STATE OF THE UNION: Nick Denton

STATE OF THE UNION: Nick Denton - China plans to put a taikonaut into space soon. Nothing would stimulate the US space effort more than a Chinese claim to the Sea of Tranquility.

by Nick Denton is publisher of Gawker - www.nickdenton.org
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

China plans to put a taikonaut into space soon. Nothing would stimulate the US space effort more than a Chinese claim to the Sea of Tranquility.

There's nothing like space exploration to turn even the hardest-headed Americans into soppy romantics. They trace back the supposedly American traits of self-reliance and risk-taking to the open frontier, the thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, back in 1893. Recent generations grew up on John F Kennedy's New Frontier programme to put a man on the moon; on Star Trek, which sent Hollywood actors to the final frontier of outer space; and on a new wave of realistic science fiction, such as Kim Stanley Robinson's epic of the terraforming of Mars.

And that is the problem. The romantic attachment to space exploration is an American phenomenon. It has sustained vast government spending for no economic return. But it is the dreaminess of the space lobby that has left the programme in its current shambles.

The breakup of the space shuttle Columbia is beside the point. Space travel is inherently risky, and crashes are, if tragic, inevitable. Apart from the ritual demands for full investigation and accusations of cover-up, the reaction has been sanguine: it was a tragedy, but the astronauts knew the risks.

No, the hole at the heart of the American space programme is the absence of any rationale. Unmanned probes to the outer planets have provided a better insight into the solar system. But the shuttle exists to support an international space station; the space station gives the shuttle a purpose. But they are expensive props for school projects and empty symbols of international understanding.

And I blame America's rose-tinted memory of the frontier. The US was built by ornery gentleman farmers, desperate prospectors, greedy trappers and paranoid politicians. The state followed in their wake.

The space romantics have remembered the myth but neglected the reality.

They believe space exploration is America's new destiny. And yet - in contrast to the earlier wave of expansion - there is no individual or corporate interest to sustain it. There is the will and the government funding, but no long-term purpose - which is why there hasn't been a man on the moon for 30 years.

Not that the space lobby has learned from the failure of the American space programme. A popular suggestion after the Columbia crash was to make a memorial to the dead astronauts on Mars. And no robot mission, either. James Lileks, the columnist, heard a NASA critic ask: What can a man do on Mars that a robot cannot? His furious response: 'Plant a ****ing flag on the planet.' Space exploration is supposed to be inspirational, not economic.

I'm a space nut myself, and want to see human beings settle space. But a bureaucratic campaign founded on a threadbare myth is not the way.

The most sensible space programme? Devote resources to unmanned missions.

A more adventurous variant would include funding for research into carbon fibre and other composite materials, and new propulsion systems such as scramjets. One day a space plane will be economically viable, but the US should not fly before it can walk. State promotion of key technologies could accelerate the schedule.

Private enterprise can play a role. The satellite industry is already well established. TransOrbital, a US company, plans virtual tourist trips to the moon: robot spacecraft will display high-resolution maps and HDTV images to paying viewers, and deliver mementos to the lunar surface. A sub-orbital plane would allow trans-oceanic journeys in an hour - for which there is clear demand - and pave the way for more ambitious vehicles. Still, hardly very exciting.

Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, worries that free-enterprise adventurers will promote a Wild West model of space exploration - which is just what recommends it to believers in the American way. Yet space manufacturing and mining are so far from being economic, and life support outside Earth so costly, that free enterprise alone is unlikely to drive space exploration.

So, I suggest the militarisation of space. Look at the exploration and colonisation of the Americas: driven not just by the search for gold, but by a struggle for national advantage. Even if there is no immediate economic interest, countries can be relied on to establish positions, if only to pre-empt their rivals.

The Outer Space Treaty prohibits the militarisation of space and national claims. The US should withdraw from it. Sovereignty - of asteroids or choice orbital slots - should go to the first-comer. China is planning to put a taikonaut into space this year. Nothing would stimulate the US space effort more than a Chinese claim to the Sea of Tranquility.

There are those who believe in the purity of space. One academic proposes that the barren moon be preserved intact and turned into a park. They would be appalled at the establishment of zero-gee love hotels and military borders in space; but at least human beings would be in space, which is more than we can say right now.

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