and the European one is very clear. The Americans have been given a vision by their commander-in-chief. They know what they're going to do, and their only problem is explaining why in terms that Congress will continue to support. The Europeans, on the other hand, have no such sense of direction. In order to keep ESA moving forward, therefore, a strategy has evolved of consulting the stakeholders in science, industry, politics and the general public, finding out what they want from space exploration, and integrating these disparate points of view into a single long-term plan.
Not so much "vision-led" exploration, then, as "hearing-led".
Bernhard Hufenbach, Head of ESA's Strategy and Architecture Office, told the workshop that space exploration is not a destination, it is a process, and one which is driven by society in such a way as to benefit society.
Be that as it may, the only specific missions described at the workshop were all focused on science, and most of those were directed towards the Moon. Astrium wants to develop the ATV and turn it into a lunar lander to deliver a radio telescope to the Moon, or provide logistic support for a manned base. Kayser-Threde talked of a lunar rover to explore craters near the poles. ESA's Concurrent Design Facility has issued studies of a lunar south polar base supplied by dozens, or in another study over a hundred, launches of an augmented Ariane 5. The Italian and Ukrainian space agencies also have lunar probe studies under way.
A couple of speakers brought proposals for asteroid sample return missions. A representative of Alcatel Alenia Space, prime contractor for ExoMars, said that the launch date for ESA's next Mars mission would now be in 2013, but no decision had yet been reached as to whether there would be a lander only, dependent upon an American orbiter for data relay to Earth, or a lander and an orbiter, and if the latter, whether they would be launched separately on two Soyuz rockets, or together on an Ariane 5. (No hint was offered as to what would be done if the one-off mission failed, but the example of Beagle 2 suggests that there would be another 10-year wait before anything was done.)
The only mainstream speaker to mention the use of space resources was Silvano Casini, who has led ESA's deliberations so far on an industry-driven scenario for exploration. He emphasised the energy expense of climbing out of Earth's gravity well, and concluded: "the use of the Moon is mandatory to make space exploration affordable and sustainable" (thinking of lunar polar water resources to make rocket propellants).
The exploitation of the natural resources of space will have an impact on Earth's economy as well as creating a space economy, he said. He mentioned lunar helium-3, nickel and platinum-group metals from near-Earth objects, and solar power satellites in geostationary orbit, built with the help of lunar resources. He also emphasised the importance of private finance, public-private partnerships, and such commercial activities as space tourism.
The five representatives of the European public got their say on the second day of the two-day workshop.
George Papaioannou (Greece), a post-graduate geologist, argued that the educational system should be more oriented towards space, with classes in astronomy for schoolchildren. Those children will later grow up and their view of the universe will affect how they vote. He also suggested that there should be a department of planetary geology within ESA.
Saara Reiman (Finland), a researcher in philosophy, emphasised science education for adults. Amateurs should form a bridge between the general public and the space programme. The SETI@home computer program engaged the public, and is a good example to emulate. And space exploration must have heroes that the public can look up to.
Stephen Oman (Ireland) is a software developer with a background in artificial intelligence, and an amateur astronomer. On the question of where ESA should be going, he thought first the Moon, later Mars and Europa. The science we can learn on these worlds helps us to learn about our own planet. Above all it helps us to answer the profound question of whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. He is keen to take the sense of passion and adventure of space exploration to the general public and to schools.
My own presentation made the following points:
So basically I was saying things that nobody else was saying, which is satisfying in one sense and very frustrating in another.
Although he did not make a formal presentation, Thomas Steffes (Germany), who has worked at BMW and at Astrium in Germany, spoke up to support the points made by myself.
A few more general points struck me.
Several speakers emphasised that space exploration could only proceed through international collaboration. This is surely a product of the low political interest in space, leading to low space budgets? If oil were discovered on the Moon, this seemingly unquestionable axiom would change very rapidly ...
One theme which was mentioned several times, including by ESA's Head of Exploration Policy, Manuel Valls, is that Europe must have autonomous manned access to orbit. Collaboration with the Russians is seen as one way of getting this. But collaboration for this purpose with the emerging space tourism industry was brought up only by myself and Silvano Casini, and it may be a struggle to get ESA to take this possibility seriously.
Scientific space exploration was considered by everyone present as self-evidently good and worthwhile. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this view, which I share myself. But one did at times have the impression that the outside world had been left far behind, and the problems of global poverty, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change and so on no longer existed.
Two speakers attempted to deliver a corrective reality check. Dr Karlheinz Steinmueller raised a number of warnings: Europe has so far failed to achieve the Lisbon Goal it set itself at the start of the new millennium; a global power shift is in progress with the rise of India and China and the decline of the US; what about the return of religion? will the place of man in the universe again become a big issue? might there be ideological struggles on the way? Other possible wildcards include revolutions in biotech or nuclear fusion, or, on the pessimistic side, the start of another ice age. But he finished his talk on an optimistic note.
Meanwhile Dr Stuart Monro pointed out the image problem of modern science, illustrated by a recent newspaper cartoon which depicted the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- menacing hooded black figures riding genetically modified and cloned cows and pigs: "Trust us", one of them was saying, "we're scientists!" But generally, speakers ignored the modern anti-technology, environmentally pessimist, backlash.
Space tourism got mentioned once or twice, but certainly not as something that ESA should be taking much of an interest in or actively encouraging. I would say there's a huge cultural inertia towards doing things the way they've always been done: astronauts are government scientists or test pilots almost by definition (oddballs such as Anousheh Ansari can be ignored), space is always going to be reached only on expensive throw-away rockets.
There was endless talk of strategies and roadmaps and architectures, and flowcharts showing how abstract nouns in boxes are connected by arrows to other abstract nouns in boxes ("User/Stakeholders Architecture Requirements" --> "Architecture Specifications") which are often rather hard to follow. There was much unnecessary detail on what instruments such and such a design for a lunar probe could carry. But there was no real central point, no burning mission that can be stated in a single sentence, unless it is the importance of "exploration" itself. Certainly no sense that we're in the early stages of a revolution that's going to change everything in the same way that the age of global exploration did.
Three of the five public representatives called for ESA to be more ambitious, or to create a vision. Clearly this is not going to happen. ESA is already ambitious enough to plan bases on the Moon and manned flights to Mars, but without funding those plans will remain dreams. And ESA cannot create a vision to rival the American one. Only an outstanding political leader can do that, and what modern European politican is going to announce the discovery of oil on the Moon?
In a little over a year's time (April 2008) ESA expects to have finalised its International Reference Architecture for Space Exploration. Until then, the debate will continue.
Two readers have sent in comments on my claim that suborbital spaceflights can soar to successively higher altitudes, bridging the energy gap between suborbital and orbital spaceflight. From Reaction Engines, Alan Bond writes:
"Just one comment on vertical ascents. Paradoxically, vertical ascents require much higher accelerations on re-entering the atmosphere than returns from orbit. This problem gets rapidly worse with increasing altitude and anything much above 100km will require very substantial discomfort to be endured by the passengers. Shepard and Grissom, for example had to sustain over 11g on re-entry whereas the Mercury craft returning from LEO experienced, if I recall correctly, only about 6 to 7g. This is due to a combination of altitude and flightpath angle during the re-entry trajectory."
Thank you, Alan. That's blown half my argument completely out of orbit, but I believe my point about the importance of the business plan is still valid.
Meanwhile, Jim Trounson has drawn attention to a scramjet web reference:
"I don't know if this scram jet stuff might really work, but I think it is worth further work.
The appeal of course is that in theory only carrying your fuel and getting O2 from the air could make a big step change in high speed aircraft and maybe spacecraft.
As I have said in previous replies - the next step in space flight involves more / faster computers doing design, simulation, and modeling. Relying on engineers just dreaming up stuff will never get us there."
The web reference above introduces the work of the Astrox Corporation on scramjet engines (http://www.astrox.com/ -- NB this does not display properly in Explorer 5.1)
Well-known speaker and space campaigner Jerry Stone has sent me his schedule for the first half of 2007. At the moment, his calendar looks like this:
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