This month marks forty-five years since men first left planet earth and set foot on another world. The last man to walk on the moon did so in December, 1972, over four decades ago. It's a good moment to ponder what we haven't done since.
There were six successful landings on the moon, and, almost literally, they barely scratched the surface of that body. The later astronauts had “golf carts” that allowed them to travel short distances, but only a fraction of a percent of the Africa-sized area was directly investigated by humans. To say, as some do, that we shouldn't go back, and should instead go on to Mars, would be like saying that, having touched shore in a half dozen places in the Americas, we should have then ignored those continents and gone on to Asia.
It's a misnomer, of course, to call this a new “geography.” That word is derived from the Greek “ge,” for earth. We probably should use something like 'selenography' for the moon, 'venerography' for Venus, and for Mars, either 'areography,' or my preferred fanciful 'barsoomography' (with a nod to Edgar Rice Burroughs). Each of these “ographies” are vastly different from each other and from earth.
There's a lot of interesting real estate out there, and all we've done so far is to briefly poke around on our own moon a few times, only to abandon the effort after a few years.
We stopped because we have never, as a nation, made it a serious goal to open up the new lands of the solar system. Apollo wasn't about exploration or science. It was a soft battle in a cold war; a demonstration of our technological prowess versus that of a brutal adversary. In order to win, we set up a state-socialist enterprise to rival that of our opponent, except our enterprise was democratic, whereas theirs was totalitarian. We had aerospace contractors; they had design bureaus.
We won even before Apollo 11, with the circumlunar mission of Apollo 8 the previous year, about the same time that the Soviets started to pretend they'd never been racing. The human space program devolved into one of national pride and white-collar welfare in the states and districts of those on the Hill who funded it.
Had it been our intent to develop and settle these new worlds, we would have gone about it very differently. For instance, we might not have acquiesced to the Outer Space Treaty in 1967. The partial goal there was to end the space race by putting the entire solar system beyond the reach of claims of national sovereignty. This is one reason why the US didn't claim the moon when we landed. Instead, we came “in peace for all mankind”.
This had the effect of rendering extraterrestrial private property claims themselves as somewhat problematic, even though it didn't go as far as the Soviets wanted. Private enterprise in space was permitted. Otherwise, the communications and remote-sensing satellite industries might have been stillborn.
If we had followed the tradition of free-enterprise America, we wouldn't have rushed to the moon with an expensive giant rocket. Rather, we would have more methodically developed affordable space transportation, and created a competitive industry to continually drive down costs, as has occurred in other fields of transportation. We'd have developed the infrastructure in space, such as assembly facilities and propellant storage depots — the equivalent of gas stations on the Interstate — that would allow full reusability of vehicles to and from various locations.
We are only now starting to do so, in the face of strong resistance from Congress, primarily because small, private industry doesn't allow sufficient opportunities for graft in the way that large, sole-source NASA contracts do. Congress currently seems determined to repeat Apollo, with its giant rocket and capsule, and its missions costing billions per flight. As a result, it is likely to continue to keep us trapped in low earth orbit for the next few decades.
Fortunately, the government is no longer the only source for the funding of human spaceflight. Several billionaires have expressed interest, including Elon Musk of SpaceX, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Las Vegas hotelier Bob Bigelow, Microsoft co-founders Paul Allen and Charles Simonyi, and others. Musk has repeatedly stated that the ultimate purpose of his space company is to colonize Mars – he believes it's important that we become a multi-planet species. He has already disrupted the expensive dinosaurs of the space industry with his low-cost rockets, which will become even lower cost if he succeeds, as seems likely, in developing the ability to reuse them rather than to throw them away.
Bezos has also declared his interest, ultimately, in space colonization, whether as an insurance policy against having all of humanity's eggs in a single basket, or perhaps to allow new social experiments like the one our own founders created in their own New World almost two hundred and forty years ago. And Peter Diamandis, author of the book Abundance and co-founder of Planetary Resources, an asteroid-mining venture, notes that the vast majority of resources available to humanity lie not on this tiny planet, but in the rest of the solar system, and ultimately the galaxy and universe beyond.
These entrepreneurs and visionaries hold these beliefs, despite the obstacles. Planets in our solar system have a wide variety of different atmospheres, including (as with our moon) essentially none. None of them are presently breathable by humans, and won't become so absent massive terraforming and/or radical genetic engineering (which at some point begs the question of the meaning of the word “human”).
As for Mars, its atmosphere is far too thin to breathe, even if there were oxygen in it (it's mostly carbon dioxide). But there is water there, and plants in greenhouses could manufacture oxygen from the atmosphere, using sunlight dimmed by its distance from our star. Rocket fuel could be produced, as well, to make access to and from the planet easier. It is full of iron and other minerals, unfortunately including the very toxic hexavalent chromium.
Those who are simultaneously competing and conspiring to open up the solar system, with all of its new lands, are doing so not just for a handful of government civil servants, but potentially for thousands or millions of private adventurers and explorers, in a way that government cannot, and likely will not, absent a sudden burst of vision rarely seen in politicians. But with or without the government, the new lands look increasingly likely to be privately explored, settled, developed, and even created, opening up vast new wealth to humanity, and perhaps giving us the first trillionaire.
Many today lament that they didn't live in the excitement of the sixties, when “we” went to the moon. But the coming decades of the new “solography” promise to be vastly more exciting — not just vicariously, as Apollo was, but with the participation of the new pioneers.
Rand Simberg has had many years of experience in aerospace engineering and project management at the Aerospace Corporation and Rockwell International Corporation in Los Angeles, and has been recognized as an expert in space transportation by the Office of Technology Assessment. He is author of the new book, Safe Is Not An Option, on how our risk aversion holds us back in human spaceflight. He blogs at Transterrestrial Musings.
SpaceX Dragon Cargo Transfer at the SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left, and SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk, view the historic Dragon capsule that returned to Earth following the first successful mission by a private company to carry supplies to the International Space Station. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls.