Exploring the Past and Future of Space Travel

One technical innovation at a time humanity marches towards the stars

Credit: NASA
We choose to go to the moon in this decade… because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. -John F. Kennedy

To the winner go the spoils. Such was the case after WWII when America claimed many of Germany’s stockpile of V-2 ballistic missiles. Tests began using this arsenal as a means of assuring American leadership in technology.

Atlas launch complex, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Roland Miller

In the dust of WWII’s end a new sort of warfare emerged. Not the hot, aggressive variety but a war of espionage, counterintelligence and competing ideologies. This was the Cold War. A war to determine which superpower would inherit the world.

During this period, space exploration emerged as a major area of contest and became known as the Space Race. NASA was born in response to this race out of the simple preamble;

“An Act to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.”
V-2 Launch Complex, 33 White Sands Missile Range Credit: Roland Miller

We knew nothing of space. Monkeys and chimpanzees, our genetic cousins, went up first. Many perished. They paved the way for humans to follow. Albert II became the first monkey in space as his flight reached 134 km — past the Kármán line of 100 km, taken to designate the beginning of space.

A confident Ham the chimpanzee perhaps a bit peeved about the rocket flight. Credit: Life

Satellites went up next as part of an international effort to gather scientific data about Earth. Advances here paved the way for our current GPS systems. Then on September 12, 1962, President Kennedy proclaimed America’s intention to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s.

Launch control room. Vandenberg Air Force Base. Credit: Roland Miller

This marked the beginning of the space race. Russia took the lead. First with their satellite, Sputnik 1. Then they put the first man in space when Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin passed the Kármán line and later completed the first orbit of Earth.

Sputnik-1 spacecraft Credit: NASA

America quickly caught up in both cases with Alan B. Shepard Jr. reaching space, followed by John H. Glenn Jr. reaching orbit.

In 1969 America won the race. Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the surface of the Moon. This marked the end of what Kennedy would call,

“The most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
Iconic. Credit: NASA

In 1981 America returned to manned spaceflight with the Space Shuttle. STS-1 took off — demonstrating that it could take off vertically and glide to an unpowered airplane-like landing. Sally K. Ride became the first American woman to fly in space when STS-7 lifted off on June 18, 1983.

Then tragedy struck. On January 28, 1986 a leak in the joints of one of two Solid Rocket Boosters attached to the Space Shuttle Challenger caused the main liquid fuel tank to explode 73 seconds after launch, killing all 7 crew members.

In 1988 the shuttle returned to service. Going on to fly a total of 87 missions. Then tragedy struck again in 2003. A breach in the heat dispersion system lead the Space Shuttle Columbia to fill with hot gas causing catastrophic failure and the loss of all 7 crew-members. Evidence hints these brave men and women may have been alive during the fall.

From left to right: Brown, Husband, Clark, Chawla, Anderson, McCool, Ramon. Credit: NASA

The Shuttle was primarily used to launch the pieces for the next period of space travel — orbiting laboratories. First Skylab in 1973, then in 1998 construction on the International Space Station officially began.

The ISS Program’s greatest accomplishment is as much a human achievement as it is a technological one. The ISS only exists because of the cooperation of the United States, Russia, the European Union, Japan, and Canada. It has been the most politically complex space exploration program ever.

Credit: NASA

By 2024 at the latest, the ISS will be decommissioned. Excess fuel will push it into a descending orbit over the Pacific Ocean. Most will burn up, with the remainder plummeting to the watery depths.

In 2004 the rover Spirit landed on the Martian surface. Its mission was to find evidence of life. It collected samples, and showed us life had quite likely existed off our familiar pale blue dot. We weren’t alone.

Mosaic of the Mars surface taken by Spirit. Credit: NASA

Then in 2012 Spirit’s follow-up, Curiosity, successfully reached the Martian surface. In an area near Yellowknife Bay Curiosity discovered evidence of an old lakebed.

Radiometric dating and chemical analysis led researchers to determine this lakebed had a habitability window of 700 million years, ending 3.1 billion years ago. There almost definitely had been microbial life on Mars.

This revelation stunned the world.

Yellowknife Bay, on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA

SETI is an international mission to discover extraterrestrial life. Using space and ground telescopes like Hubble to scour distant solar systems for traces of habitable planets. Recent findings like the TRAPPIST-1 series of exoplanets has revealed habitable planets are very common in our universe.

Could one of these planets host our cosmic neighbors? Credit: NASA

The forthcoming James Webb Telescope will give us even greater detail. Primed to be launched to Earth’s L2 Lagrange point it will operate 1.5 million km from Earth, locked to an orbit 3x beyond that of the Moon’s. It’s viewing instruments will give it a 100x better view of the universe than its predecessor, the Hubble.

The soon to be quite distant James Webb Telescope. Credit: TheFullDome

The newest space race seems to be heating up; JAXA, Roscosmos, the CSA, the ESA, NASA, UAESA and the newest player China’s CNSA are all to various degrees cooperating and competing to reach the next milestone of space — a manned mission to Mars.

Artists interpretation of Mars colony, “Mars Base” Credit: David Shrock

Various agencies including private ones like SpaceX all peg our landing date on Mars in the 2030’s sometime. At first it will be scientific, then perhaps a colony.

2033 seems to be the ideal date. A period of low sun activity coincides with an ideal alignment of Mars and the Earth. The next generation of NASA astronauts won’t be the ones to go. With their training finished in 2015, they’ll be the ones winding down the ISS program.

Optimal Earth-Mars alignment for a manned mission (Photo: NASA)

The Mars Generation will consist of iconic young men and women like Alyssa Carson, Abigail Harrison and Ryan MacDonald. Today they’re in high school and university. But by 2033, they’ll be around NASA’s average astronaut age of 34 and primed to explore the newest world.

Netflix special “The Mars Generation” introduces us to our 2033 candidates Credit: Netflix

When Europe colonized the modern world, they did so first funded by milestone driven governments. Then economics set in and exploration became profitable. With asteroid mining, microgravity manufacturing, and off-world power generation, this cycle will conceivably repeat itself.

Coming to an asteroid near you Credit: Factor Magazine

The outer space economy will follow the maxim “Energy outward, resources inward.” The sun will pulse and provide the inner system with its energy, while outward it’ll be diffused more and of less use. Whereas beyond Mars the asteroid belt and Kuiper belt will further provide the rich mineral resources our hungry civilization will crave.

The Gas Giants will provide our gaseous resources and together they’ll build our new civilization. One stretching from one end of the solar system to the other.

Globalization didn’t stop Credit: Inspiration Seek

People’s bodies will change out there. Reduced gravity off-planet will cause some people’s spines to lengthen and bone density to decrease. Our bodies will become more vestigial than today. Opposing that we’ll likely begin merging with machines and AI.

Devices like the Neuralink or artifical augmentation will change the paradigm of being human. Different planets and bodies will have unique cultures and customs. There will be clashes, perhaps wars. Humanity will get smarter, we’ll likely never kill ourselves fully. But like our ancestors we’ll posture and clash over change.

Humanity may never leave conflict behind Credit: Karen Whimsy

Proxima Centauri lies a mere 4.24 light years away, our nearest stellar neighbor. With technological advances, perhaps generation ships, cryogenic freezing, modified biology or robotic substitutes, we’ll begin venturing beyond our homely solar system.

Our first faltering steps will resemble our gradual progress towards other celestial bodies from Earth. People will argue about the value, the cost. Others will value the mission over their lives. Fights will occur, there will be setbacks and then eventually, we’ll go.

A hop and a cosmic skip away lies Proxima Centauri Credit: NASA

By this point our vast power systems will extract the majority of what our sun can offer. These systems will be replicated on our nearest star systems, and then their nearest. The colonization wave will take a million years to spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Like a bacteria we’ll gradually spread to every cell of our 100,000 light year home. Then the cycle will repeat. Why go to other galaxies? What would be the point? We press on.

Von Neumann machines are one method of colonizing other worlds Credit: Smash

By this point humanity will have nearly extinguished its existential threat. We’re not going anywhere. Even if a supernova were to wipe out multiple star systems, we’d be too deeply ingrained to lose.

Galaxy by galaxy we’d spread, our unending conquest spanning many millions of generations. Age may be irrelevant by now, humanity’s collective consciousness stored in a hard drive which we all draw from. Indistinguishable from the machines we once feared; death has been irradiated.

AI will change what it means to be human Credit: News AU

Humanity will be the supreme being in the universe. Our cradle Earth long forgotten, we will seek new frontiers. Perhaps we’ll encounter rival intelligences, they may out-compete us. They may not be us, but their trajectory will resemble ours.

Intelligent species must follow the same trajectory Credit: Science Mag

The stark reality is — a civilization must either expand or collapse. As populations expand, resources must be introduced into the system to offset the increased demand. Known as a colonization bubble it could be the “Great Filter” that stops universal domination.

As the bubble expands the interior beings run out of resources and are consumed and destroyed by civil wars. This inner wave spreads out and consumes the bubble whole. Perhaps humanity will overcome this.

Chesley Bonestell may have an alien competitor to his space art greatness Credit: Bonestell

Whatever intelligent species it is, one will eventually come to dominate the universe. Then an interesting situation occurs. Either they run out the clock and pass along with the universe, as in Asimov’s The Last Question, or they find a way to escape to the next layer, what you could call the multiverse.

In this layer they would discover they can manipulate other universes at will and create different universal constants in different universes. Their tinkering would destroy many universes and creates life in others. They are the simulators theorized to be running our universe.

Each bubble another universe Credit: Yayoi Kusama

All things must end, such is entropy. The multiverse will begin to close in on these beings and so they must solve the same problem again. Transcend their environment or be annihilated alongside it. With infinite possibilities one species escapes. The layer above the multiverse. This repeats, ad infinitum.

The great paradox, that there are turtles all the way down.

Naturally everything after NASA’s Mars dates was speculation. But it’s a chilling thought. Our universe will end. Hundreds of trillions of years will have passed and we won’t be alive. Intellectually it’s intimidating. Nonexistence is scary. For all our intelligence we can’t escape the fundamental nature of a distinct existence.

This is also a source of motivation and liberation. Life is so vast, beautiful, and unnerving. This great paradox of our universe’s end resembles the reality our distant ancestors had to contend with as they scanned the night sky. What are those bright lights up there? Why are we here? But they pressed on in their search for truth and today we know infinitely more than they do.

This trend will continue. We’ll keep turning over vast rocks to see the unimaginable truths hidden below. It’s not in humanity to give up, despite the great uncertainty surrounding our universe and our place within it.

One thing is certain — humanity has never stopped progressing to its future among the stars. Hopefully we never will.

Voyager 1’s historic “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth from 6 billion km away Credit: NASA

This is an expanded version of an old article found here.

For more of Andrew’s writing visit his widely published space and entrepreneurship blog Landing Attempts. Or support his writing with a few dollars on Patreon, it means the world.

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