The success of the space shuttle seems to have recharged this nation's interest in manned space flight and perhaps stimulated new ideas about what comes next. During the first 15 or 20 years of space activity, we assumed that because space itself was hostile to humans, our presence there would be temporary, reserved for the well-trained few who would do exploration and scientific research. The severely cold temperatures and general sterility of open space made it better suited for machines than humans. At best it was a kind of celestial Antarctica or deep ocean bottom. At the most, we might construct "stations" providing artificial, clinical environments. Living in space permanently was a concept for science fiction writers.
In the 1970s, however, an alternate view emerged among scientists and engineers. Its roots lay in the work of Russian rocket theoretician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who was early as 1900 held that it was possible to establish "ethereal settlements" in which housing, workshops, hothouses and other facilities of ordinary life would be duplicated in space.
Unaware of Tsiolkovsky's work, Princeton University physicist Gerard K. O'Neill in 1969 not only made his own designs and calculations for living in space, he also researched the technical and economic feasibility of doing it. But public disenchantment with the space program following the Apollo missions and our immersion in the Vietnam War had caused an alienation toward anything smacking of large-scale high technology -- especially space-based. Nonetheless, NASA, invested modest funds to support research centered around the idea of space settlements, and made working models of some of the machinery necessary.
According to O'Neill, space settlements could be huge satellites shaped like spheres, tubes or doughnuts with open interiors for soil, trees, grass, flora, animals and suburban-like towns. The settlements were to be located within the earth/moon system and built using materials and energy resources from space, such as silicon, aluminum, magnesium and titanium from the moon itself.
Because of the moon's low gravity, electromagnetic machines could catapult raw minerals into space where they could be devoured by orbiting factories. Two prototype moon catapults, called "mass drivers," have been built at Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In addition, nearby asteroids, which have abundant water, carbon components, nickel and iron, could be moved into the earth's orbit as mineral mountains. In space, where gravitational pull is near zero, free-floating factories could be propelled from one asteroid to another or asteroids could be brought to the factories. Solar-powered electricity could be generated without the interruption of a day/night cycle or cloud cover. Using raw materials from the moon could make commodities useful to the earth's economy. Experimentation in processing materials in space is already scheduled to be carried out during this decade when Spacelab, a $500 million pressurized laboratory built by the European Space Agency, will be carried into orbit in the space shuttle cargo bay. Pharmaceuticals and electronics will probably be the first made-in-space products.
Although we applaud each advancement in space exploration -- and question the cost -- most of us find it difficult to accept the idea that artificial mini-planets duplicating the earth's environment are an engineering possibility. Such a concept is roughly equivalent to our Colonial ancestors trying to visualize the physical structure of New York today. What seems necessary is to view space not as a scientific and exploratory frontier but as a social and economic frontier, in the same way that Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo moved us from an earth-centered to a sun-centered perspective.
By the time the solar system is considered a place where civilization can grow, our advanced space technologies will make the whole proposition more credible. Today's youth, unencumbered with the opinion that life in space is fundamentally ludicrous, will be our leaders.
These days we operate with a collage of space policies that are generally pragmatic, fairly narrow, short-term and framed by specific missions, such as going to the moon or launching the space shuttle. National policy for long-term space goals is based only on general statements about exploration and scientific research. Legislation establishing NASA, for example, calls for U.S. activities in space to be devoted to "the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space" and for "peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind." Nothing is said about the relationship of space to the social destiny of the American people.
Yet, if the permanent settlement of space is to be initiated during the first half of the 21st century, that settlement -- and industrial development --by Americans would be the logical result of our historical pattern. In the past we have settle a new territory and then developed it industrially. Now the technology that actually creates the new territory in space reverses the pattern: Develop the territory, then settle it.
The space settlement idea creates political opportunities. A president who views development of space as a long-term social and economic goal rightly assigned to the American people could make a commitment roughly analogous to that of Thomas Jefferson, whose Louisiana Purchased seemed senseless to many in 1803. Like Jefferson, he would undoubtedly ensure his place in history. But even if we had favorable public opinion encouraging space development, his major hurdle would be avoiding being seen as a budget-buster. He would do best by making a long-term philosophical commitment to the settlement of space rather than the near-term programmatic one.
It could be argued that such a commitment taps our heritage as a nation of settlers with a particular genius for advanced technology. It even could be said that we have a moral obligation to take the lead on behalf of world society -- to liberate it from the confines of this planet's limited resources. Such a philosophy would define our long-term role in space and link it to our fundamental political value that a free, democratic people, allowed to purse their natural instincts, will provide a hopeful future for mankind.