A new space race has begun. But the rivals in this case are not superpowers but competing entrepreneurs. These daring pioneers are creating a revolution in spaceflight that promises to transform the near future. Astronautical engineer Robert Zubrin spells out the potential of these new developments in an engrossing narrative that is visionary yet grounded by a deep understanding of the practical challenges.
Fueled by the combined expertise of the old aerospace industry and the talents of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, spaceflight is becoming cheaper. The new generation of space explorers has already achieved a major breakthrough by creating reusable rockets. Zubrin foresees more rapid innovation, including global travel from any point on Earth to another in an hour or less; orbital hotels; moon bases with incredible space observatories; human settlements on Mars, the asteroids, and the moons of the outer planets; and then, breaking all limits, pushing onward to the stars.
Zubrin shows how projects that sound like science fiction can actually become reality. But beyond the how, he makes an even more compelling case for why we need to do this--to increase our knowledge of the universe, to make unforeseen discoveries on new frontiers, to harness the natural resources of other planets, to safeguard Earth from stray asteroids, to ensure the future of humanity by expanding beyond its home base, and to protect us from being catastrophically set against each other by the false belief that there isn't enough for all.
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Great things are happening.
On February 6, 2018, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy took flight, demonstrating a capacity to lift sixty tons to low Earth orbit while playfully sending a Tesla Roadster on a trajectory taking it beyond the orbit of Mars. To add to the coup, two of the Falcon’s three booster stages flew back to land gracefully together at the Cape, while the third barely missed pulling off a recovery landing on a drone ship stationed downrange.
To understand how extraordinary this accomplishment was, let us recall that in 2009, the Obama administration’s blue-ribbon review committee headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine declared that NASA’s Moon program had to be cancelled, because the development of the necessary heavy lift booster would take twelve years and 36 billion dollars.
Yet SpaceX did it, in half the time and at a thirtieth of the cost. And, to cap it all, the launch vehicle is three quarters reusable.
This is a revolution. The Moon is now within reach. Mars is now within reach.
And it’s just the beginning. SpaceX is developing the means to allow refueling the booster second stage after it reaches orbit. Once this technology is in hand, the Falcon’s interplanetary payload will triple, giving it a capability greater than the mighty Saturn V rockets that sent astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s. SpaceX’s fully reusable 150-ton-to-orbit “Starship” launcher that is now under development will multiply that capability nearly three times over again. With such a system, the entire inner solar system will be wide open to exploration and development.
The possibilities abound. A reusable rocket system that can send 60 or 150 tons to orbit can also send 60 or 150 tons from New York to Sydney in less than an hour. For comparison, a Boeing 737 has an empty weight of 45 tons. If the Falcon Heavy or its successor Starship two-stage launch system can be made fully reusable, then an entirely new market for space launch can be created, one involving not one hundred or so launches per year, as is currently the case, but hundreds or even thousands per day. Such a market would drive a radical cheapening of space technology, finally making possible all the dreams of space tourism, industrialization, and colonization that have been within view but out of reach since the dawn of the space age.
So the dam has been broken, and the four-decade-long post-Apollo age of stagnation in space launch and human spaceflight technology has come to an end. An entrepreneurial space race has erupted with players including Firefly, Vectorspace, Virgin Galactic, Stratolaunch, and most importantly, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin—which will soon launch its own reusable New Glenn booster with similar capabilities to the Falcon Heavy—competing to take their share of a market which will soon explode in size. They will soon have plenty of company. SpaceX has shown that it is possible for lean hard-driving entrepreneurial ventures to do—better—what it previously was thought only the governments of major powers could attempt. With the naysayers refuted, dozens of would-be emulators from around the world are sure to enter the fray, and their fierce competition will crash the cost of space launch, and with it, the cost of developing more advanced in-space technology as well.
Furthermore, while NASA and the other government space agencies may have gone adrift in the space launch and human spaceflight arenas, they have delivered extraordinary results in the fields of space science. Indeed, over the past several years a series of remarkable discoveries has changed our understanding of the relationship between the human future and the rest of the universe. Launched in 2009, the wildly successful Kepler Space Telescope has found thousands of potential alternative Earths nearby. As a result, it is now clear that planetary systems — potential homes for life — are the rule in the universe rather than the exception. Also, since the 1990s, evidence has piled up to the point where it is now conclusive that asteroidal impacts on the Earth have been responsible not just for the extinction of the dinosaurs, but for other mass extinctions as well. The message here is that life on Earth is part of a larger cosmic system, which we humans ignore at our peril.
In 1994, the US Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) launched a low-cost space probe to the Earth’s Moon, finding evidence for the presence of water, the stuff of life and the basis of chemical industry, on the Earth’s nearest neighbor. This was confirmed in 2009, when the Centaur upper stage that was used to launch NASA’s LCROSS probe was crashed into a crater near the Moon’s South Pole, sending up a cloud of water vapor. In 1996, NASA’s Galileo probe uncovered evidence for what appears to be an ocean of liquid water under the ice-covered surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. This set off a wave of discoveries by subsequent probes, so that we now know that tidally-heated under-ice oceans that may contain life are a general phenomenon, existing not only on several of Jupiter’s other major moons, but even Saturn’s tiny satellite Enceladus—and probably on billions of other worlds throughout the universe. A string of incredibly successful NASA orbiters and rovers launched since the mid-1990s has revealed Mars to be a world rich in all the resources needed to support life, and therefore future technological civilizations. A few years ago, methane—which can only exist on Mars as a product of life or of hydrothermal environments that can support life—was detected by the Curiosity rover. Then, in 2018, scientists using the MARSIS ground penetrating radar on the European Mars Express Orbiter announced the discovery of an underground lake of liquid salt water near the Martian South Pole. On the basis of such data, it is becoming increasingly likely that we will discover not only the remains, but even living survivors of ancient microbial life on the Red planet. As humble as such Martian microbes might be, the implications drawn from their existence are spectacular: the processes that lead to the origin of life are not peculiar to the Earth. If we combine this with the Kepler mission’s discovery that most stars have planets, and that virtually every star has a region surrounding it—near or far depending upon the brightness of the star—which can support the type of liquid-water environments that gave birth to life on Earth and Mars, the conclusion is that a very large number of stars currently possess planets that have given rise to life.
The history of life on Earth is one of continual development from simple forms to more complex forms, with the more advanced forms manifesting ever-increasing degrees of activity, intelligence, and capability to evolve still further at an accelerated rate. If life is a general phenomenon in the cosmos, then so is intelligence. The implication is clear: We are not alone.
Yet there is still more good news. In early 2018 the SHARAD ground penetrating radar team on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter announced the discovery of massive ranges of glaciers on Mars, covered only by a few meters of dust, extending down from the poles to latitudes as far as 38 North (the same latitude as San Francisco), and containing an amount of water equal to ten percent of the fresh water supply of Earth. Then, in December of that year, the same team announced discovery of gigantic underground caverns on the Red Planet—potentially offering vast shielded habitation volumes for future human settlers.
Collectively, these discoveries are making it apparent what sort of birthright humanity has been given, if only we are bold enough to step up and embrace the challenge and the opportunity before us.
In The Case for Space we explore the possibilities. Starting with a discussion of the present-day breakthroughs, we will take a deeper look at where it leads: to ultrafast global travel through suborbital space, to new industries on orbit, and to human settlement of the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, the outer solar system, and ultimately the stars. All these things are possible, and we will explain how to achieve them.
Then we will look at what such mastery implies: what we will gain by undertaking this grand adventure, and what we would lose by failing to do so. There is immense knowledge to be gained in space, but also deadly hazards to be faced, which we need to control if we are to protect ourselves and all other life on Earth. The value of the challenge itself, both to stimulating the creative forces of society as a whole and particularly of our youth, will also be explored. There is also the question of the influence of an open frontier—or the lack thereof—on human freedom, and on the battle of ideas that can sustain it or defeat it. Finally, there is the question of the human future itself: Will we be limited to one world, with limited resources and limited prospects? Or will we become something far grander in space, time, diversity, and ultimate potential?
Many years ago the Russian space visionary Nikolai Kardashev outlined a schema for classifying civilizations. According to Kardashev, a Type I civilization was one that had achieved full mastery of all the resources of its planet. A Type II civilization was one that had mastered its solar system, while a Type III civilization would be one that had control of the full potential of its galaxy. All of human history up to this point, from the trek out of our African birthplace, to the settling of the continents and then the linking together of the disparate branches of humanity through first long distance sailing ships, then telegraphs, telephones, radio, television, satellites, and the internet, has been a process of our rise from a local Kenyan biological curiosity to a full-fledged Type I civilization. That transition is now nearly complete, and we stand at the beginning of a new history—our rise to become a Type II civilization capable of measuring itself against the further challenge of becoming Type III.
It’s a grand time to be alive. We are living at the beginning of history. We are present at the creation.
Nothing is inevitable, and nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Not all revolutions succeed. Some are suppressed by the forces of the old order. Others simply lose their way. We are surrounded by a living cosmos of unlimited possibilities. Will we ignore it, or enter it? Will humanity retreat and allow itself to be, and to see itself, as mere passengers adrift in a sea of stars? Or will we step forward and, in taking hold of our solar system, take charge of our destiny, a species fully capable of contending with the challenges to come?
The choice is ours—yes ours. We, the people of this time, this moment in history, have the privilege, the responsibility, and—provided we live up to the moment we have been given—potentially the honor and eternal glory of establishing humanity as a multi-planet spacefaring species.
My father and all my uncles served in World War II. One of them landed on Normandy Beach. For doing such, they and their kind have rightly been called The Greatest Generation. By doing what history called upon them to do, they made this moment possible.
We owe it to them to make the most of it. We owe it to our posterity too.
It’s our turn at bat. If we prove worthy, we can earn our own title as a Great Generation, and be remembered as such for ages to come, on not just one, but thousands of civilized worlds.
We can do it. This book will show you how.