ISRO & SpaceX: A Thrifty Trek To The Stars

ISRO & SpaceX

104 That is the number of satellites the Indian Space Research Organization successfully placed into the Earth’s orbit in a single go last week, thanks to the services of a PSLV rocket. SpaceX was not far behind as, only 4 days later, it delivered a payload, and then proceeded to land its Dragon spacecraft vertically on Earth.

Space has never been more exciting after a brief lull due to the end of the Cold War. There is plenty of investment going into the development of advanced technologies to make interstellar travel possible. According to the rigorous research and analysis undertaken by IndustryARC, the demand for radiation hardened electronics, a variant used especially for protection from radiation in space, is such that the market is expected to register a strong CAGR of 9%, and its revenue is predicted to breach the $1 billion mark by 2019 at a canter.

The common theme in the latest achievements of ISRO and SpaceX is not hard to spot: cost-effectiveness. In fact, ISRO’s successful mission to Mars in the form of the Mangalyaan spacecraft cost lesser than the production expenses involved in making the film ‘Gravity’, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney! So what exactly has brought about this sudden focus on frugal engineering?

The most popular reason seems to be…fear.

A fear that our planet might very soon be unsuitable for life. As you are reading this, thousands of animal and plant species are going extinct as physical conditions are changing at a rapid pace. The time necessary for them to adapt simply does not exist. As the icy Arctic Circle disappears, the idea of a 22nd century Earth which is too hot for human life to continue is becoming increasingly plausible. In other words, climate change has prompted some of our leading minds to make a concerted push towards transforming the human species into a multi-planet civilization.

The key to unlocking this futuristic vision of human evolution is to make space travel far more economical. Reusing spacecraft, manufacturing the ability to carry higher payloads, and the development of radically different spacecraft propulsion systems are all expected to chip in towards the achievement of the overall objective.

But this idea of a human civilization coexisting on multiple planets, or even multiple solar systems, is only possible through a tremendous amount of patience, sacrifice and pure luck. Kim Stanley Robinson, the visionary science-fiction author of the Mars trilogy, has already mapped out the thousands of years it would realistically take to terraform Mars and enable the creation of a civilization possible. Through an article in the Scientific American, he also proceeded to detail the various steps necessary to establish life on a planet which is similar to Earth, albeit in a different star system.

The idea of interstellar travel and creating a human settlement on Mars, or even in a different star system, is very exciting to think about. But ultimately, it hinges on the lessons we are willing to learn while making life on Earth sustainable and stable. If we are not willing to pay attention to our past, then our future might just end up being a replay of the former.