NASA Looks to the Future With Eye on the Past

Space Exploration
(Photo Illustration By Patterson Clark, The Washington Post; Nasa and iStockphoto images)
By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006

Some 1,000 years ago, Viking sailors became Europe's first great maritime explorers -- setting out for places unknown, not really understanding what they were finding, and often not returning home. It was a halting beginning to what later flowered when southern European powers sailed and colonized the globe and to what is now as unremarkable as a tanker of oil or a shipment of apples leaving home port for delivery halfway around the world.

As Michael Griffin, the head of NASA, sees it, humanity is setting out on an interplanetary quest not dissimilar to what began with the Vikings. An age of space exploration has begun, but only with the same confused baby steps that brought Leif Eriksson briefly to Vinland and North America (or was it Greenland?).

"Fifty years into it, the amount of progress that the Vikings had made would not have been that noticeable, and that's where we are in space flight today," Griffin said in a recent interview. "I really think that's the way to look at it."

But Griffin and NASA have big plans for the future. The concrete proposals are contained in the Vision for Exploration that President Bush announced in 2004, a program to return Americans to the moon before 2020 and plan for travel onward to Mars.

It's an ambitious, almost Star Trek-like vision, one that has ardent supporters and vocal detractors. But to a degree generally unappreciated by the public, it is the law of the land, since Congress adopted the president's moon-Mars proposal last year. And it is moving forward: NASA will publicly outline today its exploration strategy for the planned lunar missions.

The bigger picture, however, is significantly more grand. As Griffin and others (including renowned British cosmologist Stephen Hawking) describe it, it is all about whether humans will incorporate the solar system "into mankind's sphere of influence."

"In the long run, we know that Earth and its resources are finite," Griffin said. "There are resources in space -- solar power or particular materials or precious metals, or basic things like water or fuel which, in the context of a space-based economy, can be very valuable. As we learn and develop the arts and sciences of spaceflight, we will want to make use of those resources rather than bringing them up from Earth."

Some intriguing possibilities include extracting oxygen from the moon's soil to help power rockets, collecting helium-3 (a non-radioactive isotope of the gas) for nuclear power back on Earth, and the mineral anorthite to make aluminum.

"This won't happen tomorrow or in our grandchildren's day," he said. "But who would have thought that it would be profitable to make wine in Australia and ship it to the United States? In a few short decades, we've made a very significant part of the Earth's economy to be a global economy and not a patchwork of national economies."

In the same way that globalization was the result of a thousand years of exploration and development, Griffin argued, a space-based economy will appear only after thousands of missions -- some successful and some not.

"You will -- if you can live long enough -- see the resources of the solar system similarly incorporated into humanity's sphere of influence," Griffin said. "In the long run, that's what the expansion of humankind into space is all about."

Whether this vision is achievable or even desirable is a subject of debate, and there is already substantial concern that NASA's exploration plans will, over time, drain funds from its highly successful science programs.


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